Most Surinamers live in the narrow, northern coastal plain. The population is one of the most ethnically varied in the world. Each ethnic group preserves its own culture, and many institutions, including political parties, tend to follow ethnic lines. Informal relationships vary: The upper classes of all ethnic backgrounds mix freely; outside of the elite, social relations tend to remain within ethnic groupings. All groups may be found in the schools and workplace.
Suriname became a Dutch colony in 1667. The new colony--Dutch Guiana--did not thrive. Historians cite several reasons for this, including Holland's preoccupation with its more extensive (and profitable) East Indian territories, violent conflict between whites and native tribes, and frequent uprisings by the imported slave population, which was often treated with extraordinary cruelty. Barely, if at all, assimilated into European society, many of the slaves fled to the interior, where they maintained a West African culture and established the five major Bush Negro tribes in existence today: the Djuka, Saramaccaner, Matuwari, Paramaccaner, and Quinti.
Plantations steadily declined in importance as labor costs rose. Rice, bananas, and citrus fruits replaced the traditional crops of sugar, coffee, and cocoa. Exports of gold rose beginning in 1900. The Dutch Government gave little financial support to the colony.
Suriname's economy was transformed in the years following World War I when an American firm (ALCOA) began exploiting bauxite deposits in East Suriname. Bauxite processing and then alumina production began in 1941. During World War II more than 75% of U.S. bauxite imports came from Suriname.
In 1951, Suriname began to acquire a growing measure of autonomy from the Netherlands. Suriname became an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on December 15, 1954, and gained independence on November 25, 1975.
Most of Suriname's political parties took shape during the autonomy period and were overwhelmingly based on ethnicity. For example, the National Party of Suriname found its support among the Creoles, the Progressive Reform Party members came from the Hindustani population, and the Indonesian Peasant's Party was Javanese. Other smaller parties found support by appealing to voters on an ideological or pro-independence platform; the Partij Nationalistische Republiek (PNR) was among the most important. Its members pressed most strongly for independence and for the introduction of leftist political and economic measures. Many former PNR members would go on to play a key role following the coup of February 1980.
The executive branch is headed by the president, who is elected by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly or, failing that, by a majority of the People's Assembly, for a five-year term. If at least two-thirds of the National Assembly cannot agree to vote for one presidential candidate, a People's Assembly is formed from all National Assembly delegates and regional and municipal representatives who were elected by popular vote in the most recent national election. A vice president, normally elected at the same time as the president, needs a simple majority in the National Assembly or People's Assembly to be elected for a five-year term. As head of government, the president appoints a 16-minister cabinet. There is no constitutional provision for removal or replacement of the president unless he resigns.
A 14-member State Advisory Council advises the president in the conduct of policy. Eleven of the 14 council seats are allotted by proportional representation of all political parties represented in the National Assembly. The vice president chairs the council, and three representatives of workers and employers organizations hold the rest of the seats.
The judiciary is headed by the Court of Justice (Supreme Court). This court supervises the magistrate courts. Members are appointed for life by the president in consultation with the National Assembly, the State Advisory Council, and the National Order of Private Attorneys.
The country is divided into 10 administrative districts, each headed by a district commissioner appointed by the president. The commissioner is similar to the governor of a U.S. state but serves at the president's pleasure.
National Security Surinamese armed forces consist of the national army under the control of the Minister of Defense and a smaller civil police force, which is responsible to the Minister of Justice and Police. The national armed forces comprise some 2,500 personnel, the majority of whom are deployed as light infantry security forces. A small air force and navy/coast guard also exist. The Netherlands has provided limited military assistance to the Surinamese armed forces since the election of a democratic government in 1991. In recent years, the U.S. has provided training to military officers and policy-makers to promote better understanding of the role of the military in a civilian government.
Bilateral agreements with several countries of the region, covering diverse areas of cooperation, have underscored the government's interest in strengthening regional ties. The return to Suriname from French Guiana of about 8,000 refugees of the 1986-91 civil war between the military and domestic insurgents has improved relations with French authorities. Long-standing border disputes with Guyana and French Guiana remain unresolved but have not negatively affected relations with either country. An earlier dispute with Brazil ended amicably after formal demarcation of the border.
In May 1997, President Wijdenbosch joined President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown, Barbados. The summit strengthened the basis for regional cooperation on justice and counternarcotics issues, finance and development, and trade.
Narcotics trafficking organizations appear to be channeling increasing quantities of cocaine through Suriname for repackaging and transport to Europe and the United States. To assist Suriname in the fight against drugs and associated criminal activity, the U.S. has helped train Surinamese anti-drug squad personnel. The U.S. Peace Corps in Suriname works with the Ministry of Regional Development and rural communities to encourage community development in Suriname's interior.
Suriname is densely forested and has thus far suffered little from deforestation, but increased interest in large-scale commercial logging and mining in Suriname's interior have raised environmental concerns. The U.S. Forest Service, the Smithsonian, and numerous non-governmental environmental organizations have promoted technical cooperation with Suriname's government to prevent destruction of the country's tropical rain forest, one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. U.S. experts have worked closely with local natural resource officials to encourage sustainable development of the interior and alternatives such as ecotourism. Suriname's tourism sector remains a minor part of the economy, and tourist infrastructure is limited; some 20,000 foreign tourists visit Suriname annually.
Suriname's efforts in recent years to liberalize economic policy created new possibilities for U.S. exports and investments. The U.S. remains one of Suriname's principal trading partners, largely due to ALCOA's long-standing investment in Suriname's bauxite mining and processing industry. Of an estimated $100-$145 million Surinamese exports to the U.S. in 1996, over one-half were bauxite-related. More than one-half of world exports to Suriname originate in the United States. Several U.S. corporations are active in Suriname, largely in the mining, consumer goods, and service sectors. Principal U.S. exports to Suriname include chemicals, aircraft, vehicles, machine parts, meat, and wheat. The United States has supplied P.L. 480 agricultural commodity purchase support for U.S. wheat and oil imports to assist Suriname through hardships caused by economic reform. U.S. consumer products are increasingly available through Suriname's many trading companies. Opportunities for U.S. exporters, service companies, and engineering firms will probably expand over the next decade. Suriname is looking to U.S. and other foreign investors to assist in the commercial development of its vast natural resources and to help finance infrastructure improvements. Enactment of a new investment code and intellectual property rights protection legislation, which would strengthen Suriname's attractiveness to investors, has been discussed, but no noticeable progress has been made in recent years.
The U.S. embassy in Paramaribo is located at Dr. Sophie Redmondstraat 129, P.O. Box 1821, Paramaribo, Suriname (tel. 472900, 476459; FAX 597- 410025).