On February 17, 2023, a protest against Suriname’s austerity policies and corruption morphed into a full-blown riot and looting. These riots ended with police shots fired, arrests, and considerable damage to the center of the capital city, Paramaribo. Protesters called for the removal of President Chandrikapersad “Chan” Santokhi and Vice President Ronnie Brunswijk. Although Suriname is a small country of less than 1 million people, it is geopolitically important as it sits in the Southern Caribbean region—a rising oil and gas production zone, equally important for the carbon offset of its considerable forests and strategic location next door to Venezuela. For all its problems, however, Suriname is considered a functioning democracy with a duly elected government.
Sadly, Suriname joins the ranks of other countries in the Americas where civil unrest threatens to overturn the political order. While many of the grievances that caused the February riot are legitimate, the escalation of violence raises deep concerns. Quick international support came from the United Nations, the United States, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In a news conference from the latter, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit stated, “We certainly condemn the storming of the Parliament. It appears that this is becoming a practice in our hemisphere, and it is something that we all need to seek to condemn and to stamp out in our hemisphere.”
Santokhi’s government quickly restored order following the riot and contacted several civic organizations with national hearings, which began on February 26. Among those participating in the national dialogue are the trade unions, individual citizens, social groups, political parties, and the business community. While this is a step in the right direction toward de-escalating tensions, three factors still hang heavily over the country.
The first factor is the economy. Suriname’s economic downturn commenced during President Dési Bouterse’s final years, a period marked by considerable policy mismanagement, public sector debt buildup, a shrinking currency, and high-level corruption. In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, the incoming Santokhi government inherited a debt default, a depleted national treasury, and rising inflation. The debt picture was one of the most alarming developments: according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), general government gross debt to GDP went from 85.2 percent in 2019 to 146.1 percent in 2020, and it stood at 134 percent in 2022. While the debt situation was bad enough, the COVID-19 pandemic was ruthless, contracting Suriname’s economy by 16.0 percent in 2020 and a further 2.7 percent in 2021—a year when most of the Caribbean and Latin America enjoyed a strong rebound. Suriname’s economy has also been pummeled by high inflation, which shot up from 4.2 percent in 2019 to a little over 60 percent two years later.
Suriname’s economic troubles forced the government to seek help from the IMF, leading to an Extended Fund Facility agreement of $688 million in 2021. While the IMF program complemented measures already put in place by the Santokhi government, it hurt household budgets as the reduction of subsidies resulted in higher fuel and electricity prices. Another inflationary force came with the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which impacted international food and transportation costs. While Suriname’s population feels exploited by inflationary pressures—which many blame on the reforms—the government inadequately communicated the importance of the reform’s end goals to the public.
The second factor is ongoing anger and frustration over corruption, which has included patronage, cronyism, money laundering, drug trafficking, illicit logging and gold mining, and the penetration of criminal money into the country’s law enforcement agencies. According to global watchdog Transparency International, Suriname ranks 85th out of 180 countries in terms of corruption, with a score of 40 out of 100 in 2022, a slight improvement from 38 out of 100 in 2020. Despite the Santokhi government’s anti-corruption efforts, many Surinamese still believe corruption practices continue. This is reflected by what some have described as a “sketchy” foreign investment deal that was cancelled after protests and the near bankruptcy of Surinam Airways and saw those most accountable being allowed to depart the country.
These most recent riots point to an intensifying conflict between traditional patronage behavior evident in much of the country’s political class and a younger and more internationally aware younger generation demanding better governance and accountability. The main organizer of the February 17 protests is Stephano “Pakittow” Biervliet, a 30-year-old political activist and entrepreneur described as “young, self-made and politically independent.” Along with other activists, such as Curtis Hofwijks, Maisha Neus, and Xaviera Jessurun, Biervliet helped organize protests against the Bouterse government’s economic mismanagement and corruption. Biervliet readily admitted to organizing the protests, but not the violence that followed. He turned himself into the police and was briefly held by the authorities. Biervliet and Hofwijks have joined a new political party (PRO), while others have started new parties that have anti-corruption platforms, though they failed to win any seats in the 2020 election. Nonetheless, the younger generation of activists is an important voice against government corruption.
The third complicating factor is Suriname’s fragile political system. In February 2023, the government lost three seats in the National Assembly, which reduced its majority and underscored the challenges of policy coherence within a struggling coalition. In addition, pressure is mounting for early elections (currently scheduled for 2025), and the shadow of former President and dictator Dési Bouterse—who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the execution of 15 opponents of his dictatorship in 1982 but who is still not incarcerated—looms over the landscape.
Additionally, a history of violence hangs over Suriname, something that is ascribed to its colonial heritage but that has also exerted itself in the post-independence period since 1975. Indeed, the riots touched a national nerve, considering the military coup of 1980, the December Murders in 1982, and the Interior War that took place between 1987 and 1992.
Another source of political tension is between the government and the nation’s indigenous peoples and Maroons—descendants of enslaved people who escaped into the interior—over land rights in the country’s vast, but lightly populated interior. Ine Apapoe, head of the Public Administration Department at the Anton de Kom University, captures the complexity of the issue: “Although the habitat of the Indigenous peoples and Maroons is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of natural resources like gold, minerals, bauxite, hydroelectricity, and timber, the welfare and living standards of its inhabitants are not nearly as sought after. To this day, Suriname’s interior stands as the most underdeveloped region in the country.” The interior is also a critical region where many environmental issues play out, including the pollution of rivers by mercury used in illicit gold mining—most of which is allegedly supplied from China and helped along by bribes.
In fairness to the Santokhi government, the challenges it inherited in 2020 were massive. There have been efforts to create better checks and balances at the central bank, improve training in the government on anti-corruption measures, and add more prosecutors to the Attorney General’s Office and judges to the High Court. Additionally, work has begun to establish an Anti-Corruption Commission, which will eventually register and track the assets of over 4,000 elected and appointed officials of a certain rank.
On the economic front, the Santokhi government is undertaking long postponed structural changes necessary to improve the business environment, conclude its debt restructuring, and attract foreign capital needed to tap the country’s oil potential. While painful, the reforms seek to reduce red tape and add greater efficiency to the state sector, inject greater transparency in the government procurement process, overhaul the tax system, stabilize the national currency, continue fiscal consolidation, strengthen central bank governance, and address shortcomings in the anti-corruption and anti-money laundering framework.
Considerable progress has been made concerning the country’s official debt. An agreement was reached with India in January 2023, which leaves China as the sole government-to-government creditor holdout on debt restructuring. Suriname owes China between $400 and $500 million, much incurred during the Bouterse years. Talks with private creditors commenced in 2022, but reached no conclusion due to bondholders waiting to see how the oil industry will develop in Suriname.
The February 2023 riots reflect the pains of a country going through a profound transition. Suriname is struggling through economic difficulties while still waiting for its oil taps to open meaningfully—as it occurred to neighboring Guyana, which is now riding in a tsunami of oil revenues. Suriname needs foreign direct investment, a calmer socio-political environment, and some good luck to get to that point. Certain relaxing of the IMF program may also help reduce social tensions as well as better targeting of social programs and communicating end-objectives to the public. While the February riots threatened Suriname’s democracy, they can also provide an opportunity for the government to press harder on those issues most important to a majority of Surinamese, tackling corruption and creating a more competitive and transparent economy that offers a better future.
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.