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The Arawakan-speaking Taínos moved into Hispaniola, displacing earlier inhabitants, circa A.D. 650. The Taínos called the island Kiskeya or Quisqueya ("mother of the earth"), as well as Haití or Aytí, and Bohio. They engaged in farming and fishing, and hunting and gathering. The fierce Caribs drove the Taínos to the northeastern Caribbean during much of the 15th century. The estimates of Hispaniola's population in 1492 vary widely, including one hundred thousand, three hundred thousand, and four hundred thousand to two million. By 1492 the island was divided into five Taíno chiefdoms.
The Spanish arrived in 1492. After initially friendly relations, the Taínos resisted the conquest, notably led by the female Chief Anacaona of Xaragua and her husband Chief Caonabo of Maguana, as well as Chiefs Guacanagarix, Guamá, Hatuey, and Enriquillo. The latter one's successes gained his people an autonomous enclave for a time in part of the island. Nevertheless, within a few years after 1492 the population of Taínos had declined drastically, due to smallpox and other diseases that arrived with the Europeans, and from other causes discussed below. The decline continued, and by 1711 the Taíno numbered just 21,000. The last record of pure Taínos in the country was from 1864. Still, the Taíno live on as a component in the Dominican ancestry. Surviving remnants of the Taino culture include their cave paintings, as well as pottery designs which are still used by artisans in the small artisan village of Higüerito, Moca.
Christopher Columbus arrived on Hispaniola on December 5, 1492, during the first of his four voyages to America. He claimed the island for Spain and named it La Española. In 1496 Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher's brother, built the city of Santo Domingo, Europe's first permanent settlement in the "New World". The Spaniards created a plantation economy on the island. The colony was the springboard for the further Spanish conquest of America and for decades the headquarters of Spanish power in the hemisphere. Christopher was buried in Santo Domingo upon his death in 1506.
The Taínos nearly disappeared, above all, from European infectious diseases to which they had no immunity. Other causes were abuse, suicide, the breakup of family, starvation, enslavement, forced labor, torture, war with the Spaniards, changes in lifestyle, and even miscegenation. Laws passed for the Indians's protection (beginning with the Laws of Burgos, 1512-1513) were never truly enforced. Yet as stated above, the Taínos did survive. Some scholars believe that las Casas exaggerated the Indian population decline in an effort to persuade King Carlos to intervene, and that encomenderos also exaggerated it, in order to receive permission to import more African slaves. Moreover, censuses of the time omitted the Indians who fled into remote communities, where they often joined with runaway Africans (cimarrones), producing Zambos. Also, Mestizos who were culturally Spanish were counted as Spaniards, some Zambos as black, and some Indians as Mulattos.
After her conquest of the Aztecs and Incas, Spain neglected her Caribbean holdings. French buccaneers settled in western Hispaniola, and by the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, Spain ceded the area to France. France created the wealthy colony Saint-Domingue there, with a population 90% slave, and overall four times as populous (500,000 to 125,000) as the Spanish area at the end of the 18th century.
France came to own the whole island in 1795, when by the Peace of Basel Spain ceded Santo Domingo as a consequence of the French Revolutionary Wars. At the time, Saint–Domingue's slaves, led by Toussaint Louverture, were in revolt against France. In 1801 they captured Santo Domingo, thus controlling the entire island; but in 1802 an army sent by Napoleon captured Toussaint Louverture and sent him to France as prisoner. However, Toussaint Louverture's lieutenants, and yellow fever, succeeded in expelling the French again from Saint-Domingue, which in 1804 the rebels made independent as the Republic of Haiti. Eastwards, France continued to rule Spanish Santo Domingo.
In 1808, following Napoleon's invasion of Spain, the criollos of Santo Domingo revolted against French rule and, with the aid of Great Britain (Spain's ally) and Haiti, returned Santo Domingo to Spanish control.
After a dozen years of discontent and failed independence plots by various groups, Santo Domingo's former Lieutenant–Governor (top administrator), José Núñez de Cáceres, declared the colony's independence, on November 30, 1821. He requested the new state's admission to Simón Bolívar's republic of Gran Colombia, but Haitian forces, led by Jean-Pierre Boyer, invaded just nine weeks later, in February 1822.
As Toussaint Louverture had done two decades earlier, the Haitians abolished slavery. But they also nationalized most private property, including all the property of landowners who had left in the wake of the invasion; much Church property; as well as all property belonging to the former rulers, the Spanish Crown. Boyer also placed more emphasis on cash crops grown on large plantations, reformed the tax system, and allowed foreign trade. But the new system was widely opposed by Dominican farmers, although it produced a boom in sugar and coffee production. All levels of education collapsed; the university was shut down, as it was starved both of resources and students, since young Dominican men from 16 to 25-years-old were drafted into the Haitian army. Boyer's occupation troops, which were largely Dominicans, were unpaid, and had to "forage and sack" from Dominican civilians. Haiti imposed a "heavy tribute" on the Dominican people. Many whites fled Santo Domingo for Puerto Rico and Cuba (both still under Spanish rule), Venezuela, and elsewhere. In the end the economy faltered and taxation became more onerous. Rebellions occurred even by Dominican freedmen, while Dominicans and Haitians worked together to oust Boyer from power. Anti-Haitian movements of several kinds — pro-independence, pro-Spanish, pro-French, pro-British, pro-United States — gathered force following the overthrow of Boyer in 1843.
In 1838 Juan Pablo Duarte founded a secret society called La Trinitaria, which sought the complete independence of Santo Domingo without any foreign intervention. Ramón Matías Mella and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, despite not being among the founding members of La Trinitaria, were decisive in the fight for independence. Duarte and they are the three Founding Fathers of the Dominican Republic. On February 27, 1844, the Trinitarios (Trinitarians), declared the independence from Haiti. They were backed by Pedro Santana, a wealthy cattle rancher from El Seibo, who became general of the army of the nascent Republic. The Dominican Republic's first Constitution was adopted on November 6, 1844, and was modeled after the United States Constitution.
The decades that followed were filled with tyranny, factionalism, economic difficulties, rapid changes of government, and exile for political opponents. Threatening the nation's independence were renewed Haitian invasions occurring in 1844, 1845-49, 1849-55, and 1855-56.
Meanwhile, archrivals Santana and Buenaventura Báez held power most of the time, both ruling arbitrarily. They promoted competing plans to annex the new nation to another power: Santana favored Spain, and Báez the United States.
In 1861, after imprisoning, silencing, exiling, and executing many of his opponents and due to political and economic reasons, Santana signed a pact with the Spanish Crown and reverted the Dominican nation to colonial status, the only Latin American country to do so. His ostensible aim was to protect the nation from another Haitian annexation. But opponents launched the War of the Restoration in 1863, led by Santiago Rodríguez, Benito Monción, and Gregorio Luperón, among others. Haiti, fearful of the re-establishment of Spain as colonial power on its border, gave refuge and supplies to the revolutionaries. The United States, then fighting its own Civil War, vigorously protested the Spanish action. After two years of fighting, Spain abandoned the island in 1865.
Political strife again prevailed in the following years; warlords ruled, military revolts were extremely common, and the nation amassed debt. It was now Báez's turn to act on his plan of annexing the country to the United States, where two successive presidents were supportive. U.S. President Grant desired a naval base at Samaná and also a place for resettling newly freed Blacks. The treaty, which included U.S. payment of $1.5 million for Dominican debt repayment, was defeated in the United States Senate in 1870 on a vote of 28–28, two-thirds being required.
Báez was toppled in 1874, returned, and was toppled for good in 1878. A new generation was thence in charge, with the passing of Santana (he died in 1864) and Báez from the scene. Relative peace came to the country in the 1880s, which saw the coming to power of General Ulises Heureaux.
"Lilís", as the new president was nicknamed, enjoyed a period of popularity. He was, however, "a consummate dissembler", who put the nation deep into debt while using much of the proceeds for his personal use and to maintain his police state. Heureaux's rule became progressively more despotic and he all the more unpopular. In 1899 he was assassinated. However, the relative calm over which he presided allowed improvement in the Dominican economy. The sugar industry was modernized, and the country attracted foreign workers and immigrants, both from the Old World and the New.
From 1902 on, short-lived governments were again the norm, with their power usurped by caudillos in parts of the country. Furthermore, the national government was bankrupt and, unable to pay Heureaux's debts, faced the threat of military intervention by France and other European creditor powers.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt sought to prevent European intervention, largely to protect the routes to the future Panama Canal, as the canal was already under construction. He made a small military intervention to ward off the European powers, proclaimed his famous Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and in 1905 obtained Dominican agreement for U.S. administration of Dominican customs, then the chief source of income for the Dominican government. A 1906 agreement provided for the arrangement to last 50 years. The United States agreed to use part of the customs proceeds to reduce the immense foreign debt of the Dominican Republic, and assumed responsibility for said debt.
After six years in power, President Ramón Cáceres (who had himself assassinated Heureaux) was assassinated in 1911. The result was several years of great political instability and civil war. U.S. mediation by the William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson administrations achieved only a short respite each time. A political deadlock in 1914 was broken after an ultimatum by Wilson telling Dominicans to choose a president or see the U.S. impose one. A provisional president was chosen, and later the same year relatively free elections put former president (1899–1902) Juan Isidro Jimenes Pereyra back in power. In order to achieve a more broadly supported government, Jimenes named opposition individuals to his Cabinet. But this brought no peace and, with his former Secretary of War Desiderio Arias maneuvering to depose him and despite a U.S. offer of military aid against Arias, Jimenes resigned on May 7, 1916.
Wilson thus ordered the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic. U.S. Marines landed on May 16, 1916, and had control of the country two months later. The military government established by the U.S., led by Rear Admiral Harry Shepard Knapp, was widely repudiated by Dominicans. Some Cabinet posts had to be filled by U.S. naval officers, as Dominicans refused to serve in the administration. Censorship and limits on public speech were imposed. The guerrilla war against the U.S. forces was met with a vigorous, "often brutal" response.
But the occupation regime, which kept most Dominican laws and institutions, largely pacified the country, revived the economy, reduced the Dominican debt, built a road network that at last interconnected all regions of the country, and created a professional National Guard to replace the warring partisan units.
Opposition to the occupation continued, however, and after World War I it increased in the U.S. as well. There, President Warren G. Harding (1921–23), Wilson's successor, worked to end the occupation, as he had promised to do during his campaign. U.S. government ended in October 1922, and elections were held in March 1924.
The victor was former president (1902–03) Horacio Vásquez Lajara, who had coöperated with the U.S. He was inaugurated on July 13, and the last U.S. forces left in September. Vásquez gave the country six years of good government, in which political and civil rights were respected and the economy grew strongly, in a peaceful atmosphere.
When Vásquez attempted to win another term, opponents rebelled in February, 1930, in secret alliance with the commander of the National Army (the former National Guard), General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, by which the latter remained 'neutral' in face of the rebellion. Vásquez resigned. Trujillo then stood for election himself, and in May was elected president virtually unopposed, after a violent campaign against his opponents.
There was considerable economic growth during Trujillo's long and iron-fisted regime, although a great deal of the wealth was taken by the dictator and other regime elements. There was progress in healthcare, education, and transportation, with the building of hospitals and clinics, schools, and roads and harbors. Trujillo also carried out an important housing construction program and instituted a pension plan. He finally negotiated an undisputed border with Haiti in 1935, and achieved the early end, in 1941, of the 1906 agreement with the U.S. He made the country debt-free in 1947, a proud achievement for Dominicans for decades to come.
This was accompanied by absolute repression and the copious use of murder, torture, and terrorist methods against the opposition. Moreover, Trujillo's megalomania was on display in his renaming after himself the capital city Santo Domingo to "Ciudad Trujillo" (Trujillo City), the nation's—and the Caribbean's—highest mountain Pico Duarte (Duarte Peak) to Pico Trujillo, and many towns and a province. Some other places he renamed after members of his family.
In 1937 Trujillo (who was himself one-quarter Haitian), in an event known as the Parsley Massacre or, in the Dominican Republic, as El Corte (The Cutting), ordered the Army to kill Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. The Army killed an estimated 17,000 to 35,000 Haitians over six days, from the night of October 2, 1937 through October 8, 1937. To avoid leaving evidence of the Army's involvement, the soldiers used machetes rather than bullets. The soldiers of Trujillo were said to have interrogated anyone with dark skin, using the shibboleth perejil (parsley) to tell Haitians from Dominicans when necessary; the trilled 'R' of perejil was of difficult pronunciation for Haitians. As a result of the massacre, the Dominican Republic agreed to pay Haiti US$750,000, later reduced to US$525,000.
On November 25, 1960 Trujillo killed three of the four Mirabal sisters, nicknamed Las Mariposas (The Butterflies). The victims were Patria Mercedes Mirabal (born on February 27, 1924), Argentina Minerva Mirabal (born on March 12, 1926), and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal (born on October 15, 1935). Minerva was an aspiring lawyer who was extremely opposed to Trujillo's dictatorship since Trujillo had begun to make rude sexual advances towards her. The sisters have received many honors posthumously, and have many memorials in various cities in the Dominican Republic. Salcedo, their home province, changed its name to Hermanas Mirabal Province (Mirabal Sisters Province). The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is observed on the anniversary of their deaths.
For a long time, the US supported the Trujillo government, as did the Catholic Church and the Dominican elite. This support persisted despite the assassinations of political opposition, the massacre of Haitians, and Trujillo's plots against other countries. The US believed Trujillo was the lesser of two or more evils. The U.S. finally broke with Trujillo in 1960, after Trujillo's agents attempted to assassinate the Venezuelan president, Rómulo Betancourt. Trujillo was assassinated on May 30, 1961 in Santo Domingo.
A democratically elected government under leftist Juan Bosch took office in February, 1963, but was overthrown in September. After nineteen months of military rule, a pro-Bosch revolt broke out in April, 1965. U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, concerned over the possible takeover of the revolt by pro-Castro or other communists who might create a "second Cuba", sent the Marines days later, in Operation Powerpack. "We don't propose to sit here in a rocking chair with our hands folded and let the Communists set up any government in the western hemisphere", Johnson said. The forces were soon joined by comparatively small contingents from the Organization of American States. They remained in the country for over a year and left after supervising elections in 1966 won by Joaquín Balaguer, who had been Trujillo's last puppet-president.
Balaguer remained in power as president for 12 years. His tenure was a period of repression of human rights and civil liberties, ostensibly to keep pro-Castro or pro-communist parties out of power. His rule was further criticized for a growing disparity between rich and poor. It was, however, praised for an ambitious infrastructure program, which included large housing projects, sports complexes, theaters, museums, aqueducts, roads, highways, and the massive Columbus Lighthouse, completed in a subsequent tenure in 1992. Balaguer's sister, Ema, helped in these efforts. She became well known amongst the poor for donating sewing machines, toys, and building schools.
In 1978, Balaguer was succeeded in the presidency by opposition candidate Antonio Guzmán Fernández, of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Another PRD win in 1982 followed, under Salvador Jorge Blanco. Under the PRD presidents, the Dominican Republic experienced a period of relative freedom and basic human rights. Balaguer regained the presidency in 1986, and was re-elected in 1990 and 1994, this last time just defeating PRD candidate José Francisco Peña Gómez, a former mayor of Santo Domingo. The 1994 elections were flawed, bringing on international pressure, to which Balaguer responded by scheduling another presidential contest in 1996. This time Leonel Fernández achieved the first-ever win for the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), which Bosch founded in 1973 after leaving the PRD (also founded by Bosch).
In 2000 the PRD's Hipólito Mejía won the election and was succeeded by Fernández, who won re-election in 2008.Fernández and the PLD are credited with initiatives that have moved the country forward technologically, such as the construction of the Metro Railway ("El Metro"). He and his government have also been accused of corruption and bad administration.
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