Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Passport Series: Dominican Republic: Part 1: Country Profile

This month’s Passport Series is all about the Dominican Republic! This vibrant Caribbean nation offers a rich fusion of European, African and indigenous cultures and boasts hundreds of miles of tropical coastline. Follow us throughout the month of November as we learn about The Dominican Republic as a nation, its microfinance sector, and the work that Kiva does there!


The Dominican Republic is part of the Greater Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean. It is one of the nations that makes up the island of Hispaniola, (the other half being the nation of Haiti). The earliest known inhabitants of the Dominican Republic were the Taíno people. This indigenous civilization populated Hispaniola from the 7th century and was divided into five cheifdoms. Christopher Columbus arrived on Hispaniola on his first voyage in 1492 and the island became a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean and the American mainland.

Two little Dominican friends - Photo Credit: Nick Hamilton

In 1697, Spain recognized French control over the western third of the island, which in 1804 became Haiti. The remainder of the island, which was at the time known as Santo Domingo, sought to gain its independence in 1821 but was conquered and ruled by the Haitians for 22 years; it finally attained independence as the Dominican Republic in 1844. In 1861, the Dominicans voluntarily returned to the Spanish Empire, but two years later they launched a war that restored independence in 1865. A legacy of unsettled, mostly non-representative rule followed, capped by the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillio from 1930-61. The civil war of 1965, the country's last, was ended by a U.S.-led intervention, and was followed by the authoritarian rule of Joaquín Balaguer which lasted from 1966–1978. Since then, the Dominican Republic has evolved into a representative democracy.


The Dominican Republic is the second largest economy in the Caribbean and Central American region (Cuba being the largest). Sugar, coffee and tobacco have long been its main exports and for many years agriculture was the country’s main source of employment. However, tourism and telecommunications have now also become major employers and key sources of revenue. The Dominican Republic has had free-trade zones with the U.S. and five Central American countries since 2007. The free-trade zones accounted for an estimated U.S. $4.08 billion in Dominican exports for 2010 (61.8% of total exports). The economy is highly dependent on the U.S. which is the destination for nearly 60% of its exports. Remittances from the US amount to about a tenth of GDP, equivalent to almost half of exports and three-quarters of tourism receipts. The country suffers from marked income inequality; the poorest half of the population receives less than one-fifth of GDP, while the richest 10% enjoys nearly 40% of GDP.


Map of the Dominican Republic - Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

The Dominican Republic is located 800 miles from Miami between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape of the Dominican Republic is mostly mountainous and includes the largest peak in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte. Many valleys separate the country’s four mountain ranges; the most fertile being the Cibao Valley which is the location of most of the country’s farms. There are also numerous lakes and coastal lagoons and four major rivers that drain the mountains after the rainy season. The nation includes many offshore islands and cays.

The majority of the country enjoys a tropical climate with year-round average temperatures of 77°F (25°C). The country has over 800 miles of coastline including many beautiful white sand beaches which are world renowned for their crystal clear water. The country’s largest city and capital is Santo Domingo which is located on the Southern Coast. It is a city of firsts - it was the first city founded in the Americas and home to the southern hemisphere’s first church, hospital, university, paved road and stone house.

A Dominican white sand beach - Photo Credit: Nick Hamilton

Demography and Culture

The Dominican Republic is inhabited mostly by people of mixed European and African origins (73%). Recent research has shown that 15% of Dominicans also have Taíno ancestry. The country’s population, estimated to be almost 10 million, is 95% Roman Catholic. It’s main language is Spanish, with English taught as a second language in many schools.

The Dominican Flag - The red ribbon says REPUBLICA DOMINICA while the blue ribbon displays the motto, DIOS PATRIA, LIBERTAD (God, Fatherland, Liberty) - Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

Dominican culture blends Spanish, African and Taíno influences. Spanish influence is seen in the colonial buildings of Santo Domingo and Santiago (the country’s second largest city), as well as in art and literature. Spanish and African rhythms intertwine in Dominican popular song and dance, such as merengue and bachata, two musical styles that are now internationally popular. Many Taíno names and words are used in daily conversation and for many foods native to the Dominican Republic. Some words, such as Hamaca (hanging bed), have been officially incorporated into Spanish.

A Santiago Monument Showcases the Country’s European Roots - Photo Credit: Kalie Gold

Dominicans have celebrated Carnival throughout the month of February since the mid-1500’s. Since independence in 1844, the festival has taken on even more significance and splendour as Dominican Independence Day is celebrated on February 27th. The theme of the celebration is "upside-down world", so at this colorful event you can expect to see men dressing as women, livestock dominating their ranchers and the Devil ruling the world rather than God. Dominican Carnival is well-known for its extravagant costumes and masks that symbolize many religious and traditional characters such as Calife (a poet who pens verses mocking current politicians) or the famous Diablo Cojuelo (Limping Devil).

Stay tuned next week to learn about the Dominican Republic’s microfinance sector! To make a loan to a Dominican borrower, click here!