Dominican Republic, Constitutions

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Dominican Republic, Constitutions

Since 1844, the Dominican Republic has had twenty-five constitutions. This number may appear to be extraordinary for a relatively young republic; however, it does not seem so large when taking into account the fact that the country followed the Spanish American model, in which virtually every new regime writes its own constitution—even though few substantive changes are made—to give it independence and validity in a very unstable system. To complicate matters further, the Dominican Republic was controlled by Haiti from 1822 to 1844, by Spain from 1861 to 1865, and by the United States from 1916 to 1924. Thus its status as an independent republic was a major constitutional issue that needed to be addressed. In general, all the constitutions have guaranteed basic human rights and have appeared to be democratic and progressive. In reality, however, they have been more symbolic than functioning documents. Adherence to the spirit of the many constitutions was more in the breach than in the observance.

The first constitution after the country's liberation from Haiti, promulgated in 1844, represented a compromise between conservative and liberal factions but was rhetorically quite liberal. It called for a popularly elected government and specified powers of the Congress and judiciary. It forbade the suspension of the constitution. Roman Catholicism was declared the state religion (although other sects were free to worship), and slavery was abolished. Ten years later (June 1854) a more liberal constitution briefly replaced the 1844 document. After political unrest, however, the caudillo Pedro Santana (1844–1848, 1853–1856, 1859–1861) returned to power and in December 1854 changed the constitution to fit his autocratic governing style. This authoritarian document was reflected in several later constitutions from the 1850s to the 1870s. An exception was the Moca Constitution of 1858, a more politically progressive document, which was reinstated after the Spanish occupation. It provided for universal male suffrage and direct voting by secret ballot for all elective offices. Its liberal provisions were extended by the Constitutions of 1865 and 1866.

Early-twentieth-century constitutions were influenced by the U.S. Constitution. The main features of the Constitution of 1924, promulgated after the U.S. military authorities withdrew, were retained in subsequent documents until the era of Generalíssimo Rafael Trujillo (1930–1961). Trujillo's constitutions enunciated principles of civilian democratic rule and representative government, called for three equal and independent branches of government, and included provisions for human rights. But constitutional theory and political reality were two very different things. Trujillo, while ruling as autocratically and ruthlessly as any Caribbean dictator, was scrupulous about upholding the narrow letter of the law—with no intention of abiding by the spirit of the constitution. Indeed, if examined closely, his 1955 Constitution, for example, granted almost absolute power to the president.

After Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, a provisional Council of State enacted a new Constitution of 1962, which remained in effect for less than a year. Its symbolic importance, however, was that it represented a continuation of trujillismo. Anti-Trujillo elements regarded it as a symbol of oppression and retention of privileges for the elites. It encountered bitter opposition from antidictatorial sectors and seemed strikingly unsuited to the needs of the impoverished country.

The reformist regime of Juan Bosch (1963) enacted a far different constitution. The 1963 Constitution not only retained the most politically and socially progressive features of the 1962 Constitution but also explicitly committed the government to an active role in fostering socioeconomic development and laid the bases for a modern welfare state. Unfortunately, several constitutional provisions alienated powerful traditional elements in society. The Catholic Church objected to the legalization of divorce and the new emphasis on secular education. The business community was alarmed over the emphasis on public rather than private economic interests. The landowners feared expropriation of their holdings, and the military feared a loss of power and subordination to civilian authority. These groups combined to overthrow Bosch in late 1963 and quickly restore the Constitution of 1962.

After the 1965 civil war, in which the United States intervened militarily, a compromise constitution was hammered out by a constituent assembly the following year. In essence the 1966 Constitution provides for modern progressive government and civil liberties but lacks the kind of social provisions that would alienate the traditional elites.

See alsoBosch Gaviño, Juan; Dominican Revolt (1965); Haiti; Santana, Pedro; Trujillo Molina, Rafael Leónidas.


Howard J. Wiarda, The Dominican Republic: Nation in Transition (1969).

Thomas E. Weil et al., Area Handbook for the Dominican Republic (1973).

Ian Bell, The Dominican Republic (1981).

Julio Brea Franco, El sistema constitucional dominicano, 2 vols. (1983).

Jan Knippers Black, The Dominican Republic: Politics and Development in an Unsovereign State (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Darío Espinal, Flavio. Constitucionalismo y procesos políticos en la República Dominicana. Santo Domingo: PUCMM, 2001.

Fiallo Billini, José Antinoe. Democracia, participación popular y reforma constitucional. Santo Domigo, República Dominicana: Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo, 2001.

                                        Winfield J. Burggraaff