Country of the Week: Dominican Republic

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

We’re trading Britain for the sunny Caribbean this week. Travel with us to one of the most popular destinations in the region – the Dominican Republic.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Santo Domingo
  • Population (2015): 10,652,000 (83rd)
  • Total Area: 48,442 km2 (131st)
  • Official Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Dominican peso ($) (DOP)

The Dominican Republic is well known for its sunny beaches


Prior to the first European expedition, the island of Hispaniola (on which the Dominican Republic is found today) was home mostly to the Taíno people. The tribes hunted, fished, and farmed to support themselves for years. This changed in 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived on the island’s shores. Relations with the Europeans were initially friendly, but this soon changed to outright hostility. While some chiefs had early success against the colonizers, smallpox later decimated the natives’ numbers, paving the way for further European conquest.

In 1496, Santo Domingo was founded by Christopher Columbus’ brother – making it the first permanent Western European settlement in the New World. As Spain turned its focus to the nearby continents and the Aztec and Incan Empires, it’s land in the Caribbean was in turn neglected. This led first to buccaneers of French and English origin taking control of large areas, and later the French themselves taking control of the West coast, known as Saint-Domingue (Spain remained in control in the central area).

Santo Domingo continued to grow, and was unique for having a high percentage (80 or so percent) of free men (both white and mixed) compared to slaves. In the late 1700’s Spain was forced to cede the city to the French. However, a slave revolt in the west of the island led by Toussaint Louverture was able to capture most of the island. Though the French arrested him, his lieutenants and disease were able to claim the western half of the island for good in 1804 – renaming it Haiti. About a year later, Haiti and the British assisted the Spanish in reclaiming Santo Domingo from the French.

This too was doomed to fail, as dissatisfaction eventually resulted in independence from the Spanish monarchy in 1821. Two months later, the entire island fell under Haitian rule – led by Jean-Pierre Boyer. Slavery was abolished and the white elites were prohibited form owning land – however the Dominicans found themselves heavily taxed and subjugated by the Haitians. As the economy collapsed, Boyer was overthrown by a wide collection of anti-Haitian movements in 1843.

Prior to this, Juan Pablo Duarte had begun to seek full independence for Santo Domingo. After declaring independence in 1844, the fledgling country faced threats from Haiti, economic issues, domestic power struggles, and a rivalry between pro- Spain Pedro Santana and pro-US Buenaventura Báez. In 1861, Santana signed an agreement with Spain, and the country once again came under colonial rule. The War of Restoration was fought to oppose this, and Spain left the island after about two years. Báez attempted to have the country annexed by the US, but he too was overthrown. President Ulises ‘Lilís’ Heureaux enjoyed a period of popularity, but this didn’t last and he was assassinated in 1899.

A tumultuous period of short-lived governments and assassination followed for many years. The United States attempted to protect the country from European influence – partly due to the ongoing construction of the nearby Panama Canal – and agreed to pay off large portions of the country’s debt. After a political crisis following President Jimenes resignation (who had only been elected after an ultimatum from the US to hold an election), the US invaded the Dominican Republic in 1916. The US reduced the debt, built roads, revived the economy, kept local laws intact – but the occupation was unpopular both in the Dominican and later in the US. The US ended the occupation in 1922 and elections were held in 1924. Less than a decade later however, army and police chief Rafael Trujillo used strategic agreements, the power of the security apparatus, and a violent campaign to take power in 1930.

His regime presided over economic growth (the country was debt free by 1947). Infrastructure was rebuilt, and institutions such as education and healthcare were greatly expanded. However, Trujillo harshly oppressed opponents, using murder, torture, and state terrorism to stay in power. Events such as the Parsley Massacre and the killing of the Mirabel sisters exemplified his brutal methods. The strongman enjoyed US support for a time (who believed him a necessary evil), however he lost American support after an attempted assassination of Venezuela’s president. Trujillo himself was assassinated in 1961.

A leftist government was elected, but soon overthrown by the military – leading to a civil war. Worried that it might lead to communist rule, LBJ ordered American troops into the Dominican Republic once more, and presided over elections. President Joaquín Balaguer ruled intermittently for many years (until 1996). His rule included repression and human rights violations, largely aimed at communist and leftist groups – though the country was also able to continue on a positive economic path.

The left leaning PLD managed to preside over a period of growth and success in the late 1990’s. They currently rule the country under the leadership of President Danilo Medina, and are credited with moving the country forward over the last decade. Questions of corruption remain, but the country has worked hard to move past its brutal history of repression and abuse.


Santo Domingo – the capital and centre of life in the country


Like many countries in Latin America, the Dominican Republic features a culture with European, African, and native (largely Taíno) influences. In food, religion, family values, and music – these influences can all be felt to a varying degree. The architecture of the country is predominantly European influenced (with villas and tile work similar to Mediterranean countries), though thatched works indicative of the Taíno people can also be seen outside of the cities. With the country becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourists, cutting edge resorts have begun to crop up that showcase luxurious styles.

One of the most popular musical creations from the Dominican Republic is merengue. This style is fast-paced and features Latin influences and instruments. It has inspired many popular dances, and enjoyed a period of popularity in the US in the 80’s and 90’s. Other styles can be found throughout the country, including the soulful Bachata and salsa.

Baseball is far and away the most popular sport in the country. The domestic league consists of six teams, however many big name players move to the US to play in the MLB. These include Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramírez, Albert Pujols, among many others.


The Dominican Republic is found on the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti. The country is well known for small inlets, bays, islands, and many beaches – however the interior also features important mountain ranges. Three mountains rise above 10,000 feet (more than 3000 metres). There is also plain land, arid desert like regions, and more environments found within the country.

The largest city in the country is Santo Domingo, which also serves as the capital. As the largest city in the Caribbean, it is an important centre for trade, tourism, politics (both domestic and regional), and culture. It was named after Rafael Trujillo during his reign, however the name was changed back to Santo Domingo following his death.


The Dominican side dish ‘mangu’ – uses a base of boiled green plantains

Did you know?

  • There is an image of the Bible on the flag
  • The military and police don’t vote in elections
  • Parts of the Godfather Part II were filmed in Santo Domingo
  • The country is known as the breadbasket of the Caribbean
  • The country is well known for its many golf course nowadays
  • Mamajuana is a popular local drink made from red wine, rum, and honey soaked in tree bark and herbs
  • The name of the food ‘Mangu’ comes from a US marine exclaiming ‘Man, good!’ after trying it during the 1916 invasion

A common scene in popular Dominican resorts

Last Word

Despite a tumultuous 20th century, the Dominican Republic has come a long way and is now the most visited Caribbean country. An intriguing culture with a variety of influences helps to make it a unique and vibrant place to visit.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

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