After sixteen years of neoliberal rule under the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), Luis Abinader of the center-left Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) won the presidency in 2020. A pro-business president, Abinader has so far implemented more of the same policies without any major departures from the previous PLD governments. His economic policies are based on a neoliberal model that seeks foreign investment and more tourism revenue. Although he ran on a reformist ticket, he is not expected to introduce any major populist challenges to the established political features of the country anytime soon.
Located on the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles archipelago of the Caribbean region, the Dominican Republic (DR) is a country known for its blue ocean waters, white-sand beaches, and five-star all-inclusive resorts – but also for relative poverty that is prevalent outside of tourist hot spots. The DR receives around seven million tourists every year, which directly creates over 330,000 jobs and accounts for some 11 percent of the nation’s GDP (Forbes, 2018). Partly thanks to the tourism industry, the country enjoyed significant economic growth between 2014 and 2018, with an average growth of 6.3 percent per year. This helped to reduce the percentage of residents living in poverty from 34.4 percent to 19.9 percent over the same period (World Bank, 2020). As of 2019, however, more than 2 million people still live in poverty across the island.
Though the country is relatively politically stable now, it has plenty of experience with populism in the past. The beginning of the DR’s journey with populism dates to the ruthless dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, which lasted from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo was perceived by the country’s elites as a “rouge outsider” (Derby, 2009). This exclusion by the elites eventually led Trujillo to sweep them away and to build his strongman image with the support of the military, the poor masses – peasants in particular – and, perhaps ironically, the United States (Derby, 2009). Throughout his long dictatorship, Trujillo embraced an ideology of developmentalism, which fostered a strong and varied internal market while imposing high tariffs on imported goods. He also used patronage and social and financial aid for the pueblo, the people (Derby, 2009). His regime made major investments in infrastructure to improve the DR’s road system, port facilities, and airports as well as other public buildings, including hospitals and schools (Haggerty, 1989). Additionally, he carried out large-scale nationalizations while introducing significant socioeconomic guarantees and state benefits for Dominicans, which boosted his popularity among the pueblo (Haggerty, 1989).
Despite his relative economic success, the significant reduction in poverty, and other widespread investments, today the Trujillo-era is mostly remembered for its cold-blooded massacre of an estimated 20,000 people of Haitian descent within the country’s borders (Pulley, 1965). Despite ruthless, widespread violence towards the opposition, disloyal citizens, and people of Haitian descent, Trujillo had managed to secure strong American support for his regime. This was largely because the dictatorship managed to bring stability, and Trujillo was willing to protect the established foreign holdings, neither openly challenging US interests nor the security of the wider Caribbean (Pulley, 1965).
With Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, the DR entered into an unstable and volatile phase. After almost twenty-four years in exile in Cuba, Juan Bosch, Trujillo’s greatest opponent, returned to the Dominican Republic in the same year. He won a sweeping victory in the 1962 elections and was sworn in as president in February 1963. Bosch was a leftist populist who directly appealed to the poor masses, specifically workers and peasants, who he called the “true people” of the country. After taking office, he introduced a new constitution, which established basic civil and political rights, included labour rights, and social assistance programs for pregnant women, homeless people, peasants, and other disadvantaged groups. His presidency, however, was cut short by a military coup led by Colonel Elías Wessin on September 25, 1963. Bosh was sent back to exile. Though he attempted to win back the presidency many times for the rest of his life, he never regained the office.
In July 1966, Joaquín Balaguer won the presidential election with 57 percent of the total vote, defeating Bosch, who, fearful of further military intervention, ran a subdued campaign. Balaguer’s 12-year-long presidency was reminiscent of the Trujillo era in many aspects. State terrorism became prevalent, with thousands of people persecuted for political reasons. Balaguer’s regime had populist features. Throughout his presidency, his government made major investments in infrastructure, building schools, roads, and many public buildings. These investments were highly publicized by the pro-government media and were often used to boost the president’s popularity among the masses. Balaguer was present in person at many of the ground-breaking ceremonies, where he delivered populist speeches.
Less than a decade after leaving office, Balaguer made another successful bid for the presidency in 1986. State-sponsored violence was less prevalent and civil and political rights were more tolerated by the government. In 1994, Balaguer was elected once more; yet, he agreed to shorten his term to two years due to accusations of election fraud.
In the 1996 election, Leonel Antonio Fernández Reyna was elected president under the once-populist and now neoliberal Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). His first term, which ended in 2000, was characterized by economic growth averaging seven percent per year. The Fernández administration took steps to increase foreign direct investments in the country despite the opposition’s criticism of postcolonial exploitation and cheap labour. Similarly, during his second (2004-2008) and third terms (2008-2012) in office, the country’s visibility in hemispheric forums, such as the Summit of the Americas and the Organization of American States, increased. In 2007, the Dominican Republic entered the free trade accord between the US and Central American nations.
The 2012 elections saw the rise of another free-market advocate, Danilo Medina Sánchez. Medina’s eight-year presidency was marked by his efforts to deepen the DR’s integration with the global economy. In fact, many argued that the long reign of Fernández and then Medina made the Dominican economy inseparable from “transnational capitalist networks.” Indeed, the country has become the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in the Caribbean basin (Sprague-Silgado, 2016).
After sixteen years of PLD rule, Luis Abinader of the center-left Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM) won the presidency in the 2020 elections. A pro-business president, Abinader has so far implemented more of the same policies without any major departures from the previous PLD governments. His economic policies are based on a neoliberal model that seeks foreign investment and more tourism revenue. Although he ran on a reformist ticket, he is not expected to introduce any major populist challenges to the established political features of the country anytime soon (Redaction Politics, 2020).
November 27, 2020.
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— (2020). “Pro-business Abinader will struggle to deliver change in Dominican.” Redaction Politics, July 15, 2010. https://redactionpolitics.com/2020/07/15/dominican-republic-abinader-will-struggle-fernandez-castillo-pld/ (accessed on October 8, 2020).
— (2020). “The World Bank in Dominican Republic.” The World Bank, May 13, 2020. https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/dominicanrepublic/overview (accessed on October 8, 2020).
Derby, Lauren H. (2009). The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo, Duke University Press.
Haggerty, Richard A. (1989). Dominican Republic: A Country Study, GPO for the Library of Congress, (1989).
Pulley, Raymond H. (1965). “The United States and the Trujillo Dictatorship, 1933-1940: The High Price of Caribbean Stability.” Caribbean Studies. 5/3, October 1965: 22-31.
Sprague-Silgado, Jeb. (2016). “Polyarchy in the Dominican Republic: The Elite versus the Elite.” NACLA, May 6, 2016. https://nacla.org/news/2016/05/06/polyarchy-dominican-republic-elite-versus-elite (accessed on October 8, 2020).