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The Dominican Liberation Party’s Danilo Medina defeated Dominican Revolutionary Party candidate Hipólito Mejia in the May 2012 presidential election. Meanwhile, the country’s economy grew slower in 2012 than in previous years; in November, the government passed a fiscal reform package that raised some taxes and slashed spending.
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. The PLD’s Leonel Fernández, who was first elected president in 1996, was reelected in 2004. 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 election.
Capitalizing on the president’s continued successful economic management, the PLD captured 31 of 32 Senate seats in the May 2010 legislative elections, while the PRSC took the remaining seat. In the Chamber of Deputies, the PLD secured 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 PLD’s Danilo Medina was victorious in the presidential election held on May 20, 2012, winning 51 percent of the vote and defeating PRD candidate Hipólito Mejia; Fernández was barred by the constitution from seeking another consecutive term. Medina took office in August, pledging to reduce poverty, improve the country’s educational system, and expand infrastructure projects.
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. In July 2011, 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. Although experiencing higher growth than most Latin American countries, the Dominican Republic’s economic growth rate in 2012 was estimated to have slowed to less than 4 percent. In November, the parliament approved a fiscal reform package that will increase sales taxes, place taxes on tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, and institute an array of spending cuts.
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 country’s 38th constitution, which was promulgated in January 2010, removed restrictions on non-consecutive presidential reelection, which would allow Leonel Fernández to run for president again in 2016.
The three main political parties are the ruling PLD, the opposition PRD, and the smaller PRSC.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. In December 2012, protestors in Santo Domingo demanded an end to government corruption and imprisonment for most of the officials in the administration of former president Leonel Fernandez. The Dominican Republic was ranked 118 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The law provides for freedoms of speech and 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.
Constitutional guarantees regarding religious and academic freedom are generally observed.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected. 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 November 2012, police used tear gas and fired guns on union-led demonstrators protesting tax reforms deemed to be unfavorable to the working class; several protestors were wounded.
The judiciary 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. According to the country’s National Human Rights Commission, at least 290 people were killed by police in 2012. In November 2012, Amnesty International called for a reform to the nation’s police services following the shooting by police of a university student during a demonstration against tax increases in Santo Domingo. 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. The connection between drug smuggling and involvement by elements in the Dominican Republic’s police and army remains a major concern. 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. In October 2012, Francisco Hiraldo Guerrero, the former chief operating officer of the National Drug Control Directorate, was arrested and extradited to the United States for allegedly trafficking cocaine.
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 subjected 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 2012.
Recent proposals to reduce the recommended prison time for some acts of domestic violence and sexual abuse, such as sexual abuse of a minor, has led to an outpouring of protest from human rights and women groups. The trafficking in women and girls, child prostitution, and child abuse are major concerns. 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 new constitution also defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, making the country one of the few in the world to ban same-sex marriage at the constitutional level.