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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Dominican Republic

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Dominican Republic, 2007, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Dominican Republic (DR) comprises the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean; on the east by the Mona Passage, which separates it from Puerto Rico; on the south by the Caribbean Sea. On the west it shares a 360 km frontier with Haiti. It has a total land area of 48,734 sq km.



The original inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti/DR) were the indigenous Taíno, an Arawak-speaking people who began arriving by canoe from the Belize and the Yucatan peninsula between 6000 and 4000 BC. Hispaniola is now recognized as the main cultural centre of the Taíno-Arawak, who also colonized most of the Caribbean islands in conjunction with indigenous people who sailed up from the Orinoco/Amazon region of South America.

Along with Ay-ti, another of the original indigenous names for the island was Quisqueya (or Kiskeya). It was re named La Isla Española (The Spanish Island) by Christopher Columbus when he first arrived in 1492. This later evolved into the name Hispaniola.

Early colonial

At the time of the Spanish arrival an estimated 1 million Taínos lived on the island. Spanish attempts to use enslaved Taíno in gold mining after 1501 did not prove profitable. There was continued resistance and the Taíno-Arawak who were not killed disappeared into the inaccessible mountains.

Taíno-Arawak groups under the leadership of warrior chief Enriquillo carried out hit-and-run raids against the Spanish until 1534, when a peace treaty was signed. Over the following centuries the remaining indigenous Taíno-Arawak increasingly became intermixed with the African and European colonial populations and ceased to exist as a distinct group.

African entry

Africans began arriving on Hispaniola in 1503 and in 1510 that the first sizeable shipment (250 Black Ladinos) landed from Spain. Sugar cane was introduced from the Canary Islands, and the first sugar mill in the New World was established on Hispaniola in 1516. This led to a sharp increase in the importation of Africans.

The first major slave revolt in the Americas occurred in Spain's colony on Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) in 1522, when enslaved West Africans (Muslim Wolof) led an uprising. Many of the insurgents escaped to the mountains and formed the first independent African Maroon community in the New World.

Sugar cane increased Hispaniola's profitability but increasing numbers of imported Africans kept escaping into the island's interior, linking up with residual pockets of indigenous Taíno-Arawaks. By the 1530s, Maroon bands had become so dangerously pervasive that large armed groups were required for travel outside of the plantations.

Spanish interest in Hispaniola declined with the discovery of precious metals in South America, and new imports of enslaved Africans ceased. The colony sank into poverty and in 1697 Spain ceded the western end of the island (which became known as Saint-Domingue, now Haiti) to France.

On the eastern, Spanish side, called Santo Domingo, Spanish colonists, Euro-indigenous mestizos and free as well as enslaved Africans lived in a relatively flexible cattle-ranching environment where class and caste distinctions were more relaxed. This resulted in a population of predominantly mixed Spanish and African descent.

After 1700, the population of Santo Domingo was bolstered by additional emigration from the Canary Islands. The northern part of the colony was resettled, tobacco was planted in the Cibao Valley and the importation of enslaved Africans renewed.

The population of the Spanish colony grew and by 1777 it was estimated to be around 400,000, with a large proportion being of mixed background: it was calculated as Europeans (100,000), Africans (70,000) European/indigenous mestizos (100,000) African/indigenous mestizos (60,000), African/European mestizos (mulatos) (70,000).

Compared to the French forced labour plantation colony on the western side of the island, which had become the wealthiest in the New World, the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo remained poor and derelict.

Haitian Revolution

With the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the rich urban families associated with the Spanish colonial bureaucracy fled the island, while most of the rural hateros (cattle ranchers) chose to remain.

In 1801, Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture arrived in the eastern side of the island and proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Santo Domingo. Soon after Napoleon dispatched an army to subdue the rebellion and reintroduce slavery but these forces were overwhelmed by Haitian revolutionary forces.

Even after the French defeat, a small army contingent remained in control on the Spanish side of the island. Slavery was re- established and many Spanish colonists returned. The French held on to the eastern part of the island for nearly two decades more, until they were expelled by the Spanish-speaking inhabitants, many of whom were cattle ranchers.

In November 1821 the Spanish lieutenant governor proclaimed Santo Domingo's new status as the independent state of Spanish Haiti (Haiti Español). Nine weeks later Haitian forces, led by Jean-Pierre Boyer, entered and united both sides of island.

Spanish Haiti

The 22-year Haitian occupation definitively ended slavery in the eastern part of Hispaniola. However unification also brought imposition of compulsory military service, restrictions in the use of the Spanish language and large-scale land expropriations.

Spanish colonial landowners - who as Europeans were forbidden to own property under the Haitian Constitution - were forcibly relieved of their holdings. Most emigrated to Cuba, Puerto Rico or Gran Colombia. Furthermore, the Haitian regime associated the Roman Catholic Church with the French slave-owning class and confiscated all Church property, deported all foreign clergy and made the remaining Dominican clergy sever ties with the Vatican.

In an effort to prove that Haiti could be the equal of any other nation and with France demanding reparations for the loss of their plantations before granting diplomatic recognition, Boyer introduced the compulsory production of export crops. However, Afro-Dominicans who had just won their freedom resented being forced to grow cash crops under Boyer's Code Rural.

Furthermore the elimination of some local customs like cockfighting in conjunction with the other reforms contributed to the tendency of Dominicans to see themselves as culturally different from Haitians in language, ethnicity race, religion and customs.

The payment of reparations to France by Haiti crippled the Haitian economy; consequently Haiti imposed heavy taxes on the Spanish-speaking part of the island. Furthermore a diminished national treasury made it difficult to maintain troops on the eastern side. This made it easier for Dominicans to declare independence from Haiti, on 27 February 1844.


The first president of the independent state was Pedro Santana, a powerful cattle rancher, who served for three terms between 1844 and 1861. The fact that between 1844 and 1856 Haiti launched five unsuccessful invasions to re-conquer the eastern part of the island prompted the clergy and the wealthy elite to seek protection from foreign powers.

In March 1861, Santana gave the Dominican Republic back to Spain. However the return was short lived. Spanish discrimination against the African/European mulatto majority population, coupled with restricted trade and other reforms, led to rising resentment.

In 1863 it prompted a national war of 'restoration'. Fearing a Spanish re-imposition of slavery on the eastern side of the island, Haitian President Fabre Geffrard provided the Dominican rebels with arms, sanctuary and a detachment of the best military fighters. The guerrillas triumphed and the country regained its independence in March 1865.

From 1865 to 1879, there were 21 changes of government and at least 50 military uprisings. In the south, the economy was dominated by cattle-ranchers and mahogany exporters while in the Cibao Valley, on the nation's richest farmland, smallholder peasants grew subsistence crops supplemented by tobacco grown for export, mainly to Germany.

Out of the national turmoil emerged Gregorio Luperón the dark-skinned mestizo leader of the tobacco farmers who assumed the presidency. He enacted a new constitution that set a two-year presidential term limit and provided for direct elections. Under this government the seeds were sown for the eventual deep involvement of Haitian migrant labour in the Dominican Republic.

Sugar industry

After 1879, Cuban sugar planters moved to the Dominican Republic to escape the turmoil of the anti-colonial war on their island. The Cubans settled in the south-eastern coastal plain, and, with assistance from Luperón's government, built the nation's first mechanized sugar mills. Immigrant Italians, Puerto Ricans (of German origin) and Americans later joined them. Together they created the Dominican sugar bourgeoisie and under their management the Dominican Republic became a major sugar exporter.

Caribbean workers

An 1884 slump in sugar prices led to a labour shortage. The gap was filled by English-speaking Afro-Caribbean migrant workers (cocolos) from the Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Antigua. They were often the victims of racism and xenophobia but many remained in the country. By 1897 sugar had surpassed tobacco as the leading export and some 500 km of private railway had been built to service the sugar plantations.

General Ulises Heureaux

The emerging sugar interests found an ally in the person of General Ulises Heureaux when he came to power in 1882. Given the attitudes to 'blackness' in Dominican society it is significant that Ulises Heureaux was born of a Haitian father and a mother from St Thomas (Virgin Islands).

For over two decades Heureaux brought unprecedented stability to the Dominican Republic. The Heureaux government help set up sugar mills, developed the army and undertook a number of modernizing projects, including the electrification of the capital, and introducing telephone/telegraph services and other infrastructure improvements. He borrowed heavily from European and US banks to get this done.

When sugar prices plunged sharply in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the government was unable to repay its foreign loans. In 1899 Heureaux was assassinated by disgruntled tobacco merchants. He left a large national debt.

US intervention

Dominican indebtedness provoked some European nations to threaten gunboat intervention. In 1906, alarmed at the increasing European influence in the region, the United States under Roosevelt assumed responsibility for the Dominican Republic's debt and took control of the country's administration and customs management under a 50-year treaty.

In November 1916, after a decade of internal disorder, a coup d'état by the then Minister of War Desiderio Arias provided the pretext for US Marines to invade and establish their own military government. As in neighbouring Haiti, the US reorganized the tax system, expanded primary education and built up infrastructure.

Problems arose in the 1920, when US authorities enacted a Land Registration Act that dispossessed thousands of Dominican peasants in the south-west, near the border with Haiti, and transferred land ownership to the sugar companies. Followers of a Dominican Vodu faith healer named Liborio in the San Juan valley resisted the US occupation and aided counterpart rebels (cacos) in Haiti in their own war against the Americans (see Haiti).

As in Haiti, a national police force was created and used by US Marines to help fight the various guerrilla groups. Also as in Haiti, this US trained militia would later play a major role in local politics.

This police force which was later renamed the Guardia Nacional Dominicana became an important instrument in the rise of General Rafael Trujillo. His actions would go a long way towards defining Dominican attitudes toward ethnicity and to the migrant Haitian population.

US corporate dominance

By end of 1921 the rise in international sugar production had glutted the world market, causing prices to plummet once again. This bankrupted many local sugar planters, thereby allowing large American conglomerates to enter and dominate the Dominican sugar industry.

By 1926, 12 US companies owned more than 80 per cent of the 520,000 acres of land under sugar cultivation. However, unlike the Cuban immigrant planters who preceded them, the US corporations did not invest in the country but repatriated their profits, causing local resentment.

As prices declined, the US-owned sugar estates increasingly began to rely on imported Haitian labourers. This was partly brought about by a series of pay-related strikes by the migrant Caribbean-born cane cutters organized by Marcus Garvey's international black worker rights movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

In addition, the land acquired via the Land Registration Act had led to a growth of sugar production in the south-west, near the Haitian border and created an increased demand for labour.

The US-run military government greatly facilitated Haitian migrant worker involvement in the Dominican sugar industry by originating the system of regulated contract labour aimed at importing Haitians as sugar cane workers for the US-owned estates.

Trujillo era

US occupation ended in 1924, under president Horacio Vásquez. General Rafael Trujillo was elected president in 1930 with 95 per cent of the vote. Trujillo, who was the commander of the Guardia Nacional Dominicana, used this militia to harass and intimidate electoral personnel and potential opponents.

Trujillo professed an admiration for European fascist dictators and developed the Guardia Nacional into one of the largest military forces in Latin America. He forcibly eliminated all opposition, repressed human rights and acquired absolute control over the Dominican nation.

For 31 years Trujillo and his family established a near-monopoly over the national economy. By the time of his death the Trujillo family owned 50-60 per cent of the arable land in the country. He also exploited nationalist sentiment to purchase most of the Dominican Republic's sugar plantations and refineries from US corporations. Moreover the drastic anti-Haitian population purges were initiated during the Trujillo era.

Haitian massacre

With the sugar estates increasingly needing workers for seasonal labour, many Haitian migrant workers began settling permanently in the Dominican Republic.

During the mid-1930s, General Trujillo introduced a policy called the 'Dominicanization of the frontier'. This involved changing place names along the border from Kreyol and French to Spanish, outlawing the practice of Vodou and imposing quotas on the percentage of foreign workers companies could hire.

Trujillo ordered the army massacre of between 20,000 and 25,000 unarmed Haitians living on the Haitian-Dominican border, justifying the action as a reprisal for Haiti's supposed support for Dominican exiles plotting to overthrow his regime.

These acts drew international criticism but not much more. Despite the massacre, up until the late 1980s successive Haitian governments continued to sign contracts with the Dominican authorities that allowed the recruitment of Haitian cane cutters in return for a per capita fee.


Some argue that the 1935 massacre of Haitians needs to be viewed in the larger context of Trujillo's and Dominicans', as well as the Haitian mulatto elite's attitudes towards 'blackness', dating back to the colonial period.

While cleansing the dark-skinned Haitians from the frontier, during this same period Trujillo sought to increase the number of light-skinned people in the Republic. Trujillo enthusiastically promoted the policy of blanquismo or whitening which had long been practised in postcolonial South America.

This involved inviting immigration from Europe to 'improve' the population mix as a means of stimulating national development. Trujillo therefore welcomed refugees from European conflicts and promoted the idea of the Dominican Republic as a European-modelled society dedicated to modernization, material progress and continued economic expansion.

The Organization of American States (OAS) finally took action against the regime in 1960 but not specifically because of the 1935 massacre or general treatment of Haitian migrants. The resolution called for a break in diplomatic relations with the country. Then, in May 1961, a group of Dominican dissidents, armed and trained in the USA, assassinated General Trujillo.


Main languages: Spanish

Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic), syncretic African religions

The majority of the population (73%)[1] is of mixed African and European (Spanish) descent. People of European (16%) and African (11%) descent make up the remainder. During the early colonial period indigenous Taíno-Arawak elements were also incorporated into the overall population mix.

Haitians, who represent a substantial minority of up to a million people, form a distinct cultural and linguistic group within the Dominican Republic. Although many Dominicans have Haitian ancestors and connections, anti-Haitian xenophobia is rife. This is partly a legacy of the two countries' troubled history and also a reflection of Haitians' low economic status.

Despite the African and indigenous ancestral mixtures that constitute the population, Dominicans perceive themselves and Dominican culture as essentially urban, modernist, Catholic, Spanish-European and superior. In contrast, Haitians and their culture are perceived as being rural, backward, animist, African with a French veneer and inferior. Although both societies are Roman Catholic, most Haitians practise the syncretistic African-based religion of Vodun, which Dominicans look down upon.

Few government officials acknowledge the existence of this prejudice; they regularly and publicly assert that there is no discrimination against Haitians or other persons of dark complexion.


Despite attempts in the last 30 years to diversify its economy into tourism and light manufacturing, the Dominican Republic remains heavily dependent on sugar production, and the sugar workers have continued to be primarily of Haitian origin.

Some degree of organization has taken place among Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic with the forming of two trade unions, SIPICAIBA in the Barahona region and SINATRAPLASI in San Pedro de Macorís. These unions have been tolerated by the Dominican government, under pressure from foreign agencies and liberal opinion in the US Congress.

However, hardworking Haitian migrants, facing chronic unemployment and hardship in their own country, continue to be attracted across the border to work for lower wages than their Dominican counterparts. Furthermore, they are willing to endure the treatment and conditions that go with this migration as it still represents their best option.

While being relatively poor, with an estimated per capita GDP of US $6,300 in 2004, nonetheless the Dominican Republic is wealthier than Haiti (US $1,500 per capita). Tourism has surpassed sugar as the country's leading foreign-exchange earner, and since 1985 the number of industrial free trade zones has increased from 6 to over 50.

In addition to providing employment for Dominicans the change in quality of available work has allowed Dominican workers more choice in terms of the wages and working conditions they are willing to accept. Furthermore, Dominicans themselves have increasingly become migrant workers in other countries, with many risking dangerous sea voyages in overcrowded boats to reach foreign shores.


Over the past decade, the Dominican Republic has become the biggest source of immigration to New York City which today has the largest urban Dominican population apart from Santo Domingo. Significant expatriate Dominican communities can also be found in most of the other US eastern seaboard states as well as in Puerto Rico.

Over the last three decades, remittances (remesas) from Dominicans living abroad, mainly in the United States, have become increasingly important to the economy. Expatriate Dominicans send an estimated US $3 billion per year to relatives back home. In 1997, a new law took effect, allowing expatriate Dominicans to retain their citizenship and vote in presidential elections.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Groupe d'Appui aux Rapatriés et Réfugiés (Haiti)
Tel: +509 244 4965, 244 4977

Instituto de Investigaciones, Documentación y Derechos Humanos
Tel: +1 809 688 9715

La Red de Encuentro Dominico Haitiano Jacques Viau
[Human Rights]

Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas (MUDHA)
Tel: +809 688 7430

Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados y Migrantes
[Jesuit Refugee Service]
Tel: +809 582 6948

Solidaridad Fronteriza (SJRM)
[Service for Cultural Promotion]
Tel: +809 579 8993, 8622

Sources and further reading


Dick, K.C., 'Aboriginal and early Spanish names of some Caribbean, circum-Caribbean islands and cays', Virgin Islands Archaeological Society Journal [St Thomas, US Virgin Islands], vol. 4, 1977.

Drewett, Peter L., Prehistoric Settlements in the Caribbean. St Michael: Archetype Publications, 2000.

Ferguson, J., Dominican Republic: Beyond the Lighthouse, London, Latin America Bureau, 1992.

Island Communication:

Mintz, S.W., Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, New York, Viking, 1985.

Nicholson, D.V., 'Precolumbian seafaring capabilities in the Lesser Antilles', in Proceedings of the 6th International Congress for the Study of the Pre-Columbian Cultures of the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe, 1975.

Plant, R., Sugar and Modern Slavery: A Tale of Two Countries, London, Zed Books, 1987.

Torres-Saillant, S., 'The Dominican Republic', in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, MRG, 1995.

US Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor), 'Country reports on human rights practices 2005: Dominican Republic', URL:


Abbott, E., Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy, New York, McGraw Hill, 1988.

Agence France Presse, 'Dominican Republic investigates grisly deaths of Haitians at border', 3 September 2003.

Alternative Haitian Information Network:

Amato, T., 'Children lost to the cane fields'. Christian Science Monitor, 6 June 1991.

Amnesty International, Dominican Republic: A Life in Transit - The Plight of Haitian Migrants and Dominicans of Haitian Descent, London, Amnesty International, March 2007.

Associated Press, 'Dominican court orders government to grant citizenship to children of Haitian immigrants', 16 December 2002.

BBC Monitoring, International Reports, 'Dominican Republic: World Bank reports on effects of immigration from Haiti', 27 February 2003.

Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) and International Cooperation for Development (ICD), Latin American and Caribbean: Regional Strategy April 2000 to March 2005. 12/2000.

EFE News Service, 'Dominican Republic-Haiti: Haitian children march in Santo Domingo for citizenship', 21 March 2003.

EFE News Service, 'Dominican Republic-Haiti: more than 10,000 Haitians begin documentation process in DR', 1 April 2002.

EFE News Service, 'Dominican-Haitians: Dominican troops wound four Haitians in border shooting incident', 10 October 2002.

Human Rights Watch, Haitians in the Dominican Republic, 4 April 2002:

Lemoine, M., Bitter Sugar, Chicago, Barner Press, 1985.

Murphy, M.F., Dominican Sugar Plantations, New York, Greenwood Publishing, 1991.

National Coalition for Haitian Rights:

The Guardian, 'Haitian slaves on CEA sugar estates', 26 June 1991.

United Nations Economic and Social Council, 'Forced labour on sugar cane plantations in the Dominican Republic', Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Geneva, May 1998:

US Committee for Refugees (USCR), Dominican Republic: World Refugee Survey 2003 Country Report.

US Department of State, 1991 Human Rights Report, Political Risk Services.

US Department of State, 'Country reports on human rights practices 2002: Dominican Republic', URL:

Wilhelms, S.K.S., Haitian and Dominican Sugarcane Workers in Dominican Bateyes: Patterns and Effects of Prejudice, Stereotypes and Discrimination, Boulder, CO, Westview, 1995.

World News Connection, 'Dominican Republic: local soldiers, Haitians clash in Santiago Province', 22 September 2003.

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