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Suriname's capital city, Paramaribo, is hard to pronounce (the stress is on the third 'a'), but even harder for many people to find in the atlas. A recent AT&T country-listing in the New York Times reportedly filed Suriname under 'Africa', while generations of geography students have assumed the country to be somewhere near Indonesia. In fact, it stands on the north-east coast of South America, one of the three non-Hispanic enclaves that make up the Guianas.

South American it may be, but Suriname is also one of the most ethnically and culturally mixed countries in the world. The capital's architecture graphically reflects this synthesis of peoples, with the imposing nineteenth-century wooden synagogue on Herenstraat rubbing shoulders with a mosque, several Hindu temples and the Roman Catholic cathedral - apparently the largest wooden structure in the Americas. Solid gabled Dutch townhouses testify to the country's
colonial past, but the markets, restaurants and parks are a colourful mixture of African and Asian influences. While cinemas show subtitled Chinese films and Javanese gamelan musicians perform open-air concerts, the highlight of Sunday mornings is the singing competitions in the parks between trained and caged songbirds.

Suriname's rich cultural mosaic is the legacy of the Dutch plantation economy which after the abolition of slavery in 1863 brought legions of indentured workers from East India, Indonesia and China. They joined the descendants of African slaves, a large Jewish community, a European and Middle Eastern business and professional élite and the remnants of the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples. The great majority of the Asian immigrants settled in the fertile farming area near the coast, while the African-descended Creoles tended to move into Paramaribo. Other black Surinamese, known as boschnegers (literally Bush Negroes), inhabited the remote interior where their ancestors had escaped to from the Dutch sugar plantations.

Remarkably, this cosmopolitan mixture held together under Dutch rule, but as independence approached, ethnically based political parties took shape, rallying supporters on racial lines. The Dutch pulled out in 1975, promising continued aid, but many Surinamese were fearful of what would
happen next and decided to accept the offer of Dutch citizenship. Some 40,000 migrated to Holland in the months preceding independence.

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Their fears were in part justified, for the country underwent a series of political and economic traumas in the 1980s. A coup in 1980 brought Colonel Desi Bouterse to power, and when 15 opposition leaders were executed in 1982, the Netherlands imposed sanctions. Then, from 1986, a guerrilla war broke out between boschnegers and the Paramaribo-based military regime. Civilian rule was only solidly re-established in 1991, and since then the country's fractious ethnic parties have formed more or less unstable coalition governments. The former dictator Bouterse, who has remained an influential presence, was indicted for cocaine smuggling by a Dutch court in 1997; the Surinamese Government refused to extradite him but in 1999 he was sentenced in absentia to 16 years.

Suriname remains dependent on a handful of commodities: bauxite, rice and bananas. It also continues to rely on Dutch financial support, which is decreasing and ever more conditional on democratic reforms. About half the population is estimated to live in poverty, and remittance payments from relatives in the Netherlands keep many families alive. This
material poverty, deepening over the last decade, contrasts ironically with the country's extraordinary wealth of cultural diversity.

James Ferguson

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At a glance

Leader: President Runaldo Venatiaan.

Economy: GNP per capita $1,320 (Guyana $800, Netherlands $25,830).
Monetary unit: Suriname gulden (10,000 gulden = US$13).
Main exports: bauxite, alumina, rice, bananas, shrimps.
Main imports: petroleum products, machinery, consumer goods. Suriname is attempting to build a tourism industry, based around its spectacular and wild hinterland, but tourism still accounts for less than $25 million annually.

People: 437,000.

Health: Infant mortality 28 per 1,000 live births (Guyana 58, Netherlands 5). Health facilities are sparsely distributed outside Paramaribo, where hospitals are generally good.

Environment: There has been significant protest in rural areas at environmental damage done by a Canadian mining company and an Indonesian timber company.

Culture: The 1990 census reveals a unique cultural mix: Creole (black) 35%; Hindustani 33%; Javanese 16%; Boschneger 10%; Amerindian 3%; Chinese 2%; European 1%.
Languages: Officially Dutch, but Hindustani, Javanese, Chinese and local dialect Sranang Tongo are widely spoken.
Religion: Principally Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Sources: South America, Central America and the Caribbean 2000, State of the World's Children 2000, Human Development Report 1999, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank.

Previously profiled July 1988 (NI 185)

star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
A small commercial and political élite in the capital accounts for a disproportionate percentage of national income, while poverty is endemic in rural districts.
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self-reliance SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
Despite political independence, Suriname remains reliant on the Netherlands as well as its main trading partners, principally large aluminium companies.
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position of women POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Few women are visible in the male-dominated political world, but Suriname has several high-profile women academics, writers and intellectuals.
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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The official adult literacy rate is 93%, the legacy of Dutch government aid and post-independence investment in primary education.
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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
After the military interregnum of the 1980s, Surinamese enjoy a free press, little overt repression and trade union rights.
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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
70.3 years and rising, despite economic recession and limited health resources.
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life expectancy


NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The worst days of military rule and civil war seem to be over, but Suriname has suffered from inept and corrupt government in the 1990s. The recently elected New Front coalition faces high inflation, a vast government deficit and low commodity prices. It will inevitably be forced into unpopular austerity measures.

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New Internationalist issue 326 magazine cover This article is from the August 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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