On May 25, 2020 Suriname went to the polls with a backdrop of a deep economic crisis, COVID-19, and an erosion in the legitimacy of the government due to a number of scandals and President Dési Bouterse’s 2019 conviction for the 1982 murder of 15 political opponents. Voters gave an opposition alliance 33 seats out of 51 and only 16 to the Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP). The political landscape has been reset. On June 29, a new national assembly is expected to usher in a new post-Bouterse era, with a new four party coalition, headed by the leader of the Progressive Reform Party (VHP), Chandrikapersad “Chan” Santokh.
The post-Bouterse era beckons. But will the strongman leave quietly? Expectations are yes, but until the new government is in office, some doubts will linger. What happens in Suriname now matters; like its neighbor next door in Guyana, large quantities of offshore oil have been found, putting the small South American country on the international energy map. Additionally, the Bouterse administration’s close ties to China, Cuba and Venezuela raise questions as to how the new government will approach a changing geopolitical landscape that increasingly looks like a new Cold War.
A New Political Landscape
The May 2020 elections saw 17 different political parties participate in the contest. The electoral process, with a few exceptions, ran smoothly. Both the Organization of American States (OAS) and CARICOM gave their seal of approval, determining that the elections were fair and free. What was disturbing, however, was that official results were held up. In the 2015 elections, the results were readily available by the next day. This time, there were calls from the NDP that some of the outcomes, where the party lost seats, were not accurate. The electoral authorities eventually moved ahead and declared the VHP the winner.
President Bouterse remained silent after the vote, waiting to see if the situation could be maneuvered to his advantage. The NDP put out an overture to the General Liberation and Development Party (ABOP or Algemene Bevrijdings en Ontiwkkelingspartij) to discuss the formation of an alliance, which was rejected. The ABOP instead opted to join ranks with the main victor of the election, the VHP and two smaller parties, the National Party of Suriname (Nationale Partij Suriname or NPS) and the Pertjajah Luhur (PL).
Political momentum has shifted to the VHP’s Santokhi, a former police officer and justice minister during the government of President Ronald Venetiaan 2005-2010. During the Venetiaan years, Santokhi imposed a tough law and order regime on the country, with an emphasis on the drug trade. Considering Bouterse’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking— he has an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the Dutch for a conviction on drug trafficking—Santokhi’s activities created animosity between the two men. The situation was further inflamed when Santokhi breathed life back into the case against Bouterse for the December 1982 murder of his political opponents. In 2008, Santokhi sued Bouterse for insult, slander and defamation, after the former military strongman alleged that the justice minister was linked to drug dealers and other criminals. The court ruled against Bouterse who was forced to retract his allegations.
Considering the past relationship between Santokhi and Bouterse, there is little love lost between them. The November 2019 court verdict against Bouterse came with a sentence of 20 years. Bouterse is now 73 years of age, meaning the prison sentence is a de facto life sentence. In political terms, the sentencing gives Bouterse could well mean that once Santokhi is in office, the outgoing president could soon become a prisoner of the state.
Getting over the Hurdles
Suriname’s first hurdle is to resolve the political situation, which requires Bouterse to step down and allow the winners of the elections to take office. This appears to be happening, and many are hopeful that the new government will be sworn in on June 29 without incident. The VHP-led coalition has asked the NDP to support it in reaching a quick resolution to the political situation.
Beyond the political situation, Suriname has other pressing issues, including shifting focus back on the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the virus outbreak is thus far not a major problem, the government needs to maintain control of the situation. It has already re-imposed measures to limit people’s activities and intermingling.
For the next government the economy is a major problem. The Bouterse government’s efforts to pump-prime the economy going into the election failed. Suriname’s exports have been hard hit by the coronavirus—due to a plunge in global demand; an oil price shock earlier this year; eroded confidence in the country’s central bank—due to major scandals involving a missing $100 million; and a dangerously widening fiscal deficit—probably close to 10 percent of GDP.
Suriname is also being squeezed on its debt repayments; the country owes in excess of $2 billion, much of it to China, the Inter-American Development Bank and commercial creditors, through its Eurobonds. According to Fitch Ratings, Suriname’s debt to GDP ratio is a little over 80 percent. With the economy set to contract by over six percent this year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, a reduction in export earnings, tight government finances and declining foreign exchange reserves, there is a strong likelihood of a debt default on Suriname’s Eurobonds. Indeed, international rating agencies, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have all downgraded Suriname’s sovereign debt ratings to either default or near default levels.
To its credit, the government-in-waiting is being proactive on the economy. All four parties have been meeting with businesses organizations, such as the Suriname Bankers’ Association, the Medical Mission, the Association of Surinamese Manufacturers, and others. The aim is to understand the views of organizations in different sectors of the economy, create a more transparent process and explore solutions. The government-in waiting clearly understands the need to restore faith in public institutions.
International ties put into question
While the government-in-waiting faces daunting tasks at home, the international stage is equally challenging. Under Bouterse Suriname had deepened its relationships with China, Cuba and Venezuela. China’s relationship is one of the largest lenders to Suriname, its companies have built roads and bridges in the country and in November 2019, during Bouterse’s state visit, Beijing promised a $300 million line of credit. Considering the country’s tight economic conditions, its relationship with China looms as important with the incoming government. There is also a large Chinese community in Suriname, further reinforcing ties to the Asian country.
At the same time, Suriname is likely to need improved relations with the United States and the Netherlands. With Suriname possibly having to restructure its debt, U.S. help at the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and International Monetary Fund would be useful. The same can be said for the Netherlands, which also may look for some way to upgrade its relations with its former colony.
Another consideration for the next government is its relations with Cuba and Venezuela, two countries the administration of President Donald Trump has identified as security risks in the Caribbean. Linked to this is whether the new government should continue to be a part of ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América), established by Venezuela in 2004—when Caracas was flush with oil money—and developed into an anti-U.S. leftwing alliance. The oil money is gone, Venezuela is a political and economic disaster, and some countries have opted out of the organization. Moreover, ALBA has been signaled as an international criminal enterprise, seeking to keep President Nicolás Maduro’s regime afloat. Suriname has been implicated in being a key transit point for illicitly mined and smuggled Venezuelan gold.
When considering their relationship with the U.S., the new government should consider two factors: the U.S. was one of the handful of countries—along with the Netherlands—to support the Suriname court’s conviction of Bouterse. Washington has been clear in its preference for a peaceful and lawful transition of power. The other is that the lens through which Washington is looking at the Caribbean is colored by a new Cold War mentality vis-à-vis China.
Trump administration officials have already invoked the Monroe Doctrine with China in mind. This potentially puts Suriname in a delicate position; especially since it will need help in finding an exit path from its current economic crisis. Yet the U.S. has been noticeably stingy in providing aid to the Caribbean, but can be helpful in multilateral lending institutions. China has been generous and also has influence at the World Bank, IMF and Inter-American Development as well as being a member of the Caribbean Development Bank. The challenge for Suriname will be how to navigate through the two powers without alienating either one of them.
Suriname has gone from being a relatively unknown spot on the map to a potential rich petro-state. However, before the country can exact its wealth from the offshore fields it needs to find a new political and economic equilibrium, moving away from the strongman tendencies of Bouterse to a new government, seeking a fresh start. That means cleaning up corruption, revitalizing the economy and figuring out a new trajectory in foreign affairs. None of this will be easy, but the reward can be that international oil companies find a Suriname less overshadowed by political risk and start a process that can lift up the country’s national wealth and better standard of living.