Suriname election: can pandemic help outlaw leader get away with murder?

With the economy in tatters, corruption scandals piling up – and a recent mass murder conviction to add to his previous guilty verdicts for drug trafficking, it seemed until recently that President Desi Bouterse’s 40-year grip on power in Suriname was coming to an end.

But as South America’s smallest country heads into an election on 25 May, the Covid-19 pandemic may have thrown him a lifeline.

Bouterse is the great survivor of South American politics – and its most outrageous outlaw. After coming to power as the leader of a 1980 coup, Bouterse ruled as military dictator before adopting a behind-the-scenes role in the 1990s and 2000s.

He was elected president in 2010, proving uniquely able to win support across the many ethnic groups that make up the former Dutch colony’s population of half a million. He was re-elected at the head of his National Democratic party (NDP) with a smaller margin in 2015.

Over his last decade in office, he has tried to delay and disrupt a legal case over his role in the 1982 murder of 15 prominent opposition members at Fort Zeelandia, a pink-brick fortified chateau in Paramaribo, the capital. But in December a military court found him guilty of murder.

He is appealing the decision and looks unlikely to see the inside of a cell, but the verdict marked a victory for the opposition.

“That the president could be convicted by an independent court is a compliment to the independence of our justice system. It shows that no one is above the law,” said Chan Santokhi, leader of the opposition Progressive Reform party (known by its Dutch initials VHP) – and a former chief of police who led the investigation into the murders.

The criminal dealings of the Bouterse family are widely known. In 1999 Dutch courts convicted Bouterse in absentia of smuggling nearly half a ton of cocaine into the country, meaning he can no longer travel to countries with extradition treaties with the Netherlands.

His son, Dino, currently resides in a Mississippi prison cell, having offered Suriname as a base for Hezbollah operations to DEA agents working a sting. In 2011 Bouterse granted a pardon to his foster son, Romano Meriba, who had been convicted in 2005 of the murder of a Chinese trader and of throwing a hand grenade at the Dutch ambassador’s residence.

Such scandals have not dented Bouterse’s appeal. With the no-nonsense aspect of a heavyweight boxer and a melodious voice he deploys in man-of-the-people speeches and impressive Frank Sinatra renditions, Bouterse cultivates a lovable tough-guy image that has won him widespread popularity among working-class Surinamers.

But if his persona reminded some of Hugo Chávez – who he considered a friend and ally until the Venezuelan president’s death in 2013 – then so, too, did his fiscal profligacy and disdain for democratic institutions. He boosted social spending and doled out public sector jobs to allies even as gold and aluminium exports – the country’s primary source of revenue – tanked.

To cover the cracks, the government raised more than $1.5bn in Chinese loans, development finance and a $550m 10-year bond from Oppenheimer, a New York investment bank.

It wasn’t enough. The currency collapsed, the major credit ratings agencies devalued Suriname to junk status and by May, the Oppenheimer bonds were trading at 35% of their original price. According to Winston Ramautarsing, head of the Surinamese Society of Economists, 38% of government income goes to servicing debt. “The situation is unsustainable, we don’t have enough income to pay local salaries and – having taken expensive loans from all over – we are now going to pay the true cost,” he said.

In February the situation came to a head when a $100m hole in foreign currency reserves was discovered after the Central Bank had ordered commercial banks to place 50% of deposits with them.

“We warned the banks that the Central Bank was broke and not to be trusted – it hasn’t published a report since 2014 – but they didn’t listen, and the Central Bank used the savers’ foreign exchange to cover the government’s imports,” said Ramautarsing.

Suriname’s long-term economic prospects could be brighter, however.

In January international oil firms announced they had discovered offshore oil, leading to speculation that the reserves recently developed in Guyana could extend into Surinamese waters. If Bouterse can cling on to power, his next term could see billions of dollars of foreign investment.

Until recently, however, that seemed unlikely. “The loss of purchasing power as a result of the weak currency has cost Bouterse a lot of middle-class support, particularly in the capital where opposition parties have grown rapidly” said Hans Breeveld, a political analyst at Anton de Kom University in Paramaribo.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has stalled the opposition’s momentum. To date the country has had 11 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and one death, but a curfew and social distancing measures have been in place since 8 April, cutting off the sparsely populated forested inland regions from the coast.

That has made it impossible for opposition groups to organize rallies
or reach inland areas. The pandemic has prompted to the EU to cancel its election observation mission, although the Organization of American States (OAS) will send a 10-person team.

“In the interior you need just 700 votes for some seats, compared to 7,000 in the capital. There’s been no oversight of what’s happening in the interior and Bouterse’s party has a history of using national funds for his campaigns,” said Breeveld.

Santokhi warned that a failure to oust Bouterse would have wider ramifications for the region.

“Surinamers have a choice between a better future or to become the next Venezuela” he says. “Should Bouterse retain power, the Caribbean region can expect to see economic refugees and cross border crime.”