So what sparked these sudden outbreaks of violence and destruction?
“The unrest was obviously inspired by the recent stormings of government buildings in the United States and Brazil. The immediate trigger was Suriname’s dire economic situation. The middle and working class are really struggling. That’s partly due to the fact that Suriname imports most of its products. If prices soar in the rest of the world, the same will happen in Suriname, while incomes remain low. Some of my friends in Suriname are feeling desperate. Some of them are even losing teeth because they don’t have money for healthy food.”
Alex van Stipriaan is emeritus professor of Caribbean History at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. He has published several books on Maroon culture, the history of the Surinamese diaspora and the Netherlands’ legacy of slavery.
So where did it all go wrong?
“This was all pretty predictable, to be honest. The previous Bouterse government took out massive loans without any guarantees that they could be repaid. When President Santokhi’s government took over in 2020, it started with an empty treasury and tons of foreign debt. The terms of these loans have since expired, and it all needs to be repaid. It was therefore clear from the outset that the new government would be facing huge economic problems. Santokhi obviously made all sorts of wonderful promises to win the elections. That makes sense as campaign rhetoric, but it’s going to come back and bite you when you need to take really unpopular measures afterwards.”
So why is Santokhi unable to do something about those debts?
“He might have managed if he’d started right after the elections. That way, the problems would have stuck to the last president, and he could have started building from there. But he didn’t, and that really worked against him.
“The second problem is that he appointed lots of friends and family members who weren’t necessarily the right people for the job. He justified that by saying: I can’t trust anyone outside of my inner circle. That’s just the same old politics that people have become cynical about.”
Chinese entrepreneurs and shopkeepers were specifically targeted during the protests. Why is that?
“There are two groups of Chinese people in Suriname. The ‘original’ Chinese, who have been around since the 19th century, are one of these groups. Most of them are middle class or above. The protests weren’t targeted at them. There are also the ‘new’ Chinese, who arrived from China in the past 25 years. They work day and night for very little pay. As a result, lots of Surinamese feel they’re being out-competed. This group of Chinese people also owns almost all the supermarkets in Suriname now. That means the Surinamese depend on them for groceries, on the one hand, while some people also feel they’re stealing their jobs. That’s led to a lot of resentment.”
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With Bouterse gone, Santokhi rekindled ties with the Netherlands. Was that really a good idea in retrospect?
“That kind of colonial mindset still runs strong in Suriname. When the economy is struggling, the first thing you’ll hear from the government in Paramaribo is: ‘The exchange rate’s at one to x.’ Everyone’s focused on the exchange rate against the euro. That really says it all. After all, barely anyone in the Netherlands knows the euro’s exact exchange rate against the US dollar or the Chinese renminbi. It just goes to show how much Suriname depends on the outside world.
“That’s obviously been the case throughout Suriname’s history When Suriname was still a colony, the Netherlands simply claimed ownership of all its natural resources. All the products Suriname needed had to be imported from the Netherlands. From cheese to nails, rope to clothes, you name it – everything was imported. Other than that, Suriname was basically a source of tropical products like coffee, sugar, cocoa and cotton for the Dutch economy. That’s never really changed, to be honest. These days, the economy mainly relies on gold exports.
“They’ve found a lot of oil off the coast, and Suriname is hoping that will bring in a lot of revenue soon. The thing is, they haven’t been able to exploit it yet, because they’re still negotiating Suriname’s share of the proceeds, among other reasons. That’s been the cause of widespread dissatisfaction among the Surinamese, with the share amounting to a mere 15 per cent. Other than that, Suriname really doesn’t produce much. Still, the country really should be making that transition.”
So why is it failing to produce more?
“That’s a complex question. It’s partly because some people in power are actually making money off the imports, and some bureaucrats just want to hang on to their positions, resulting in the economic status quo being maintained. This is partly due to the engrained culture of clientelism, a system in which government officials give jobs to people who support or vote for them. Those are all government jobs, so you end up becoming a civil servant and not actually producing anything.”
So is it possible to break away from a clientelistic system like that?
“Yes, it is. For example, you can cut back on the number of civil servants. The civil service is ridiculously bloated now, making up about 40% of the workforce. However, that will mean transforming the economy from a consumer economy to a manufacturing one, so the people’s livelihood depends on manufacturing rather than officials. That’s a long way off, though, because you need permission from administrators to set up manufacturing operations. You’ll need to keep them on your side, in other words.”
Does the Netherlands still have a role to play in Suriname, or should we just stay out of it all?
“I think the Netherlands should interfere with Suriname as little as possible. The thing is, that’s really difficult, because of the large Surinamese community here in the Netherlands. The Dutch government does take that into account in its decision-making. The Netherlands also obviously has – I suppose moral duty is a strong word – some things to make up for, so I don’t see us cutting all ties any time soon.”
Is that really wise from Suriname’s own perspective?
“Suriname would do well to focus a bit more on other partners. There is some precedent for that, actually. For example, the country was more focused on Belgium back in the 1980s, when relations with the Netherlands were really bad. Suriname joined CARICOM, the community of Caribbean countries, and strengthened its ties with Brazil. It might also be a good idea to establish closer ties with China, India and Indonesia, not least because there are so many people from those countries living in Suriname.”
So what is next after the recent riots?
“Suriname doesn’t really tend to have a long political memory. Bouterse lost the elections three years ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he wins them again in two years. Some young people are also emerging as leaders of the discontent, but I don’t see them playing a major role yet. I think the situation in Suriname will be bleak for quite a long time. If only because they’ll have to repay all those loans. They’ll need to make some really harsh cuts, so a huge chunk of the civil service will be out of a job. That might help the economy in the long run, but it will create even more poverty in the short term. There will be more and more discontent, resulting in a stronger call for Bouterse.”