President Bouterse works to put Suriname on the map despite his murder trial

A year and a half ago, President Desiré Bouterse could barely get an audience with anyone: Regional leaders shunned him. Nervous diplomats raised eyebrows and the tiny South American nation’s former colonial power reminded all that he was a wanted man.

Now, the convicted drug trafficker, one-time dictator and accused killer is winning over citizens and regional leaders as he transforms his image into that of a democrat — even as he stands trial for the December 1982 military roundup and execution of opponents.

“He’s a good leader,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said as he and fellow Caribbean Community leaders recently concluded a gathering of their regional bloc, known as Caricom, that Bouterse currently chairs. “I can’t speak about the past. I can speak about the present. I think he means well for Suriname and the region. I’m very impressed of his leadership thus far of Caricom.”

But the legal case hanging over Bouterse (pronounced BOW-ter-say) could jeopardize it all if the three-judge panel believes dramatic testimony at his trial on Friday that put him at the scene of the executions. As the testimony was being heard, supporters in parliament sought to grant him amnesty, shielding him from conviction in the case. The vote was delayed after they failed to get a quorum.

“I am convinced .…the goal is to get them off the hook,” said a dismayed Sunil Oemrawsingh, 52, whose uncle was executed 300 yards away from where he slept.

The trial, Oemrawsingh said, is about finding a new beginning for Suriname, where the murders remain embedded in the nation’s psyche despite the passage of time.

“People cannot expect forgiveness from the victims without us knowing who to forgive, and what to forgive,” he said. “We have to establish the facts: what happened; when did it happen; and who did it? Then we can say ‘Let’s talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.’ ”

In 2007, months before the start of the trial, Bouterse offered a public apology and accepted “political responsibility” for the murders of the 15 prominent opposition leaders. He has denied any direct involvement.

Family members, human rights groups and opposition lawmakers, including former president Ronald Venetiaan, have all asked that the proposed legislation be voted down.

“They want to prevent the continuation of the trial, which is now at a stage of conclusion,” said Chandrikapersad Santokhi, a lawmaker and former justice minister. “This can be very damaging for the suspects, particularly for the president and will jeopardize his position as president of the country.”

In a statement to The Miami Herald, Bouterse’s cabinet office denied accusations that he’s interfering in the judicial process. Parliament is independent and amnesty is completely in accordance with the constitution, the statement said.

“The President is confident and is convinced of his innocence in a fair trial, which he expects,” the office of the cabinet said. “He tirelessly pursues his vision to complete the social and economic goals for the people of Suriname, set out by his government.”

That means improving lives of the Suriname’s half-million people by transforming the isolated, forest-covered former Dutch colony, Bouterse, 66, said in a rare but brief interview.

“We can learn a lot. We can benefit a lot and also we can be of strategic importance,” he said.

Bouterse is lauded for uniting a multilingual, multiethnic Suriname, remaking his party into the country’s most ethnically diverse and playing up his own Amerindian and Creole roots. “I have a different style of working. My nickname is the ‘People’s President,’ ” he said. “I feel what the people feel. I can smell them. I know what they eat. I can do everything with them.”

“You’ve seen things in the past and know that you can do things better,” he added. “When somebody’s chosen, it’s not a question of now I have power; it’s a very difficult task. The moment that people make a choice you must know that you have a task to be a servant of them. That’s what I want to do with my presidency. People who work with me, ministers and so on, we have a total different approach.”

That approach, coupled with his populist appeal and charisma, are striking a chord.

“He’s doing good, and we see that he has another mindset to do thing differently,” said Namon Bernard, 48,a grocery store worker.

Others, however, are more cautions, waiting to see how all of Bouterse’s efforts will help Suriname -- rich in oil, bauxite, gold, potable water and fertile land -- reap economically and end dependence on international aide.

“More can be done. I want prices to go down,” said Rose Dubois, 50, a nurse’s aide.

Foreign observers say Bouterse’s government is working despite talk of a coming reshuffle. He has built a fairly stable coalition through partnerships with his Mega Combination and smaller parties. One partner is former archenemy and convicted cocaine trafficker, Ronny Brunswijk. A member of the Maroons, descendants of runaway slaves, Brunswijk led a civil war against Bouterse’s 1980s regime.

And while Bouterse has been criticized for putting his wife and others on the government payroll, and having friends as influential advisers, his government is credited with being much more polished and good at setting and reaching goals.

Still the administration has been tainted with allegations of corruption and has been criticized for blacklisting journalists. At the United Nations General Assembly last year, Bouterse “reaffirmed the right of Palestinians to self-determination, including the right to an independent State” in his remarks.

Such declarations from a nation with a synagogue and mosque separated by a parking lot, and a meeting with Iran’s President have elicited quiet warnings to Bouterse that such actions will not continue to win him powerful foreign friends.

“He wants to show himself as a leftist,” said August Boldewijn, a local political analyst. “So he will abstain from voting against Iran, he will take a positive stand with Palestine not withstanding the fact we have a lot of Jews.” Still, Boldewijn said since stepping down from the military in 1992, Bouterse “has learned a lot.”

“What we know up until now is Mr. Bouterse has totally changed. His attitude is not that of a military official but that of a reborn Democrat. Maybe he’s pulling a game but, up until now, we cannot see any signs of a military dictator,” Boldewijn said.

And despite the continued cold shoulder by some, Bouterse remains active on the foreign scene. With the country bordered by Brazil, French Guiana and Guyana, Suriname has improved relations with Guyana despite a long-running border dispute; reached out to Europe by opening an embassy in France and joined UNASUR – Union of South American Nations. Next year, it will serve as chair of the trade bloc. At the backdrop is an “economic diplomacy,” focused on domestic investments in health, education, agriculture and bringing “value added” to natural resources.

“We are looking for partners in development, we are tired of people and companies coming and act like investors and they want to take away your natural resources,’’ Suriname Foreign Minister Winston G. Lackin said. “We want to change the attitude of the Surinamese people, “Believe in yourselves.’ We want to have our own natural resources-based industries.”

Meanwhile, Bouterse has taken a personal interest in Haiti, leading the largest delegation – 17 individuals including his personal physician – to President Michel Martelly’s May 14, presidential inauguration. In February, he lead another delegation, this time as chairman of Caricom. “A strong and recovered Haiti will immensely strengthen our community,” he told leaders gathering here.

One relationship that hasn’t improved is that with the Netherlands, where he was convicted in absentia in 1999 for cocaine trafficking. After his election, the country’s foreign minister said he wasn’t welcomed unless he was coming for 11 years -- the amount of his sentence, which he avoided despite an Interpol arrest warrant because Suriname doesn’t have an extradition treaty with its former colonizer.

But neither that nor what his detractors think seem to bother Bouterse. After successfully chairing his first Caricom meeting, he turned on the charm, laughing with friends and visitors, and winding on the dance floor with his wife. He then grabbed the Mic and started belting out what onlookers say has become his theme song: Frank Sinatra’s I did it My Way.