The Ecphorizer

Letter From Suriname VI
Katharine Mitchell

Issue #36 (August 1984)



28 November 1983 Our Thanksgiving weekend was very quiet. Since I was the duty officer, I am especially grateful for that. Friday, the 25th, was a Surinamese holiday, celebrating independence from Holland in 1975. The head of the government, Colonel Bouterse, decided to have his rallies a day early. Thus our reporting officers had to be out and about to see what was going on. There had been a lot of buildup for an announcement of new programs, but I understand that the speeches were all [quoteright'/>pretty much a rehash of earlier addresses. Lots of people just made it a four-day weekend and got out of town. There was the usual parade of decorated vehicles down my street in the morning. Small aircraft were dropping leaflets, most of which I hear landed in the river, each of which was numbered. You were to keep yours to see if you won a prize, which could have been a trip to the Interior, but more likely a T-shirt or a badge. There was the usual free food to attract participants, but I am told the whole affair was pretty listless. I heard fireworks in the evening, but they weren't the kind you could see on the skyline.

Now all we have to do is wait for the anniversary of December 8-9. We expect no spontaneous demonstrations; perhaps people will make silent protests by not coming to work or by wearing armbands. For Surinamers, even that would be a reaction of major proportions.

We expect an official visitor over the weekend, the Regional Management and Budget Advisor. He was here during the events of last December and did not enjoy himself. For several days he devoted himself to getting out of Suriname as soon as he could. During the night of December 7-8, when the shooting and fire-bombing was going on, he had pulled his mattress down between the hotel beds to stay out of range of any broken glass. (The civilian architect who was here at the time slept in the bathtub. The other three official visitors all toughed it out). I am not sure he has focused on the fact that he will be here for the anniversary. It will not surprise me if he changes his itinerary.

30 November 1983 Tuesday's newspaper, which appears Monday evenings, announced the arrest of an indeterminate number of people. Radio Nederland, early Tuesday morning, said it was four. At 10:30 the local radio announced a press conference for noon. It was not really a press conference, but a briefing. Two arrestees were displayed in handcuffs, a Creole and a Hindustani. They told tales of being approached in the Netherlands, traveling to French Guiana where they got their instructions, then perpetrating several arsons in the first phases of a plan that might have led to the assassinations of unnamed people. Today's paper published three prisoner's names. Supposedly ten were arrested.

There are various surmises about what is going on. Perhaps everything the government and the prisoners are saying is the truth. Perhaps it is a grandstand play to reduce the chance of action on the anniversary of December 8-9, a reminder that the government is vigilant.  Perhaps it is even a staged event, totally fake. In any case, it is business as usual here. No new restrictions, no change in the curfews.

7 December 1983 There has been no more drama from the arrests. The big anniversary is tomorrow night. We are not expecting anything beyond some silent protests. The word is that people are requested to go to the cemeteries carrying flowers. Since gatherings of more than four people are still not allowed, they are to tell anyone who asks that they are taking a walk. They are urged not to provoke any official reaction.

The Regional Budget and Management Advisor was unable to come here as planned; he is recovering from dengue fever, which he thinks he contracted in Trinidad or Curacao. He says that during the first week he thought he would die and during the following two weeks he wished he could die. Some people describe dengue as nothing worse than a bad flu, but I think those are people who have not had it. It is mosquito-borne, and there is nothing you can do but try to survive it. Some people in the Caribbean area call it "break bone fever" because that is what you feel is happening. You can't even stand the weight of a sheet on your body. You also hallucinate and suffer a severe depression. Luckily, no one on the staff here has had it since I have been here.

20 December 1983 The stores are decorated and the shoppers are shopping; all looks as though it were well with the world! Our TDY Communicator from Panama who was here several months ago says he notices a marked decrease in general tension from what he experienced in his earlier visit. He thinks he didn't notice all the pretty girls before because hardly anyone was smiling. I'd say he is right; people are pretty much ignoring the political situation as far as their daily lives go.

Last night the Ambassador's secretary put together a Mexican dinner with things the TDY Communicator had brought with him. They had known each other in Tokyo. Mexican food is one of the things we miss most, so the dinner was a real treat. All but three of the guests were Americans, and the conversation stayed on the topic of food for almost the entire evening. It was a little embarrassing, considering how well we do eat here. Still, talk of kosher delicacies and favorite Italian dishes, as well as Mexican food, was hard to suppress.

I have heard no talk of a ban on fireworks this year. Kids in my neighborhood are already practicing for the New Year's celebration. Amazingly, the local dogs don't seem to react to fireworks at all. My neighbor's goat, on the other hand, bleats continuously and seems quite upset.

23 December 1983 We're getting some new drama. It is "prevailing practice" in this country, as in many others, for workers to receive a year-end bonus, usually equalling one month's pay. Earlier this month workers got their bonuses if the companies had done enough business to afford them, but they found that new tax legislation had taken out an enormous proportion. To show their dissatisfaction the workers first struck the Suralco aluminum plant and Billiton, the Dutch bauxite company, a few days ago. They slowed down their work at Moengo, the major processing plant. Then three nights ago they cut the power that comes from the dam. They did coordinate with the city utility company, which took care of about about 75% of the city with the advance warning. However, their equipment can easily overload, or the city workers can cut the power off altogether. Yesterday banks closed early and may only be open a couple of hours today. There are also rumors that the water will be shut off.

At first the government refused to discuss the matter. Yesterday, though, they did send two ministers to Paranam (where the Suralco plant is) to talk to the workers. No unified leadership has emerged, but we think that is probably purposeful. Any identifiable leaders would likely be taken into custody. We'll see what happens.

29 December 1983 Some enterprising foreman convinced thirteen workers to form a delegation to deal with the government. They spent all afternoon yesterday in a meeting. Evidently it did not result in anything positive, but it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the government is looking for a scapegoat and have decided on the Suralco management. Things are taking a nasty turn. While the government loses about $750,000 a day, Suralco is losing about $1,200,000. This country is strapped for money, but Bouterse has just ordered $800,000 worth of Mercedes automobiles. If it weren't so sad, it would be comical.

2 January 1984 The workers had not been able to reach any agreement in their meetings Wednesday and Thursday with government ministry officials. Friday evening, Bouterse took things into his own hands and met with them and the ministers. As far as we can tell, they seem to have decided that it would be administratively impossible to put a new tax package into effect immediately. Rather than designate a new date, it will probably be left in abeyance for a while. In the meantime, Bouterse may authorize a consultative process involving the representatives that emerged from the strike, labor union officials, and the business community. Whether they would really have any input is not clear.

Meanwhile, power outages are scheduled around the city to prevent any one area from bearing the brunt. Over the weekend, utility workers were allowed to repair the damaged switching facility so full power can be restored.

9 January 1984 Someone foolishly issued an announcement, not properly cleared, to the workers at the utility company telling them they would not get their annual bonuses. They promptly pulled the plug on the whole city. There were problems with the water supply as well. Lots of stores and businesses closed down for lack of power.

I went to the hotel where Embassy officials stay, since I was not sure if taxi drivers might strike in sympathy. Besides, it was a lot more fun to be there in the dark with friends than at home alone. I have found it is uncomfortable to try to read by candlelight, so have been reduced to playing a lot of solitaire during the outages.

Bouterse was to have made a speech Saturday, but begged off due to "unforeseen circumstances." The power from Paranam was restored to the net during Saturday evening; maybe he was waiting to see if that really happened. Sunday was very calm, and I returned to my house. Bouterse did speak late that night, but I didn't hear him. I heard a little this morning, but do not have full details. One thing I know is that his entire government has resigned.

11 January 1984 Suralco called a meeting of all its expatriate Americans to let them decide if their dependents wanted to return to the US. All but two will be on the flight leaving this morning. Suralco has effectively shut down their operation and the government knows about it.

13 January 1984 This whole thing is getting much more political. Until now, the general wisdom has been that Surinamers react to economic pressures, and indeed that is what got all this started. Yesterday hardly anyone showed up at the Suralco plant and there were no confrontations. The power supply from Paranam is still less than necessary for the whole city, so there are periodic outages in various neighborhoods.

This morning one of my employees received a call from one of the officers of our bank saying that very few people had come to work and it is likely the banks won't open today. Teachers have considered going out. A pamphlet is circulating calling for a general strike. All this is not aimed at economic goals. The idea seems to be that they want Bouterse out. His reaction to all this remains to be seen. There are military patrols all over town, including my neighborhood.

23 January 1984 The workers are returning to Paranam today. At the end of last week they reached an agreement. For its part, the government is to give each worker Sf 400 tax-free. Where they plan to get the money, I don't know. Suralco is also going to give each an interest-free loan of Sf 800, to be paid back over the next twenty pay periods.

We are still having power outages, but less frequently. One hit me last Friday just as dinner guests arrived. Luckily, all the cutting and chopping of ingredients was complete before the lights went out. I cook by smell, sound, and touch almost as much as by sight, so we were not thwarted by the loss of light. It was a nice evening. 

Contributor Profile

Katherine Mitchell

In 1977 Katherine Mitchell spent three months trekking by land across the Middle East from Cairo to Delhi. This experience suited her quite well and as a result, she joined the Foreign Service.




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