Photo: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Suriname’s President and CARICOM Chair Chandrikapersad “Chan” Santokhi during his visit to Washington on September 16, 2022. Source: Twitter / @SecBlinken.
Delivering his annual speech at Suriname’s National Assembly in late September 2022, President Chan Santokhi announced that “light is already visible in the tunnel.” For a country slammed by gross economic mismanagement and corruption on the part of the prior government, emergent scandals under the current government, a tough International Monetary Fund (IMF) economic program, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russo-Ukrainian War, and severe flooding; such optimism was not well received by an understandably frustrated public. This frustration was painfully evident during the summer when protests rocked the Surinamer capital of Paramaribo. While President Santokhi has done much to elevate his country as an active partner in Caribbean affairs, he needs to make much more headway in dealing with matters at home. Keen attention to the domestic situation must assume greater importance as Suriname enters a period of substantial oil production, much like what is happening next door in Guyana.
President Santokhi inherited a country in dire shape. After the ten-year rule by President Desi Bouterse, a former military strongman and alleged drug trafficker, ended in electoral defeat in 2020, many hoped that the country was turning a page in its history. The new Suriname would define itself by tapping its newly found oil wealth, settling its external debt problems, and cleansing itself of corruption. By 2022, those high hopes have faded. Some of the bitterness over this situation was caught by one Surinamer writing in the daily de Ware Tjid, “So far, the current coalition has only made promises to the people of Suriname, the most important of which include lowering the exchange rate. Poverty has risen alarmingly, while, for example, corruption, patronage and/or nepotism are rampant.”
The economy is a good place to start. In 2018 the economy was showing signs of a slowdown, but by 2019 it stalled as real GDP expanded by a meager 1.1 percent. Then came a massive 15.9 percent contraction in 2020 and a further contraction of 3.5 percent in 2021. The combination of government mismanagement (seeking to pump prime the economy before the 2020 elections and avoid an embarrassing default), the pandemic, and a weak currency all surely made their mark. Prospects for 2022 dimmed due to the fallout of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which pushed up food and fuel prices. The effects of the latter contributed to an ongoing problem in Suriname with inflation, which rose from 1.92 percent in 2013 to levels well above that in subsequent years, hitting 59.11 percent in 2021. In 2022 inflation remains high, and the IMF only expects the economy to expand by an anemic 1.8 percent.
Early in the Santokhi administration, Suriname turned to the IMF for help. Their outreach came tied to a number of policy objectives: overhauling the country’s tax regime, tightening fiscal spending, improving the efficiency of the public workforce, securing a timely restructuring of the country’s external debt, floating the Suriname dollar (SRD), strengthening the central bank’s governance, and implementing governance reforms in the areas of anti-money laundering and anti-corruption. Unfortunately, the administration has thus far missed the mark on executing many of these goals, including the external debt settlement and sorting out the financial mess surrounding the national airlines.
The foreign currency issue has become particularly acute. In mid-2020, Suriname’s exchange rate was USD $8 to 1 SRD, and in October 2022, it rose to around USD$30 to SRD 1—with a real risk of weakening further. As part of the deal with the IMF, Suriname’s central bank let the SRD float in exchange for its repayment of a USD $690 million loan over three years. In response to considerable pressure from the public, opposition, and even members of the ruling coalition, the government indicated that it would be taking measures to reduce the pas-though of higher transportation costs and contain the strength of the U.S. dollar (which got a boost from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes).
The IMF’s program has been tough on the country, and for many Surinamers, it has been difficult to see any of the gains. Prices for basic daily goods remain high, and corruption appears to be just bad as ever. Indeed, patronage remains a major headache, involving even members of top officials in the government. During the July 2022 protests, demonstrators demanded that First Lady Melissa Santokhi, wife of the President, step down from a number of state positions that her husband entrusted to her, including the state’s oil company, Staatsolie.
Team Organic, which led the protests, also demanded that Leo Brunswijk, brother of Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk (also head of the General Liberation and Development Party or ABOP), also step down from a number of boards to which he had been appointed. An additional point of friction along the lines of patronage are claims that ABOP activists have been engaged in nepotism, handing out several plots of land to friends and families while legitimate applicants got none.
Rounding out the picture, in July 2022, news emerged that several people, including a senior finance ministry official, used forged documents and receipts to steal millions of SDR from government accounts at the central bank. This scandal followed the central bank fiasco of the final year of the Bouterse presidency, which involved former Governor Robert van Trikt and former Minister of Finance Gillmore Hoefdraad. In February 2022, van Trikt was sentenced to eight years in jail for money laundering. Hoefdraad, who remains at large, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges.
Part of President Santokki’s challenge is that he heads a fragile coalition government. The 2020 elections were close, and Santokhi’s party, the Progressive Reform Party (Vooruitstrevende Hervormingspartij or VHP), won 20 seats out of a possible 53. Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) won 16 seats. Consequently, Santokhi needed to form a coalition with other parties; he reached out to Brunswijk’s ABOP (8 seats) and two smaller parties, the National Party of Suriname (NPS) (3 seats) and the Pertjajah Luhur (2 seats and linked to Suriname’s Javanese community). Beyond the NDP and the ruling coalition, there is only the BEP (Brotherhood and Unity in Politics party), which has only two seats and sits in the opposition.
Thus, Brunswijk remains the kingmaker of Suriname’s politics. In the aftermath of the May 2020 vote, he held the balance of power between Bouterse, his former commander and longtime rival, and Santokhi, who captured the country’s desire for a change. He is a complicated figure; while he is the first Maroon to reach the post of vice president (a considerable achievement from a long-marginalized community in Surinamese society), he has also been convicted of drug trafficking in the Netherlands and France. He is regarded as a Robin Hood-like figure by some in Suriname. To others, he represents someone with few qualms about patronage and possibly signals that the government considers corruption as acceptable. It has also led to a serious discussion that Brunswijk’s pivotal position and past corruption seriously undermine the President, making the Santokhi government weak and unable to forge ahead with the necessary reforms.
President Santokhi has struggled over the past years, but his government has gained some traction in certain areas. As already noted, they tackled an earlier scandal at the central bank, with the main figures tried and appropriately sentenced. Former President Bouterse’s 20-year prison sentence for the December 1982 murders still dogs him. The government undertook several programs in 2021, including: the country’s tax authorities and the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) signed a cooperation agreement to exchange information; President Santokhi signed a law approving the accession of Suriname to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC); and the Office of the Attorney General announced the creation of a Judicial Intervention Team, which will combat all forms of cross border crime and transnational organized crime. But much more needs to be done, including joining the Edgemont Group, which provides Financial Investigative Units a platform to securely exchange expertise and financial intelligence to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.
It is easy to be pessimistic about Suriname’s future under the Santokhi government. However, change is occurring, albeit at a slow pace. Suriname is no longer isolated like it was up until the 2010s. Oil and gold have pried open the door for economic integration with the rest of the world. Suriname’s membership in CARICOM has also pulled the country into the broader Caribbean, where its engagement is welcome. Moreover, many of the younger generations are much better connected with the outside world than the older ones, either through social media or education (beyond the Dutch-speaking world, most often to North America). Many of the younger generations are frustrated by the old ways of corruption and want change. Crucially, they are also willing to challenge the systems in place to do better—as exemplified by the July protests and ongoing critical voices in the media and on social media.
Equally important, the legal-constitutional structure is in place, or at least a good portion of it. Converting the legal-constitutional regime from being on the books to actual institutional use remains the government’s lingering challenge. In some ways, this is a cultural challenge. Patronage is well-rooted in Suriname. While most recognize that patronage does not fit into the broader world of good practices, it represents another major challenge facing the country, juxtaposing already entrenched family, clan, and ethnic group loyalty. If not handled appropriately, corruption will constitute a friction point in society to potentially inflame ethnic relations.
While a relatively isolated society can avoid dealing with corruption, Suriname’s increasingly open economy and globally-connected youth are accordingly less forgiving of the old systems of patronage in government. Therefore, President Santokhi has considerable work ahead, especially if he wants to carry through with his promises for a better Suriname.
Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and Founding Member of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.