In the mid-1980s, due to a crisis of governability in their political systems, Caribbean countries underwent major political changes that promoted the construction or consolidation of democracies. The consolidation of democracy in countries such as the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico was affected by a long and recurring crisis: the crisis of governability. Governability refers to the legitimacy, stability and effectiveness of the political system. Legitimacy is the population’s belief in the institutions, which allows the government to demand obedience. Stability implies the ability of the political elite to preserve their positions of dominance or to reproduce existing coalitions. Effectiveness is the regime’s ability to solve problems with minimal conflict.

When speaking of governability, it’s referring to the state’s ability to maintain its institutional or economic control. This is a characteristic of an established democracy. In less developed countries, such as those in the Caribbean, governability also implies the state’s ability to promote a model of economic development based on social justice.

Democracy has two basic components: participation and representation. The people should be able to participate freely in politics and there should be plurality based on a consensus among the elites that must be established by means of agreements or pacts. Some analysts say that only countries with established democracies can ensure the governability of their political systems. Governability becomes a problem for less developed countries when they have difficulty translating an electoral mandate into effective policies. The changes that took place in the Caribbean in the mid-1980s put limits on the state’s ability to distribute wealth and this resulted in a serious problem for consolidating democracy and an increase in the difficulty of translating the electoral preferences of the majority into action. However, the end of the Cold War promoted institutional changes favorable to democracy in the Caribbean.

In the Dominican Republic, the economic and political reforms introduced in 1990 and 1994 proposed significant constitutional changes. The democratization should be seen within the framework of a crisis of governability caused by the strong charismatic nature of the political leadership and the practice of awarding government jobs in exchange for votes.

The assassination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961 allowed new political parties to emerge and began a process of modernization. In the early 1960s, domestic and international factors prevented a democratic regime and a fair redistribution of income. Political instability followed during the five years after Trujillo’s death. That time was characterized by weak institutions and a lack of consensus among the elites. As a result, there was a military coup in 1963 that put an end to the government of Juan Bosch, the first democratically elected president in the history of the Dominican Republic.

Resistance to political change by the elites and the anti-communism by the United States during the Cold War led to the installation of a new authoritarian government in 1966, led by Joaquín Balaguer. During his 12 years in the presidency (1966-1978), Balaguer restricted political participation but preserved some forms of constitutional democracy. He also promoted modern economic programs based on the development of trade zones and public works. This produced economic growth during the height of the sugar industry and attracted international investment. But the unequal distribution of wealth continued. In the 1970s, this progress diminished due to the decline in the sugar industry and increased petroleum prices. Meanwhile, Dominicans who wanted a democracy pressured the government to ensure free elections in 1978. The subsequent transition was the result of three factors: the weakening of the Balaguer government’s economic efforts, an organized opposition in the form of the Dominican Revolutionary party (PRD for its Spanish acronym) and international conditions favorable to democratic change. Despite the installation of a democratic regime, some of the authoritarian elements that had defined the Dominican political system remained, although there were huge changes in terms of political participation.

Over the course of the 1980s, the efforts by the PRD to implement institutional reforms failed. During the eight years the party was in power, it was unable to bring about a satisfactory program of economic reforms due to factors such as party factionalism and governmental corruption. Nor did the return of Balaguer in 1986 bring about great changes, although in the early 1990s some reforms were achieved due to the economic and political conditions. The Dominican Republic experienced a deep political crisis because of the controversial results of the 1990 elections. Along with the economic recession, this created concern among the ruling class, which felt that international relations could be at risk during a time when the country was beginning a process of international integration marked by the Dominican Republic’s entrance into the ACP-Lomé group of the European Community, the permanence of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, and expectations of joining a united continental market led by the United States and Canada, based on Mexico’s inclusion in the Free Trade Agreement. With inflation rising, Balaguer began a program that was intended to create economic reforms, a financial code, the revision of labor laws from Trujillo’s time that were still in effect, a new education plan, and electoral reforms. With the signing of the “Democracy Pact,” additional reforms were introduced and put an end to the electoral crisis of 1994. Among the reforms was a two-year reduction in Balaguer’s presidency, which made it impossible for him to be reelected in 1996. This measure basically put an end to the strongman policies of the Dominican leadership.

The objective of the reforms of 1994 was to consolidate and solidify the democracy. They were a significant challenge to political practices that had held back democratization over the course of history and could also lead to serious inefficiencies in times of a lack of consensus among the ruling class. At the same time, the constitutional reforms left intact Article 55, which grants extraordinary powers to the president of the republic, such as, for example, the power to make decrees and regulations or to approve contracts without the approval of Congress. In the end, these powers continue to be an obstacle to the development of a truly democratic system.


Autor: Grupo Editorial
Published: January 31, 2013.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español


The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.