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Suriname: A Country of Mutes

5 minute read
Pico Iyer

Terror and Marxism replace tolerance and prosperity

Once upon a time the former colony of Dutch Guiana seemed to be an enchanted tropical paradise. Its gentle, unusually tolerant melange of Creole, Indian, Chinese and Javanese inhabitants were blessed with rich farming lands, rivers teeming with fish and one of the world’s largest bauxite-producing economies. Upon Suriname’s independence in 1975, the Dutch promised a generous allowance of $100 million annually for 15 years, giving the newly formed nation one of the highest per capita incomes in the developing world ($2,500). One in every three citizens owned a car; living rooms were stocked with video recorders. When the police shot a demonstrator during an isolated outburst ten years ago, flowers were sent to the entire community.

But the fairy tale has become a horror story. Plainclothes police “watchdogs” arrest citizens at random. The university has been closed, along with all but the state-controlled press. Radio stations and trade union headquarters have been blown to rubble; nearly all of the country’s commissioned officers have resigned or been dismissed. Says one of the few locals unafraid to talk: “People are terrified and suspicious of informers everywhere.”

The idyl was shattered one evening last December, when Revolutionary Leader Desi Bouterse ordered the arrest of 16 of the country’s most prominent citizens, including lawyers, journalists and labor leaders. The next morning all but one of them were dead. Doctors later found evidence of knife wounds and cigarette burns on the corpses; teeth and jaws had been broken, while arms had been almost torn from their sockets. Labor Leader Cyril Daal had been ritually castrated. Bou terse, 37, who reportedly killed two of the men, joyfully proclaimed “the building of a new Suriname.” But his 350,000 citizens were less sanguine. Over the past five months, 1,000 have fled; those who remain are subdued. Says one exile: “Suriname has been transformed into a country of mutes.”

Bouterse had stumbled into power in 1980. As a physical-education instructor fighting for the military’s right to form a union, he managed almost inadvertently to overthrow the democratically elected, but divisive, government of Henk Arron. At first, the new regime was so diffident that it hung up a suggestion box soliciting advice on how to run the country, and Bouterse, its popular and athletic leader, even resolved to complete his high school education. Only much later was it discovered that one of his tutors had become his mistress and was schooling him in the writings of Lenin and Marx.

Ironically, Bouterse was initially so suspicious of the left that he expelled a Cuban diplomat suspected of subversive plotting and imprisoned a radical activist for meeting Cuban leaders in Nicaragua. But with the encouragement of Grenada’s Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who had led a Marxist coup on his nearby Caribbean island in 1979, Bouterse drifted gradually leftward. Soon he was visiting Fidel Castro, singing his praises and allowing the Soviets and Cubans to open well-staffed embassies in the riverfront capital of Paramaribo. Nevertheless, Bouterse’s revolutionary fervor remained relatively lackadaisical: he never bothered to nationalize private enterprises or muzzle frequent criticism from the press.

During his first three years in office, the former national marathon champion survived four civilian governments and an estimated six attempted coups. Last October a coalition of lawyers, workers, students and clergy men opposed to Bouterse’s increasingly autocratic rule embarrassingly incapacitated the nation during a state visit by Grenada’s Bishop. Only 1,500 people showed up for a public appearance by Bishop, while a demonstration organized by Labor Leader Daal at the same hour drew 15,000. “Your government is too friendly to its enemies,” Bishop publicly counseled Bouterse. “You must eliminate them or they will eliminate you.” Within six weeks Bouterse had moved against his “enemies.” Then he arrested his closest ally, Roy Horb, who was later found hanging in his cell.

Suriname’s leader remains perplexingly changeable. The “Cuban sympathizer” he once arrested is now his Minister for Mass Mobilization. Moreover, a Bouterse emissary admitted to TIME that the government has made some costly errors. “It is not enough to make decrees from the top, even if it is in the people’s interests,” he said. Then he added darkly, “We don’t want to kill anybody, but we don’t want to sit in a chair and be killed.”

After the December slaughter, Washington retracted its planned $1.5 million in aid and The Netherlands withdrew its subsidy, which amounted to a fourth of Suriname’s budget. Unemployment now runs at around 10%, and the country’s esti mated foreign reserves of $120 million are falling rapidly. Moreover, as head of the country’s angry exile community (180,000 in The Netherlands alone), former Prime Minister Henk Chin A Sen is mobilizing diplomatic support from his bases in The Netherlands and the U.S. Last week he published Horb’s eyewitness account of the executions. Bouterse may nonetheless launch another brutal purge while some 1,000 exiled military men may yet galvanize a disgruntled populace into another coup. But no one can be sure that a change of power would restore democracy or prosperity to Suriname. As Chin A Sen says, “We don’t want to replace Frankenstein with Dracula.” — By Pico Iyer. Reported by William McWhirter/ Paramaribo

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