Suriname Elects the Country’s Most Controversial Political Figure as President

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•Bouterse miraculously continues to avoid serving hard time for his past misdeeds

On the 19th of July, the Peoples Assembly of Suriname, consisting of municipal and provincial representatives, selected as president former military commander general Desire Bouterse. This is not the first time Bouterse has come to power in Suriname. His first stint as president came during the 1980’s when he took hold of the presidency through a military coup deposing democratically–elected Henck Arron. His autocratic tendencies did not end there; he went on to seize control again in 1990, through what became known as “the telephone coup.” Since then Bouterse has added much towards his dismal résumé, such as being convicted in absentia of drug trafficking and sentenced to eleven years in prison in the Netherlands (though he has yet to serve his sentence). More recently, during his first overseas trip as president to Guyana, Bouterse made light of his conviction dismissing the case as “almost a joke.” Further hindering his credibility are the allegations that he played the definitive role in the murder of fifteen members of the opposition party during his prior reign in the 1980s. President Bouterse promised a change from the past running with his platform of prosperity and social improvement. If the President, who was inaugurated on August 12, 2010, should decide to abandon his past habits and focus his policy on continuity and help in building upon the country’s steady improvements that have allowed Paramaribo to survive the regional financial crisis, he may have some skeptics wondering.

A Brief History of Unrest

Suriname’s short life as a republic began in 1975 with its declaration of independence from the Netherlands, its former colonizer. Within five years of this triumph, discontent began to mount against then President Arron due to economic deterioration, massive migration and perceived nepotism within parliament. The three years following Suriname’s independence were marked with political turmoil and a growing concern over violence, which led to the emigration of approximately 100,000 Surinamese to Holland at a time when its population totaled 450,000. This frustration culminated in a coup in February 1980. The National Military Council (NMR), headed by Bouterse, declared its control over the government and called for the country to join the process of social, economic and moral reorientation. The relatively bloodless coup was accepted by most of the population, as the NMR was quick to appoint a presidential figurehead.

Within three years Paramaribo, still under the control of the NMR, bore witness to four heads of state. The failure of democratic institutions led to an end of foreign aid from major contributors, headed by the Netherlands and the U.S., and what followed was economic stagnation during the military reign throughout the 1980s. Suriname’s stability suffered a further blow on December 8, 1982 when fifteen members of the opposition party including journalists, lawyers, and unionists were rounded up and murdered at Fort Zeelandia. Bouterse would later admit political responsibility for the murders in a 2007 public apology, but placed legal responsibility upon a deceased battalion commander. After the murders, Bouterse was quick to implement severe security measures including limiting the freedom to assemble, imposing a curfew, and closing Suriname’s borders, airspace and university. The tragic events, labeled the “December Murders,” and the government’s response led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and his cabinet and a call by the citizens of Suriname for the restoration of popularly elected officials. Suriname’s rising unemployment, the public’s discontent with growing political disorder and Bouterse’s squeeze on civil liberties led to a demand for his removal. In February 1983, a new government was formed under President La Alibux yet was short lived, as he was replaced the following year.

Bouterse eventually resigned from his military post for a brief period in 1988 but returned to power two years later. The removal of then President Shankar in 1990, via a telephone conversation, showed Bouterse’s disregard for democratic rules and procedures and his despotic tendencies. He once again took over as head of state, but relinquished it within less than year due to international pressure. President George H.W. Bush’s administration condemned the second coup and supported democratic elections, resuming some its nonmilitary aid to the South American country after the elections. The administration warned against Bouterse’s continued participation in Surinamese politics. After the elections in 1991 placing Ronald Venetiaan as president, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Sally Cowal, stated, “Bouterse’s unbroken record of violence and intimidation against civilian authority cause doubt that he will respect popular will.” Shortly after winning the presidency, President Venetiaan dismissed Bouterse from command of the Surinamese National Army. After that, Suriname experienced some political stability over the next two decades, finally holding presidential elections after Bouterse’s removal from office; however he continued to exercise power from behind the scenes, eventually becoming president of the National Democratic Party, a prominent opposition group.

Road towards Development

The years following the Bouterse regime, Suriname saw political and economic improvement. Relations with the Netherlands were largely repaired under the Venetiaan administration and funds continued to flow to the country once again. Aid dependent on structural changes within the judiciary and the police force resumed as Suriname and the Netherlands strengthened cooperation towards fighting drug trafficking.

Twinning projects were instituted between the two countries, including the support of social institutions in Suriname, mimicking successful practices within the Netherlands. In 2009, a joint project was established between the Anton de Kom University in Suriname and the University of Amsterdam to “improve the quality of education and research in Social Sciences.”i These initiatives have also benefited the media as radio stations in the Netherlands have begun to support local Surinamese counterparts, sharing their skills and knowledge of journalism and modern broadcasting technologies. These programs began to flourish under the guidance of President Venetiaan and his administration.

During his third term, he guided Suriname to some economic prosperity. Inflation was lowered and the public debt-to-GDP ratio was brought down to an estimated 10% in 2010, from 35% in 2005. The country was also able to achieve modest economic growth throughout the global recession and is estimated to have seen a 4% rise in GDP up from 3.5%. The country’s economy overall is dependent upon its natural resources including: bauxite (an aluminum ore), gold, oil, and timber. This also paved the way for Suriname to strengthen its ties with China, which has been heavily involved in logging and road building projects, reportedly investing 200 million USD.ii Suriname, over the past two decades, has been guided by a more pragmatic approach towards governance that has allowed it to evolve into a country with a more robust economy.

However, the current administration seeks to change some of its relations abroad. As Bouterse took office, he pledged to distance the country from its former Dutch colonizer and begin focusing on building ties with other nations. This comes as no surprise considering Bouterse’s ragged past. Due to his personal animosity, the relationship between the Netherlands and Suriname was virtually non-existent and has since further deteriorated. In 1997, the Netherlands brought charges against Bouterse for drug smuggling and in 1999 the Dutch courts convicted him in absentia to an eleven-year prison sentence for smuggling two tons of cocaine, yet he has failed to serve a day of his sentence. The Netherlands’ foreign affairs minister summed up the capacity for future relations, stating that contact will be kept only out of a “functional necessity,” and further warned, “He [President Bouterse] is only welcome in the Netherlands to serve his sentence.” This status will undoubtedly hurt his chances in forging ties abroad, since he will be compelled to avoid those countries that have an existing extradition treaty with the Netherlands. Suriname cannot afford to lose a vital ally like the Netherlands, as traditionally it has been a major contributor towards its aid and development. It also has served as a main remittance corridor. Remittances from the European nation made up 13% of Suriname’s GDP in 2004. If ties were to be completely cut-off, it may prove extremely difficult for Suriname to avoid further economic decline.

This void will most likely be filled by a strengthened relationship with Venezuela. Bouterse has expressed his hope in improving relations with Chavez, extending an invitation to his inauguration that ultimately went unanswered. However, the two statesmen will likely meet as President Chavez has intentions to build an oil pipeline through Guyana to Suriname and has also hinted at the admission of Suriname into ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), a political organization composed of left-leaning nations aimed at challenging the ties established in the region by the U.S.-backed free trade agreement.iii The prospect of Suriname joining Chavez’s social movement may increase as human rights’ activists have demanded the dismissal of Suriname from other international organizations. The Jamaica Gleaner, a Caribbean based newspaper, called for the removal of Suriname from CARICOM (an organization committed to promoting economic integration) as long as Bouterse remains the head of state. Other human rights groups within Suriname, such as the Organization for Justice and Peace and the Foundation December 8, have appealed for the removal of the recently inaugurated President, claiming that his past actions and nefarious conviction in the Netherlands are acts against the constitution, thereby disqualifying him from even being nominated. Former President Venetiaan echoed a similar sentiment, in a 2009 interview with Al Jazeera, stating that Bouterse should not be allowed to regain power.iv Nevertheless, the presidency was passed on peacefully despite the lack of existing procedures and regulations for the transfer of power. With an estimated 330,000 Surinamese now living in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that ties between the two countries will be completely cut off, however President Bouterse is anxious to find a closer more suppliant and tolerant partner.

Culture of Impunity

A smooth transition for Bouterse may prove to be difficult as he has to address the actions of his past. The president still faces prosecution in Suriname for the execution of 5 of the 15 killed during the December Murders. The verdict could be a major obstacle for the country if it is forced to deal with a president convicted of murder while in office. Publicly, however, President Bouterse has all but been exonerated for his past transgressions against former administrations. His NMR party was able to gain a narrow majority within parliament through strategic coalition-building immediately before the election. He is popular within the country with a platform of social improvement which includes reducing poverty, addressing indigenous rights, and guaranteeing press freedom. One reason for his popularity and surprising lack of infamy may be attributed to the age of the majority of Surinamese. With a population of less than half a million, 40% of Surinamese were born after 1982. This younger generation is often characterized as knowing and caring little about the past atrocities.

In order for Suriname to be viewed as a stable democratic nation, it is important for it to properly address the injustices of the past. For a society to be considered civil it must not grant immunity to its morally challenged leaders. His critics insist that Bouterse should not be able to interfere with the ongoing investigation into his role in the December Murders and respect the ruling of the court. What is needed is an administration that embraces past policies that have helped launch the country towards stability and focuses on sustainable relations for the future. Continuity and prudence are what Suriname civil society should embrace, not those destructive habits that characterized Bouterse’s and his country’s past.

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