United States President Donald Trump would undoubtedly include Surinam in his category of “shithole countries” if he knew where it was, but it is definitely getting better. In fact, the man who is the symbol and in large part the cause of its poor reputation, Dési Bouterse, is about to be ousted from the presidency after a free election and sent to jail for the rest of his life.
Surinam, on the Caribbean coast of South America, was a Dutch colony for more than three centuries, but there were never many Dutch people there. It had a plantation economy and the workers were always imported from elsewhere: African slaves at first, and later indentured workers from Indonesia and India.
Divided by both ethnicity and religion (Christians, Muslims and Hindus), the society that grew up there was dysfunctional from the start. When the wave of decolonisation finally reached Surinam in the 1970s, its people distrusted their own fellow citizens so much that more than one-third of them moved to the Netherlands while the going was good.
Those left behind — there are now 350 000 people of Surinamese descent in the Netherlands, and only 600 000 in Surinam — must all have had moments when they regretted their choice, because what they got was not freedom, but Dési Bouterse.
In 1980 he and 15 other sergeants in the new Surinam army carried out a military coup, and Bouterse has dominated the country ever since.
There were four attempted counter-coups in 1981 — everybody understood by then that political power was the only road to riches — and eventually Bourterse shut the game down by sheer terror. In 1982 he ordered his soldiers to round up, torture and execute 15 dissident officers, union leaders, journalists and businesspeople.
The “December murders” silenced his critics and stabilised his rule, which was at first a brazen dictatorship. But then he discovered populism, and began his exploiting his unusually mixed ancestry in an ethnically divided country — his family is of African, Dutch, Amerindian, French, and Chinese descent — to win elections as a truly “national” candidate.
Bouterse remained thuggish and corrupt — in 1999 a Dutch court convicted him in absentia on drug smuggling charges — but he had learned to win the support of the poor by spreading government money around at the right time. He also cozied up with fellow populist Hugo Chávez in nearby Venezuela, and whether he was formally in power or not, he was the man who really mattered in Surinam.
Only once was he successfully challenged, when chief commissioner of police Chandrikapersad “Chan” Santokhi brought him to court in 2007 over the “December murders” and got a conviction. However, Bouterse appealed the conviction, got himself elected as president again in 2010, and kicked that problem down the road for another decade.
Only recently did his prospects darken. First, the aluminum company that had mined bauxite in Surinam for a century, pulled out and the price of oil (of which Surinam exports a limited amount) collapsed.
As government revenue fell and unemployment rose, Bouterse raided the banks for funds to keep his traditional supporters happy, but that just created a wave of inflation that damaged everybody’s income.
Then in 2019, Surinam’s Court of Appeal confirmed Bouterse’s conviction for murder and the 20-year jail sentence that went with it. The only way he could avoid arrest and imprisonment was to win the next election and remain in the presidency.
On May 25, Bouterse lost that election. The opposition leader who will replace him is the same person who brought the murder charges against him 13 years ago, Chan Santokhi.
Bouterse immediately alleged fraud and demanded a recount, but on June 1, election observers sent by both the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of American States declared that the election had been “free, fair, transparent, and credible”.
So unless Bouterse can launch another coup (which seems unlikely, since he is now 74), he will shortly be off to spend the rest of his life in prison. And the people whose lives he has dominated for the past 40 years have another chance at making something of their country.
In fact, they have already made a fair start at it. The younger generation have moved beyond the ethnic confines of their heritage and are becoming what in Mauritius, another ex-colonial country with a similar history and ethnic make-up, is known as the “general population”.
Many would still leave if they could, for the country is still poor, but they are starting to think and act as Surinamese. The courts work, the elections are now fair and there is a good chance that the next government will not be corrupt. If the country can stay on this course for a generation, it could become a place where people actually want to live.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).