Almost half a century ago Suriname became an independent state. Since then the Republic of Suriname faced turbulent developments. There were good times and bad times. After 45 years of Independence, it is time for a reflection and drawing conclusions. In this article, I will limit myself to drawing ten conclusions. I will conclude with the topical subject of climate change. In this context, I propose that the so-called disputed areas which Suriname shares with neighbouring countries Guyana and French Guiana can be destined a nature reserve areas.
1 The rush with the Independence of Suriname on 25 November 1975 resulted in a large emigration of Surinamers. Prior to Independence, a significant proportion of the Surinamese population opted for a better and secure future in The Netherlands. Suriname lost a major part of its vital population. For many, Independence was a trauma: they sold their farm and house for an apple and egg, which they had been built with sweat and tears. The two main instigators of this reprehensible inactivity in stopping this massive emigration, namely the political leaders Henck Arron and Eddy Bruma, hardly did anything at that time to prevent the depopulation of the country. Arron later admitted that he had made a wrong assessment. Furthermore, the extreme nationalist and anti-Dutch politician Bruma was later no longer included in the new coalition government, which took up office again in 1977 under Arron’s leadership. Bruma had wrongly accused Arron of financial malpractice. In retrospect, both politicians harmed the development of Suriname. Moreover, the development aid from the former colonial power, The Netherlands amounted up to the sum of 3.1 billion guilders, was later wasted. On 25 February 1980, the corrupt Arron regime was ousted by a military coup. Sergeant Desiree Delano Bouterse emerged as the strong man. Then turbulent political developments followed in Suriname and Bouterse was the main instigator as the new Commander/Army Chief. However, in 1987 partly due to the influence of the eminent political leader Jagernath Lachmon, democracy was re-installed.
In the meantime, a so-called Surinamese diaspora had risen in The Netherlands. On the Antilles, in the United States and in Belgium, smaller communities of Surinamese gradually emerged. There are now about 1 million Surinamers in the world. More than 560,000 in Suriname, almost 400,000 in The Netherlands and the rest live in the aforementioned countries. It is worth noting that this diaspora has continued to support their compatriots in Suriname from the outset; not only materially, but also morally. Hence, the Santokhi-Brunswijk government, which took office in 2020, is right to consider this diaspora as a part of the population of Suriname. Moreover, this new government has renewed the relations with the Dutch government.
The active and effective involvement of the Surinamese diaspora and The Netherlands as a former coloniser and part of the state is required. The delay in the adoption of a diaspora policy by the Surinamese government – which has now been in power for more than three months – is therefore not conducive for mobilizing especially the Surinamese diaspora in The Netherlands to help and sustain development of Suriname.
2 Prior to Independence ethnic polarisation arose as well as political exclusion of the largest ethnic group (the Hindostanis) in Suriname. Moreover, a racial civil war was prevented at the last moment. In retrospect, it can be said that the leading politicians at the time behaved very irresponsibly. But it has to be acknowledged that after this phase of ethnic polarization, Suriname has emerged stronger in its multi-ethnic relations. This is partly due to the intervention of the military regime and later the NDP (National Democratic Party). All ethnic groups became involved in governance and ethnicity became less important in the political arena. In political terms, Suriname was already largely a harmonious multi-ethnic society, but after 2020, this will be even stronger.
The current President Chandrikapersad Santokhi has not only a crossover personality, but also a broad mandate and a support base among all ethnic groups. He therefore deserves all-round support actually in order to help Suriname move forward.
3 Despite a few weak attempts in the past to implement an assimilation policy, Suriname has remained a multicultural society. Cultural diversity has been preserved and is now regarded as a strength and an asset. The various ethnic groups cherish their culture and also have relationships with ancestral culture countries, such as Ghana, India, Indonesia and China. Surinamese cultural diversity is also displayed internationally and used to promote tourism. The relations with these countries will also contribute to the further development of Suriname. There is mutual respect for each other’s culture. Racism is condemned and rejected in Suriname, as it has recently become apparent. The publication of a racist cartoon in the Surinamese daily newspaper was nationwide condemned and the cartoonist had to apologize publicly. From a multicultural point of view, the Surinamese society is therefore an example to the world. Currently, the disadvantaged group of Maroons (from African ancestry) is to a large extent also responsible for ruling the country. Gradually, a demographic change has taken place in this regard. In terms of population size, the Maroons now form the second ethnic group in Suriname.
Let us hope that the current government will succeed in eliminating the disadvantaged position of this group as well as the Indigenous (formerly Amerindians). Mutual acceptance and equal citizenship of all Surinamers remains necessary
4 Suriname faced -alas- also political violence in 1980s and 1990s. After a few soldiers were killed when the coup on 25 February 1980 took place, Bouterse et al. violently murdered fifteen opponents on 8 December 1982. That was followed by a bloody internal (civil) war with many deaths among the military and the armed guerrilla in the interior, especially the Maroons. But, this political violence had been renounced in 21th century and there is hardly any evidence of extensive hatred and violent retribution. Furthermore, Surinamers have remained forgiving and high-spirited to a large extent, and this traumatic past seems to have been largely overcome. The rule of law has also been upheld. What remains is the settlement of the Bouterse case related to the so-called December murders in 1982 through the higher court.
Freedom of expression now prevails, and the fear that has prevailed seems to be gradually disappearing. Despite all the political turmoil, the population has not become cynical and has remained resilient. The increased transparency in the administration and government, facilitated by the contemporary social media, must be maintained and promoted
5 In fact, Suriname has remained a democracy and has certainly not become a failed state. In May 2020, the population rejected the NDP and especially Bouterse en masse in the elections. During the counting of the votes, it was clear that many citizens were vigilant to prevent possible electoral fraud. Democracy is therefore alive and kicking in Suriname. There is now a broadly composed and competent government which, despite a few beginner’s errors and starting problems (for example -converted- nepotism), has set to work energetically. After 100 days, various measures have already been taken and the corruption that has prevailed during the past government has been exposed
After almost 45 years, Suriname finally has an honest, competent and energetic government. President Chan Santokhi appears to be the right man on the right place and on the right time. It is expected that after 45 years of Independence, Suriname will finally develop into a democracy and developed country as it deserves
6 It has been stated that, over the last 45 years, the various governments have scarcely succeeded in motivating and mobilising a large section of the population to make a productive contribution to the development of the country and economic growth. The civil service expanded tremendously and was often a hindrance for the growth of the Surinamese economy. It often acted as a countervailing power rather than a facilitator for the development of the country. In addition, the erstwhile winti wai, lanti sa pa (the government will pay for the costs) attitude remained intact. Often everything was put on the shoulders of the government and the population was hardly active as citizens to contribute to the common interest
In the context of active citizenship, more than before, an appeal will have to be made to citizens to contribute to the preservation and management of Suriname’s infrastructure to the best of their ability. The productive sectors of the economy and the agricultural sector in particular deserve specific attention, as well as the education and training of citizens in this direction.
7 Economically, The Republic of Suriname has had good times and bad times. There have been periods of economic growth and economic stagnation. There were Governors of the Central Bank who were thrifty, such as Mr A. Telting, for example. However, it has to be said that Governors appointed by the NDP, such as H. Goedschalk and R. Van Trikt, in particular, turned out to be corrupt and robbed the Treasury. Recently, it became clear that the past Bouterse-Adhin government has been corrupt and has left Suriname with a large debt burden. Worse still: the former Governor of the Central Bank and Minister of Finance, G. Hoefdraad, was the embodiment of corruptive practices. He went into hiding and fled, taking important data with him. This is a disgrace for the NDP. By the way, the accusations of corruption have hardly been refuted by the NDP. In recent months there has been a deconfiture (the failure was portrayed) of Bouterse cum suis and unmasking of corrupt NDP politicians.
Hopefully a renewal process will start within the NDP and this party can fulfil a constructive opposition role within the Surinamese democracy. The current government is trying to make provisions to relieve the debt burden. It is expected that as of next year (2021), with the help of international funds, foreign powers and sound financial policy, Suriname will become ‘healthy’ financially speaking. The Surinamese diaspora will also be mobilized to make a contribution in this respect. The prospects of oil discoveries and the exploitation of oil wells in coastal Suriname will also make an important contribution.
8 In recent years, the various government have been involved in the development of infrastructure. A large part of the inhabited area in Suriname has been opened up. There are now plans -among other things- to build two bridges and as a result of which both neighbouring countries will now be accessible by road. However, as far as the (government and historical) buildings is concerned, there has been a great deal of overdue maintenance. There is also overdue maintenance of shared heritage of Suriname and The Netherlands. Because of the enmity of the former government Bouterse-Adhin with the Dutch government, it was hardly possible to work on the maintenance and restoration of the shared heritage. Suriname was also isolated internationally due to the regime of Bouterse cum suis. Now the situation has changed for the better.
In cooperation with Dutch government and international organizations, it is important to take care of the overdue maintenance and restoration of the buildings and monuments. In order to compensate for the cruel history of slavery, Dutch cities/municipalities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam that were the involved must be mobilized in the maintenance and restoration of shared heritage, such as many monumental buildings in Paramaribo. The Surinamese diaspora should also be involved in this context.
9 Suriname has many mineral resources and is considered the 17th richest country in the world (potentially). It is worth mentioning, however, that 100 years ago – around 1920 – a discussion raged about the extent to which agriculture or industry/mining should be the most important economic sector of the Surinamese economy. The agricultural expert J.J. Leys – after whom the Leysweg is named – opted for agriculture. The formerly flourishing gold and balata industry almost collapsed then in Suriname. Fortunately, the bauxite industry subsequently emerged and for a long time Suriname was able to cope economically with most of this industry. Now oil is regarded as the new driving force for the economy. But these industries are subject to world demand and prices fluctuate. Moreover, these raw materials are not available infinitely and contribute to environmental pollution. Furthermore, it also often turns out that only a part of the population actually benefits from this wealth.
It is worth mentioning that in the thirties, under the leadership of A.L. Waaldijk – to whom the household school was named – the Creola project on plantation Uitkijk (adjacent to the Saramacca river) was set up to get Afro-Surinamers back into the agricultural sector. Afro-Surinamese farmers were successful in the production of cocoa at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the so-called curled nut disease (an infection of the leaves) destroyed this sector. And unfortunately the Creola project also failed due to mismanagement. However, Suriname was set up as an agricultural colony because of its fertile soil. Because of the cruel slavery, an agricultural trauma has arisen among part of the population as well as a false shame to work in this sector. But it is precisely the agricultural sector that should become the main sector of the Surinamese economy. There is a great demand for food and fresh water in the Caribbean region. Suriname can amply meet this demand and earn good money. Moreover, a large part of the population can be employed in the agricultural industry. Furthermore, modern (‘state of the art’) techniques can be used in production, which increases the yield and removes certain inconveniences, such as working under the blazing sun and in the heat. The expansion of extensive rice cultivation and the production of herbs and medicinal plants, floriculture and other agricultural products are some examples.
The agricultural sector and sustainable agriculture in particular, should therefore become the main locomotive of the Surinamese economy to a greater extent than before. Upgrading and promoting this sector and involving the population, particularly young people and schools, deserves strong support.
10 Finally, it should be mentioned that Suriname is one of the greenest countries in the world. Surinamese nature must be cherished, partly in relation to climate change. Climate change results in global warming, among other things. Suriname also suffers from this. Destruction of the Amazon region, in particular the Amazon forest, is accelerating this process. The interior of Suriname is part of this area. Suriname is rich in forests and fresh water. In this light, nature conservation is necessary. And in so far as natural resources have to be exploited, this will have to be done carefully. In other words: in a sustainable manner.
The three Guyana’s
Plans have recently been unfolded for a bridge over the Corentyne River and a bridge over the Marowijne River. This means that the so-called three Guyana’s will be connected by land. Suriname was also known as Dutch Guiana/Dutch Guiana and is geologically part of the so-called Guiana shield. The ambition of the Santokhi-Brunswijk government is to construct both bridges during their reign (2020-2024). These linkages over land between the three countries will not only increase the movement of people, but will also accelerate the further development of the three Guyana’s as well as their interdependence. However, Suriname shares border areas with both neighbouring countries that are disputed. Recently, the discussion has flared up about the disputed Tigri area. Many Surinamese believe that this area legally belongs to Suriname and advocate all kinds of historical and legal arguments. There was a recent meeting at Grun Dyari of the political party NPS (National Party of Suriname) about possibly a trial at the International Court of Justice.
But is it sensible and wise in the current mood and the recent intentions for cooperation with Guyana and especially in relation to the construction of a bridge to start with discussions about this border dispute? Or is there a more elegant solution that benefits both countries? A win-win solution would be better for this border dispute and also for the border dispute with French Guiana then a legal battle to acquire these territories.
The Tigri area
Until 2014 an in-depth and accessible analysis of the Surinamese border disputes was lacking. The lawyer Lachman Soedamah wrote his dissertation about this subject titled Suriname complete? A study of the options in international law concerning the solution of the Surinamese border disputes, Oisterwijk: Wolfpublishers. I shall quote from this study. A dispute with Guyana about the area in the South-West corner of Suriname exits for a long time. This border area around ‘the New River Triangle/New River Triangle’-in Suriname also known as the Tigri area- is situated between the upper branches (tributaries) of the Corentyne River. It is known as the New River and its tributary Coeroeni forms the western border and Brazil the southern border. This disputed area with Guyana is 15,603 square kilometres. The dispute is based on the fact that historically, the Coeroeni River was first considered to be the most important source river of the Corentyne River. This was determined by the geographer Robert Schomburgk between 1840 and 1844. The Coeroeni River was then considered to be the southwestern border of Suriname. But in 1871, the New River was ‘discovered’. This river turned out to be wider and deeper than the Coeroeni. Hence: according to Suriname the New River is the border with Guyana because that is the most important source river. On the international maps, however, the Coeroeni River was usually indicated as the border, while geographically speaking Suriname is rightly pleading that the New river must be considered the border. However, it is highly likely that historical practice will prevail and it seems to me – in fact – that Suriname’s position in this border dispute is not as strong as that of Guyana. It is therefore questionable whether it is wise for Suriname to bring this dispute to the International Court of Justice.
With French Guiana, Suriname has a border dispute over the area between the Litani River and the Marowijne creek and the southern border with Brazil. This disputed area is located in the South-eastern corner of Suriname and covers 3,439 square kilometres. If the source river of the Marowijne River is the Marowijne creek, the area belongs to Suriname. If the Litani River is the source river, then the area belongs to French Guiana. It is worth mentioning that in 1860 the French government disputed whether the Lawa River or the Tapanahony River should be considered as the main river – hence the border. In 1861, a Franco-Dutch commission inspected both rivers and concluded that the Lawa River was the main river. When gold was discovered in 1885 in the area between these two rivers, a border dispute arose again. In order to put an end to the dispute, both governments agreed on 29 November 1888 that this dispute would be subject to the ruling of an arbitrator. This arbitrator, Czar Alexander III of Russia, decided that the Lawa River should be regarded as the border river. It meant that the territory between the confluence of Lawa River and Tapanahony River officially belonged to The Netherlands i.c. Suriname from 1891 onwards. This was accepted by French Guiana. But still after it was clear that the Lawa River was the main river, the discussion began as to whether the Litani River or the Marowijne creek was the continuation of the Lawa River. This border dispute has not yet been resolved.
The actual question is how to resolve the dispute about these two territories with Guyana and French Guiana. Soedamah provides guidelines for possible solutions to these Surinamese border disputes, such as ‘channelling nationalist feelings’ and ‘banning the use of force’. Before I propose my solution, I would like to recall an event of more than 50 years ago.
We want war
In 1969 great political tensions arose between Suriname and neighbouring Guyana over the disputed area of Tigri. One of the reasons was the expulsion of a group of Surinamese workers by the Guyanese army from this area and the village of Tigri was occupied by Guyana. In August 1969 this led to a special protest demonstration in Paramaribo. I was a pupil of the C.R. Frowein (secondary) school in Paramaribo. We heard during the school break that a demonstration against (the neighbouring country) Guyana would take place within a few hours. “Our territory had been attacked”, many shouted. A group of male students (the term students was then used to refer to active secondary school pupils!) was mobilized – at the time; female pupils were not asked anything in this respect! Thrilled as we were then, we immediately decided to take part in this demonstration. Cardboard was collected and charcoal -Surinamers can improvise well in such situations. In the schoolyard, some cardboard plates were scotched and lopsided on wooden sticks. Warlike texts appeared on the cardboard plates and one text read: We want war! We walked away from school and the procession of ‘students’ walked triumphantly and shouting loudly to the so-called Kerkplein (church square), in the centre of Paramaribo. On the Kerkplein it turned out that (unemployed?) young men of Paramaribo had already formed a parade. The demonstration leader Ronald H. had just arrived from The Netherlands in Suriname. He was the organiser and with a megaphone he encouraged the demonstrators. He promised the demonstrators that at the end of the demonstration everyone would be treated to “a cold soft” (a bottle of soda). He repeatedly confirmed that. Loudly shouting, the procession started to move and pretty soon the slogan was: “We want war!”. With clenched fists in the air we shouted this slogan and made a tour along some important streets of Paramaribo to return to the Kerkplein. As we walked in the blazing sun the bystanders looked at us half amused, but sometimes noisy and supportive cries were uttered as well, like mek deng could, wo kier deng (Let them come, we will kill them). Excited, sweaty and especially thirsty we returned to the church square. Especially the unemployed young men started to claim their ”promised soft” quite aggressively and heated. Of course, we were also very thirsty. But the leader of the demonstration disappeared silently sneaky. The procession was split up, while swearing and scolding. In the Surinamese language (Sranan), all kinds of curses were expressed to neighbouring Guyana, but also to the demonstration leader from The Netherlands. After all, he had not kept his promise. In retrospect, it was of course youthful bravura and sensationalism on the part of most young men to demonstrate rather than the desire to go to personally on war. In the years prior to Independence of Suriname, so-called Surinamese revolutionaries from The Netherlands could quite easily mobilize young men of Paramaribo for nationalistic demonstrations.
In The Netherlands and in Suriname some activists are pleading that these disputed territories must be claimed for Suriname. In my mind, it is not a good idea to reopen these border disputes with both countries, because the intention is to build bridges with Guyana and French Guiana. As already stated, we must look for a win-win solution. Given the aforementioned climate change and the need for sustainable management of nature in these countries, the best solution is to destine both disputed areas as nature reserve areas. That means these areas will be designated as ecological areas under bilateral management. An agency (Authority) composed bilaterally can administer the area and (Illegal) activities in these areas must be stopped. Guyana and French Guiana are wealthy enough and do not need the mineral resources from these areas to generate more wealth. It seems that this also applies to Suriname given the recent oil discoveries. The shading of both areas on the maps can remain intact and the new destination nature reserve can be applied. Hence, a nature reserve of preferably 19,042 square kilometres in total will be added to the already existing Central Nature Reserve of Suriname of approximately 16,000 square kilometres (10% of the surface area of Suriname). During the opening of both bridges, the proclamation of both areas as nature reserve can formally announced. In the meantime, work can be done on the technical elaboration and design of the Agencies. In the era of climate change and the attention paid to deforestation of the Amazon region, this is a sustainable solution against climate change. An extra acreage will be added to the already existing nature reserve in the Amazon. It will depend on the Statesmanship of President Chandrikapersad Santokhi whether this win-win solution is chosen. In five years’ time – in 2025 – Suriname will be an independent country for half a century. Let us hope that by then, Suriname shall be a welfare state with a decent income and housing for all citizens and good education. Now, after 45 years of Independence, the current government has already laid the foundations in this respect. We shall see.
Pictures: Sampreshan, Eric Kastelein and Wikipedia
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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