Suriname: “We are tired!” – Eruption of mass anti-government protests

Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the Latin-America coast, bordering Brazil in the south, has seen big upheavals in the last months. In April and May thousands of people took to the streets against the government of President Dési Bouterse. On the 6 April and 13 May, 10,000 workers and youth demonstrated, which are large numbers considering that Suriname has a population of half a million. At the start, the protests were aimed against the rise in fuel prices, but soon the demonstrators demanded the stepping down of the government. Suriname has been in a deep economic crisis for almost two years, poverty has increased enormously and so has the anger of workers and youth.

Bouterse was elected as president for the first time in 2010, even though he led a military dictatorship in the 1980s and despite his involvement in the “December-killings” (in 1982, 15 opponents of the dictatorship, mainly journalists and union leaders, were tortured and executed) and in the drug trade, for which he was convicted in a Dutch court.

Under the previous government the economy grew, but working people did not profit. Bouterse successfully sought support from the poorest layers of society, with populist and apparently anti-imperialist rhetoric. During the first years, his government did carry through some considerable social reforms, such as the introduction of a minimum wage, free health care for children and the elderly, and a rise in pensions.

In 2015, Bouterse’s party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), won a major victory, when he was re-elected president and the NDP won an absolute majority in parliament.

But soon after that, the economy declined, largely due by to the fall in the price of oil and gold (Suriname’s main export products) on the world market. There was negative growth of 10%. The government carried through devaluations of the Surinamese dollar, meant to stimulate exports but which led to high inflation. Prices of goods in the shops doubled, while wages stayed largely the same. A huge increase in poverty is the result.

The government also cut a deal with the IMF. Suriname would receive a loan of almost half a billion American dollars, but had to carry through draconian cuts; scrapping of subsidies for fuel, water and electricity, lowering wages and laying off of government workers. As in Greece, the IMF wanted to let the Surinamese workers and poor pay for a crisis they did not cause. Many taking part in recent protesters shouted slogans against the IMF.

Government U-Turn

The first protests started in 2015, with one worker, Curtis Hofwijks, sitting in a town square with a protest placard. Soon others joined in and the movement, “We zijn moe” (“We are tired”) came into being. The protests became really big this year. In April and May, almost every day, week after week, people took to the streets and trade unions and opposition parties joined in. The new generation has not experienced military dictatorship and is no longer afraid of Bouterse and the State.

The government was forced to make a U-turn. The deal with the IMF was cancelled after the first payment because the government feared the social unrest that would develop if they carried through the cuts the IMF demanded in return for the loan. VAT on fuel was not increased and the scrapping of subsidies on electricity was partly turned back.

In the meantime, a court case about the December killings re-opened, with Bouterse as the main suspect. Bouterse tries to use his position as president to sabotage the case but he would not be able to do this so effectively if he was forced to resign as president. This is another reason for Bouterse to cling on to power.

Important as the recent demonstrations are, more action will be needed to bring the government down and to see fundamental change in society.

The unions should develop an action plan of strikes, leading to a general strike, as a next step to topple the government. The establishment of action committees in the neighbourhoods, villages and workplaces, would give young people and workers the opportunity to get more involved in the struggle and to discuss the demands, strategy and organisation needed for success. There is a great need for the development of a political alternative. All traditional parties are tainted with corruption and reactionary social policies and are also based on ethnic groups instead of the interests of the whole working class, the youth and the poor. All of them are linked to the rich, corrupt elite. Take for example Ronnie Brunswijk who is coming to the fore again as opponent of Bouterse (he was Bouterse’s bodyguard, then from 1985-1992 waged war against him in the jungle but later cooperated again). Brunswijk is one of the biggest gold mine owners of the country.

There is the potential for a new mass party of workers and youth developing out of the recent movement. Such a party should base itself on a socialist programme: the extension of subsidies to cover all basic living costs, a rise in wages and investment in healthcare and education. The rich elite should pay for this programme, not only through higher taxes, but also by taking the source of their wealth from them: nationalising the financial institutions and raw material industries. Because without a fundamental break with capitalism, crisis and poverty cannot be ended; this means struggling for a socialist Suriname, as part of a socialist federation of Latin America.

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