The situation exploded in Suriname on Friday 17 February. Protests against Surinamese President Chan Santokhi's policies in Paramaribo led to a storming of the National Assembly, followed by riots and looting of shops. After a one-day curfew and over 100 arrests, calm has now seemingly been restored. What is going on?
Several commentators in the Surinamese and Dutch bourgeois press spoke of 'un-Surinamese' events. In one sense, this is correct. We have not seen such an explosion in the former Dutch colony for a long time.
Superficial commentators compare the situation to the storming of the Capitol building in the US in 2021 and the recent storming of the Brazilian parliament by supporters of Bolsonaro. These comparisons serve only to allow commentators to weep that 'democracy' is under pressure. However, the events in the US and Brazil were organised actions by reactionary supporters of the countries’ former presidents. The situation in Suriname is fundamentally different.
The protest – which included a strike – was organised by trade unionists and opposition activists who oppose the Chan Santokhi government. It was a progressive protest against the policies of a capitalist government, which have caused huge discontent. There were some 5,000 people on the streets of Paramaribo, representing almost 1 percent of the small country's population (comparable to a protest of 150,000 people in the Netherlands).
There is a material basis for this. Inflation in the country is 54.7 percent from a year ago. For bread, cereals, fruits and vegetables, these rates reach between 74 and 80 percent. Housing prices have increased by 68 percent. However, as in any capitalist country, wages have not risen with inflation. This means that there has been a huge drop in purchasing power, with all the inevitable consequences. Stories are circulating of teachers and nurses calling in sick, only to secretly take another job on the side to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the coalition of Chan Santokhi and Ronnie Brunswijk is carrying out the programme that the IMF has imposed on it – cuts for the working class in exchange for loans for the government. Fuel subsidies have been cut at the behest of the IMF, raising petrol prices substantially. However, there is no good public transport that can serve as an alternative to cars, meaning that this cut will hit the working class in the form of yet more price hikes.
In addition, the Santokhi government wants to launch attacks on the civil service in order to reduce public spending. This is justified by the idea that there is still a layer of corrupt officials who were appointed in a clientelistic manner by the previous President, Desi Bouterse. This is very likely the case, however, the cuts to the government apparatus are clearly a public sector austerity measure, in a country where official unemployment is already 8%.
All this is behind the social outburst of Friday the 17th. There has been a lot of public anger and there are many Surinamese who want to kick out the Santokhi and Brunswijk government. This is not fundamentally changed by the fact that there were some rioters and looters who took advantage of this, or that this small group (a few dozen out of a total of 5,000) contained criminal elements possibly paid or directed by Bouterse's party.
Is Bouterse to blame for everything?
The Surinamese ruling class blames Desi Bouterse for the current economic situation, as well as the riots and looting. In this train of thought, they are followed by bourgeois politicians and commentators in the Netherlands. This comes as no surprise. Santokhi is the great friend of Dutch imperialism, having restored diplomatic ties in 2020, after 10 years of poor relations under Bouterse's government.
It is certainly true that Bouterse has played a role in Suriname's current situation. Under his governments, the national debt increased substantially, from about 20 percent of GDP in 2010, to 111 percent in 2020. Spending money the government did not have, borrowing it from Chinese and Indian finance capital – instead of taking it away from the tax-dodging Surinamese bourgeoisie – was his way of maintaining social peace in Suriname and staying in power.
However, Bouterse's legacy has been constantly abused by Santokhi and the Surinamese (and Dutch) ruling class to justify all kinds of IMF-imposed austerity. Santokhi is presented as a 'liberal-democratic' alternative to the corrupt Bouterse. In reality, clientelistic appointments of friends and relatives to top positions are taking place just as much under Santokhi. Santokhi's wife was appointed to the supervisory board of Staatsolie – Suriname’s state-owned oil company. Vice-president Ronnie Brunswijk, meanwhile, is a convicted drug criminal, whose brother has now also been given all kinds of top positions in state-owned companies. The fundamental difference between Santokhi and Bouterse is not corruption, but their attitude towards Dutch imperialism.
During the covid crisis, Suriname's economy shrank considerably (16 percent by 2020). Now there is a slight recovery, but with massive inflation and rising poverty. It is the Surinamese workers and poor, of all ethnicities, who are footing the bill. Therefore, the riots and subsequent repression should not stop unions from mobilising. Only they can bring the country to a halt and take down Santokhi. However, a political alternative is also needed.
Neither the 'liberal' parties nor the 'populist' Bouterse have a solution to the crisis of Surinamese capitalism. The Surinamese working class needs its own party, on a class basis, that can break with the degenerate and parasitic ruling class, and fights for a socialist alternative to harness the country's wealth for the needs of the people. This is what Marxists in Suriname must fight for.