New Internationalist

Suriname

Issue 185

new internationalist
issue 185 - July 1988

COUNTRY PROFILE

Suriname
[image, unknown] AMSTERDAM merchants were trading along the coast of what is now Suriname as early as 1613. Later the British settled and soon 'Willoughbyland' was an agricultural colony growing sugar and tobacco using slave labour. In 1814 the Netherlands regained the region, working the plantations with indentured workers from China and the East Indies after the outlawing of slavery.

A bewildering series of crises has reduced this once prosperous colony to near-penury. The outgoing Dutch granted very generous aid after Independence in 1975 - $2.7 billion over 14 years - which helped maintain the high standard of living. But aid on this scale made impossible what Surname needed most: a sense of national consciousness and a more independent spirit. This was essential given the deep ethnic divisions in its society.

A peaceful military takeover in 1980 was welcomed by a people tired of political strife. But events since then have been bloody and tragic. The military government began persecuting opponents, culminating in a massacre of 15 trade union and other dissidents in December 1982. An outraged Dutch government suspended all aid. At the same time the price of bauxite, the country's main export, fell sharply.

Living standards were kept up for a while by drawing on reserves but these were exhausted in three years. The multinational bauxite companies also laid off most of their labour forces. US aid was refused because of a Libyan presence.

Popular unrest rapidly grew and civil war broke out. Led by Ronny Brunswijk, the rebels were helped by British mercenaries and supported by the many exiles in Amsterdam. Immense damage was done to bauxite installations and power lines but by mid-1987 the rebels were forced into the scarcely-populated hinterland. To add to the misery, recourse to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) resulted in severe cuts in government spending. Unemployment soared.

By now desperate for public support, the army drafted a constitution - albeit in its favour - which was half-heartedly approved by referendum and permitted elections after legalizing political activity. The November 1987 poll greatly embarrassed the military as its party only won 13 per cent of the votes.

But the winners - the opposition coalition, the United Front for Democracy and Development - cannot altogether rejoice since the military has an effective veto over legislation. Nonetheless the election is portrayed as an exercise in democracy, giving a gloss to the regime's image for prospective aid donors - the US, the IMF, the Dutch, maybe Cuba. Perhaps it will work. In the meantime, many Surinamese wish that they had joined the 200,000 others who left for the Netherlands at Independence.

Tony Thorndike

Leaders: (Civilian) Prime Minister Jules Wijdenbosch. (Military) Colonel Desi Bouterse

Economy: GNP per capita $1,650 (US$15,390)
Monetary unit: Suriname guilder fixed to US dollar. GNP has fallen from $2,650 in 1983. Although ranked as world's fifth largest bauxite producer, the industry was badly damaged by the civil war. Rice is the staple food and major agricultural export; other crops are palm oil, coconuts, bananas, sugar, fruit and coffee. Fishing is of increasing importance, and as yet the rainforests have not been greatly exploited for timber.
Main exports: Bauxite, alumina, rice, bananas, wood, shrimps.
Main imports: capital goods (machine tools), basic manufactures, fuels and vehicles

People: 385,000

Health: Infant mortality rate 28 per 1,000 (US 10 per 1,000). Impact of civil war and severe shortages of food and basics mean health is deteriorating.

Culture: People: Creoles (European-African and other descent); East Indians (known locally as Hindustanis); Indonesians, Chinese, Amerindians and Bush Blacks (descendants of escaped slaves) and Europeans.
Languages: Dutch, Surinamese, Hindi, Javanese, Chinese and Spanish.
Religions: Creole Winti, deriving from African roots, and others which reflect the mix of people.

Sources: South American Handbook, Latin America and Caribbean Review


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Discrimination against black minority.

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Increasing foreign debt, poor agricultural base.

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Generally progressive.

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Moderate Left. Civilian government subject to military veto.

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78%.
Lower in rural areas.

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Limited free expression.

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Good at about 65 years (US 75 years).

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