The Root of the Dominican Skin Crisis

Life Magazine. 1955
The dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, was paranoid about his Haitian roots. His grandmother was Haitian, and he was trained by the military guard created by the US government during its occupation of the island from 1916 to 1924, thus inheriting American ideals of race and segregation. 

However, he was his own man, and one of the main Dominican holidays at the time centered around the country paying off its international debt; sovereignty and nationalism were core aspects of the regime. 
Thus, when Trujillo met Nixon, he did not see himself as a puppet, or as the weak president of a banana republic upheld by his American masters; instead, he sought to be seen as an equal, as a white man who was heading a white state that, just like the US, had a "black problem."
LIFE. 1939
Simply put, there are no pictures of Trujillo wearing swimwear or anything less than a long-sleeved shirt. Even when Trujillo welcomed U.S. Senator Theodore F. Green in 1939, he was clearly overdressed for the party. At a time when segregation was the norm in the United States, perhaps Trujillo did not want to offend his guest by allowing his dark skin in the same water as a white US senator.

The Dominican Republic is a tropical country, but during the Trujillo era any man who walked around with a blazer in his hands, or over his shoulders -- as opposed to properly buttoned -- could have the suit impounded by the police, at the very least, and at the very worst: be taken to prison and tortured. The scorching heat was no excuse, removing your blazer was potentially a crime against the state. Newspaper articles during the Trujillo Era even went as far as linking people who wore short-sleeved guayabera shirts with communists.

Archivo General de la Nacion
Even after undergoing throat surgery to stave off a case of anthrax poisoning in 1940, the first official picture of Trujillo in recovery shows him wearing attire more suited for Northern Europe than for a tropical country. Trujillo acquired anthrax because of his love of livestock, but there are also rumors that it was an assassination attempt; each brush with death only reminded him of his mortality and fed his paranoia.

Trujillo's paranoia stemmed from his personal insecurities, insecurities which were cemented in him when, in the 1920s, while he was leader of the nation's military, he was denied acceptance to the country's main country club. Dominican society at-the-time was divided between people who came from families where individuals engaged in manual labor, and those that could afford to outsource such labor, so-called "first families." Trujillo came from a working-class family, and thus it was not possible for him to advance in the social world of "first" Dominican families during the era.

Paranoid about his past of manual labor and of his Haitian roots and of his brown complexion, Trujillo wore make-up to "lighten" his skin, to compensate for what he saw as short-comings. 

Grupo Leon Jimenez. 1961
A famous picture taken of the back of Trujillo's neck shows what appears to be very dark skin. The potential leak of an image like that was seen by Trujillo as a threat to national security, and images were guarded carefully, this one being one of the last ones taken when he was alive.

For more than three decades, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a man who had deep racial insecurities, and he implanted into the minds of almost all Dominicans the same fiction he had created for himself: that in which Dominicans were a European people with noble roots. 

School books produced by the Trujillo regime mention his "noble blood" as one of his good virtues. His blood was so noble, according to the regime's propaganda machine, that puppet President Manuel de Jesus Troncoso saw it as an honor to hold Trujillo's umbrella.

AGN. 1942.
Today, almost 60 years after his assassination, Trujillo's influence remains strong. Not only, however, with just people who have a Haitian ancestor, but also in those who are fully Haitian and trying to survive and integrate into Dominican society. In 2015, lightening creams and plastic surgeries can virtually create different identities for individuals who have insecurities about their race. Due to the high demand for plastic surgery within the Dominican Republic, the island has produced a very large number of highly-skilled surgeons, turning the island into a medical tourism hotspot.

Though individuals like Sammy Sosa are at the extreme end of racial "whitening" in the Dominican Republic, it is casually expected for well-to-do women to "fix" their wide noses to make them appear more European. The current wave of nationalism sweeping the nation, combined with the economic rise of the country and its large expat community, means that future Dominicans may look very different from how Dominicans looked at the turn of the 20th century, before the rise of Trujillo.