The System of Government
By 1989 the Dominican Republic had gone through 29 constitutions in less than 150 years of independence. This statistic is a somewhat deceiving indicator of political stability, however, because of the Dominican practice of promulgating a new constitution whenever an amendment was ratified. Although technically different from each other in some particular provisions, most new constitutions contained in reality only minor modifications of those previously in effect. Sweeping constitutional innovations were actually relatively rare.
The large number of constitutions does, however, reflect a basic lack of consensus on the rules that should govern the national political life. Most Dominican governments felt compelled upon taking office to write new constitutions that changed the rules to fit their own wishes. Not only did successive governments often strenuously disagree with the policies and the programs of their predecessors, but they often rejected completely the institutional framework within which their predecessors had operated. Constitutionalism--loyalty to a stable set of governing principles and laws rather than to the person who promulgates them--became a matter of overriding importance in the Dominican Republic only after the death of Trujillo.
Dominicans historically had agreed that government should be representative and vaguely democratic, that there should be civil and political rights, separation of powers, and checks and balances. Beyond that, however, consensus broke down. The country actually had been alternately dominated throughout its history by two constitutional traditions, one relatively democratic and the other authoritarian. Rarely were there attempts to bridge the gap between these diametric opposites.
The first Dominican constitution was promulgated in 1844, immediately after the nation achieved independence from Haiti. It was a liberal document with many familiar elements--separation of powers, checks and balances, and a long list of basic rights. However, an authoritarian government replaced the country's liberal, democratic government during its first year. The new regime proceeded to write its own constitution. This second constitution considerably strengthened the executive, weakened the legislative and the judicial branches, and gave the president widespread emergency powers, including the power to suspend basic rights and to rule by decree. Thereafter, governance of the country often alternated between liberal and authoritarian constitutional systems.
Even the dictator Rafael Trujillo always took care to operate under the banner of constitutionalism. Under Trujillo, however, the legislature was simply a rubber stamp; the courts were not independent; and basic rights all but ceased to exist. He governed as a tyrant, unfettered by constitutional restrictions.
After Trujillo's death in 1961, the constitution was amended to provide for new elections and to allow the transfer of power to an interim Council of State. Although promulgated as a new document, the 1962 constitution was actually a continuation of the Trujillo constitution, and it was thus unpopular.
In 1963, Bosch's freely elected, social-democratic government drafted a new and far more liberal constitution. It separated church and state, put severe limits on the political activities of the armed forces, established a wide range of civil liberties, and restricted the rights of property relative to individual rights. These provisions frightened the more conservative elements in Dominican society, which banded together to oust Bosch and his constitution in September 1963. Subsequently, the more conservative 1962 constitution was restored. In the name of constitutionalism, Bosch and his followers launched a revolution in 1965, the objective of which was restoration of the liberal 1963 constitution.
Largely as a result of the United States military intervention of April 1965, the civil war had died down by 1966. With Balaguer and his party in control, the Dominicans wrote still another constitution. This one was intended to avert the conflicts and polarization of the past by combining features from both the liberal and the conservative traditions. The 1966 Constitution incorporated a long list of basic rights, and it provided for a strengthened legislature; however, it also gave extensive powers to the executive, including emergency powers. In this way, the country sought to bridge the gap between its democratic and its authoritarian constitutions, by compromising their differences. Although the 1966 Constitution had been amended several times afterwards, it was this document under which the Dominican Republic continued to operate in 1989.
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