Desi Bouterse, president of the Republic of Suriname
In August of last year, a man was arrested at Panama’s international airport at the request of American law enforcement authorities to face prosecution on charges of drug trafficking, illegal weapons possession, and terrorism. Late last month—approximately a year after the original arrest—the man pled guilty to all charges. By itself, this story would seem fairly innocuous, unlikely to merit even a mention in the international press. Yet the man arrested by Panamanian authorities was no common drug mule, but rather Dino Bouterse, son of Desi, the current president of the small South American country of Suriname.
How did the son of a head of state find himself embroiled in such a serious situation? The answer is actually laid out quite clearly in Bouterse’s indictment, which can be read here. In brief, the younger Bouterse—along with one co-conspirator—was coaxed by DEA agents playing the role of Hezbollah operatives to assist the Lebanese terrorist organization in its efforts to establish a Latin American base from which it could launch attacks on American targets. A preponderance of audio, photo, and video evidence—along with agent testimony—make it clear that in exchange for a cash payment of several million dollars, the younger Bouterse was willing and able to provide both training facilities and high-powered weapons to the fake operatives and their supposed bosses back in the Levant.
Regardless of what motivated Bouterse—money, power, international connections—one thing is abundantly clear: Bouterse is, for lack of a more couth term, an idiot. Unfortunately for those seeking political change in Suriname, the same cannot be said of his father.
Desi Bouterse came into power in Suriname in 1980 after leading a relatively non-violent coup against the government of Henk Arron, a Surinamese politician widely considered to have been the country’s guiding force following its independence from the Netherlands in 1975, but one who had lost his popularity due to economic stagnation and allegations of corruption. With the majority of the international community little disposed to assist a country recently taken over by a dictator, Bouterse sought relations with the few countries who were interested in establishing a relationship with his new government: Cuba, Grenada, Nicaragua, and a few others.
Needless to say, the U.S. was not happy with the leftist turn that seemed to be taking place in yet another state within its sphere of influence, and even briefly considered several plans to overthrow Bouterse in order to halt this trend. Such drastic action proved to be unnecessary, as Bouterse—economically disempowered by the end of Dutch foreign aid to the country in 1982 and spooked by the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983—decided to change course. Not long after signing a significant economic and military agreement with Brazil—an ally of Washington—Bouterse cut all ties with Cuba.
What this episode shows more than anything is Bouterse’s adaptability, and predilection towards whomever is offering him the best deal. At the moment, that deal is being offered by China. The East Asian heavyweight has already funded millions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects in Suriname, with further projects in the works. In exchange for this substantial investment, China gains access to Suriname’s significant commodities endowments—primarily precious metals, oil, and timber. From Bouterse’s perspective, with little foreign aid coming in from elsewhere, such arrangements—as was the case with previous deals—are strictly business.
The national elections coming up next year in Suriname, however, have higher stakes. For Bouterse, an election-day loss wouldn’t just mean a political defeat, but rather a loss of personal freedom. Absent the diplomatic immunity provided by his occupancy of the country’s highest office, Bouterse would for all intents and purposes be homebound, unable to leave his country at the risk of extradition to the Netherlands, where he himself faces drug trafficking charges and a likely 11-year prison sentence. Therefore, international monitors have every reason to be worried about the outcome of elections next spring. While a blatant coup remains unlikely, given that it has happened before, it is not an impossibility.
The reality of the situation, however, is that a coup won’t be necessary for Bouterse to remain in power. The electoral system itself will provide the framework for his continued leadership. As it stands, the coalition led by Bouterse’s party currently holds 23 of 51 seats in Suriname’s National Assembly, with 26 being the number necessary to gain a majority and thus retain the ability to choose the chief executive. Whether through directly visible methods—such as rewards of plum positions in his new government or government contracts—or more subtle ones—cash payoffs being a traditionally efficacious strategy—Bouterse will likely gain the support he needs to maintain his hold on power and consequently his freedom.
Jacob Brunell is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in Government with minors in International Relations and Latin American Studies.
Image Attribution: “President Bouterse” by Pieter Van Maele, licensed under CC BY 3.0