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date: 13 June 2024

The Dominican Republic: From Military Rule to Democracylocked

The Dominican Republic: From Military Rule to Democracylocked

  • Ellen D. TillmanEllen D. TillmanDepartment of History, Texas State University


Due to regionalism and both internal and external military interventions in politics, it was not until the last quarter of the 20th century that the Dominican Republic began a (true) transition to free democratic institutions in politics. While various forms of militarism and militarization dominated most of Dominican politics—and much of society—from independence to that period, liberalization from the 1970s and beyond led to a downsizing in military and police power and relatively stable and peaceful electoral transitions between legitimate political contenders. From independence in 1844 to the late 19th century, Dominican politics was characterized largely by fragmentation and caudillo warfare, including an 1861 reannexation to Spain and a long Restoration War to restore independence in 1865. These trends encouraged militarization in many aspects of society, and elevated many men of military experience and fame in politics. Despite a brief late-19th-century period of liberalization, the country quickly fell under the dictatorship of Ulíses Heureaux, whose caudillo system of rule was reinforced and funded through extensive internal and external loans—the latter of which were gradually taken over by the United States. His assassination in 1899 pushed the Dominican Republic into a series of governments and civil wars that, considering growing U.S. influence and interest, led to the direct U.S. military occupation of the country from 1916 to 1924. Using the structures of military centralization built up under the occupation, under which he had been trained, Rafael Trujillo took over the Dominican government at the end of the 1920s. He ruled from 1930 to 1961. While Trujillo’s rule built a semblance of a government with civilian branches, he used military intimidation and violence both to control and to modernize the state. After his assassination, the long-term military, political, and societal consequences of Trujillo’s dictatorship continued to hinder democratic development, yet some elements actually improved the possibilities of a democratic state, including economic growth, urbanization, and the consequent growth of a middle class, which challenged former followers of Trujillo such as Joaquín Balaguer through the 1960s and 1970s. By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, the popular Dominican challenge to military intervention in politics aided the downsizing of the Trujillista military and therefore the power of the armed forces to intervene in the political system. The presidencies of Antonio Guzmán and Salvador Jorge Blanco in the late 1970s and 1980s, while peacefully and legally elected, were marred by corruption, yet popular pressure and personal interest caused these administrations to gradually scale back the armed forces and their role in politics. Through the 1980s and 1990s, a centralized and efficient civilian-controlled government formed. Despite some difficulties in transition, due to such issues as the fragility of early democratic institutions and International Monetary Fund–imposed austerity measures of the 1980s, by the mid-1990s the Dominican Republic had conducted highly contested but fair elections without direct police or military interference in the political process.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • History and Politics
  • Political Institutions

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