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PARAMARIBO, Suriname—A president accused of murder and convicted for drug smuggling. Rogue gold miners and outlaw timber harvesters, most of them foreigners drawn to the lawlessness. Roads that end two hours outside the capital, leaving travelers with the choice of either taking handmade canoes through rivers infested with anacondas, piranhas, and giardia or flying on prop planes with alarming safety records.
Why would anyone want to go to Suriname? That's what I traveled there to find out.
Actually, I had been invited by the recently formed Suriname Tourism Foundation, who had seen some of the consulting I did with the Belize Tourism Board a couple years ago. Like Belize, they wanted advice on how to best reach prospective travelers. With the number of Dutch tourists declining each year—Suriname is a former colony of the Netherlands—the country is eager to tap into new markets, and North Americans are, geographically and financially, the demographic most likely to take a chance on the smallest country in South America.
I didn’t have much time to do research before heading to Paramaribo. But I can say this: The top Google search for Suriname is, "Where is Suriname?" That’s a tough start.
Suriname, it turns out, is a knuckle on northern South America's fist, squeezed between other lesser-knowns, Guyana and French Guyana, the continent's non-Latin nations. The country is a regional anomaly: neither Spanish nor Portuguese in language and tradition like its South American neighbors, nor French like its Caribbean ones. It is a postcolonial state, although not wholly Dutch, either.
There is a cruel truth about most of the great tourist destinations in the Americas: They are built on old barbarities of one kind or the other. The highest point from a now-bucolic hill in Managua, Nicaragua, is where Anastasio Somoza's lackeys threw rebels down a chute into alligator infested waters. They also dropped regime enemies from helicopters into an active volcano, where tourists line up today for photos. Chile’s national stadium doubled as an enormous torture center. In my home state of South Carolina, visitors love to walk plantation grounds that were essentially the sites of a centuries-long reign of terror against slaves.
In Paramaribo, the equivalent landmark might be Fort Zeelandia. A five-minute walk from my hotel, it is the centerpiece of historic Suriname. It was built in the 1600s, and is the oldest monumental building in the capital. And, as the sign in front admits, the fort “has also been the backdrop for some gruesome events.” Those events don’t just include the senseless execution of slaves a century ago. They are also referring to a bloody event from 1982—the so-called December Murders.
That’s the difference between Suriname and many other places—usually such grisly sites don’t become tourist destinations until the people responsible are either dead or punished. But how do you build tourism off your dark history when the man responsible for the most disturbing chapter in modern Suriname is not just alive, but the president.
In December 1982, Desi Bouterse had been president for nearly three years, a position he had claimed for himself in a military coup. He had managed, as most dictators do, to quell opposition by eliminating political parties, controlling the media, instituting a curfew, and limiting opportunities for public assembly. Yet Bouterse still had critics. So on the morning of Dec. 7, 1982, 15 dissidents—most of them respected journalists or university professors—were rounded up and brought to Fort Zeelandia. Two days later, they were dead. Bouterse had allegedly ordered their torture and killing. According to a witness, Bouterse was the triggerman for two of the murders.
Bouterse is a wanted man for these and other crimes. Europol has had a warrant for his arrest since 1999, after the Netherlands convicted him in absentia of smuggling more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine into the country. The conviction, which could not be enforced since Suriname has no extradition treaty with the Netherlands and Bouterse has legal immunity as president, has apparently done little to discourage Bouterse from maintaining strong ties with other traffickers, including his son, Dino Bouterse. Nor has Bouterse allowed the warrant to keep him homebound. Just last month he traveled to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral.