Freedom in the World
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In 2011, President Leonel Fernández’s approval ratings suffered as a result of rising electricity prices, higher income tax rates, and inadequate services for the poor. Three demonstrators were killed by police during protests in July against economic austerity measures imposed by the government. Meanwhile, drug trafficking and the mistreatment of Haitian migrants continued to be problems during the year.
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, the country’s economy improved dramatically, 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. It also changed the electoral calendar so that future presidential, legislative, and local elections will be held on the same date.
Capitalizing on the president’s continued successful economic management, the PLD captured 31 of 32 Senate seats in the May 2010 legislative elections. The PRSC took the remaining seat, leaving the PRD shut 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 campaigning resources were not equally distributed between government and opposition candidates. The OAS also noted certain irregularities, including vote buying, though it certified the results.
The Dominican Republic has faced various economic challenges over the past few years. The country became a conduit for relief and reconstruction efforts in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated neighboring Haiti; the resulting influx of refugees, combined with emergency financial assistance to Haiti, strained the Dominican Republic’s economy. Although the Dominican economy has largely withstood the global financial crisis, fuel prices have soared about 30 percent since the beginning of 2011. Increased electricity prices and income tax rates, combined with inadequate services for the poor—particularly in the areas of education and health—have negatively affected President Fernández’s overall popularity. In July, demonstrations against fiscal and economic measures, including increases on income tax and electricity tariffs, paralyzed transportation and trade, and three protesters were killed in clashes with police.
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 bicameral National Congress consists of the 32-member Senate and the 183-member Chamber of Deputies, with members of both chambers elected to four-year terms. The three main political parties are the ruling PLD, the opposition PRD, and the smaller PRSC.
Official corruption remains a serious problem, and has not improved markedly during President Fernández’s tenure. The Dominican Republic was ranked 129 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for freedoms 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. Journalists reporting on possible collusion between drug traffickers and state officials have faced intimidation, and some have been killed. 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 assembly is generally respected, though three people were killed by police in July 2011 while protesting government austerity measures. 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 have included measures aimed at promoting greater efficiency and due process. 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. According to the Dominican Republic’s Office of the Prosecutor General, at least 154 people were killed by police from January to July 2011, compared to 125 people during the same period in 2010. Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding, poor sanitation, and routine violence.
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. In September 2011, prosecutors from U.S. federal courts indicated that Colombian drug smugglers had in at least three cases even been able to use Dominican military facilities to transfer narcotics.
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. The 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 2010 earthquake, Dominican authorities continued to illegally deprive Dominicans of Haitian descent of their nationality, leaving them without access to health care, 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, and in violation of bilateral agreements with Haiti. Mass deportations of Haitians illegally in the Dominican Republic continued in 2011.
The trafficking in women and girls, child prostitution, and child abuse are major concerns. In February 2011, authorities dismantled a network trafficking Haitian children and forcing them to beg in the streets; in July, traffickers of Venezuelan women working as exotic dancers were arrested. 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 that it 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.