Suriname’s May 25 general elections could prove disappointing to many as the likely winner could be former dictator Désiré Bouterse, a convicted drug smuggler who was also responsible for dozens of deaths in the 1980s. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence from Holland this year, Suriname deserves a qualified president who is both able and morally fit to govern, which would rule Bouterse out of the race.
A former Dutch colony that obtained its independence in November 1975, Suriname has experienced a turbulent history. A group of 16 young military officers, including then Sergeant Major Bouterse, assumed power in 1980 and proceeded to install a pathological version of the rule of law in the unstable post-colonial country. Although for two years a civilian government claimed to be in charge, it was the military that called all the shots. Bouterse formally became head of state in 1982, when he created the all powerful National Military Council, and with its backing, ruled the small country with an iron fist until 1988. Among the multiple allegations against Bouterse was that he authorized the murders of 15 political opponents who were transported to a forest zone in a bus and shot in the head at point blank range. He also has been tied to atrocities committed against Suriname’s Maroon ethnic group. In 1986, 35 people, mostly women and children, were murdered during an attack in Moiwana, a Maroon village.
The Netherlands cut diplomatic relations with its former colony after this gruesome massacre and also froze its bounteous economic assistance program. Following the 1987 elections, a new civilian government led by President Rameswak Shankar took office. However Bouterse continued to function as military commander under nominally civilian rule. Suriname’s main political parties agreed to two new constitutional articles which gave the armed forces, described as the “vanguard of the people,” a virtual carte blanche to intervene in domestic political matters. Before long the country’s political parties were lamely reverting to racial and class polemics, as Suriname’s social structure fell into a severe paralysis.
In December 1989, the civilian government simply evaporated after an incident known as the “telephone coup.” At that time, one of Bouterse’s lieutenants phoned President Shankar and told him to go home, which he supinely did. Unlike Bourterse’s 1980 coup, protests made by the Dutch, and later backed by Washington and the Organization of American States (OAS), hotly reverberated in Paramaribo. With his back now against the wall, Bouterse installed an interim government and scheduled new elections within six months to be monitored by the OAS. The 1991 elections then brought about the ascension of President Ronald Venetiaan, while his party, the opposition New Front for Democracy (NFD), won effective control of parliament. Shortly after, in 1992, Bouterse resigned as army chief amid corruption charges.
In 1996, the former dictator’s aide, Jules Wijdenbosch of the NDP, won the presidency. Bouterse served as an advisor to him while at the same time Interpol – the international intelligence and police agency – was circulating a warrant for the latter’s arrest. Three months after resigning his presidential advisory position in April 1999, Bouterse was convicted in absentia by a Dutch court of drug trafficking and money laundering. In 1998, COHA Research Associate Shinan Govani printed an article in COHA’s biweekly publication, The Washington Report on the Hemisphere, describing Wijdenbosch as “ a skilled operator and a force in his own right [but] when it comes to Bouterse he has nothing but a fierce loyalty.”
Public discontent over Suriname’s 70 percent inflation rate forced President Wijdenbosch to call new elections in May 2000, one year ahead of schedule. Venetiaan’s NFP won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections, and in August 2000 the former president went on to be reelected to office.
For the upcoming balloting, three candidates are contesting the presidency: current President Venetiaan, former President Wijdenbosch, and current MP Bouterse. In addition, nine political parties have signed up to campaign for the national assembly’s 51 seats in a country of only 450,000 citizens.
The Former Dictator and the U.S.
In a recent interview with reporters at the U.S. embassy in Paramaribo, a U.S. official stated that it would be difficult for Washington to have normal relations with Suriname if the president were a convicted drug trafficker. This remark, which should not be taken as an official statement by the U.S. government, caused a stir throughout Suriname. Bouterse was quick to seize upon the comment, accusing Washington of interfering in Suriname’s domestic affairs.
While Bouterse as an individual is widely seen by the international community as morally unfit to serve his nation, his NDP party is currently in second place in the polls, with 18 percent, behind Venetiaan’s party’s 24 percent, in the multi-party race. How can good government and the will of the Surinamese people both be served in this situation? While the U.S. may be correct in voicing its apprehensions over Bouterse’s possible election to the presidency, it still must be wary of interfering in Suriname’s domestic politics. Washington’s role as intervener, especially in the Caribbean, has been particularly evident – one can only recall the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and most recently, the State Department’s alleged role in maneuvering the ouster of Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
Another factor that must further irritate the U.S. is that Bouterse was a self-proclaimed socialist during the 1980s. However, Washington currently may be more interested in the tiny nation’s bauxite mining and processing industry than in the political ideology of its head of state. This is not to say that the U.S. has no concern in Suriname’s role as a key center for the production and transit of drugs, particularly MDMA – ecstasy. The U.S. has even helped train Surinamese anti-drug squads. The 2004 version of the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) has a section on Suriname which explains how the U.S. State Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection have all been involved in various training exercises with Suriname’s national customs officers as well as the narcotics brigade of the police force (KPS). The report explains that in May of 2003, the KPS narcotics brigade discovered the first known MDMA-producing lab in Suriname along with 80 kilograms of the drug. Another point of concern is that Surinamese drug smugglers are suspected of having negotiated with Colombia’s leftist rebel movement, the FARC, in arms-for-drugs transactions.
OAS, CARICOM and Brazil
According to a Caribbean Net News report, Bouterse proclaimed at a recent gathering of 2,000 party-followers, that the U.S. has failed to adhere to UN Resolution 50/172, which states that foreign countries should not interfere in other sovereign nation’s internal affairs, such as parliamentary elections. The NDP has asked two regional agencies, the OAS and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), to assist in its response to the U.S. However, it is quite obvious that neither of these two bodies have any influence over Washington. The CARICOM members have frustrated the Bush administration by demanding independent inquiries into Aristide’s ouster from Haiti to a South African exile. CARICOM went as far as appealing to the OAS, instead of the United Nations, in a call for assistance since the U.S. and France (another nation accused of being involved in the anti-Aristide cabal) are permanent members of the UN Security Council.
When the OAS secretary-general contest was coming down to the wire, then-front runner Insulza, as well as Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos, visited Paramaribo to lobby for Suriname’s vote. They did this also because Suriname currently holds the chair of CARICOM, and President Venetiaan’s comments are of some influence on the members of that organization. In any case, the OAS and CARICOM have been placed in awkward positions. CARICOM could certainly protest the alleged U.S. interference in the approaching vote; however, most Caribbean nations are not at all particularly fond of Bouterse themselves, looking upon him as a somewhat unsavory character. As for the OAS, it recently named Ambassador Corinne McKnight from Trinidad and Tobago to head a delegation from the organization to supervise Suriname’s elections.
Brazil, in its emerging position as new regional leader, is most likely closely monitoring the elections in Suriname. Both nations became good friends during the 1980s, while Bouterse was in power and Brazil was under the rule of a military dictatorship led by General João Baptista Figueiredo (1979-84). If Bouterse were to be victorious in the upcoming elections, the possibility of a new rapprochement between the neighboring countries should not be ruled out, with Suriname perhaps becoming a new domino joining the wave of New Deal-like leftist governments now sweeping the Atlantic coast area of South America and which is causing Washington sleepless nights.
Holland’s Ambiguous Role
Holland, Suriname’s former colonial ruler and heavy funder, has been cautiously silent about the elections. The Hague, the home of the International Court of Justice, would certainly not be pleased about Bouterse’s all but foregone election, but it appears that Amsterdam has given up trying to extradite him because Surinamese citizens, under the provisions of the country’s constitution cannot be extradited to third countries for trial. Caribbean Net New’s Ivan Cairo recently reported that “the European Union [of which The Netherlands is a founding member] declined a request from Suriname to send a mission [to observe the elections], saying that the CARICOM member state[s] ha[ve] a good reputation of holding fair and democratic elections hence there is no need for the EU to send observers.” It is unlikely though that Amsterdam will simply remain neutral regarding the elections in Suriname. Thirty years after its independence, around 300,000 people of Surinamese descent live in the Netherlands, 35 percent of whom were born on Dutch soil. Migration is facilitated by the fact that Surinamese have the right to free movement to Holland, like Dutch citizens. Because of these open borders, Holland is a hotspot for drug trafficking coming from Suriname. There have been several joint operations between the two nations to tackle drug smuggling, most notably, the recently executed “Operation Ficus.”
Holland has several interests in making sure that Bouterse is not elected because a new dictatorship inevitably would mean a surge of Surinamese migrants to Holland who claim to be political targets. Such a scenario would continue to upset the ethnic balance in Holland, a country which is struggling to cope with an increasing number of migrants from the underdeveloped world flooding its borders in huge numbers. Drug smuggling would likely continue, if not increase, under Bouterse, not to mention the continuation, if not expansion, of other crimes that similarly would likely go unpunished. For example, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report noted that in June 2003 Dino Bouterse, the former dictator’s son, was convicted on charges of weapons theft from a police armory, but was subsequently released when several witnesses either recanted their previous testimony implicating him, or by simply refused to testify.
The Immediate Future
Suriname has achieved considerable importance due to its current chairmanship of CARICOM and the role it played in the OAS secretary-general elections. Yet the country’s luster has somewhat dimmed because of issues of drug trafficking and the likely election of Bouterse.
Nevertheless, the former dictator’s popularity alarms many because of his notorious criminal career. Many believe that Désiré Bouterse is simply not qualified to become Suriname’s next leader. In an ideal world, he would be soundly defeated on May 25 and immediately taken to The Hague to pay for his crimes; however, this scenario is far from likely.