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,
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. Bouterse and other military leaders blocked the
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 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.
Suriname History Bibliography