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Dominican Republic History

Dominican Republic history and that of Hispaniola go back thousands of years, so let’s pick the opening of the new world as a starting point. Columbus claimed and subsequently exploited the island on his first voyage in 1492. After killing 600 000 of the island’s inhabitants (Taino Indians) he used the island as a launch pad for Spanish conquest of the Caribbean.

The Dominican Republic’s history centers around its capital, Santo Domingo, which was the first city established in the new world. Anyone visiting should visit the Calle de las Damas ; the oldest street dating back to the time of Columbus. In fact, Christopher Columbus' son was the viceroy of Santo Domingo in 1497.

As for the history of Punta Cana, Higuey was the name of one of the “cacigazgos”, the divisions similar to provinces laid out by the Taino Indians. The name Higuey means sunlight in the Taino language, probably named for being the location where the day’s first rays of sunshine hit the island. The lands around Higuey have traditionally been an agricultural area.

The main historical element in Higuey is the cathedral, home of the “virgin of la Altagracia” a painting brought by the Spaniards in the late 15th century.

In 1697, Spain recognized French dominion over the Western third of the island now know as Haiti (since 1804). The Eastern two thirds of the island, then known only as “Santo Domingo”, tried to attain independence but was conquered and ruled by the Haitians. They finally attained independence, becoming the Dominican Republic, in 1844.

Twentieth-century Dominican Republic history is dominated by the figure of Rafael Trujillo, whose vicious and greedy dictatorship lasted more than three decades (1966-1996). His regime, backed by the US during most of its reign, was responsible for many atrocities, including the assassinations and kidnappings of political opponents.

Only after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 did Washington decide that Trujillo had become too much of an embarrassment. In May 1961, Trujillo was assassinated with the help of the CIA.

After Trujillo’s assassination, Juan Bosch won the government’s first democratic election in nearly four decades. He was a liberal anti-communist who tried to implement several economic and social reforms. However, he believed in communists being allowed to gather peacefully. The West saw him as a weak link or communist sympathizer and he was forced out of office under somewhat suspicious circumstances.

In 1965, US troops arrived in the Dominican Republic, as well as forces from Honduras, Brazil and Costa Rica. They remained in that country for about one year and left after supervising elections in which they ensured victory by Joaquin Belaguer. He retained power for the better part of 30 years and ruled his people in the grand Latin American style. The rich became richer and the poor had babies (hungry babies); democracy remained an alien concept. Belaguer was pressured out of office in 1996 following international outcry over fixed elections.

For a decade there have been true democratic elections, never before seen throughout Dominican Republic history, in which opposition leaders have won the presidency. Democracy is not something that is born overnight, it takes time to learn its rewards and even more importantly; tolerate its hardships. Presently, in the Dominican Republic it appears that only a narrow range of political opinion is tolerated. The enormous disparity in income and wealth between social classes should provide fertile ground for radical politics, but there are no radical newspapers available on the streets of Santo Domingo.

Dominican Republic history is now being rewritten. True democracy is underway, rapidly gaining momentum from one of the fastest growing economies in the Northern hemisphere!


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