The eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, now known as the Dominican Republic, is the earliest of all the European colonies in the western hemisphere. The settlement of Santo Domingo is established on the south coast in 1496 by Diego Columbus, younger brother of the explorer. It becomes the main base for Spanish activities until the conquest of Mexico.
In 1664 the Spanish lose to the French the western half of the island, or Haiti, which is liberated from colonial rule by Toussaint L’Ouverture in the 1790s. Toussaint is rapidly followed by several others in the rule of Haiti. The most effective of these is Boyer, during whose presidency the two halves of the island are forcibly reunited.
Haiti achieves some degree of stability under Jean Pierre Boyer, who wins power after the death of Henri Christophe in 1820. Two years later Boyer invades and overwhelms the eastern half of the island, Santo Domingo, where the inhabitants have in 1821 risen in rebellion against Spain.
Boyer rules French-speaking Haiti, and governs Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo as a conquered province, until he is overthrown in a revolution in 1843. The upheaval of that year also gives Santo Domingo the chance to throw off the yoke of Haiti. The eastern half of the island proclaims its independence, as the Dominican Republic, in 1844. Hispaniola, the oldest European colony in the western hemisphere, becomes also the first region to be free.
Doubts and dictators: AD 1844-1961
From the start some people in the Dominican Republic maintain that independence is a foolhardy step, largely because they fear invasion by their larger neighbour, Haiti. From 1861 to 1865 the nation even returns voluntarily to the status of a Spanish colony. At other times there is talk of seeking annexation by the USA.
In the early 20th century there is a danger of European nations intervening forcibly to recover their debts, and for a while US rule is forced on the republic. In 1916 a combination of economic chaos and incipient civil war persuades Woodrow Wilson to send in the marines (they are already next door in Haiti). American military government lasts for eight years, until 1924.
A more local solution to the permanent threat of political chaos is dictatorship, under which some degree of economic progress is made at the high price of oppression, torture and corruption. Two rulers in particular, both singularly brutal, are long-lasting and in their own terms effective – except that each dies at the hands of an assassin.
The first such regime, lasting from 1882 to 1899, is that of Ulises Heureaux. The next is an even longer period of enforced stability under Rafael Trujillo, an army officer who seizes power in a coup in 1930 and retains it until his violent death, when assassins rake his car with machine-gun fire, in 1961.
Delivering democracy: AD 1961-1999
Early attempts to establish democracy after the assassination of Trujillo are frustrated by a succession of coups, civil war and even the renewal of American military intervention in 1965 on the supposed fear of a Communist takeover. But from 1966 presidential elections are held every four years, and from 1978 they are fully open to opposing political parties.
The political life of the republic during these decades is dominated by a lawyer and historian, Joaquin Balaguer, who has previously held many government posts during the Trujillo dictatorship.
Elected president in 1966, Balaguer retains the post in undemocratic elections of 1970 and 1974 (a period when the republic reverts to some of Trujillo’s methods with political opponents). International pressure imposes higher standards of democracy from 1978, when Balaguer loses to Antonio Guzmán. Guzmán in turn loses to Salvador Blanco in 1982. But in 1986, 1990 and 1994 the ageing Balaguer, by now blind, is once again elected to the presidency.
Allegations of electoral fraud in the 1994 result lead to a new election in 1996 from which Balaguer is barred. His departure severs the last link with the Trujillo era. The political parties of the Dominican Republic are perhaps at last free to undertake normal political life.