To say that the Dominican Republic has had an unstable political history is an understatement. The country gained independence in 1844, and since then, 54 individuals have served as President over a total of 66 various periods, not including military juntas, councils of state, or other interim leaders. And this isn’t even speaking of the thirty year rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo (though his series of puppet presidents do count in the above total). Civil war, invasions – yes, plural – by the United States, and even a period of return to Spanish colony mark the brief term of Dominican independence. It is confusing, fascinating, and disturbing.

Here in the capital of Santo Domingo, a thriving, bustling, energetic city of nearly 3 million, that complex history can be seen in a number of ways. Ignoring the basics of parks, streets, and metro stops named for various political leaders (or opposition leaders), one can walk one’s way through some of the history with visits to a few sites.

The Dominican flag above a monument in Santo Domingo

In 1844, the Dominican Republic declared its independence, not from Spain, but from Haiti, which had conquered it in 1822. After a fairly brief war (though skirmishes and border disputes would go on for well over a decade), the country was born. The independence movement is credited to three men: Juan Pablo Duarte, Ramon Matias Mella, and Francisco del Rosario Sanchez. Their movement, called La Trinitaria, was the force behind Dominican nationalism.

Sanchez would become the first President of the Dominican Republic, a title he would hold twice. His terms lasted 35 days total, as a nearly constant stream of coups d’etat toppled leader after leader during that first year, before President Pedro Santana finally spent nearly four years in office.

The three leaders of La Trinitaria are considered the fathers of the Dominican Republic. In Santo Domingo’s Independence Park, they are buried inside of a beautiful white mausoleum, the Altar de la Patria. Other leaders of the independence movement (including women) have their busts lining a walkway leading to the altar itself, which wasn’t open when I visited.

Altar de la Patria

Over the next eighty years, the Dominican Republic would see a return to Spanish colony, a restoration of the republic four years later, an American occupation for eight years from 1916 to 1924 that would result in the US having control of the imports and exports of the country, and the beginnings of the rise of Rafael Trujillo.

Trujillo came to power officially in 1931. Little remains in Santo Domingo from the Trujillo Era, though you can learn more about the resistance efforts at a museum dedicated to that. (Click here to read about the time of Trujillo.) However, much of the infrastructure that is currently in use today traces back to that time, and the National Palace (home of the President’s office) is one of those. Built in 1947 because Trujillo felt the current seat of power (now the Museum of the Royal Houses in the Colonial Zone) wasn’t grand enough, it is a lovely domed building just up the street from Independence Park. Outside the southern gate is a cement low wall with inscriptions of all presidents who resided here since then.

The National Palace

Following the assassination of Rafael Trujillo in 1961, the country had its first real election. That election, held in 1962, led to a victory for Juan Bosch. Seen as too much of a socialist, his opposition – armed and encouraged by the US – overthrew him after only six months and, following a brief civil war and a pro-Bosch government elected in 1965, the US again invaded. The President at the time was Francisco Caamano, and signage at Ozama Fortress in the Colonial Zone presents a brief excerpt from his speech from that spot when he stepped down in the face of the invasion.

Caamano is one of the Dominicans honored by burial at the Pantheon, a magnificent structure in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo, just up the street from Ozama Fortress. It is a solemn building, dimly lit and quiet (other than construction on the roof while I was there), with a multi-force honor guard always present. The building dates to the 18th century, but has served this purpose since 1966, and holds the tombs of many of the modern nation’s heroes, from presidents to some of Trujillo’s assassins. Many burial areas are still empty, waiting to hold the next generation of Dominican leaders and inspirational figures.

The interior of the Pantheon

After the US left, installing former Trujillo loyalist Joaquin Balaguer for what would be a remarkable run of consecutive and non-consecutive presidential terms (a total of 24 years in that role), the country achieved some semblance of stability. Since 1966, nearly every president has finished his term, and more recent term limits have held those to four or eight years. The current government is thought to be anti-corruption, in a country that has been known for rampant corruption since its inception, and has even prosecuted some former governmental figures.

Seat of the Dominican Supreme Court

The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, home to some amazing people. Here in Santo Domingo, one can witness a modern democracy emerging from a turbulent history. Simply by walking around, or taking the metro, figures like Duarte, Bosch, Balaguer, and Caamano come to life, and visits to a few sites dedicated to some of these politicians tell some of the stories. It is a history worth learning, and a new chapter being written that is well worth following.

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