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Little-known Suriname marks 30 years of independence
The Washington Diplomat / November 2005

By Larry Luxner

South America's newest, smallest and least-known country celebrates its 30th anniversary of independence this month.

Suriname — known as Dutch Guiana until 1975 — is larger than the state of Georgia, yet it has fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, making it one of the emptiest countries in the world. Considering its small population, Suriname boasts an amazing variety of cultures and religions: Hindu temples, Anglican churches, Chinese pagodas, Jewish synagogues and Javanese mosques can all be found in the country's capital city, Paramaribo.

"In more than one sense, we are a unique country," says the country's ambassador in Washington, Henry Illes. "We have the largest nature reserve in the world, and Suriname has the world's highest percentage of tropical rainforest as part of its total area. And if you listen very carefully, as you travel throughout Suriname you will hear more than 20 languages spoken, including Dutch, Chinese, Hindi, Javanese, Arabic, Portuguese, German, French and dialects spoken by the Maroon tribes and the Amerindians."

Illes, who took up his post three weeks after 9/11, oversees a tiny staff of three diplomats and one secretary at the Surinamese Embassy, located on the fourth floor of an office building on Connecticut Avenue.

In addition to the White House, Illes, 61, is accredited to the Organization of American States as well as to Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Like many Surinamese, Illes studied in the Netherlands, becoming a specialist in geodesic mapping. He returned in 1973 and got a job with the Ministry of Natural Resources. Following a military coup in 1980, Illes became minister of labor and public housing, then left that job to become the managing director of a foundation doing development work in western Suriname.

He entered the foreign service in 1994 and served as Suriname's minister to Guyana for three years (1994-97) before being appointed to his current post by President Roland Venetiaan.

Illes, who often works while listening to Suriname's Dutch-language Radio Apentie via the Internet, said his country's relations with the United States are good.

"The U.S. has a very active ambassador in Suriname, Marsha Barnes. She was the one who received me at the airport when I came here four years ago, because at the time she was head of the Caribbean desk at the State Department."

Although culturally part of the Caribbean, geographically Suriname belongs to South America.

Located on the northern edge of South America, Suriname's neighbors are English-speaking Guyana to the west, French Guiana — an overseas department of France — to the east, and Portuguese-speaking Brazil to the south.

Like Guyana, underpopulated Suriname is highly dependent on exports of price-sensitive commodities such as bauxite, sugar, rice, timber, gold and diamonds. Unlike Guyana, the former Dutch colony still recovering from the effects of a disastrous civil war that raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s following independence in 1975.

Some people say independence was a mistake, and that Suriname should have remained a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as did the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaηao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba.

But Illes doesn't agree.

"When you reach the age of maturity, you should be able and willing to leave your parents' house and take responsibility on your own shoulders," he said. "Some people had no confidence in the future. They had the option of getting Dutch citizenship or living in Suriname. Up until 1975, we were Dutch, so a lot of them chose Holland, because of the Dutch social system that takes care of you from cradle to grave. That's what attracted them."

Even so, per-capita income, once among the highest in South America, is now under $2,000, and most of the tens of thousands of Surinamese who fled to Holland after independence have yet to return. Drug trafficking is a serious problem and so is petty crime, which Illes blames on Brazilian garimpeiros or independent gold-miners.

Nevertheless, the ambassador doesn't look at Suriname's immediate neighbors with envy.

"Kourou [launching site for the European Space Agency] is one spot in French Guiana where you have a little piece of France, but in the countryside, I don't think development is that remarkable," he said. "I think Suriname has a broader economic base than French Guiana. The same thing applies to Guyana. What is keeping their heads above water is bauxite, sugar and rice."

Those are the main exports of Suriname as well, but Illes says that "in Suriname, we get a higher price for our bauxite exports because we produce alumina and aluminum using hydroelectric power. In Guyana, they export their raw material because they don't have the energy, whereas we transform the raw materials into value-added products."

He added that "the economy of Suriname is doing better now, because up until 1975, it was dependent solely on mining. After independence, we tried to broaden the economic base."

Despite the country's problems, the country recently won global praise for establishing a four-million-acre nature reserve — nearly 10% of Suriname's land mass — to safeguard the largely uninhabited virgin forest against uncontrolled development by Asian logging firms.

The country's profile was lifted in 1995, when Suriname became the first non-English-speaking nation to be admitted into the Caribbean Community (Caricom). It got a further boost earlier this year, when Surinamese diplomat Albert Ramdin was inaugurated as assistant secretary-general of the Organization of American States.

That marked the first time any Surinamese has held such an important office at the OAS.

"We started to think one and a half years ago of proposing Ramdin's candidacy to Caricom. We had expressions of support from other OAS members, but the main thing is that he was a Caricom candidate," said Illes.

"In my opinion, the OAS should put more emphasis on development than they have done so far. Politics is nice and good — subjects like democracy and securitiy — but what we should focus on is development in this hemisphere. And along those lines, Ambassador Ramdin has developed some good ideas."

Suriname's economy is propped up by remittances from an estimated 250,000 Surinamese expatriates in Holland, another 50,000 in Guyana, and 20,000 in the United States, mainly Miami. Two years ago, the country eliminated its deteriorating currency, the Surinamese guilder, knocking off three zeroes and replacing it with the Surinamese dollar, currently worth 2.75 to the U.S. dollar.

"We have long economic relations with the United States, dating from the first bauxite company in Suriname in 1916," said Illes. "During the First World War but more during the World War II, Suriname was the only country which supplied the U.S. with bauxite. I think 80% of the bauxite this country used for aluminum processing came from Suriname, because all the other supply lines across the Atlantic were endangered by German submarines."

While foreign investment is limited mainly to timber and mining, the retail and service sectors are gradually opening up. About seven years ago, fast-food giant McDonald's inaugurated its first restaurant in Paramaribo, the capital; since then, McDonald's has been joined by KFC and Pizza Hut.

U.S. companies are particularly interested in Suriname's oil potential. The offshore Guyana Shield, says Illes, is believed to hold at least as much natural gas as Trinidad & Tobago, and 17 times as much petroleum.

While no serious issues divide Suriname and the United States, Illes said his country — as a member of Caricom — is very concerned about the implications of Washington's proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Two years ago, said Illes, he and some fellow diplomats were invited on a fact-finding trip to Iowa, where big agribusiness companies lectured them about the benefits of free trade.

"But what I learned from this trip is that the U.S. agriculture sector is subsidized, even oversubsidized," he said. "Look at what happened in Mexico. A few years after entering NAFTA, unemployment in Mexico's agricultural sector, especially for women, increased tremendously. What about the other poor countries? How will we be able to compete?"

He added: "In my opinion, trade is a two-way street, and I haven't heard anything that tells me this agreement is balanced. If we don't negotiate these things well, it might be the same for us."

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