Dominican Republic | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic

Freedom in the World 2011

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In January 2010, the government promulgated a new constitution which includes some of the toughest restrictions on abortion and gay marriage in the world. The Dominican Liberation Party won a clear majority in both houses of Congress in the May legislative elections. Meanwhile, the country faced challenges during the year due to an increase in crime and the aftermath of the January earthquake in neighboring Haiti.

After achieving independence from Spain in 1821 and from Haiti in 1844, the Dominican Republic endured recurrent domestic conflict, foreign occupation, and authoritarian rule. The assassination of General Rafael Trujillo in 1961 ended 30 years of dictatorship, but a 1963 military coup led to civil war and U.S. intervention. Under a new constitution, civilian rule was restored in 1966 with the election of conservative president Joaquín Balaguer. His ouster in the 1978 election marked the first time an incumbent president peacefully handed power to an elected opponent.
Since the mid-1990s, Dominican politics have been defined by competition between the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD) and the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), although Balaguer’s Social Christian Reformist Party (PRSC) remained an important factor. Leonel Fernández of the PLD was first elected president in 1996, but term limits prevented him from running in 2000. He was succeeded by the PRD’s Rafael Hipólito Mejía Domínguez, a former agriculture minister. In 2001, Mejía successfully enacted a constitutional change to allow a second consecutive presidential term, but decisively lost his 2004 reelection bid to Fernández.
While his 1996–2000 presidential term had featured substantial economic growth, Fernández returned to face serious financial difficulties, including a ballooning foreign debt, high unemployment and inflation rates, and a deep energy crisis. Nonetheless, inflation was quickly brought down to the single digits and macroeconomic stability improved dramatically, with the economy posting a 9 percent growth rate in 2005. In return for International Monetary Fund (IMF) financing, the government agreed to cut subsidies on fuel and electricity and reduce the bloated government payroll. The PLD captured a majority in both houses of Congress in the 2006 legislative elections, and Fernández secured a third term in the 2008 presidential elections.
Fernández promoted a constitutional reform process that resulted in the promulgation of the country’s 38th constitution in January 2010. The new constitution removed restrictions on non-consecutive presidential reelection, which would allow Fernández to run for president again in 2016. The new constitution also changed the electoral calendar so that future presidential, legislative, and local elections will be held on the same date.
The PLD, capitalizing on the president’s continued successful economic management, captured 31 of 32 Senate seats in the May 2010 legislative elections. The PRSC took the remaining seat, leaving the PRD completely out of the upper parliamentary chamber. In the Chamber of Deputies, the PLD captured 105 seats, the PRD won 75, and the PRSC took only 3. The PLD also won a majority of the municipal elections. The opposition subsequently presented allegations of electoral fraud to the Organization of American States (OAS), and international observers noted that publicity and other campaigning resources were not equally distributed between government and opposition candidates. The OAS noted certain irregularities, including vote buying, though it certified the results.
The country faced several important challenges in 2010 stemming from rising crime and the consequences of the January Haitian earthquake. While the Dominican Republic became a conduit for relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti, the tragedy and its consequences—in terms of human displacement and financial and technical assistance—also took a toll on the Dominican Republic. Despite continuous economic growth—even during the current global financial crisis—the Dominican Republic’s performance in meeting the Millennium Development Goals has been well below the Latin American average. Economic growth also not translated into better services for the poor, particularly in the areas of education and health, which has negatively affected President Fernández’s overall popularity. Increasing levels of criminal activity have also spurred multiple allegations of unlawful killings by security forces and overall police brutality.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Dominican Republic is an electoral democracy. The 2008 presidential election and the 2010 legislative elections were deemed free and fair, though the OAS did note several electoral violations in the 2010 polls, including vote buying. The constitution provides for a president and a bicameral National Congress, both elected to four-year terms. The Congress consists of the 32-member Senate and the 178-member Chamber of Deputies. The three main political parties are the ruling PLD, the opposition PRD, and the smaller PRSC.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. President Leonel Fernández, whose first term in the 1990s was marred by the disappearance of $100 million in government funds, made fighting corruption a central theme of his 2004 election campaign. However, the country’s corruption problems have not improved markedly during his tenure. In 2010, it was revealed that foreign investors had complained repeatedly to the U.S. embassy about being asked to pay bribes to receive certain concessions. The Dominican Republic was ranked 101 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights. There are five national daily newspapers and a large number of local publications. The state-owned Radio Television Dominicana operates radio and television services. Private owners operate more than 300 radio stations and over 40 television stations, most of which are small, regional broadcasters. Internet access is unrestricted but not widely available outside of large urban areas; the Fernández government has worked to improve access to technology in rural areas.
Constitutional guarantees regarding religious and academic freedom are generally observed.
Freedom of association is constitutionally guaranteed, but is limited for public servants. The government upholds the right to form civic groups, and civil society organizations in the Dominican Republic are some of the best organized and most effective in Latin America. Labor unions are similarly well organized. Although legally permitted to strike, they are often subject to government crackdowns. In 2010, peasant unions were occasionally targeted by armed groups working for major landowners, and the rights of Haitian workers were routinely violated.
The judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, is politicized and riddled with corruption, and the legal system offers little recourse to those without money or influence. However, reforms implemented in recent years, including measures aimed at promoting greater efficiency and due process, have helped to increase citizen access to justice. For example, the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Court were among the best government agencies at implementing legislation requiring public access to information, though access to such information among the poor remains inadequate. The 2010 constitution seeks to further modernize the judiciary, with measures such as the creation of a Constitutional Court and Judiciary Branch Council, as well as mandating retirement for Supreme Court magistrates over the age of 75 years.
Extrajudicial killings by police remain a problem, and low salaries encourage endemic corruption in law enforcement institutions. Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding, poor health and sanitary conditions, and routine violence has resulted in a significant number of deaths.
The Dominican Republic is a major transit hub for South American drugs, mostly cocaine, en route to the United States. Local, Puerto Rican, and Colombian drug smugglers use the country as both a command-and-control center and a transshipment point. The government estimates that some 20 percent of the drugs entering the country remain there as “payment in kind.”
The mistreatment of Haitian migrants continues to mar the Dominican Republic’s international reputation, but no strategy has been adopted to handle this growing problem. After establishing certain controls on the border and managing the refugee crisis after the 2010 earthquake, more than 3,000 Haitians were forcibly deported from the Dominican Republic in late 2010 after a cholera epidemic in Haiti led to massive inflows of illegal Haitian immigrants to the Dominican Republic. The new 2010 constitution removed the possibility of Dominican citizenship for children born of illegal Haitian migrants. Despite important advances in relations with Haiti, especially after the January earthquake, Dominican authorities continued to illegally deprive Dominicans of Haitian descent of their nationality, leaving them without access to health, education, employment, or the right to vote. This virtual statelessness increases their chance of being subject to arbitrary detentions and mass expulsion, without judicial review. The situation has been further exacerbated by poor economic prospects in the country, which has intensified competition for work among local and migrant populations.
Violence and discrimination against women remain serious problems, especially for women under the age of 18. The trafficking in women and girls, child prostitution, and child abuse are also major issues. The new Dominican constitution includes one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, making the practice illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. The measure was strongly opposed by Amnesty International and domestic women’s rights groups, who feared the law would have drastic consequences for women’s health. The new constitution also defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman, making the country one of the few in the world to ban gay marriage at the constitutional level.