Suriname is a small country that achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975. It has a diverse population, comprising creoles, bush negroes, Amerindians, Hindustanis, and Javanese, largely the result of the search for cheap, servile labor by the former Dutch masters. When it was newly free, this multiethnic society faced the principal task of establishing a reasonable political system to replace the controlling hand of the colonial power that kept its various elements in check. It has been a daunting task; “received institutions” did not prosper. Most of the leaders of the new nation had more experience in opposing central power than in exercising it, and most were too focused on constituent interests to build consensus.
In this book, Edward Dew traces the initial steps of the new nation with balance and scholarly detail. He knows the country and its people well and demonstrates that he cares. Suriname and the scholarly community are both fortunate to have such an able chronicler so early in the game. This is not to imply that the work is easy going, however. The initial chapters operate in a fog of acronyms and a proliferation of political parties that tax the reader severely. But it would be hard to suggest a better way, because confusion (too much democracy?) also contributed to the collapse of the first civilian governments.
The remainder of the book is easier to follow; it revolves mainly around the rule of Desi Bouterse, another in the long line of noncommissioned officers to seize power around the world. (It shakes one’s faith that the pages of history are littered with so many grubby tyrants like him.) Dew suggests that Suriname’s revolution of 1980 was influenced by events in Nicaragua and Grenada, and clearly Bouterse regarded Fidel Castro, Maurice Bishop, and Muammar Qaddafi as role models. Bouterse rapidly followed his own path, however, substituting brutal repression for vision or program. Bouterse claimed to serve the poor but enriched himself shamelessly. He delivered a beautiful Christmas Eve address in 1982, invoking “the triumph of light over darkness,” just 17 days after murdering 15 opposition leaders, shot “attempting to escape.” One does not have to travel to Rwanda, Somalia, or Bosnia to discover atrocities and “ethnic cleansing”; Bouterse’s campaigns against the “Jungle Commando” (bush negro) uprising in 1986-87 were savage and underreported. Given this flawed record, democracy was “restored” in 1987, but the military (sans Bouterse?) returned for a second try in 1990.
Permeating Suriname’s political turmoil has been its economic condition. Suriname was once relatively well off; today it is dirt poor. Dew tries to explain why, guided by the concern that for Suriname’s own good “the more unfortunate and unpleasant experiences” in its history must “not be distorted or forgotten.” This is an honest book, and the author brings into account “ethnic politics,” a “rogue military,” “outside brokers,” and “corrupt elites.” As it demonstrates, the “trouble” in Suriname continues.