On February 17, large demonstrations rocked Paramaribo, the capital of the South American nation and former Dutch colony of Suriname. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against government corruption, runaway inflation, and the decision by President Chan Santokhi to end state subsidies for electricity, fuel and other essential items.
As one might have guessed, the elimination of subsidies is taking place under the charitable guidance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has long specialised in addressing international economic crises by increasing the misery of the poorest echelons of society.
Suriname’s current IMF loan and debt-restructuring programme is but one of the many dubious achievements of Santokhi, who upon assuming office in 2020 went about having his wife appointed to an assortment of lucrative positions, including to the supervisory board of the state oil company Staatsolie.
I arrived in Paramaribo in April, two months after February’s anti-austerity demonstrations, and spoke with Ahilia Welles, a Surinamese activist, teacher and politician – in that order, she specified – who had attended the rally and been hit in the leg with a tear gas canister fired by police. The man next to her had immediately picked up the noxious device, she said, and hurled it back at the forces of law and order. “That’s when I knew the Surinamese were really angry,” she told me.
Per the write-up of the day’s events by the Reuters news agency, the peaceful protests had “turned ugly when demonstrators throwing rocks and bottles at police stormed parliament’s grounds”.
For its part, the US embassy in Paramaribo issued a statement condemning the protesters’ “attack on the Surinamese National Assembly building and related acts of violence as an unacceptable assault on democracy” – as though there is anything democratic about a country where it is a crime to insult the president and express contempt for the government.
As the global powers that be paint it, of course, any manifestation of mass public despair resulting in the destruction of state and private property is somehow more “violent” than, you know, destroying human lives with malicious economic policies.
Welles told me that, in her current teaching job in the northern Surinamese district of Para, a number of her students were regularly absent from class because they were obligated to work to help their families survive. Other students would arrive at school with no food for the day, a situation Welles had tried to offset by bringing meals to class.
Until, that is, she herself could no longer afford to do so.
Another of Santokhi’s initiatives has been to curtail the salaries of teachers, a policy that is of a piece with the seemingly de facto neoliberal consensus that those responsible for educating a nation’s youth and paving the way for the future shouldn’t be able to feed themselves.
On April 27, several days into my stay in Paramaribo, I happened upon a teachers’ protest in the city’s colonial centre, where the fury was palpable, but I only understood one Dutch word – “onderwater” – in an impassioned speech by a union official.
Indeed, much of the country had been underwater since my arrival on account of torrential rains and flooding, which had occasioned school closures, kept many folks trapped in their homes and underscored the administration’s lack of concern for addressing actual domestic existential threats.
I had come to Suriname with no particular agenda although sitting indoors watching the encroachment of snake-infested waters through the window had admittedly not been among the considered options.
When claustrophobia won out, an elderly Afro-Surinamese man named Ricky, whose pre-diluvian acquaintance I had made in Paramaribo, offered to pick me up in his dilapidated car.
The outcome of this generous effort was that water came seeping in through the doors of his vehicle as we made our way down my street, and he alternately emitted desperate appeals to God and curse words against the government, the weather and the IMF – an entity that, according to Ricky, did not want him to be able to purchase gas, bread or anything at all.
He took me to a Chinese-run store to buy knee-high snake-proof rainboots, and I walked home.
When the floods temporarily subsided, Ricky and I visited the birthplace of Anton de Kom, the Surinamese anti-colonial icon and World War II resistance fighter. In his signature 1934 work We Slaves of Suriname, de Kom writes about how, at the turn of the 17th century in colonial Suriname, “the whites were free to amass wealth without opposition” while slaves were “personal property and a movable asset” – a state of affairs that had prompted the Surinamese to come up with a proverb: “The cockroach cannot assert its rights in the bird’s beak.”
Across the street from de Kom’s former residence was white graffiti against a blue background denouncing the IMF “gang”.
To be sure, Suriname is neither the first nor the last country to be ganged up on by the US-dominated global financial system. Capitalism itself is an enslaving force. The Surinamese floods simply happen to quite aptly metaphorically capture how a nation can drown under elite tyranny.
And while slavery, colonialism and all those nasty phenomena are supposedly things of the past, there is a disconcerting parallel with the present in not just Suriname but in other countries of the Global South as well.
In 2017, Tunisia also signed a loan agreement with the IMF. Within a year, anti-austerity upheaval swept through the North African country as Tunisians suffered the consequences of IMF-sponsored “economic reforms”.
Back then, I spoke to University of Tunis Professor Corinna Mullin, who observed that Tunisia’s post-colonial period had happened to entail “many structural continuities with the forms of accumulation and dispossession that characterised French colonial rule”, which came to an end in 1956.
Nowadays, Mullin said, “international financial institutions, the EU, the US and other prominent (neo)colonial-capitalist actors” were consumed with shoving “neoliberal ‘development’” down Tunisian throats – but only “for the benefit of international and a segment of local capital”.
In other words: the proverbial bird’s beak.
Mexico, too, has experienced the clenches of global capitalism, such as when, thanks to the conditions placed on IMF and US loans extended to the country in the 1980s and early 1990s, the agricultural subsidies theoretically permitted by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 applied only to Mexico’s richer and more powerful NAFTA “partners”, the United States and Canada.
As journalist Garry Leech notes in his chapter of the book Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry, US agribusiness in particular was able to exploit an obscene bias, “constituting further structural violence that shattered the lives of millions of Mexican small farmers through NAFTA-sanctioned dumping of heavily subsidised US food products onto the Mexican market”.
So much for “free trade” – or freedom in general.
Here in Suriname, meanwhile, the floodwaters are finally receding – and yet much of the population continues to drown in deprivation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.