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Suriname’s strained relations with the Netherlands and the United States improved somewhat in 2011 following the 2010 election of former dictator Desiré Bouterse as president. He had been convicted on drug-trafficking charges in the Netherlands, and has been accused of killing his political opponents in the 1980s.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, after more than three centuries of colonial rule. A 1980 military coup led by Desiré Bouterse established a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition and initiated a decade of military intervention in politics. In 1987, Bouterse permitted elections, which were handily won by the center-right New Front for Democracy and Development (NF), a coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties. The National Democratic Party (NDP), organized by the military, won just three out of 51 seats in the National Assembly.
The army ousted the elected government in 1990, and Bouterse again took power in a bloodless coup, but international pressure led to new elections in 1991. The NF again won a majority in the parliament, which chose the NF’s candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president. Power passed to the NDP in the 1996 elections, with Bouterse ally Jules Wijdenbosch as president, then returned to the NF and Venetiaan after early elections in 2000.
In 2001, Fred Derby—the star witness in the trial of Bouterse and others for 15 political killings committed in December 1982—suffered a fatal heart attack that initially appeared to rob the prosecution of key testimony. However, the government vowed that testimony given by Derby during a preliminary hearing would be submitted at trial.
In 2004, the NF government’s fiscal austerity program helped to stabilize prices and the economy, though the policy’s negative side effects led to increased voter discontent. In the May 2005 elections, the NF managed to remain the single largest political force, but its failure to win a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly prevented it from electing a president. In August, a United People’s Assembly consisting of 891 members—including national, regional, and local lawmakers—gave Venetiaan his third term as president, with 560 votes for the incumbent versus 315 for the NDP’s Rabindre Parmessar.
In 2007, Suriname’s courts ordered officials to proceed with the long-delayed prosecution of Bouterse and nine other suspects for the 1982 “December murders.” Bouterse denied involvement in the killings, although in March 2007, he accepted political responsibility and offered a public apology. The trial, regarded as a landmark test for Suriname’s judicial system, began in November 2008. It advanced during 2009, following frequent delays, and featured the testimony of six bystanders who had fled the country and settled in the Netherlands after witnessing the executions.
Bouterse’s Mega Combination coalition—comprising the NDP and three smaller parties—won legislative elections held in May 2010, capturing 40 percent of the vote and 23 seats in the parliament. The NF placed second, with approximately 32 percent of the vote and 14 seats. In the July presidential election, Bouterse won with 70.6 percent of the parliamentary vote, defeating NF candidate Chandrikapersad Santokhi. As president, Bouterse had the power to grant amnesty to those involved in the 1982 murders, but the charges had not been dropped by the end of 2011. The ongoing trial was suspended again in October, when 19 defense witnesses failed to appear.
Only Bharrat Jagdeo, neighboring Guyana’s president, attended Bouterse’s August 2010 inauguration. International travel was also difficult for Bouterse, with an Interpol warrant out for his arrest and a drug-trafficking conviction in the Netherlands still outstanding. However, he remained protected from arrest in Suriname because the country lacked an extradition treaty with the Netherlands, and as head of state, he was immune from prosecution abroad.
Foreign relations, which had been damaged following Bouterse’s election, underwent some improvements in 2011. In August, the Netherlands announced that it would cooperate with Suriname on trade and economic issues, as well as on containing illegal immigration. The United States announced its intentions to normalize relations with Suriname after the country repaid a portion of its U.S. debt; in October, the two governments signed a antinarcotics agreement. Suriname also hosted several international conferences during the year that helped raise its stature before the international community.
Suriname is an electoral democracy. The Organization of American States reported that the 2010 legislative and presidential elections met international standards. The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51-seat National Assembly, elected by proportional representation for five-year terms. The body elects the president to five-year terms with a two-thirds majority. If it is unable to do so, a United People’s Assembly—consisting of lawmakers from the national, regional, and local levels—convenes to choose the president by a simple majority. A Council of State made up of the president and representatives of major societal groupings—including labor unions, business, the military, and the legislature—has veto power over legislation deemed to violate the constitution.
Political parties largely reflect the cleavages in Suriname’s ethnically diverse society, although political-racial discord is much less acute than in neighboring Guyana. Suriname’s major parties include the NDP, the National Party of Suriname (NPS), and the People’s Alliance for Progress. The NF is a coalition of the NPS and several smaller parties.
Suriname has been plagued by corruption cases in recent years, and organized crime and drug networks continue to hamper governance. In December 2010, President Desiré Bouterse fired Martinus Sastroredjo, his minister of spatial planning, land, and forestry management, after Sastroredjo refused to resign over a controversy involving his wife and a land application.
The constitution provides for freedoms of expression and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Some media outlets engage in occasional self-censorship due to fear of reprisal from members of the former military leadership or pressure from senior government officials and others who object to critical stories about the administration. However, the trial of Bouterse for the “December murders” has been freely covered by the local press. There are two privately owned daily newspapers, De Ware Tijd and De West. A number of small commercial radio stations compete with the government-owned radio and television broadcasting systems, resulting in a generally pluralistic range of viewpoints. Public access to government information is legally recognized, though it is very limited in practice. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
The authorities generally respect freedom of religion and do not infringe on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are provided for by the constitution, and the government respects these rights in practice. Workers can join independent trade unions, though civil servants have no legal right to strike. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. The labor movement is active in politics.
The judiciary is susceptible to political influence and suffers from a significant shortage of judges and a large backlog of cases. The courts and prisons are seriously overburdened by the volume of people detained for narcotics trafficking. Police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests. Suriname is a signatory to the 2001 agreement establishing the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the final venue of appeal for member states of the Caribbean Community, but has yet to ratify the CCJ as its own final court of appeal. Suriname is a major transit point for cocaine en route to Europe, and poor law enforcement capabilities have resulted in a rising tide of drug money entering the country.
Discrimination against indigenous and tribal groups is widespread, and Surinamese law offers such groups no special protection or recognition. As a result, Amerindians, who live mostly outside urban areas, have only a marginal ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and natural resources. Tribal people known as Maroons are the descendants of escaped African slaves who formed autonomous communities in the interior during the 17th and 18th centuries. Their rights to lands and resources, cultural integrity, and the autonomous administration of their affairs are not recognized in Surinamese law. In September 2009, some 65 Guyanese migrants were forcefully deported from the western districts of Suriname during “Operation Koetai.” The deportations, while aimed at cracking down on smuggling and other illegal border activity, fueled tensions between Guyana and Suriname. However, a November 2010 agreement to seek Chinese investment to build a bridge between the two countries indicated that the incident had not damaged relations.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not adequately enforced. Human trafficking remains a problem, and the country lacks a comprehensive law specifically banning the practice. However, several organizations address violence against women and related issues. In July 2011, a member of parliament denounced homosexuality and called on the government to state its position, but it has not adopted an antigay policy to date.