U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Suriname, March 1998
Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.
Official Name: Republic of Suriname
Area: 163,265 sq. km. (63,037 sq. mi.); slightly larger than Georgia.
Cities: Capital--Paramaribo (pop. 180,000). Other cities--Nieuw
Terrain: Varies from coastal swamps to savanna to hills.
Nationality: Noun--Surinamer(s). Adjective--Surinamese.
Population (1996 est): 405,000.
Annual growth rate (1996): .2%.
Ethnic groups: Hindustani (East Indian) 37%, Creole 31%, Javanese 15%,
Bush Negro 10%, Amerindians 3%, Chinese 1.7% (percentages date from 1972
census, the last in which ethnicity data was collected).
Religions: Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Moravian and
several other Christian groups, Jewish, Baha'i.
Languages: Dutch (official), English, Sranan Tongo (Creole language),
Education: Compulsory--ages 6-12. Literacy--95%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (1995--30/1,000. Life expectancy (1995--69
Work force (100,000): Government--49%. Private sector--35%. Parastatal
Type: Constitutional democracy.
Constitution: September 30, 1987.
Independence: November 25, 1975.
Branches: Executive--president, vice president, Council of Ministers.
Legislative--elected 51-member National Assembly made up of
representatives of political parties. Judicial--Court of Justice.
Administrative subdivisions: 10 districts.
Political parties: Governing Coalition--National Democratic Party (NDP),
Grassroots Party (BVD), Indonesian Peasant's Party (KTPI), Pendawalima
(faction of), Independent Progressive Democratic Alternative (OPDA).
Other parties in the National Assembly--National Party of Suriname
(NPS), Progressive Reform Party (VHP), Party for Brotherhood and Unity
in Politics (HPP), Political Wing of the Federation of Agriculture
(PVF), Pendawalima, Democratic Alternative '91 (DA 91), Democratic Party
(DP), Progressive Political Party (PPP).
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP (1996): $522.5 million.
Annual growth rate (1996): 4.0%.
Per capita GDP (1996): $1,306.
Natural resources: Bauxite, gold, iron ore, other minerals; forests;
hydroelectric potential; fish and shrimp.
Agriculture: Products--rice, palm oil, bananas, timber, and citrus
Industry: Types--aluminum, alumina, processed food, lumber, bricks,
tiles, cigarettes, and glass.
Trade (1996): Exports--$457.7 million: bauxite, alumina, aluminum, wood
and wood products, rice, bananas, and shrimp. Major markets--U.S.
(approx. 25%), Netherlands, European Union (EU), and other European
countries. Imports (1996)--$415.5 million: capital equipment, petroleum,
iron and steel products, agricultural products, and consumer goods.
Major suppliers--U.S. (approx. 50%), Netherlands, EU, Brazil, and
Caribbean (CARICOM) countries.
Exchange rate: 400 guilders=U.S.$1.
Most Surinamers live in the narrow, northern coastal plain. The
population is one of the most ethnically varied in the world. Each
ethnic group preserves its own culture, and many institutions, including
political parties, tend to follow ethnic lines. Informal relationships
vary: The upper classes of all ethnic backgrounds mix freely; outside of
the elite, social relations tend to remain within ethnic groupings. All
groups may be found in the schools and workplace.
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 1941.
During World War II more than 75% of U.S. bauxite imports came from
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, 1975.
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.
Independence, Revolution, And Democracy
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, the elected government was
overthrown by 16 noncommissioned officers. The military-dominated
government then suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature,
and formed a regime which ruled by decree. Although a civilian filled
the post of president, a military man, Desi Bouterse, actually ruled the
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 also 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 which 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 the Maroon or
Bush Negro 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 accord's implementation.
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 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 Labor 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
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 insurgents. 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 institituted 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.
The Republic of Suriname is a constitutional democracy based on the 1987
constitution. The legislative branch of government consists of a 51-
member unicameral National Assembly, simultaneously and popularly
elected for a five-year term. The last election was held in May 1996.
The executive branch is headed by the president, who is elected by a
two-thirds majority of the National Assembly or, failing that, by a
majority of the People's Assembly, for a five-year term. If at least
two-thirds of the National Assembly cannot agree to vote for one
presidential candidate, a People's Assembly is formed from all National
Assembly delegates and regional and municipal representatives who were
elected by popular vote in the most recent national election. A vice
president, normally elected at the same time as the president, needs a
simple majority in the National Assembly or People's Assembly to be
elected for a five-year term. As head of government, the president
appoints a 16-minister cabinet. There is no constitutional provision for
removal or replacement of the president unless he resigns.
A 14-member State Advisory Council advises the president in the conduct
of policy. Eleven of the 14 council seats are allotted by proportional
representation of all political parties represented in the National
Assembly. The vice president chairs the council, and three
representatives of workers and employers organizations hold the rest of
The judiciary is headed by the Court of Justice (Supreme Court). This
court supervises the magistrate courts. Members are appointed for life
by the president in consultation with the National Assembly, the State
Advisory Council, and the National Order of Private Attorneys.
The country is divided into 10 administrative districts, each headed by
a district commissioner appointed by the president. The commissioner is
similar to the governor of a U.S. state but serves at the president's
National Security Surinamese armed forces consist of the national army
under the control of the Minister of Defense and a smaller civil police
force, which is responsible to the Minister of Justice and Police. The
national armed forces comprise some 2,500 personnel, the majority of
whom are deployed as light infantry security forces. A small air force
and navy/coast guard also exist. The Netherlands has provided limited
military assistance to the Surinamese armed forces since the election of
a democratic government in 1991. In recent years, the U.S. has provided
training to military officers and policy-makers to promote better
understanding of the role of the military in a civilian government.
Principal Government Officials
Vice President--Pretaapnarian Radhakishun
Foreign Minister--Errol Snijders
Ambassador to U.S.--Arnold Halfhide
Ambassador to UN--Subhas Mungra
Ambassador to OAS--Albert Ramdin
Suriname maintains an embassy in the United States at 4301 Connecticut
Ave, NW, Suite 460, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-7488; fax 202-
244-5878). There also is a Suriname Consulate General at 7235 NW 19th
St., Suite A, Miami, FL 33136 (tel. 305-593-2163).
The backbone of Suriname's economy is the export of alumina and small
amounts of aluminum produced from bauxite mined in the country. Alumina
and aluminum exports accounted for 77% of Suriname's estimated $453.3
million export earnings in 1996. Suriname's bauxite deposits have been
among the world's richest. The preeminence of bauxite and ALCOA's
continued presence in Suriname is a key element in the U.S.-Suriname
Mining sites at Moengo and Paranam are estimated to have 10 to 15 years
of bauxite reserves remaining. Other bauxite reserves have been located
but are currently unexploited. All bauxite mined in Suriname is brought
via navigable rivers and the Atlantic to the Suriname Aluminum Company
(SURALCO) alumina refinery and aluminum smelter in Paranam. In 1984,
SURALCO, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), formed
a joint venture with the Royal Dutch Shell-owned Billiton Company, which
did not process the bauxite it mined in Suriname. Under this agreement,
both companies share risks and profits.
Inexpensive power costs are Suriname's big advantage in the energy-
intensive alumina and aluminum business. In the 1960s, ALCOA built a
$150-million dam for the production of hydroelectric energy at Afobaka
(south of Brokopondo), which created a 1,550-square kilometer (600 sq.
mi.) lake, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world.
Suriname also exports rice, shrimp, timber, bananas, fruits, and
vegetables. It formerly exported palm oil. All of these exports declined
in 1989, due to lack of competitiveness of Suriname's products and
insurgencies in the interior which effectively closed access to timber
and most palm oil plantations. Deteriorating infrastructure and lack of
spare parts also have constrained economic and export growth. Suriname's
manufacturers of processed foods and consumer goods have experienced
increased competition from Caribbean imports since Suriname joined
CARICOM in early 1996.
At independence, Suriname signed an agreement with Netherlands,
providing for about $1.5 billion in development assistance grants and
loans over a 10- to 15-year period. Dutch assistance allocated to
Suriname thus amounted to about $100 million per year but was
discontinued during periods of military rule. After the return to
democratically elected government in 1991, Dutch aid resumed. The Dutch
relationship continues to be an important factor in the economy, with
the Dutch insisting that Suriname undertake economic reforms and produce
specific plans acceptable to the Dutch for projects on which aid funds
could be spent. Suriname's present government is attempting to broaden
its economic base, establish better contacts with other nations and
international financial institutions, and reduce its dependence on Dutch
Suriname has embarked on development projects in the areas of petroleum
production expansion and a mini-refinery project for Staatsolie, the
state-owned oil company. In addition, Suriname has attracted investments
by international companies in gold exploration and exploitation as well
as interest in extensive development of a tropical hardwoods industry
and possible diamond mining. Proposals for exploitation of the country's
tropical forests and undeveloped regions of the interior traditionally
inhabited by indigenous and Maroon communities have raised the concerns
of environmentalists and human rights activists both in Suriname and
In the 1980s, as Suriname's economic situation deteriorated due to the
cutoff of Dutch development aid, the government instituted a regime of
stringent economic controls over prices, the exchange rate, imports, and
exports. The policy resulted in a reduction of activity in the
officially controlled market. Meanwhile, the tolerated black market
grew, at one point accounting for an estimated 85% of all imports.
Economic reforms made major strides in 1993-95 to reduce such controls
and wean Surinamese business from reliance on the black market.
Vestiges of the economic policies of the 1980s remain in the form of
price controls, subsidies, and the existence of numerous parastatal
companies throughout the economy. About half of the work force is still
directly or indirectly on the government payroll.
Since gaining independence, Suriname has become a member of the United
Nations, the OAS, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Suriname is a member of
the Caribbean Community and Common Market and the Association of
Caribbean States; it is associated with the European Union through the
Lome Convention. Suriname participates in the Amazonian Pact, a grouping
of the countries of the Amazon Basin which focuses on protection of the
Amazon region's natural resources from environmental degradation.
Reflecting its status as a major bauxite producer, Suriname is also a
member of the International Bauxite Association. The country also
belongs to the Economic Commission for Latin America, the Inter-American
Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank,
and the International Monetary Fund.
Bilateral agreements with several countries of the region, covering
diverse areas of cooperation, have underscored the government's interest
in strengthening regional ties. The return to Suriname from French
Guiana of about 8,000 refugees of the 1986-91 civil war between the
military and domestic insurgents has improved relations with French
authorities. Long-standing border disputes with Guyana and French Guiana
remain unresolved but have not negatively affected relations with either
country. An earlier dispute with Brazil ended amicably after formal
demarcation of the border.
In May 1997, President Wijdenbosch joined President Clinton and 14 other
Caribbean leaders during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in
Bridgetown, Barbados. The summit strengthened the basis for regional
cooperation on justice and counternarcotics issues, finance and
development, and trade.
Since the re-establishment of a democratic, elected government in 1991,
the United States has maintained positive and mutually beneficial
relations with Suriname based on the principles of democracy, respect
for human rights, rule of law, and civilian authority over the military.
To strengthen civil society and bolster democratic institutions, the
U.S. has provided training regarding appropriate roles for the military
in civil society to some of Suriname's military officers and
Narcotics trafficking organizations appear to be channeling increasing
quantities of cocaine through Suriname for repackaging and transport to
Europe and the United States. To assist Suriname in the fight against
drugs and associated criminal activity, the U.S. has helped train
Surinamese anti-drug squad personnel. The U.S. Peace Corps in Suriname
works with the Ministry of Regional Development and rural communities to
encourage community development in Suriname's interior.
Suriname is densely forested and has thus far suffered little from
deforestation, but increased interest in large-scale commercial logging
and mining in Suriname's interior have raised environmental concerns.
The U.S. Forest Service, the Smithsonian, and numerous non-governmental
environmental organizations have promoted technical cooperation with
Suriname's government to prevent destruction of the country's tropical
rain forest, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. U.S.
experts have worked closely with local natural resource officials to
encourage sustainable development of the interior and alternatives such
as ecotourism. Suriname's tourism sector remains a minor part of the
economy, and tourist infrastructure is limited; some 20,000 foreign
tourists visit Suriname annually.
Suriname's efforts in recent years to liberalize economic policy created
new possibilities for U.S. exports and investments. The U.S. remains one
of Suriname's principal trading partners, largely due to ALCOA's long-
standing investment in Suriname's bauxite mining and processing
industry. Of an estimated $100-$145 million Surinamese exports to the
U.S. in 1996, over one-half were bauxite-related. More than one-half of
world exports to Suriname originate in the United States. Several U.S.
corporations are active in Suriname, largely in the mining, consumer
goods, and service sectors. Principal U.S. exports to Suriname include
chemicals, aircraft, vehicles, machine parts, meat, and wheat. The
United States has supplied P.L. 480 agricultural commodity purchase
support for U.S. wheat and oil imports to assist Suriname through
hardships caused by economic reform. U.S. consumer products are
increasingly available through Suriname's many trading companies.
Opportunities for U.S. exporters, service companies, and engineering
firms will probably expand over the next decade. Suriname is looking to
U.S. and other foreign investors to assist in the commercial development
of its vast natural resources and to help finance infrastructure
improvements. Enactment of a new investment code and intellectual
property rights protection legislation, which would strengthen
Suriname's attractiveness to investors, has been discussed, but no
noticeable progress has been made in recent years.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Dennis K. Hays
Deputy Chief of Mission--Kathleen Cayer
Defense Attache--Lt. Col. Ronald Ward
U.S. Army Political/Economic Officer--Michael Oreste
Consular Officer--Valerie Lynn
Peace Corps Country Director--Gary Thompson
The U.S. embassy in Paramaribo is located at Dr. Sophie Redmondstraat
129, P.O. Box 1821, Paramaribo, Suriname (tel. 472900, 476459; FAX 597-
OTHER CONTACT INFORMATION
U.S. Department of Commerce
International Trade Administration
Office of Latin America and the Caribbean
14th and Constitution, NW
Washington, D.C. 20230
Tel: 202-482-1658 202-USA-TRADE
Caribbean/Latin American Action
1818 N Street, NW, Suite 310
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-466-7464 Fax: 202-822-0075
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
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