History of the Dominican Republic
– in a nutshell
Hispaniola was the first bit of land that Christopher Columbus “discovered” and set foot on in 1492. And Santo Domingo, founded a couple of years later by his brother, is the oldest permanent European settlement in the Americas. It scored a long list of Firsts in the process: the “New World's” first fortress, first monastery, first cathedral, first hospital, first university and so on and so forth.
However, the first contact with native American peoples also sparked what is regarded by many as the first genocide
due to colonialism
, namely that of the Taino
people (cf. Pomier Caves
The next few centuries were marked by a chequered history of exploitation, slavery, piracy and banditry. Possession of the land changed hands several times, including an invasion and occupation by
the newly independent neighbouring Haiti
in the 19th century, followed by rebellions and the eventual restoration of Spanish rule – which Spain
then relinquished, realizing that it was pointless to waste yet more resources on its old colony.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries then underwent a period of particular political and economic crises, and in 1916 the country saw the First Invasion by the USA
(now applying its “Monroe Doctrine”), which lasted until 1924 – it was the first in a long series of such interventions by the emerging Western superpower in Latin America.
One element of the USA's imposing some sort of order on the country was the creation of a National Police security force. And so the scene was set for what was to become the Dominican Republic
's very darkest phase in history. In 1930, the chief of the security police, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo
Molina assumed power and reigned with a proverbial iron fist for the next 31 years.
He stamped out all opposition through a regime of intimidation, censorship, torture and executions. He was the ultimate model monster of a dictator. Over the years he turned much of the country's economy into his own private business empire, taking over most important companies for himself and his family and cronies. This made him one of the richest people on the planet at the time.
A particular act of infamy in his early years was the Haitian genocide of 1937
– also known as Operation Perejil
. In this operation, the word “perejil”, 'parsley', served as a shibboleth to distinguish Haitians from Dominicans, since the former could not pronounce that word correctly. On Trujillo's orders soldiers thus rounded up all Haitians they could identify in this way, detained them in “deportation centres” and then at night took them out into the fields, hacked them to death by machete (cf. Rwandan genocide
!) or shot them. Rumour has it that they fed victims' bodies to the sharks. As many as 20,000 Haitians may have been murdered in the Operation Perejil in just two months, though the numbers of the dead are contested.
But why did Trujillo have these Haitians murdered? Mainly for purely racist
reasons (hence it can be classed as genocide
): himself a mulatto, he wanted the Dominican people to be paler, “whiter” in colour, and the typically much darker-skinned immigrant Haitians (mostly descendants of African slaves) were therefore seen as an undesirable racial influence. It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise that Trujillo also expressed an admiration for Adolf Hitler
and his “eugenics” …
On the other hand, unlike the USA
, Trujillo allowed a contingent of European Jews fleeing from persecution
by the German Nazis
to settle in his country, perhaps partly to spite the US, but primarily it was just another expression of Trujillo's whites-preferred racial policies.
What weird ideological contortions this man was capable of! Another apparent contradiction was the fact that he granted Republican refugees exile after they'd lost the Spanish Civil War
, while still remaining best buddy with Spain
's equally long-standing Nationalist dictator Franco
Moreover, Trujillo apparently had an insatiable appetite for young girls, preferably virgins, whom he had delivered from all over the country straight to his mansions (especially Casa Caoba
) where he would rape
thousands of them over the years he was in power. This, by the way, is a main theme in the movie “The Feast of the Goat” ('goat' was one of the many informal nicknames for the dictator – others include El Jefe and, apparently, Fuckface).
Trujillo, who had a predilection for Napoleon-like 19th century-style flamboyant uniforms, maintained a disproportionately large military too (for such a small country). And his megalomania
didn't stop at renaming both the capital city and the country's highest peak after himself (cf. the Turkmenbashy cult of personality
). He even erected a huge monument to himself right in the heart of the country's second city Santiago, just to show them who was boss, as the region had traditionally been rather anti-Trujillo. Nationwide, the country was literally littered with Trujillo statues too, albeit mostly on smaller scales.
For most of his reign, Trujillo was backed by the USA, in recognition of his anti-communism. It was Trujillo that Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to when he made the famous statement “he may be a SOB, but at least he is our SOB”.
Towards the end of his reign, however, this changed, the Organization of American States made it clear they'd had enough of Trujillo, and in the end the USA assisted in topping him off.
What is seen by many as the final tipping point that heralded the end of the Trujillo era is his murder of the Mirabal sisters
. These educated sisters from Salcedo had joined a revolutionary political movement opposed to Trujillo. On 25 November 1960, after visiting their husbands who were incarcerated at the San Felipe fortress
in Puerto Plata
, their car was ambushed on a remote mountain road and the three sisters were murdered and their car rolled down a steep ravine in an attempt to make it look like a road accident. The story of the Mirabal sisters and their murder is told and depicted in the book and movie “In the Time of the Butterflies”. See also under Mirabal House
and La Cumbre
Anyway, the CIA
(… allegedly …) then trained and provided weapons to a group of dissidents who eventually saw to the assassination of Trujillo
on 30 May 1961. This involved a dramatic car chase on the highway between Santo Domingo and Trujillo's home town of San Cristobal. In the end the assassins managed to stop Trujillo's car and mow him down in a barrage of gunfire. This scene is also (if somewhat crudely) depicted in the movie “The Feast of the Goat”.
One of the cars involved in the operation was later put on display in the history museum of Santo Domingo
(which currently is closed, however), while the whereabouts of Trujillo's bullet-ridden car are uncertain. Some say it is somewhere in Santiago, others suggested that it may be part of a collection of Trujillo cars at a former mansion of his called Camp David. So far I have been unable to follow any of these rumours up. What is clear, though, is that the car at the history museum is NOT Trujillo's (as many assume and some sources still claim). [Update: I was contacted by someone who used to live in the Dominican Republic in the 1980s and 90s and recalls watching a documentary about the car at that time, and more recently found an online post that also claims the car was actually refurbished, put back into service, but as it was deemed "cursed" it was then scrapped in the late 60s. If that is true, then the car at the Camp David mansion won't be the original Trujillo car either.]
After the dictator's assassination his playboy son Ramfis Trujillo
was briefly called in to replace him, and he quickly saw to most of the assassins and associated revolutionaries being arrested, tortured and executed. However, Ramfis was himself deposed before the year was out and had to flee back to Europe – taking with him a fortune allegedly worth up to 100 million dollars, as well as his dead Daddy's body. In 1969, Ramfis's life also ended in a car, this time a road accident. Both he and his dad are now buried in Madrid
(thanks to their friendly association with Franco).
After the departure of the Trujillos, a new phase of political back-and-forthing ensued as the Dominican Republic had its first stint at trying democracy, interspersed with military coups. But since the Dominican experiment with democracy included “lefties” such as the popular writer Juan Bosch
and his Partido Revolucionario Dominicano, it was interpreted by the USA
under Lyndon B. Johnson as a “threat of communism
” – and so the US invaded the country yet again in 1965. This Second US Invasion
purportedly was to prevent “another Cuba
”. Subsequently the US made sure a nice and trustworthy anti-communist dictator was put back in place, this time in the form of former Trujillo protégé Joaquin Balaguer
While Balaguer did not display quite the same level of brutal ruthlessness as Trujillo had, he was by no means an angel either. Political repression, a silenced press, rigged elections and “disappeared” opposition members remained part of Dominican domestic affairs. Balaguer even formed a new special secret police force for this, which was called, colourfully, La Banda
. The political left was thus effectively silenced, and those members who didn't get physically silenced at home, went into exile. In their thousands. This accounts for a large part of the Dominican “Diaspora”, especially in the USA, particularly New York City
On the other hand, Balaguer saw to a lot of investment into infrastructure improvements in his country, including roads and the first steps towards creating the resort tourism industry we see today. He also gave the capital city a cluster of museums, some of which these days are neglected (like the history museum – see above and under Santo Domingo
), but the intentions may have been genuinely good. Amongst his most controversial buildings, however, is the purely symbolic, excessively expensive and truly bizarre Faro a Colon
Balaguer first had to concede defeat in an election in 1978, when his attempts to claim victory through violence was met by a withdrawal of support by the USA (on the initiative of then president Jimmy Carter). Faced with the economic consequences of this, Balaguer stepped down and La Banda was dissolved. However, he managed to get himself elected again in 1986 … and stayed in power for another decade until 1996. He passed away, unrepentant, in 2002.
While this wasn't the end of mismanagement and corruption, things have improved somewhat since, both politically and economically (with greater diversity providing more stability). In the 2000s, the country saw its first proper democratic elections that were not contested for being rigged or manipulated.
So far, things these days look halfway OK politically, though economic and environmental problems persist, with great social inequalities continuing, and ongoing pollution as well as damage to wildlife habitats (not least through the beach resort industry!).
The 20th century, however – no doubt about that – was for the Dominican Republic
one of the darkest periods any country in the Americas has ever lived through. And the legacy of this is what makes the country especially interesting for the dark tourist – even if this naturally remains an extreme niche vis-a-vis the gigantic mainstream beach resort and cruise ship industries.