Suriname’s New President Has A Long Way To Go

On July 13th, Suriname elected opposition leader Chan Santokhi as their new president in an uncontested election, ending the decades-long struggle under Dési Bouterse. Former President Bouterse had previously been in power almost as long as Suriname has been an independent country, beginning his political career while the Dutch still maintained domain over the small nation. His rule has largely been defined by terror, economic mismanagement, and an atmosphere of total impunity for members of his government. Along with following through with Bouterse’s January murder conviction, President Santokhi must also tackle the country’s astronomical debts, rising inflation, and sinking oil prices – which accounts for a large portion of Suriname’s exports. The former president’s previous association with drug trafficking has also left the nation with extremely deep roots in the South American cocaine trade, ones that will prove difficult to dig out even for a new president who made his name as the Surinamese police chief commissioner.

In a short statement, former President Bouterse wished Santokhi the “strength to pull the cart,” while Santokhi spoke of a need for Suriname to travel a “difficult path” and express “unprecedented resilience.” President Santokhi has discussed the need to develop and preserve rule of law, stating that his government will “ensure that the judiciary, like the legislature, has its own independent budget.” After he took office on July 16th, he addressed a crowd of Surinamese gathered outside of De Olifant, the headquarters of his Progressive Reform Party, promising that they “will always come back to be accountable” to the citizens of Suriname.

Even though Bouterse has officially left office, a shadow of uncertainty still hangs over his presidency, as it is yet unclear whether he will serve the 20 years handed down to him for the 1982 murders that would begin his reign of terror. Over a period of three days, members of the military government carried out the Decembermoorden (“December Murders”), in which 15 members of the nation’s burgeoning elite, including businessmen, journalists, and opposition leaders, were tortured and killed. He justified the murders by insisting that they prevented a potential coup – ironic, as Bouterse himself would carry out two coups in less than a decade and already had one under his belt at the time of the crime. As chief commissioner of the police, Santokhi not only led the investigation into the murders, but also vocally opposed the expansion of a 1992 amnesty law to include the period within which the murders took place. His election, combined with the recent conviction of Bouterse, seems to offer the people of Suriname hope that justice will be served. In order for this to happen, the president must follow through with his promises of accountability and maintenance of the rule of law.

Internationally, President Santokhi must also work to repair decades of damage done to Suriname’s foreign relations. Bouterse previously cut nearly all relations with the Netherlands, the country which kept Suriname as part of its colonial empire for over 300 years. While distancing the nation from the Dutch (a vital economic ally), he embraced the socialist redistribution exemplified in China and Venezuela, further pushing away any Western foreign interest that could have potentially improved its rapidly declining economy. In contrast, the new president has stated one of his government’s biggest priorities is restoring relations with the Netherlands in order to stimulate trade and generate revenue from tourism. Dutch King Willem-Alexander has expressed his interest in these efforts.

On top of all of this, like the rest of its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, Suriname has struggled to maintain control of the coronavirus pandemic. As of writing, the country, which has a population of around 575,000, has 1,483 confirmed cases and 24 deaths – a number that is only expected to rise over time. If Suriname is ever going to recover in the areas of public health, economic performance, and rule of law, President Santokhi and the rest of his administration must make a coordinated effort to do what they must with the little resources they have. Restoring vital economic relations is key, as well as preserving the nation’s courts and legislative systems. This new government could mark a real turning point in Surinamese history, but those in power must make extremely difficult decisions under what can most certainly be called the worst possible conditions. Only a couple weeks out from Santokhi’s inauguration, only time may tell whether Suriname’s transition back to democracy was a successful one.

Samantha De Jesus