A Brief History of the Dominican Republic

By Tim Lambert

The Early Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic forms part of the island of Hispaniola. Before the Europeans arrived a people called the Arawaks lived there. However, on 6 December 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the northwest and called the island Espanola, which was later anglicized as Hispaniola.

Spanish settlers founded San Domingo in 1596. However, a hundred years after Columbus discovered Hispaniola European diseases and war had almost exterminated the Arawaks.

Meanwhile, the Spanish claimed ownership of the whole island but they settled mainly in the east, in what is now the Dominican Republic. During the 16th century, vast numbers of African slaves were imported into the island and they were forced to work on sugar plantations.

The west of the island was left largely empty and in the 17th century, the French settled there. Finally in 1697, the Spanish and French signed the Treaty of Ryswick. France was given the western third of the island of Hispaniola. The rest remained in Spanish hands.

Haiti became independent in 1804 but in 1821 the Haitians occupied what is now the Dominican Republic. However, the Dominican Republic became independent in 1844. Its first president was Pedro Santana but he made himself effectively a dictator. The Dominican Republic also suffered several invasions from Haiti.

In 1861 Santana made the Dominican Republic a province of Spain. The Spanish deposed him in 1862 and in 1863 the people rose in revolt. A guerilla war began called the War of Restoration and the Spanish withdrew in 1867. Unfortunately there then followed a period of political instability and internal disorder in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic in the 20th Century

In 1916 the USA was afraid that Germany might intervene in the Dominican Republic and so they occupied the country. The American occupation lasted until 1924. Elections were then held and Horacio Vasquez became president of the Dominican Republic.

However, in 1930 Rafael Trujillo staged a coup and became a dictator. Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years till he was assassinated in 1961. In 1962 elections were held and Juan Bosch led a new government.

However, in 1963 the army staged a coup. In 1965 the people rebelled but the USA intervened. President Johnson sent US Marines to the Dominican Republic. A provisional government ruled for one year until 1966 when Joaquin Balaguer was elected president.

Balaguer was president until 1978 and under him some economic development took place. He was replaced by Antonio Guzman. He committed suicide in 1982. Jorge Blanco was president of the Dominican Republic until 1986 when Balaguer replaced him. He was re-elected in 1990. In 1994 Balaguer was elected again but the election was rigged. However, to avoid violence an agreement was made with the opposition. Balaguer agreed to step down after 2 years.

In 1996 Leonel Fernandez became president of the Dominican Republic. Fernandez lost power in 2000 but was re-elected in 2004. He was elected again in 2012. Danilo Medina was elected in 2016.

The Dominican Republic in the 21st Century

Today the Dominican Republic still exports sugar and coffee but tourism is a rapidly growing industry. Although the Dominican Republic is still poor the economy is growing strongly. Today the population of the Dominican Republic is 11 million.

Last revised 2023