Returned to Power, a Leader Celebrates a Checkered Past
By SIMON ROMERO MAY 2, 2011
Photo: In Paramaribo, Suriname, a bus carried a portrait of Desi Bouterse, who took part in a military coup in 1980 and was elected president last year by Parliament. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Desi Bouterse has been a soldier, a coup plotter, the military ruler of this former Dutch colony, a convicted drug trafficker and, for more than a decade, a fugitive from Interpol. He remainson trial here for the killing of 15 top opponents by his military government in the 1980s.
Now, Mr. Bouterse, 65, is leader of this small South American nation yet again, stirring fears of a possible return to the time when Suriname, once a magnet for Western mercenaries and Colombian drug cartels, was renowned for its openness to criminal enterprise.
Rather than playing down his past, Mr. Bouterse has defiantly celebrated it since his election last July by Parliament. He has designated Feb. 25, when he and other soldiers carried out a coup in 1980, as a national holiday, calling it the “day of liberation and renewal.”
And while Mr. Bouterse has said he will not interfere in the murder case against him here, he named one of his co-defendants in the trial as ambassador to France, showing little deference to the legal cloud hanging over them.
Photo: A monument in Paramaribo commemorating the coup of Feb. 25, 1980.CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
Mr. Bouterse has also begun remaking Suriname’s governing institutions, sometimes with his own family. He put his wife, Ingrid Bouterse-Waldring,on the government payroll, paying her about $4,000 a month for her duties as first lady.
He also named his son, Dino Bouterse, 38, convicted here in 2005 of leading a cocaine and illegal weapons ring, as part of the command of a new Counter-Terrorism Unit. Dino Bouterse, released from prison in 2008, had also previously been arrested in connection with a 2002 theft of weapons from Suriname’s intelligence agency.
“We are witnessing the return of immorality to our small country,” said Eddy Wijngaarde, 67, whose brother, a prominent journalist, was among the 15 dissidents killed by Mr. Bouterse’s government on Dec. 8, 1982.
Those killings, known as the “December murders,” represented a searing episode in this nation of 500,000, which gained independence in 1975. The killings opened the way for the creation of a police state supported by Cuba and Libya, which endured through the 1980s.
The Dutch government was so concerned about Mr. Bouterse’s government at the time that it drew up an invasion plan to remove him, with logistical support from American forces, according to comments made last year by former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers of the Netherlands. A State Department official would neither confirm nor deny the plan.
Mr. Bouterse, who declined several interview requests, accepted “political responsibility” in 2007 for the December murders, but has denied direct involvement. Mystery still shrouds what happened, and rights groups warn that he could engineer a pardon for himself if found guilty.
He returned to office by forging a coalition with Ronnie Brunswijk, his old nemesis in the Interior War of the 1980s, a conflict that devastated the Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves in the hinterlands.
Since becoming president again, Mr. Bouterse has scoffed at his 1999 drug conviction in absentia in the Netherlands, for smuggling more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine to that country, saying it was “almost a joke.”
Still, Mr. Bouterse remained free, benefiting from Suriname’s lack of an extradition treaty with its former colonial ruler. Now he has gained further immunity as head of state, with Interpol shelving its arrest order for him. He has tentatively begun traveling abroad, visiting Brazil, Guyana and the United States, where he attended the United Nations General Assembly.
The encore for Suriname’s former strongman has led to new unease with the Netherlands. Reacting to his election last year, Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch foreign minister at the time, said, “He is not welcome in the Netherlands unless it is to serve his prison sentence.” The Dutch also ended security aid for Suriname after Mr. Bouterse’s return to power.
But Dutch officials have recently taken a softer approach, to preserve ties. The Dutch ambassador, Aart Jacobi, declined to comment specifically on Mr. Bouterse, saying only that the Netherlands would continue monitoring drug trafficking and human rights issues here.
Photo: Ronnie Brunswijk, a 1980s guerrilla leader, outside a former military building in Paramaribo.CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
Mr. Jacobi will also continue attending a yearly ceremony remembering the December murders.
“By keeping the memory of that event alive, we may also prevent something similar from happening in the future,” he said.
Such stances matter little to Mr. Bouterse’s supporters, of which there are many, particularly among young voters who have little or no memory of his first government.
“He’s actually socially minded, with a soft heart,” said Raynell Fraser, 25, a public administration student at Anton de Kom University. “He is one of the few people able to develop the country by bonding all ethnic groups.”
No other politician here is as skilled at tapping into Suriname’s populist vein, partly by denouncing the Dutch. As a light-skinned Creole who claims indigenous ancestry from Suriname’s American Indians, he has bridged ethnic divisions here.
He is known to dance at rallies while singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Before his election, he wore a Che Guevara shirt, which he has now exchanged for dark business suits.
And he is a master in communicating not just in Dutch, the official language, but in Sranan Tongo, the language of the street. Bouterse supporters often respond to criticism of him with “Neks no fout,” which roughly translates as, “It doesn’t matter.”
Officials here essentially made such a shrug at Dutch reports in January, based on United States diplomatic cables, contending that Mr. Bouterse continued illegal activities long after his 1999 conviction by arranging protection for a Guyanese drug lord’s smuggling operations.
The State Department noted in March that cocaine found in sea cargo from Suriname was recently seized in Britain, Pakistan and the Netherlands, after Mr. Bouterse returned to office. But antinarcotics officials here say he is against trafficking.
“Mr. Bouterse doesn’t want this government somehow giving space to drug-related criminals,” said Krishna Hussainali-Mathoera, a top Surinamese antidrug official.
In a twist, Mr. Bouterse’s return was made possible through an alliance with his old enemy, Mr. Brunswijk, a Maroon who led a guerrilla war against Mr. Bouterse in the 1980s, now a king-making legislator and one of Suriname’s richest men.
Mr. Brunswijk, 50, also knows what it means to be a fugitive from international justice. In 1999, a Dutch court sentenced him in absentia for cocaine trafficking. France has a warrant for him on drug trafficking charges. Now, both men have rights groups and anticorruption organizations here on edge.
“It floods your mind,” said Sharda Ganga, a Surinamese political analyst, “to think that we’ve arrived back at this point.”