The Dominican Republic
Before Christopher Columbus arrived, the indigenous Taínos (meaning ‘Friendly People’) lived on the island now known as Hispaniola. The eastern part of the island of Hispaniola was originally known as Quisqueya, meaning "mother of all lands." Taínos gave the world sweet potatoes, peanuts, guava, pineapple and tobacco—even the word ‘tobacco’ is Taíno in origin!
Two colonies grew on Hispaniola, one Spanish and the other French. Both brought African slaves to work the land. In 1804, after a 70-year struggle, the French colony gained independence. Haiti, the Taíno name for the entire island, was the first majority-black republic in the New World.
In 1821 colonists in Santo Domingo declared independence from Spain. Haiti, which had long aspired to unify the island, promptly invaded its neighbor and occupied it for over two decades. Dominicans never accepted Haitian rule and on February 27, 1844, Juan Pablo Duarte—considered the father of the country—led a bloodless coup and reclaimed Dominican autonomy. Fearing an invasion and feeling threatened by Haiti in 1861, the Dominican Republic once again submitted to Spanish rule. However, ordinary Dominicans did not support the move and, after four years of resistance, succeeded in expelling Spanish troops in what is known as the War of Restoration. On March 3, 1865, the Queen of Spain signed a decree annulling the annexation and withdrew her soldiers from the island. February 27 is Dominican Independence Day.
Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a former security guard and chief of the Dominican police, muscled his way into the presidency in February 1930 and dominated the country until his assassination in 1961. The Feast of the Goat, a novel by the Peruvian Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, recounts Trujillo’s assassination by his own bodyguards and advisors.
The most recent constitution was adopted in 1966 after the civil war following Trujillo's rule. It stresses civil rights and gives Dominicans liberties they had never before been granted. The military were given civic duties such as building roads, medical and educational facilities, houses, and replanting forests. The judicial branch is appointed every four years. Since the 1960s the court has become more independent, even if it is not an equal branch of government.
One of the most influential political parties is the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD) with a liberal philosophy. A spinoff is the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), considered even more liberal. Danilo Medina, the current Dominican president (PLD), began his tenure in 2012. He is popular among Dominicans of both political parties.
Dominicans love music and dancing. Merengue, with its African tom-tom beat and Spanish salsa spirit, is the most popular. Other influences are the sound of reggae from Jamaica and the Spanish guitar. Music can be heard on every street corner and there are large outdoor festivals. Bachata is another uniquely Dominican rhythm with strong ballads and rich poetry.
A typical Dominican lunch, the largest meal of the day, consists of rice, beans, and usually either chicken or pork. Dinner is mostly root vegetables (taro, sweet potato, yucca, potatoes), fried or boiled with local cheese. Spicy food is not widely eaten. Coffee is a social activity, served black and strong with spoonfuls of sugar!