45 years independence of Suriname:
land of broken dreams

Dr. Hans Ramsoedh

Writing about forty-five years of independence of Suriname [srefidensi] is writing about forty-five years of disillusionment and broken dreams. I must also remember  the essay/book by the Surinamese journalist Rudi Kross (1938-2002)  Anders maakt het leven je dood. De dreigende verdwijning van de staat Suriname 1987 [Otherwise life will kill you. The imminent disappearance of the state of Suriname]. This essay is a perspicacious analysis of Suriname’s grief in which he makes a passionate plea to look for ways to give the approximately half a million strong Surinamese population a chance in the future. Kross is brilliant in his analysis, but his solutions get stuck in a dictionary of philosophical science.
In the year 2020, Srefidensi has become a fever dream. The famous Surinamese historian who passed away last month  Eugène Gessel (1919-2020) once said that hope is delayed disappointment. Gessel’s  statement  certainly applies to Suriname.

Hopeful start
The start of independence on 25 November 1975 seemed hopeful. As a result of the struggle between (Hindustani) opposition and (Afro) coalition around the independence issue, ethnic tensions had risen to a boiling point between 1973 and 1975. A week before independence the gap between coalition  and opposition was closed, culminating in the famous embrace [brasa] of Prime Minister Arron and opposition leader Lachmon. It was a gesture of reconciliation that Surinamese society had long been looking forward to.
The start of independence seemed particularly hopeful because Suriname received € 1.2 billion  from the Netherlands as a farewell gift or dowry. This farewell gift stands  in stark contrast to that to neighbouring Guyana, which was given a second-hand  fire engine as a farewell present by the English government on independence in 1966.
The Dutch farewell gift was approximately € 4,000 (or US$ 4,600) per capita. Suriname was the rich man of the Caribbean in the years 1975-1980. Countries in the region looked with jealousy at the big bag of money that Suriname had received from the independence of the former colonizer.

Signature of independence deed by Dutch Prime Minister Den Uyl and Prime Minister Arron of Suriname in Paramaribo on 25 November 1975 (National Archives).

How different is the situation forty-five years later. By 2020, Suriname’s total domestic and foreign debt is estimated at more than four billion USD (€ 3.4 billion), equivalent to a debt of about US$ 6,000 or € 5,100 per capita. At the end of October 2020 it became known that Suriname was unable to pay the interest rate of US$ 25.4 million on the loan of US$ 550 million taken out by the Bouterse government with Oppenheimer. At international credit institutions, Suriname now has the so-called junk status whereby borrowing becomes difficult and only at very high interest rates. It also means that Suriname has become known as an international defaulter.
Despite its excellent financial position in 1975, the conclusion is that after forty-five years not much has come of the country’s development. Suriname is now land of broken dreams. These are bitter times in Suriname at the moment.

Model decolonisation
Does this mean that Suriname was worse off with its acquired independence? Many may answer this question in the affirmative, but it is not as simple as that. After all, there are no criteria for determining when a country is or is not ready for independence. The Dutch former minister Jan Pronk of Development Cooperation between (1973-1977) wrote in his Suriname-book (Suriname. Van wingewest tot natiestaat 2020; 492) that there is no defined moment of maturity, ideal moment, exam or absolute maturity for countries striving for independence. In the independence process of many countries, it has always been an (intellectual) vanguard that has taken the lead and managed to enthuse the masses for independence. What can be said, however, is the way in which Surinamese independence came about: it was prepared in secret with a minimal political majority in parliament and imposed on the people.
The left-wing Dutch cabinet-Den Uyl  (1973-1977) seized the Surinamese declaration of independence with both hands. It saw the Surinamese independence as a ‘must’ for a progressive Netherlands. From the idea of the Netherlands as a guide country, they turned the Surinamese independence into a Dutch prestige object: a model decolonisation that had to be considered unique in the history of decolonisation, with as its ‘highlight’ a farewell gift to pay off their colonial debt (slavery in Suriname, colonialism and colonial war in the Dutch East Indies between 1945 and 1949).
The Surinamese politicians who were in favour of independence knew that the progressives in the Netherlands had a lot of money left over for the independence of Suriname. For the Surinamese delegation negotiating independence, the dowry (amount of the farewell gift) was therefore considered more important than the bride herself (independence). The name for independence in Sranan Tongo [common language] was ‘invented’ around 1973. Until then, there was no word for it in this language. The word Srefidensi was invented by the poet Trefossa, pseudonym of Henri de Ziel. Srefi is ‘self’ and Densi means ‘do’. Srefidensi was given the meaning of independence. Because of the eagerness with which the progressives in the Netherlands contributed to the lack of independence, we can say that in fact it was not Suriname, but the Netherlands that became independent on 25 November 1975.

From left to right Prime Minister Henck Arron, Minister Olton van Genderen, Princess Beatrix, Governor Johan Ferrier and opposition leader Jagernath Lachmon at the celebration of independence on 25 November 1975 (National Archive).

Freefall Suriname
With independence almost achieved,  the free fall of Suriname also began, including the dramatic extent of the Surinamese exodus to the Netherlands, with far-reaching economic, administrative, social and psychological consequences. The Dutch farewell gift turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. The provision of ‘free’ development funds led to grabbing the pot. Politicians were only focused on strengthening their personal wealth and position of power. It meant that attempts to use the Dutch golden handshake to provide Suriname with an economic basis that could have made the country less dependent on foreign countries did not go far. Nor was there much of a fair distribution of national income. A large part of the population left Srefidensi with a ‘psychological hangover’ in the period 1975-1980.

The outcome after 1975 is widely known: the military coup on 25 February 1980 by Desi Bouterse and the subsequent military repression in the period 1980-1987, culminating in the December murders in 1982, the devastating internal war (1985-1991), the military telephone coup in December 1990, the capital coup in 1996, in which Suriname was given a government (Wijdenbosch government) through the political back door  which it had not elected with Bouterse (ex-army leader and leader of the coup d’état in 1980) as a kind of shadow puppet president and finally Bouterse as president between 2010 and 2020. All these developments set in motion a process in which the state was criminalised and the drug mafia unmistakably got a grip on politics and the economy. Bouterse’s presidency, in particular, left behind a ramshackle country: in addition to an economically bankrupt Suriname, eroded institutions, the undermining of social trust, the rule of law and democracy, and the moral-ethical erosion of the country in the name of its so-called ‘revo ideology’. In addition, Bouterse and his confidants used state power to enrich themselves. With Bouterse as president, Suriname became a mafia government (Surinostra) and a criminalised state with links to transnational organised crime involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and large-scale corruption.
The population is now disenchanted and deeply disappointed with the developments after 1975. Illustrative of the current state of affairs in Suriname is the following sad joke by columnist Peter de Waard in the Dutch newspaper, de Volkskrant (28/10/20): ‘The leaders of the US, the Netherlands and Suriname may ask God a question. President Trump asks God: ‘When will the American economy be okay again? God says: “Five years from now”. Trump bursts into tears: “But I won’t see that again”. Prime Minister Rutte then asks: “And when is the Dutch economy going to be all right? God says: “Hopefully in ten years’ time”. Rutte, too, starts to sob: ‘Then I will no longer be Prime Minister’. And then President Santokhi is allowed to ask the same question. Now God is bursting into tears: “I won’t even live to see that”.

It is not the case that Suriname has been thrown into the deep end with independence. It is Surinamese political leaders who are responsible for the current socio-economic, financial and moral havoc. They regard the country as their winning region.

Winner region Suriname
Significant in this context is the title of one of the Surinamese books by the Dutch journalist John Jansen van Galen: Kapotte plantage. Suriname een Hollandse erfenis 1995 [Broken down plantation. Suriname a Dutch legacy]. It was not in gratitude to him in Suriname that he described the country as a broken down plantation,  because such a qualification of the country by a Dutchman was considered presumptuous. Looking at the developments in Suriname after 1975, it is impossible to maintain that Jansen van Galen exaggerates with his qualification.
Suriname was founded in the seventeenth century as a plantation colony and a winning region. Since then, it has remained a winning region, i.e. a country that is the vehicle for the political elite to pursue particularist interests, grazing  and unbridled self-enrichment. In the worst tradition of Third World countries, they have regarded the country as a personal winning  region. These politicians behave as the new colonisers of the state, with the social order being an afterthought for them. The doings and dealings  of this political elite are the cause of the existential political crisis in Suriname since 1975.

Independence celebration in 2005

Existential political crisis
Voter confidence in political leaders and political institutions is of paramount importance for the legitimacy of a democratic system. A democracy cannot function without support, because when citizens are widely dissatisfied with the functioning of political institutions, the legitimacy of the democratic system is at stake. Trust in political leaders and political institutions are the beginning and the end of a decent society. Both aspects also determine to a large extent the economic success or failure of a country.
Various opinion polls, comments, columns and submissions in the daily papers in Suriname show that the vast majority of citizens have not had confidence in politics and politicians for decades. In other words, the political system in Suriname is struggling with a question of legitimacy.
If, in addition, politics is stripped of its idealism and ethics, it praises itself out of the market. This makes every political system vulnerable to the criminalisation of politics and political adventurism. The ’embrace’ of Bouterse by the Surinamese electorate in 2010 is illustrative of this existential crisis in which Surinamese politics has found itself. With Bouterse, the Surinamese electorate chose a president who had been convicted of drug trafficking in the Netherlands and who was the subject of a judicial trial for his role and part in the December murders in 1982. His coalition with Brunswijk (leader of the Marrons) and Somohardjo (leader of the Javanese) in 2010 was a ‘bizarre pact’ because the political leadership of Suriname came into the hands of three political leaders with a criminal past. A criminal past was no longer an obstacle to a political career. In view of his track record, Bouterse’s presidency should have been the chronicle of an announced disenfranchisement for the voter.

Kunstwerk Kurt Nahar 2015 (Ready Gallery)

It should be noted right away that the role of voters in the prevailing political culture in Suriname is not insignificant, because that culture can only survive thanks to their support. Generations of poverty and hopelessness have produced a widespread culture of lethargy, the cherishing of butchering, dependency, mortality and a lack of responsibility. As a result, as Kross writes (p. 48-54), the population has developed an excessive need for a beneficent saviour or benefactor and a secure power. A culture of ‘nothing is wrong’ [slogan of Bouterse and his NDP] therefore found acceptance. Bouterse became the personification of this culture. The origins of this culture began on the plantations in colonial times, was later strengthened by centuries of ecclesiastical paternalism and continued in parliamentary-like parties in the period after 1945. It meant the emergence of leadership described as charismatic or messianic. This meant that Suriname did not have the leaders it it deserved, but  chose. In other words, a political culture cannot change as long as politicians and the electorate strangle each other while maintaining a corrupt status quo.

Wo set’en
Chan Santokhi and the VHP emerged as Suriname’s saviour in the last elections in May 2020. The promise was to put an end to ten years of mismanagement by the Bouterse government. With the slogan Wo set’en [we are going to put our house in order], he managed to convince an important part of the electorate that he will put his house in order again. From the outset, however, that confidence was seriously dented by his acceptance that Ronnie Brunswijk, despite his convictions in the Netherlands and France for drug trafficking, was appointed vice-president and that his family members were  appointed to important positions. The President was also guilty of nepotism by appointing his wife and daughter to various positions. The first lady became the target of social media ridicule, satire and sarcasm. This whole affair also took on the character of a family soap  when the president’s son expressed his dissatisfaction on social media about the first lady’s [his stepmother] many functions and then, a few weeks later, apologised to the president and his wife. Scriptwriters of Brazilian and Mexican telenovelas (soap operas) are said to have followed this soap opera with envy.

Santokhi on election campaign in 2020

Society was therefore outraged by these appointments. Confidence in the president did not increase when he declared in his first term of office that he would build a bridge over the Corantine and Marowijne border rivers, two projects that will cost hundreds of millions when there is not even money to pay salaries and interest on loans. These plans are reminiscent of Bouterse’s megalomaniac projects announced for 2010 (the construction of a deepwater port, dams and hydroelectric power stations, a bridge over the Corantine river, a road southwards to Brazil, the construction of a tram line between Paramaribo and Onverwagt, etc.). None of these plans have been realized.
After they have voted Bouterse’s  government away, many Surinamese feel that, that the new government is much of a muchness. The Surinamese political company therefore looks a lot like a play that is repeated over and over again with different actors.

Does it mean that there is nothing positive to be said about the last forty-five years? There have certainly been points of light. There is hope because of the relative ethnic stability in which Suriname has been spared racial struggles despite the political and socio-economic malaise. Political and religious leaders have played an important role in the process of relative peaceful coexistence in Suriname. In addition, one can mention the resilience of civil society (trade unions, employers’ organisations, media, human rights organisations, etc.) in putting socio-economic and political issues on the agenda and in defending the democratic constitutional state. This also applies to the Court of Justice which, despite intimidation and threats, sentenced incumbent president Bouterse to twenty years’ imprisonment in 2019 for his part in the December-killings in 1982. This was no small achievement in a country where the Bouterse government has tried to see through all the controlling and judiciary institutions.

Meeting of President Ronald Venetian and his wife with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican in November 2009.

Reference can also be made to the reign of President Venetiaan. He made an important contribution to the strengthening of the democratic rule of law and macro-economic recovery in Suriname in the years 1991-1996 and 2000-2010, a remarkable achievement against the background of the bankrupt estate he took over in 1991 and 2000. Venetiaan is also considered the politician ‘with ten clean fingers’, a great exception in the corrupt political climate in Suriname. It is said about him  that the day after his resignation as president in 2010, he drove to the President’s Cabinet to return a pen that he considered to be state property. How different was the situation in July 2020 when the newly elected president Santokhi and his team of ministers were confronted with offices that were almost empty. President Santokhi was unpleasantly surprised when, on the first working day in his office, he discovered that there were no longer even a computer and printer for letters to be sent out.
Hopeful is also the current political activism among Surinamese young people. Their activism partly led to the dethroning of Bouterse and thus paved the way for the election victory of Santokhi and his VHP. President Santokhi will have to realise that political activism among young people is now a powerful undercurrent in Surinamese society. It means, therefore, that the electoral confidence he gained in May 2020 is not unconditional.

In July 2018, the Dutch  Minister of Foreign Affairs (Stef Blok) caused great commotion when he called Suriname a failed state because of its ethnic division. However, with his view, the minister showed an enormous lack of historical awareness. Suriname (and its multi-ethnicity) is a creation of Dutch colonialism. If he calls Suriname a failed state, he should realise that the Netherlands is to blame. Moreover, it has escaped his notice that it is precisely in Suriname that ethnic relations are generally not conflictual. The Surinamese government demanded an apology from the Netherlands and because of the criticism, the minister had no choice but to apologise in writing to the Surinamese government for his denigrating statements. Suriname is not a failed state, but has to deal with failing government.

The Santokhi/Brunswijk government should not be expected to have a magic wand to suddenly clean up the Augiasstal left behind by the Bouterse government. She does, however, have a vision for tackling the problems: what are her motives, what does she believe in, how is she going to do things differently and what results does she expect from her plans? Because, as a Bible quote says, ‘where the vision is lacking, the people are feral’. In this context, the (Christian) concept of stewardship can also be pointed out as a guideline for political action. It refers to the ideal of serving, responsible leadership and management so that future generations can also benefit from it. After all, Suriname is not the private profit of politicians and their families and friends. The concept of stewardship also implies a plea for political ethics as the norm in politics. Only then will there be confidence in the clearance of the Augias Stables by the current government.

Suriname Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Ramdin on a working visit to the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag in August 2020.

The Netherlands and Suriname
Politicians in The Netherlands  breathed a sigh of relief after Bouterse’s departure as president. Since the military coup in 1980, Suriname has been known officially in The Hague (political capital of The Netherlands) as the ‘headache file’. The relations between the two countries between 1975 and 2000 were typified as a ‘taxed relationship’ caused by, among other things, differences of opinion regarding the spending of Dutch development aid. With Bouterse as president between 2010 and 2020, there was a ‘cold war in miniature’ between Suriname and The Netherlands. Bouterse’s departure opened the way for normalisation of relations. In Paramaribo, after May 2020, Suriname  will be looking to The Hague for help. Does The Netherlands have a role to play in helping to solve Suriname’s current socio-economic problems? There is too much The Netherlands  in Suriname and too much Suriname in the Netherlands to consider each other as arbitrary foreigners. Of course, Dutch aid is desirable, but Suriname should realise that the period of Dutch unconditional money without conditions(gifts from Santa Claus) is a thing of the past. The current generation of Dutch politicians (Prime Minister Rutte et al.) is not burdened by the Dutch colonial and slavery past.

Final remarks
It is not independence in 1975 that is the source of Suriname’s current grief, but failing governance. Suriname will have to pull itself out of the swamp by its own hair. On his inauguration in July 2020 as president, Santokhi said to the people of Suriname: ‘Give me your trust and I will give you back a beautiful country’. His promise of Wo set’en is only possible with stewardship and political-ethical leadership as a slate instead of nepotism and megalomania. Otherwise, the fear is not inconceivable that, even under this new Santokhi-government, Suriname will remain a winning region for the political elite and land of broken dreams.

Pictures: National Archives and Ra1 Photography

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