The Ecphorizer

Letter from Suriname VII
Katharine Mitchell

Issue #37 (September 1984)



18 April 1984. We've had some more demonstrations in the past couple of weeks - one fairly big and well-organized one yesterday. The stimulus was the airing of a sequence from Cable Network News that purported to show American soldiers of fortune training "resistance" fighters to oppose Bouterse. This was supposed to have been filmed in French Guiana. As I've mentioned, the local government keeps an "antimercenary" campaign going, pretty much as a diversionary tactic, we think. They seem to hope that people won't concentrate on economic and internal political problems if they can direct their attention to another issue. The rhetoric usually draws heavily on scenarios for invasions via French Guiana. The border is occasionally closed and there have been small numbers of arrests from time to time.

This time they had some ideal grist for their mill. The film clip has been shown again and again; there have been panel discussions televised, lots of speeches, etc. Interestingly enough, the targets are the Dutch (for supposedly harboring and subsidizing opposition groups in the Netherlands) and the French (for at least turning a blind eye to the reputed training activities in their territory). The media were claiming participation by 2500 people yesterday, but our observers estimated something under 1000. Part of the demonstration formed up in front of the government building across the street from our embassy, probably about 350 people. Once again, government offices closed so that employees could take part and they tried to gather students into the march as well. As usual, most people just used the opportunity to take some time off. They did have a lot of signs and banners. The signs were mostly "wanted poster" style with photographs of the two Americans in the film clip, "Dr. John" and "Boss."

The small group marched past us at a fairly brisk pace, chanting, but not paying much attention to our building or directing much of their words or gestures to us. They joined other groups and went to the French embassy where three "revos" went in to present a petition. Somehow they managed to get to windows above the street and harangued the crowd for a few minutes. At the Dutch embassy they burned effigies and hung around for a while. After the fire department took care of the effigy fire, a number of the crowd (estimates run from 25 to 50) got into the building, but not into the embassy office spaces. This was reported as an "occupation" of the embassy and it took the help of the Protocol Office (the part of the Foreign Ministry that deals with foreign missions) to get enough police there to roust them out.

7 May 1984. Another embassy employee and I went on an outing Saturday. Our destination was Joden Savannah, the remains of a Portuguese Jewish community that functioned from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s.

You leave the road to the Paranam Dam at about Kilometer 45 and head toward the Suriname River. They are building a bridge at Carolina that looks like it will not be complete for some time. The ferry carries about four cars with careful loading. It is only a short drive on the other side to Joden Savannah. There is not much to see. There is a burial ground that was used into the 1950's (from the dates on the markers) that was evidently for Bush Negroes. Why there, I don't know. The markers are wooden and in interesting shapes; some inscriptions are still faintly legible. Another graveyard has the monuments from the Jewish burials. They must have imported the stones, which are about six inches thick and cover the graves. Lots of the inscriptions are in both Hebrew and Roman alphabets. The names are definitely Portuguese, and the dates of the ones we could read were in the mid-1700's. One symbol on many of them is a hand holding an ax that seems to have just cut down a tree. Tall living trees have grown up through some of the graves, almost incorporating the stones in their roots.

An information sheet we have about the place says the Dutch used it for a concentration camp during WW II to intern Nazis from Indonesia. They were put to work cleaning up the place. I think that is a nice touch. There was a big fire in the early 1830's; the community was already much dispersed and not interested in restoring the town. The only ruins left today are the foundations of one house and the extensive foundations of the synagogue, which is quite complete. It is like the synagogues here in the city, in the Sephardic style, with the entrance in the long side of the basic rectangle of the building.

11 May 1984. I seem not to have mentioned earlier that the local government entered into an experimental renewal of "press freedom" effective 1 May. I'm not surprised I didn't, since it hasn't meant much. One of the papers published before December 1982, De West is publishing again, very cautiously. Two radio stations are on the air again, in addition to the government station. One used to broadcast on AM and FM. The government impounded (and probably uses) their AM gear. FM broadcasts reach only about 50 km. They are trying to get their gear back, but no progress yet. The government says it will not censor the press or other media, but they had better not "insult the revolution." They say they will disseminate a "journalistic code of ethics," but right now there are really no rules.

21 May 1984. The shortages of consumer goods on the local market are getting pretty disturbing. We have been without chocolate for several months; butter and cheese are rarely available, and then in small amounts informally rationed by the merchants. We often have little chicken in the stores, so that is nothing new. Lately, though, flour and salt have been in short supply, or absent for periods of time. Now, that is getting basic.

6 June 1984. The local government had intended to announce its (1984!) budget 1 July, but now they seem to have postponed it until 1 August. Though they have been making a massive effort to educate the populace to the necessity for austerity measures, they have failed to convince them that all sectors will share equally. They are afraid (probably rightly) that there will be even stronger reactions than there were last December-January. Postponing announcement of the budget will solve nothing; indeed, it is dangerous with the economy as perilous as it is now. They have even halted importation of vital items like medicines for which they had been making exceptions recently. An IMF team was here recently, but we don't know whether this government will be willing to work to meet their conditions for aid. Some seem still to count on the Dutch coming through for them. We shall see.

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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