(World Politics Review) Any doubt that the coronavirus pandemic can transform political realities was erased Monday when one of the world’s most entrenched strongmen was formally swept out of power in the tiny South American nation of Suriname. The National Assembly, Suriname’s legislature, officially named Chan Santokhi, a former police chief who prevailed in elections in May, to replace longtime President Desi Bouterse. Grounds for removing Bouterse, who was convicted of murder last year, have never been in short supply. But it took the pandemic and Bouterse’s spectacular mismanagement to bring an end to his rule.
Until the coronavirus arrived, Bouterse withstood challenge after challenge to his power over the decades—staging two military coups early on in his rule, and later reinventing himself as a populist president. But when voters went to the polls in May, with the economy in ruins, they handed victory to the opposition. A painstaking, three-week vote-counting process confirmed the results, with the opposition Progressive Reform Party winning a majority in the National Assembly, which elects the president. Santokhi, the man who had investigated Bouterse’s crimes, will now take the reins of power and try to pull Suriname out of its disaster.
The election result was a shock not only because of Bouterse’s record of survival, but because he had leveraged the pandemic to strengthen his grip. Before the vote, the National Assembly, dominated by Bouterse’s National Democratic Party, granted the president unlimited, indefinite emergency powers, couching the move as a part of the effort to battle the coronavirus. Still, Bouterse fell.
To the relief of the Surinamese, the fallen strongman accepted defeat, congratulating the new government. “Out of experience, I can tell you it won’t be an easy job,” he said Monday.
The 74-year-old is undoubtedly pondering his next move, in a life of swift and dramatic transformations. Born into a poor family when Suriname was a Dutch colony, he dropped out of high school and joined the Dutch army, where he worked to climb the ladder. When Suriname’s independence approached, he was one of the soldiers chosen by the Dutch for special training to build a Surinamese army.
He seized power in 1980, when he led a military coup and became a feared dictator. In 1982, he directed his soldiers to abduct some of his critics and execute 15 of them whom he viewed as a threat. After torturing them, they were murdered at a colonial fortress in Paramaribo, the capital. Among the dead were members of the military, businessmen and journalists. The massacre came to be known as the December Murders, and they have dogged Bouterse ever since, the most ignominious episode of his presidency.
He has rejected claims that he ordered the killings but eventually accepted what he called “political responsibility.” That was in 2007, the year that a historic trial into the murders finally opened in Suriname; it concluded in 2019 with Bouterse’s murder conviction. Even if that conviction didn’t dislodge him from power, the trial had already changed everything.
Ties with the Netherlands soured, and it suspended its financial aid to Suriname in 2012. Suriname became something of an international pariah, with Bouterse drawing close to both China and nearby Venezuela, first under Hugo Chavez and then Nicolas Maduro, echoing their socialist, anti-imperialist rhetoric. By then, Bouterse the military dictator had morphed into the populist leader. He left the army but maintained firm control of it, while leading his National Democratic Party, which started as a political vehicle for the military but later expanded to include those attracted by Bouterse’s brand of populism. He was elected president in 2010, after the National Democratic Party-led coalition won a majority in the legislature.
Without Dutch aid, Suriname’s economy went from crisis to crisis. Bouterse started imitating the Chavistas’ political and economic formula in Venezuela, with equally disastrous results. He and his closest associates enriched themselves, but the economy remained stagnant. All the while, the case of the December Murders cast a shadow over him.
Santokhi was one of the men who continued to pursue the case as Suriname’s police chief. In an effort to maintain a democratic façade, Bouterse allowed the case to proceed, although it moved at a snail’s pace. After the trial started in 2007, it seemed like it would never end. When it did, though, a sitting president was stunningly convicted of murder, and later sentenced to 20 years in prison.
But Bouterse was not arrested or removed from office. Instead, he ran for reelection, convinced he could hold on to power.
Then came the coronavirus and the economic collapse. Revenues from Suriname’s main sources of income—exports of gold and oil, and tourism, mainly from the Netherlands—went into a nosedive. The pandemic started sickening hundreds of Surinamese, and the economy seized up.
Bouterse reacted with measures previously seen in neighboring Venezuela. First, he raided the country’s hard currency reserves. Then he ordered sharp restrictions on foreign currency transactions, infuriating the business community and further dampening economic activity. Suriname today is essentially broke.
His demise shows how the pandemic has a way of outwitting demagogues used to persuading the public that reality is not what it seems.
The 61-year-old Santokhi now faces an overwhelming challenge. Speaking to the National Assembly this week, he put the situation in stark terms. “This crisis,” he said, “has surpassed every worst-case scenario we had expected.”
Nevertheless, Santokhi has some strong cards to play. He will endeavor to redirect Suriname’s foreign policy and rebuild relations with democratic nations in the Americas and beyond. The prospect of help from the Netherlands, in particular, is promising. Investors will be attracted to the possibility that Suriname will find vast reserves of oil and natural gas, as its neighbor Guyana has.
But then there’s the Bouterse wildcard. Though defeated at the polls, he remains a powerful and charismatic figure. Santokhi has to decide what to do about the murder conviction. Trying to arrest him could spark violence. Allowing Bouterse to live with impunity and flex his political muscle could be just as dangerous.
The pandemic may have dislodged Suriname’s strongman, but he is still hanging around.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.