For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Republic of Suriname
Area: 163,194 sq. km. (63,037 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Georgia.
Cities: Capital--Paramaribo (pop. 243,556). Other cities--Nieuw Nickerie, Moengo.
Terrain: Varies from coastal swamps to savanna to hills.
Nationality: Noun--Surinamer(s). Adjective--Surinamese.
Population (2005 est.): 438,144.
Annual growth rate (2003): 1.30%.
Ethnic groups: Hindustani (East Indian) 37%, Creole 31%, Javanese 15%, Bush Negro 10%, Amerindians 3%, Chinese 1.7% (percentages date from 1972 census, the last in which ethnicity data was collected).
Religions: Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Moravian, several other Christian denominations, Jewish, Baha'i.
Languages: Dutch (official), English, Sranan Tongo (Creole language), Hindustani, Javanese.
Education: Years compulsory--ages 6-12. Literacy--90%. Health: Infant mortality rate (2000)--27.1/1,000. Life expectancy (2003)--71 yrs.
Work force (100,000): Government--35%; private sector--41%; parastatal companies--10%; unemployed--14%.
Type: Constitutional democracy.
Constitution: September 30, 1987.
Independence: November 25, 1975.
Branches: Executive--president, vice president, Council of Ministers. Legislative--elected 51-member National Assembly made up of representatives of political parties. Judicial--Court of Justice.
Administrative subdivisions: 10 districts.
Political parties: Governing Coalition--National Party of Suriname (NPS), Progressive Reform Party (VHP), Pertjaja Luhur, Suriname Workers Party (SPA). Other parties in the National Assembly--Democratic Alternative '91 (DA 91), Democratic National Platform (DNP) 2000, Political Wing of the FAL (Federation of Agricultural Workers), Progressive Workers and Farmers Union (PALU), National Democratic Party (NDP), Democratic Party (DP), Javanese Indonesian Peasants Party (KTPI), Independent Progressive Democratic Alternative (OPDA).
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP (2004 est.): U.S. $1.885 million.
Annual growth rate real GDP (2004 est.): 4.2%.
Per capita GDP (2004 est.): $4,300.
Natural resources: Bauxite, gold, oil, iron ore, other minerals; forests; hydroelectric potential; fish and shrimp.
Agriculture: Products--rice, bananas, timber, and citrus fruits.
Industry: Types--alumina, oil, fish, shrimp, gold, lumber.
Trade (2001): Exports--$479 million (U.S.$): alumina, wood and wood products, rice, bananas, fish, and shrimp. Major markets--U.S. (about 25%), Norway, Netherlands, and other European countries. Imports--$501 million: capital equipment, petroleum, iron and steel products, agricultural products, and consumer goods. Major suppliers--U.S. (about 40%), Netherlands, EU (about 30%), and Caribbean (CARICOM) countries (20%).
Most Surinamers live in the narrow, northern coastal plain. The population is one of the most ethnically varied in the world. Each ethnic group preserves its own culture and many institutions, including political parties, tend to follow ethnic lines. Informal relationships vary: the upper classes of all ethnic backgrounds mix freely; outside of the elite, social relations tend to remain within ethnic groupings. All groups may be found in the schools and workplace.
Arawak and Carib tribes lived in the region before Columbus sighted the coast in 1498. Spain officially claimed the area in 1593, but Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the time gave the area little attention. Dutch settlement began in 1616 at the mouths of several rivers between present-day Georgetown, Guyana, and Cayenne, French Guiana.
Suriname became a Dutch colony in 1667. The new colony, Dutch Guiana, did not thrive. Historians cite several reasons for this, including Holland's preoccupation with its more extensive (and profitable) East Indian territories, violent conflict between whites and native tribes, and frequent uprisings by the imported slave population, which was often treated with extraordinary cruelty. Barely, if at all, assimilated into European society, many of the slaves fled to the interior, where they maintained a West African culture and established the five major Bush Negro tribes in existence today--the Djuka, Saramaccaner, Matuwari, Paramaccaner, and Quinti.
Plantations steadily declined in importance as labor costs rose. Rice, bananas, and citrus fruits replaced the traditional crops of sugar, coffee, and cocoa. Exports of gold rose beginning in 1900. The Dutch Government gave little financial support to the colony. Suriname's economy was transformed in the years following World War I, when an American firm (ALCOA) began exploiting bauxite deposits in East Suriname. Bauxite processing and then alumina production began in 1916. During World War II, more than 75% of U.S. bauxite imports came from Suriname.
In 1951, Suriname began to acquire a growing measure of autonomy from the Netherlands. Suriname became an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on December 15, 1954, and gained independence on November 25, 1975.
Most of Suriname's political parties took shape during the autonomy period and were overwhelmingly based on ethnicity. For example, the National Party of Suriname found its support among the Creoles, the Progressive Reform Party members came from the Hindustani population, and the Indonesian Peasant's Party was Javanese. Other smaller parties found support by appealing to voters on an ideological or pro-independence platform; the Partij Nationalistische Republiek (PNR) was among the most important. Its members pressed most strongly for independence and for the introduction of leftist political and economic measures. Many former PNR members would go on to play a key role following the coup of February 1980.
Suriname was a working parliamentary democracy in the years immediately following independence. Henk Arron became the first Prime Minister and was re-elected in 1977. On February 25, 1980, 16 noncommissioned officers overthrew the elected government. The military-dominated government then suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature, and formed a regime that ruled by decree. Although a civilian filled the post of president, a military man, Desi Bouterse, actually ruled the country.
Throughout 1982, pressure grew for a return to civilian rule. In response, the military ordered drastic action. Early in December 1982, military authorities arrested and killed 15 prominent opposition leaders, including journalists, lawyers, and trade union leaders.
Following the murders, the United States and the Netherlands suspended economic and military cooperation with the Bouterse regime, which increasingly began to follow an erratic but generally leftist-oriented political course. Economic decline rapidly set in after the suspension of economic aid from the Netherlands. The regime restricted the press and limited the rights of its citizens.
Continuing economic decline brought pressure for change. During the 1984-87 period, the Bouterse regime tried to end the crisis by appointing a succession of nominally civilian-led cabinets. Many figures in the government came from the traditional political parties that had been shoved aside during the coup. The military eventually agreed to free elections in 1987, a new constitution, and a civilian government.
Another pressure for change had erupted in July 1986, when a Bush Negro (aka Maroon) insurgency, led by former soldier Ronnie Brunswijk, began attacking economic targets in the country's interior. In response, the army ravaged villages and killed suspected Brunswijk supporters. Thousands of Bush Negroes fled to nearby French Guiana. In an effort to end the bloodshed, the Surinamese Government negotiated a peace treaty, called the Kourou Accord, with Brunswijk in 1989. However, Bouterse and other military leaders blocked the accord's implementation.
On December 24, 1990, military officers forced the resignations of the civilian President and Vice President elected in 1987. Military-selected replacements were hastily approved by the National Assembly on December 29. Faced with mounting pressure from the U.S., other nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and other international organizations, the government held new elections on May 25, 1991. The New Front (NF) Coalition, comprised of the Creole National Party of Suriname (NPS), the Hindustani Progressive Reform Party (VHP), the Javanese Indonesian Peasant's Party (KTPI), and the Surinamese Workers Party (SPA) were able to win a majority in the National Assembly. On September 6, 1991, NPS candidate Ronald Venetiaan was elected President, and the VHP's Jules Ajodhia became Vice President of the New Front Coalition government.
The Venetiaan government was able to effect a settlement to Suriname's domestic insurgency through the August 1992 Peace Accord with Bush Negro and Amerindian rebels. In April 1993, Desi Bouterse left his position as commander of the armed forces and was replaced by Arthy Gorre, a military officer committed to bringing the armed forces under civilian government control. Economic reforms instituted by the Venetiaan government eventually helped curb inflation, unify the official and unofficial exchange rates, and improve the government's economic situation by re-establishing relations with the Dutch, thereby opening the way for a major influx of Dutch financial assistance. Despite these successes, the governing coalition lost support and failed to retain control of the government in the subsequent round of national elections. The rival National Democratic Party (NDP), founded in the early 1990s by Desi Bouterse, benefited from the New Front government's loss of popularity. The NDP won more National Assembly seats (16 of 51) than any other party in the May 1996 national elections and in September 1996, joined with the KTPI, dissenters from the VHP, and several smaller parties to elect NDP vice chairman Jules Wijdenbosch president of a NDP-led coalition government. Divisions and subsequent reshufflings of coalition members in the fall of 1997 and early 1998 weakened the coalition's mandate and slowed legislative action.
In May 1999, after mass demonstrations protesting poor economic conditions, the government was forced to call early elections. The elections in May 2000 returned Ronald Venetiaan and his coalition to the presidency. The NF ran its campaign on a platform to fix the faltering Surinamese economy. But while the Venetiaan administration has made progress in stabilizing the economy, tensions within the coalition and the impatience of the populace have impeded progress.
Relations with the Dutch have been complicated by Dutch prosecution of Desi Bouterse in absentia on drug charges, and legal maneuvering by Dutch prosecutors trying to bring charges relating to the December 1982 murders. (A Dutch appellate court in 2000 found Bouterse guilty of one drug-related charge; the decision was upheld on appeal.) A key component of the relationship is the 600 million Dutch guilders (Nf.) remaining from Nf. 2.5 billion promised for development at independence. The disposition of the funds was a matter of much discussion during recent Dutch cabinet-level visits intended to lay the groundwork to restart the flow of guilders, which the Dutch stanched in response to irresponsible spending by the Wijdenbosch administration. The parties are at odds over the control of the funds, and needed aid has not flowed to the country.
In August 2001, the Dutch provided a triple-A state guarantee to enable the Surinamese Government to receive a 10-year loan from the Dutch Development Bank (NTO) for the amount of Euro 137.7 million (U.S. $125 million). The loan has an interest rate of 5.18% per year and was used to consolidate floating government debts. U.S. $32 million of the loan was used to pay off foreign loans, which had been taken under unfavorable conditions by the Wijdenbosch government. The remaining 93 million of the loan was used to pay off debts at the Central Bank of Suriname. This enabled the Central Bank to strengthen its foreign currency position according to the IMF standards to the equivalency of 3 months of imports.
In the national election held on May 25, 2005, the ruling NF coalition suffered a significant setback due to widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and a public perception that the NF had produce few tangible gains for the country. The NF won just 24 seats, falling short of a simple majority in the National Assembly, and immediately entered into negotiations with the Maroon-based "A" Combination and the A-1 Coalition to form a working majority. Desi Bouterse's NDP better than doubled its representation in the National Assembly, winning 15 seats. Bouterse, who had placed himself as the NDP's declared presidential candidate, withdrew from the race days before the National Assembly convened to vote for the next president and tapped his running mate, Rabin Parmessar, to run as the NDP's candidate. In the National Assembly, the NF challenged Parmessar's Surinamese citizenship, displaying copies of a Dutch passport issued to Parmessar in 2004. After two votes, no candidate received the required two-thirds majority. The presidential race will therefore be decided by a special session of the United People's Assembly in August 2005.
The Republic of Suriname is a constitutional democracy based on the 1987 constitution. The legislative branch of government consists of a 51-member unicameral National Assembly, simultaneously and popularly elected for a 5-year term.
The executive branch is headed by the president, who is elected by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly or, failing that, by a majority of the People's Assembly for a 5-year term. If at least two-thirds of the National Assembly cannot agree to vote for one presidential candidate, a People's Assembly is formed from all National Assembly delegates and regional and municipal representatives who were elected by popular vote in the most recent national election. A vice president, normally elected at the same time as the president, needs a simple majority in the National Assembly or People's Assembly to be elected for a 5-year term. As head of government, the president appoints a cabinet of ministers. There is no constitutional provision for removal or replacement of the president unless he resigns.
A 15-member State Advisory Council advises the president in the conduct of policy. Eleven of the 15 council seats are allotted by proportional representation of all political parties represented in the National Assembly. The president chairs the council, and two seats are allotted to representatives of labor, and two are allotted to employers' organizations.
The judiciary is headed by the Court of Justice (Supreme Court). This court supervises the magistrate courts. Members are appointed for life by the president in consultation with the National Assembly, the State Advisory Council, and the National Order of Private Attorneys.
The country is divided into 10 administrative districts, each headed by a district commissioner appointed by the president. The commissioner is similar to the governor of a U.S. State but serves at the president's pleasure.
Principal Government Officials
President--Runaldo Ronald Venetiaan
Vice President--Jules Rattankoemar Ajodhia
Foreign Minister--Maria Levens
Ambassador to U.S.--Henry Lothar Illes
Ambassador to UN--Ewald Limon
Ambassador to OAS--Henry Lothar Illes
Suriname maintains an embassy in the United States at 4301 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 460, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-7488; fax 202-244-5878). There also is a Suriname consulate general at 7235 NW 19th St., Suite A, Miami, FL 33136 (tel. 305-593-2163).
Surinamese armed forces consist of the national army under the control of the Minister of Defense and a smaller civil police force, which is responsible to the Minister of Justice and Police. The national armed forces comprise some 2,200 personnel, the majority of whom are deployed as light infantry security forces. A small air force, navy, and military police also exist. The Netherlands has provided limited military assistance to the Surinamese armed forces since the election of a democratic government in 1991. In recent years, the U.S. has provided training to military officers and policymakers to promote a better understanding of the role of the military in a civilian government. Also, since the mid-1990s, the People's Republic of China has been donating military equipment and logistical material to the Surinamese Armed Forces.
The backbone of Suriname's economy is the export of alumina and small amounts of aluminum produced from bauxite mined in the country. In 1999, the aluminum smelter was closed. However, alumina exports accounted for 72% of Suriname's estimated export earnings of $496.6 million in 2001. Suriname's bauxite deposits have been among the world's richest.
In 1984, SURALCO, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), formed a joint venture with the Royal Dutch Shell-owned Billiton Company, which did not process the bauxite it mined in Suriname. Under this agreement, both companies share risks and profits.
Inexpensive power costs are Suriname's big advantage in the energy-intensive alumina and aluminum business. In the 1960s, ALCOA built a $150-million dam for the production of hydroelectric energy at Afobaka (south of Brokopondo), which created a 1,560-sq. km. (600-sq. mi.) lake, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world.
The major mining sites at Moengo and Lelydorp are maturing, and it is now estimated that their reserves will be depleted by 2006. Other proven reserves exist in the east, west, and north of the country sufficient to last until 2045. However, distance and topography make their immediate development costly. In October 2002, Alcoa and BHP Billiton signed a letter of intent as the basis for new joint ventures between the two companies, in which Alcoa will take part for 55% in all bauxite mining activities in West Suriname. The government and the companies are looking into cost-effective ways to develop the new mines. The preeminence of bauxite and ALCOA's continued presence in Suriname are key elements in the U.S.-Suriname economic relationship.
A member of CARICOM, Suriname also exports rice, shrimp, timber, bananas, fruits, and vegetables. Gold mining is unregulated by the government, and this important part of the informal economy (estimated at as much as 100% of GDP) must be brought into the realm of tax and environmental authorities. Suriname has attracted the attention of international companies in gold exploration and exploitation as well as those interested in extensive development of a tropical hardwoods industry and possible diamond mining. However, proposals for exploitation of the country's tropical forests and undeveloped regions of the interior traditionally inhabited by indigenous and Maroon communities have raised the concerns of environmentalists and human rights activists both in Suriname and abroad. Oil is a promising sector; current output is 12,000 barrels a day, and regional geology suggests additional potential. Staatsolie, the state-owned oil company, is actively seeking international joint venture partners.
At independence, Suriname signed an agreement with the Netherlands providing for about $1.5 billion in development assistance grants and loans over a 10- to 15-year period. Dutch assistance allocated to Suriname thus amounted to about $100 million per year, but was discontinued during periods of military rule. After the return to a democratically elected government in 1991, Dutch aid resumed. The Dutch relationship continues to be an important factor in the economy, with the Dutch insisting that Suriname undertake economic reforms and produce specific plans acceptable to the Dutch for projects on which aid funds could be spent. In 2000, however, the Dutch revised the structure of their aid package and signaled to the Surinamese authorities their decision to disburse aid by sectoral priorities as opposed to individual projects. Although the present government is not in favor of this approach, it has identified sectors and is now working on sectoral analyses to present to the Dutch.
From 1991 to 1992, Suriname's economic situation showed some improvement, and measures taken in 1993 led to economic stabilization, a relatively stable exchange rate, low inflation, sustainable fiscal policies, and growth, However, Suriname's economic situation has deteriorated since 1996, due in large part to loose fiscal policies of the Wijdenbosch government, which, in the face of lower Dutch development aid, financed its deficit through credit extended by the Central Bank. As a consequence, the parallel market for foreign exchange soared so that by the end of 1998, the premium of the parallel market rate over the official rate was 85%. Since more than 90% of import transactions took place at the parallel rate, inflation took off, with 12-month inflation growing from 0.5% at the end of 1996 to 23% at the end of 1998 and 113% at the end of 1999. The government also instituted a regime of stringent economic controls over prices, the exchange rate, imports, and exports in an effort to contain the adverse effects of its economic policies. The cumulative impact of soaring inflation, an unstable exchange rate, and falling real incomes led to a political crisis.
Suriname elected a new government in May 2000, but until it was replaced, the Wijdenbosch government continued its loose fiscal and monetary policies. By the time it left office, the exchange rate in the parallel market had depreciated further, over 10% of GDP had been borrowed to finance the fiscal deficit, and there was a significant monetary overhang in the country. The new government dealt with these problems by devaluing the official exchange rate by 88%, eliminating all other exchange rates except the parallel market rate set by the banks and cambios, raising tariffs on water and electricity, and eliminating the subsidy on gasoline. The new administration also rationalized the extensive list of price controls to 12 basic food items. More important, the government ceased all financing from the Central Bank. It is attempting to broaden its economic base, establish better contacts with other nations and international financial institutions, and reduce its dependence on Dutch assistance. However, to date the government has yet to implement an investment law or to begin privatization of any of the 110 parastatal, nor has it given much indication that it has developed a comprehensive plan to grow the economy.
State-owned banana producer Surland closed its doors on April 5, 2002, after its inability to meet payroll expenses for the second month in a row; it is still unclear if Surland will survive its current crisis. Moreover, in January 2002, the current government renegotiated civil servant wages (a significant part of the work force and a significant portion of government expenditure), agreeing to raises as high as 100%. Pending implementation of these wage increases and concerned that the government may be unable to meet these increased expenses, the local currency weakened from Sf 2200 in January 2002 to nearly Sf 2500 in April 2002. On March 26, 2003, the Central Bank of Suriname (CBvS) adjusted the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar. This action resulted in further devaluation of the Surinamese guilder. In 2004, the administration introduced a new currency, the Surinamese dollar (SRD), to replace the guilder. The government has kept the SRD exchange rate relatively stable since its inception, at around 2.7 SRD per U.S. dollar. However, uncertainty surrounding the May 25, 2005 election has put pressure on the currency.
Since gaining independence, Suriname has become a member of the United Nations, the OAS, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Suriname is a member of the Caribbean Community and Common Market and the Association of Caribbean States; it is associated with the European Union through the Lome Convention. Suriname participates in the Amazonian Pact, a grouping of the countries of the Amazon Basin that focuses on protection of the Amazon region's natural resources from environmental degradation. Reflecting its status as a major bauxite producer, Suriname is also a member of the International Bauxite Association. The country also belongs to the Economic Commission for Latin America, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Suriname became a member of the Islamic Development Bank in 1998, under the Wijdenbosch government.
Bilateral agreements with several countries of the region, covering diverse areas of cooperation, have underscored the government's interest in strengthening regional ties. The return to Suriname from French Guiana of about 8,000 refugees of the 1986-91 civil war between the military and domestic insurgents has improved relations with French authorities. Longstanding border disputes with Guyana and French Guiana remain unresolved. Negotiations with the Government of Guyana brokered by the Jamaican Prime Minister in 2000 did not produce an agreement, but the countries agreed to restart talks after Guyanese national elections in 2001. In January 2002, the presidents of Suriname and Guyana met in Suriname and agreed to resume negotiations, establishing the Suriname-Guyana border commission. An earlier dispute with Brazil ended amicably after formal demarcation of the border.
In May 1997, then-President Wijdenbosch joined President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown, Barbados. The summit strengthened the basis for regional cooperation on justice and counternarcotics issues, finance and development, and trade.
Since the reestablishment of a democratic, elected government in 1991, the United States has maintained positive and mutually beneficial relations with Suriname based on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law, and civilian authority over the military. To strengthen civil society and bolster democratic institutions, the U.S. has provided training regarding appropriate roles for the military in civil society to some of Suriname's military officers and decision makers.
Narcotics trafficking organizations appear to be channeling increasing quantities of cocaine through Suriname for repackaging and transport to Europe and the United States; and of XTC for transport to the United States. To assist Suriname in the fight against drugs and associated criminal activity, the U.S. has helped train Surinamese anti-drug squad personnel. The U.S. Peace Corps in Suriname works with the Ministry of Regional Development and rural communities to encourage community development in Suriname's interior.
Suriname is densely forested and has thus far suffered little from deforestation, but increased interest in large-scale commercial logging and mining in Suriname's interior have raised environmental concerns. The U.S. Forest Service, the Smithsonian, and numerous non-governmental environmental organizations have promoted technical cooperation with Suriname's government to prevent destruction of the country's tropical rain forest, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. U.S. experts have worked closely with local natural resource officials to encourage sustainable development of the interior and alternatives such as ecotourism. Suriname's tourism sector remains a minor part of the economy, and tourist infrastructure is limited (in 2000, some 56,843 foreign tourists visited Suriname). On December 1, 2000, UNESCO designated the 1.6-million hectare Central Suriname Nature Reserve a World Heritage site.
Suriname's efforts in recent years to liberalize economic policy created new possibilities for U.S. exports and investments. The U.S. remains one of Suriname's principal trading partners, largely due to ALCOA's longstanding investment in Suriname's bauxite mining and processing industry. More than one-half of world exports to Suriname originate in the United States. Several U.S. corporations are active in Suriname, largely in the mining, consumer goods, and service sectors. Principal U.S. exports to Suriname include chemicals, aircraft, vehicles, machine parts, meat, and wheat. U.S. consumer products are increasingly available through Suriname's many trading companies. Opportunities for U.S. exporters, service companies, and engineering firms will probably expand over the next decade.
Suriname is looking to U.S. and other foreign investors to assist in the commercial development of its vast natural resources and to help finance infrastructure improvements. Enactment of a new investment code and intellectual property rights protection legislation, which would strengthen Suriname's attractiveness to investors, has been discussed, and recently some progress has been made. The investment law was approved by the National Assembly and is currently being revised by the Ministry of Finance.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Marsha E. Barnes
Deputy Chief of Mission--Mary Beth Leonard
Defense Attache--Frank Grimm
Political/Economic Office--Thomas Walsh
Management Officer--David Lamontagne
Consular Officer--Natalia Ioffe
Peace Corps Country Director--Charles Childers
The U.S. Embassy in Paramaribo is located at Dr. Sophie Redmondstraat 129, P.O. Box 1821, Paramaribo, Suriname (tel. 597-472900, 597-476459; fax: 597- 410025).
Other Contact Information
U.S. Department of Commerce
International Trade Administration
Office of Latin America and the Caribbean
14th and Constitution, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Tel: 202-482-1658, 202-USA-TRADE
Caribbean/Latin American Action
1818 N Street, NW Suite 310
Washington, DC 20036