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 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, 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, 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 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 (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 is being
appealed.) 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.