Dominican Republic Democracy

Latin America has been a region notoriously plagued with instability, foreign invasion, and revolution – especially throughout the Twentieth century. The region’s politics have typically been corrupt, often dictatorial, and seldom democratic. Erratic economic policies, constant social inequalities, international vulnerability, authoritarian political transitions, civil wars and revolutions, and external (predominantly U.S.) influences have kept many Latin American nations in a constant battle for democratization. The Dominican Republic has been no exception to these trends; in fact, the Dominican case is a prime model of the struggle for democracy in the region.

A legacy of “neopatrimonialism,” epitomized in the reign of Rafael Trujillo, has been one of the largest obstacles for Dominicans in search of democratization. According to Jonathan Hartlyn, “neopatrimonialism possesses two key characteristics: the centralization of power in the hands of the ruler who seeks to reduce the autonomy of his followers by generating ties of loyalty and dependence, commonly through complex patron-client linkages; and, in the process, the blurring of public and private interests and purposes within the administration.” Even after the assassination of the brutal dictator it was difficult for Dominicans to make a smooth transition to democracy and even more difficult for them to consolidate that democracy into an effective system.

In the period after Trujillo’s death, there were two attempts to make the transition into a democratic government – the first can be viewed as a failure, and the second as a missed opportunity. Rafael Trujillo’s neopatrimonial, or “neosultanistic” rule, how it directly and indirectly inhibited the consolidation of democracy in the Dominican Republic, and the lingering legacy of his regime will all be examined in this essay. Also to be considered is the rule of the United States in the Dominican struggle for democratic politics. This essay will be divided into three sections: the first section will discuss the period of neosultanistic rule under Trujillo’s, the second sections will examine the first attempted transition to democracy (from Trujillo’s assassination to the authoritarian regime of Joaquín Balaguer), and the third section will look at the second attempted transition (from the election of Antonio Guzman until the reelection of Balaguer).

The Trujillo Era

In November 1916, under President Woodrow Wilson, United States troops occupied the Dominican Republic with mixed and vague motives and the desire of President Wilson to bring “‘good government’ to the Latin American peoples.” Under American occupation, education, heath, transportation and communication services were improved in a U.S. attempt to stabilize the nation through reforms. Although the U.S. intervention had numerous results and effects on Dominican society, the most notable and most relevant was the establishment of the Guardia Nacional Dominicana, which Wilson intended to be a depoliticized force to provide support for a constitutional government. In the 1920’s, the United States foreign policy concerning the Dominican Republic quickly shifted from military occupation to noninterventionism. The combination of these U.S. actions, though unintentional, set the stage for a thirty-year long brutal dictatorship.

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, born in 1891 in the town of San Cristóbal, quickly emerged as the head of the newly formed constabulary force and soon after as President of the Dominican Republic. Although a preexisting pattern of neopatrimonial rule, established under the country’s former caudillo rulers – Ulises Heureaux and Horacio Vásquez – facilitated Trujillo’s rise to power, several other factors proved equally vital to his success. The “institutional and structural changes as a result of U.S. occupation” contributed to Trujillo’s consolidation of power through the establishment of the Guardia Nacional Dominicana – which ultimately became Trujillo’s private army. The subsequent period of U.S. nonintervention furthermore assisted Trujillo in his rise to power by allowing him to take office through questionable elections – wining with “more votes than there were eligible voters.” As noted by Hartlyn “a stronger military and improved communications and infrastructure in a country that was will relatively poor, unintegrated, and isolated meant that Trujillo had the means to put down potential regional rebellions without necessarily having to incorporate and control the entire country’s population.”

Trujillo quickly transformed from a traditional caudillo dictator into a ruthless neosultanistic ruler – exercising power without restraint. In his first term as president, Trujillo created the Partido Dominicano (PD) – the only party allowed to function until 1947 – consolidating the government’s decision-making powers into his own hands. Also revealed within his first term in office was his limitless greed and megalomania – Trujillo changed the name of the capital city from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo, and eventually the generalissimo, his family and friends owned over half of the countries economic assets. Trujillo’s intolerable cruelty became undisputable when between October 2 and October 8, 1937 his army massacred between 20,000 and 50,000 Haitian illegal immigrants on his command. As a result of international criticism towards his slaughter, Trujillo allowed his vice-president, Jacinto Peynado, to be elected president in 1938. Trujillo strategically cooperated with the United States war effort in World War II and, as a result, received U.S. support in his campaign to be reelected. In 1942, Trujillo was once again reelected for another five-year term.

As a wave of democratization swept the world after World War II, Trujillo felt the pressure and liberalized accordingly. He allowed communist exiles to return to the Dominican Republic and in the 1947 elections he allowed two “regime-sponsored” opposition parties to run. However, a subsequent wave of repression destroyed both the communists and any other individuals not in favor of Trujillo. In 1952 and 1957, Trujillo had his brother, Héctor Trujillo, formally elected president while Trujillo continued to hold the power. As the Cold War mounted, Trujillo declared himself “the hemisphere’s foremost anticommunist.” The United States remained a staunch anticommunist ally of the Trujillo regime until Trujillo’s 1956 kidnapping and murdering of a very vocal opponent – Spaniard Jesús María de Galíndez in New York. By 1960, the hemisphere’s nations expressed extreme concern over the brutality of the Trujillo regime and in May 1961, Trujillo was assassinated by a group of Dominicans using guns supplied by the U.S. CIA.

When discussing the reign of Rafael Trujillo, it is important to look at the reasons why he was able to keep such strong control over the people and politics of the Dominican Republic for a period of thirty years. There are four primary factors contributing to his stronghold. The first is the historical legacy of neopatrimonial rule, the country’s weak and divided social forces and political actors, and a fractured economy. The second factor includes his use of repression, especially through the military, to psychologically control his people. He used phone tapping, spies, target assassinations, and censorship to manipulate and scare the Dominican citizenry. Trujillo used the armed forces as “his personal instrument rather than a national institution” and accordingly increased its size from about 2,000 to nearly 31,000 during his reign. The levels of corruption and the extent of Trujillo’s influence in the army are reflected in the fact that Trujillo’s eldest son, Ramfis, was made a full colonel at the age of four and a brigadier general by the age of nine.

It is also essential to note that Trujillo did have a relatively broad ideological base of support rooted in his economic nationalism, support for the Catholic Church, and anti-Haitianism. Although also a means of justifying his vast financial holdings, his ideological arguments gave him credit for the restoration of the nation’s financial sovereignty, while neglecting the negative effects of this selfish economic policies. The Catholic Church was one of Trujillo’s most loyal supporters and vice-versa. Trujillo’s improvement of religious education and subsidizing of the building of churches were just a few of the many prerogatives given to the Catholic Church in the Trujillo era. It was not until 1960 that the Church undoubtedly broke its ties with Trujillo.

The last factor contributing to Trujillo’s iron grip on every aspect of Dominican life is the role of the United States. U.S. leniency towards the Trujillo regime, especially during the Cold War years when Trujillo exaggerated his position against communism to appease the U.S., gave the dictator a great amount of freedom to oppress the Dominican people while continuing to receive monetary and military support from the United States. Trujillo continued to receive this support until the U.S. change of attitude towards the regime, primarily caused by the Cuban Revolution.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Trujillo’s regime began to receive a great deal of criticism both domestically and internationally. A growing number of Dominican elite (often humiliated by Trujillo), the Catholic Church (unable to continue supporting Trujillo’s repressive actions), and numerous Dominican political exiles (predominantly communist) all emerged as the active opposition. In June 1960, the Inter-American Peace Committee of the Organization of American States (OAS) condemned the Dominican Republic for human rights violations. Trujillo desperately, and ultimately unsuccessfully, turned to the Soviet Union for help. Economic sanctions were placed on his regime by the OAS that led to a major economic crisis. Trujillo’s problems continued to haunt him until he was assassinated on May 3, 1961, as he was being driven to visit his mistress.

In summary, the Trujillo regime was neosultanistic in that it exercised power without restraint in a corrupt and ruthless government, and loyalty to him was based on a combination of fear and rewards. Trujillo accrued extensive and unmatched wealth and power in the Dominican Republic through his limitless greed. When Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, the Dominican Republic struggled for democratization, but the transition from dictatorship to democracy, though initially successful, ultimately failed.

Failed Transition I: Struggles and Failures

After the Trujillo assassination, the United States made extensive efforts and played a pivotal role in removing the Trujillo family from power and allowing the opposition to come out. Joaquín Balaguer, a friend of Trujillo’s, emerged as President of the Dominican Republic after the assassination of the dictator. Fearing that a complete breakdown of the Dominican government would allow communism to manifest, the United States opted to work with Balaguer in an attempt to liberalize the nation. As Dominican citizens ripped down statues of Trujillo and attacked all other symbols of his tyrannical dictatorship, Balaguer began to face mounting domestic opposition – especially from the formally exiled Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD) – until an attempted coup forced him into exile. In 1962, an anti-Trujillista council of state was formed, and as the provisional government it organized the democratic elections held at the end of that year. The strongly U.S.-backed provisional government expected to win the elections with ease; however, they failed to recognize the power of the PRD.

A party founded in Cuba by political exile Juan Bosch in 1939, the PRD “made a conscious effort to organize a peasant organization, the Federación Nacional de Hermandades Campesinas.” Aware that the Dominican population remained vastly rural, Bosch shifted the focus of the campaign from the struggle against Trujilloism to the problems of the poor. When asked if he still intended to run despite allegations that he was a communist, Bosch’s answer foreshadowed (extremely accurately) the events that were to follow the election: “I do not wish to be a candidate because I know that the PRD will win the elections, and if it does, the government I head will not be able to rule. It will be overthrown in a short time on the pretext that it is communist.” Although Bosch did run, and decisively won the elections, his concerns did materialize.

With extensive assistance from the United States, democratic elections were finally held in the Dominican Republic. While the U.S. desperately wanted a democratically elected Dominican government to prosper, Dominicans themselves lacked the commitment to democracy – a result of the insecurities that formed in the people under the Trujillo regime. Industrialists, landowning elites and the Catholic Church were among the most vocal opponents of Bosch – particularly due to his new constitution that had a “more secular tone and more expansive view of civil rights and state expropriation of private property.” Also a threat to the elites was a proposed law that would allow the government to confiscate any enterprises gained by “illicit enrichment,” which meant almost every enterprise established during the Trujillo era. The discontented business element of the nation formed the Acción Dominicana Independiente (ADI) and openly opposed Bosch. Although the United States wanted a democratically elected government to succeed in the Dominican Republic, it soon became obvious that its fear of communism took precedence.

With the communist revolution of Cuba fresh in the minds of Americans, an ensuing Haitian revolution, and an influx of Cuban refugees in to Dominican territory, it was easy for U.S. politicians to express their concern of a similar communist revolution in the Dominican Republic. Even though some of the aforementioned opposition groups did hold a genuine fear of communist takeover in the Dominican Republic, this U.S. paranoia quickly transformed into a tool used by Bosch’s domestic opposition to perpetuate this U.S. concern. The United States did not do all that it could to support Bosch’s presidency, however, even more concerning is the fact that Bosch himself did little to defend himself and fight his opposition.

Despite the fact that the opposition to Bosch was vast, the president did not mobilize his party or his supporters in an attempt to fight back. This can be explained partly by his dwindling support from the peasantry due to his inability to carry through the reforms he promised in his campaign. Also a factor was Bosch’s personality and political strategy – a man who believed in fatalism, Bosch allowed his presidency to be overthrown believing it was destiny. The democratic president also discouraged the PRD from fighting a resistance campaign, believing that it would end in bloodshed. Bosch was deposed on September 25, 1963, proving that democracy could not survive in the country’s social context in the immediate post-Trujillo years.

After Bosch’s downfall, a triumvirate, with businessman Donald Reid Cabral as leader, emerged as the new governing force. Although backed by the U.S., the Reid government quickly became authoritarian and faced a great deal of resistance among the Dominican people. In April of 1965, a popular uprising to bring Bosch back into power led to yet another U.S. military intervention. President Lyndon B. Johnson, determined to prevent another socialist revolution in the region, decided to “defuse the Dominican crisis.” In a recreation of the 1962 elections, the U.S. sponsored a provisional government under President Héctor García Godoy, and planned elections for June 1966. After returning from exile, Bosch and Balaguer became the two primary candidates. Bosch, discouraged by the feeling of U.S. betrayal, once again left all to fate and did little to promote himself in his campaign. Taking advantage of Bosch’s lackluster campaign, Balaguer rallied the spirit of his fellow Dominicans by promising stability. Balaguer won the election by an overwhelming majority, beginning his twelve-year-long neopatrimonial rule after which a weak and unstable, yet democratic government was to emerge.

Failed Transition II: A “Missed Opportunity”

After the 1966 election of Balaguer, the PRD went through a phase of internal division that ultimately led to Juan Bosch, the founder of the party, leaving the PRD in 1973. Bosch, convinced that democratic politics could not survive in the Dominican Republic, urged the PRD to practice “electoral abstention.” As the leftist elements of the PRD increasingly supported the idea of a revolutionary coup, and the moderate elements rejected Bosch’s abstention theory, Bosch purged the party of the extremist elements and began restructuring the party in order to fulfill his personal goals. José Francisco Peña Gómez, secretary general of the PRD, along with other PRD moderates expressed the need for the party to strengthen its ties with liberal U.S. politicians if it wanted to change Dominican politics. In November of 1973, Juan Bosch broke with the PRD and formed the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD), a very small and radical party that served as a forum for Bosch to express his hopes for national liberation. This split in the PRD caused uncertainties that led to the party’s abstention which, in turn, allowed Balaguer to be reelected.

After all of these frustrations, the PRD, under the leadership of Peña Gómez, went to extensive lengths to fortify the party’s international ties. In a 1977 party convention, Antonio Guzmán was chosen to run as the PRD candidate in the 1978 elections. The PRD, with the motto “Change Without Violence,” was finally united and ready for the 1978 elections with Guzmán as the presidential candidate, Jacobo Majluta as the vice-presidential candidate, and Salvador Jorge Blanco as party president. With intensifying U.S. pressure to hold honest elections, Balaguer allowed the PRD to speak freely on the radio and legalized the Communist Party – an attempt to take votes away from the PRD. As economic deterioration formed a class of disgruntled businessmen, and fractionalization plagued Balaguer’s PR party, the PRD was executing an internationally recognized and well funded campaign. After a PRD victory, a period of tension, uncertainly and instability ensued – an attempted coup was foiled, Balaguer accused the PRD of massive electoral fraud, Juan Bosch spoke out against the PRD, and calls for the respect of the results of a democratic election became an issue of international (particularly U.S.) focus. Despite these strains, the transition to a democratic regime was peaceful and initially successful.

The conditions in 1978 were much more favorable for a democratic transition than they were in 1962. The nature of Balaguer’s regime, although reminiscent of Trujillo’s, was much more conducive to subsequent democratization efforts. The lack of any major national security threats in the Dominican Republic allowed the United States to focus more on the issue of democracy and human rights rather than communism or military occupation. Although democratization seemed to be within reach, the period of PRD rule after the 1978 elections proved to be a “missed opportunity” in the Dominican struggle for democratic politics.

At the time of the PRD election, there were many factors that were ultimately impeding the Guzmán and Jorge Blanco administrations from completely breaking away from the traditional neopatrimonial patterns of Dominican politics. The PRD, specifically Guzmán, was able to tackle their most threatening problem – the traditionally influential and highly politicized armed forces. In an attempt to constrain Guzmán, prior to his departure from office Balaguer passed a law prohibiting civilian authorities from removing officers from a military position before two years passed. After implementing this law, Balaguer placed some of his closest military friends in top-ranking positions and Guzmán was legally prohibited from removing them. On his inauguration day, Guzmán encouraged by the presence of international dignitaries, boldly reshuffled Balaguer’s military appointments – a blatant violation of the newly implemented law that, in combination with other changes, finally led to the deterioration of the military as a direct threat to democracy. The notoriously frail national economy did not, however, cease to be a ruinous institution to the democratic struggle.

The PRD governed the Dominican Republic in a period of extreme economic decline that was worsened by international factors and a serious of poor domestic decisions. The Guzmán administration largely increased public spending and began taking out a great deal of loans from international banks to support an export-oriented economy. The Dominican economy, despite a relatively promising start with the election of Guzmán, was quickly bombarded with problems. In August 1979, the small island nation was swept with two of the worst hurricanes in Caribbean history, causing over $800 million in damage and taking the lives of over 1000 Dominicans. The refusal to negotiate a stabilization program with the IMF combined with the unlimited capacity for foreign debt and meager economic assistance from the United States, the Guzmán administration experienced extremely rapid debt expansion – setting the stage for a harsh stabilization program under the Jorge Blanco administration.

Realizing that a stabilization process was necessary, Jorge Blanco and his economic team quickly began negotiations with the IMF. As inflation (caused by the devaluation of the Dominican peso) went through the roof, government spending increased, and U.S. financial support decreased, the Dominican government was unable to meet the terms of their agreement with the IMF. The IMF, in turn, suspended further funds to the Dominican Republic forcing Jorge Blanco to implement further stabilization measures. In April 1984, as a result of these measures (primarily the increase in prices of food items due to de facto devaluation of the peso), a violent popular uprising erupted, causing the deaths of over 100 Dominican civilians. The riots led to the suspension of talks with the IMF, which in turn led to the suspension of economic assistance from the United States. Jorge Blanco, aware of the importance of the IMF in Dominican economic recovery, imposed a tight monetary policy; more carefully controlled the public-sector expenditures; and unified the country’s exchange rate. Despite the immediate recessionary effects of these policies, the Jorge Blanco administration was able to revive its negotiations with the IMF and eventually stabilize the economy. It was not, however, the administration’s economic troubles that lead to its downfall, but rather a schism within the PRD.

The fact that Jorge Blanco had a party majority in the senate and the chamber did not prove to be advantageous as he faced congressional opposition similar to that of Guzmán (Guzmán did not, however, have a party majority in either senate or chamber). This opposition came from within the PRD, primarily from Jacobo Majluta, former vice-president under Guzmán, whose own political ambitions led him to create a separate movement within the PRD in opposition to Jorge Blanco. By blocking almost all of Jorge Blanco’s tax legislations, international loans, and other economic, social and political measure taken to the senate, Majluta looked to tarnish the image of Jorge Blanco in order to promote his own presidential candidacy in the 1986 elections. This inability to enact reforms through the senate combined with the deteriorating economic conditions forced Jorge Blanco to revert to the neopatrimonial politics so well known to Dominican government.

Unable to bring his inaugural promises to realization, Jorge Blanco was said to have “lost control of himself” in the final months of his presidency, using his presidential powers to grant import and tax exemptions to his business associates. Inheriting a severely damaged economy and social structure from the Balaguer regime, and facing restricting conditions in the senate and chamber, the shortcomings of the Jorge Blanco administration cannot be blamed entirely on the president. Jorge Blanco, perhaps the nation’s best hope for democratization, faced a presidency so inundated with crippling problems that he was forced to return to the neopatrimonial practices so deeply entrenched in Dominican politics. Therefore, the two terms in which the PRD was in power should be regarded as a “missed opportunity,” rather than an outright failure, to change the nation’s neopatrimonial political patterns.

It is irrefutable that the thirty-year long dictatorial rule of Rafael Trujillo has had lasting effects on the nature of Dominican politics. Even after the assassination of the brutal dictator, the Dominican Republic was not liberated from his neopatrimonial rule, which was to be reflected in even the most democratic and liberal Dominican administrations. Despite extensive efforts from the United States, Dominican governments fail to consolidate democratic politics, as is demonstrated by the overthrow of Juan Bosch, and the reelection of Joaquín Balaguer after a brief period of PRD rule. As the legacy of neopatrimonial politics continues to exist in the Dominican Republic, so does the genuine struggle for democratic politics and as long as this struggle exists, so does hope.


Black, Jan Knippers. The Dominican Republic: Politics and Development in an Unsovereign State. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1986.

Chang-Rodriguez, Eugenio, ed. The Lingering Crisis: A Case Study of the Dominican Republic. New York: Las Americas Publishing Company, 1969.

Hartlyn, Jonathan. The Struggle for Democratic Politics in the Dominican Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998.

Moya Pons, Frank. The Dominican Republic: A National History. New York: Hispaniola Books, 1995.

Sagas, Ernesto and Orlando Inoa, eds. The Dominican People: A Documentary History. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2003.

Turtis, Richard Lee. Foundations of Despotism: Peasants, the Trujillo Regime and Modernity in Dominican History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

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