1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.0
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 3


The fortunes of former Suriname dictator Desi Bourterse appeared to improve in 1999, as the largely puppet government of President Jules Wijdenbosch crumbled by midyear and the Bourterse became the early form favorite to replace him in the year 2000 elections. Not everyone appeared ready to forget about Bourterse's past however, as a Dutch court tried and convicted him in absentia on charges of having introduced more than two tons of cocaine into the Netherlands between 1989 and 1997.

The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1975, 308 years after the Dutch acquired it from the English for Delaware and the island of Manhattan. Five years later, a military coup, which brought Bourterse to power as the head of a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition, initiated a decade of military intervention in politics. In 1987, Bourterse permitted elections under a constitution providing for a directly elected, 51-seat national assembly, which serves a five-year term and selects the state president. If the national assembly is unable to select a president with the required two-thirds vote, a People's Assembly, composed of parliament and regional and local officials, chooses the president. The Front for Democracy and Development, a three-party coalition, handily won the 1987 elections. The military-organized National Democratic Party (NDP) won just three seats.

In 1990, the army ousted President Ramsewak Shankar, and Bourterse again took power. International pressure led to new elections in 1991. The New Front, a coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties, won a majority, although the NDP increased its share to 12. The national assembly selected the Front's candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president.

Bourterse quit the army in 1992 in order to lead the NDP. The Venetiaan government took some constitutional steps to curb military influence and in late 1995 and early 1996 purged several high-ranking pro-Bourterse military officials. The government's economic structural adjustment program led to social and labor unrest amidst an inflationary spiral and a collapse of the Surinamese currency.

During the campaign for the May 23, 1996, parliamentary elections, the NDP pledged to reverse many of the economic programs of the Venetiaan government. The four-party New Front lost seats, winning 24, and entered into a coalition with the smaller Central Bloc, consisting of two opposition groups. The alliance proved insufficient to gain the necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to return Venetiaan to office.

Bourterse's NDP, with 16 seats, joined with the Javanese-based Party of National Unity and Solidarity and dissident members of the East Indian-based United Reform Party to press for the convening in September of the constitutionally mandated 869-member People's Assembly. The deadlock was broken when Wijdenbosch, a former deputy party leader under Bourterse, was elected president.

Protected by Wijdenbosch, whom he both supported and advised, Bourterse remained one step ahead of Dutch police as the Europeans sought his arrest. The Bourterse affair came to a head just a month after protesting opposition parties and striking oil workers shut the capital city down for several days. In late 1998, the Wijdenbosch government oversaw the takeover of Suriname's traditionally independent high court.

In May 1999, massive antigovernment protests and continuing economic crisis forced Wijdenbosch to sack his entire 15-person cabinet. Three weeks later he announced that elections would take place a year early, no later than May 25, 2000. Bourterse, who continued to control the NDP despite being sentenced to 16 years imprisonment by the Dutch, became the center of political power as Wijdenbosch's government continued to crumble throughout the year. Wijdenbosch announced he would stand for reelection in the May elections.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Suriname can change their government democratically. The May 1996 elections were generally free and fair, and marked the first time since independence that one elected government transferred power to another. Political parties mostly reflect the cleavages in Suriname's ethnically complex society, a factor contributing to parliamentary gridlock and the continuing popularity of Bourterse, a self-described "jungle man" who eschews race-based appeals. Civic institutions are weak, and Bourterse's considerable influence seemed bolstered by his appointment in 1997 to the newly created position of Advisor of State, an effort to insulate him from the reach of Dutch justice.

The judiciary is weak and has been reluctant to handle cases involving human rights issues, the military, and supporters of Bourterse. A 1992 law granting amnesty to former rebels and soldiers for rights violations committed between 1985 and mid-1992 was upheld by a lower court in 1996. In July 1998, Wijdenbosch chose a president of the high court and the attorney general in contravention of constitutional balance of powers requirements. The move was declared null and void by the court, after which officers of the Central Intelligence and Security Service occupied the court president's office, in October. Abuse of detainees by the civilian police is a problem, and prisons are dangerously overcrowded.

The government generally respects freedom of expression. Radio is both public and private. A number of small commercial radio stations compete with the government-owned radio and television broadcasting system. State broadcast media generally offer pluralistic viewpoints. The private press practices some self-censorship, particularly concerning news about Bourterse.

Indigenous groups, although 15 percent of the population, are geographically isolated and face social discrimination, political marginalization, and denial of land rights, including the dislocation from their lands by foreign mining interests.

Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not enforced, and the Asian Marriage Act allows parents to arrange marriages. Human rights organizations function relatively freely. Several organizations specifically address violence against women, reports of trafficking of Brazilian women for prostitution, and related issues.

Workers can join independent trade unions, and the labor movement is active in politics. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. Civil servants have no legal right to strike but in practice do so.

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