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Episode 62. The Geopolitics of Suriname

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Suriname is a country so far off of most analyst's radars that few have looked past its basic details and into its complicated geopolitical crossroads. The leader of the country is now faced with a decision to either change to seek the quick riches of the burgeoning oil industry, or to maintain a somewhat diversified economy and keep his growth and momentum grounded.

This new leadership is signalling major reforms for the country, but how much can you change the course of a nation without creating instability?



Even Ellis

  • American Research Professor at the US War College for Strategic Studies

  • Non-Resident Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies specialising in Latin America and the Caribbean

Perri Grace

  • Researcher and Analyst specialising in disinformation in authoritarian regimes

  • Open Source Intelligence analyst specialising in Latin America and the former colonised African states

  • Prolific writer on conflict and security, working with the United Nations Institute of Training and Research

  • Senior Analyst at The Red Line

Christopher Sabatini

  • Senior Fellow for Latin America at Chatham House

  • Formerly a Lecturer in discipline at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

  • On the Advisory Board for Harvard University's Latin America Program

  • Advisor on the Committee of the Human Rights Watch Americas Division

  • HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum


Part 1: Overlooked (1:56)

  • Ellis outlines why it is that Suriname has long fallen between the cracks of regional analysis - language and geography. No other country on the continent has a significant Dutch speaking population, and the Guyanese shield means the Amazon rainforest separates the state from much of the events going on down south.

  • We trace the country's history, including looking at the ongoing strong resentment toward their former colonisers, their Cold War era strategic position, and the complex ethnic makeup the country brought about by their colonial history.

  • We look at how the country's geography affects their domestic and international politics. Over 90% of the population living within 25km of the country's coast, again due largely to colonial era trading legacies, there is a huge amount of uninhabited territory. Only recently was the first road built between Suriname and one of its neighbours (France/French Guiana) and there remains no link between Suriname and Guyana or Brazil.

  • Turning to today, we look at the country's competition with Guyana to be the recipient of Brazilian infrastructure investment, the massive influence of organised crime, its critical Bauxite industry, the potential development of a petroleum industry based on some off-shore discoveries recently, and the recent turn toward China for investment, a turn buoyed by its local Chinese population.


Part 2: A Booming Neighbourhood (25:50)

  • Perri Grace looks at Suriname's neighbourhood, and how its ethnic makeup and north-facing geography has made them far more closely involved with the Caribbean than with South American countries. They are a closely linked politically, economically, and culturally with the region, including being a part of CARICOM, and their export driven economy which is less reliant on tourism has made them an increasingly important partner for Caribbean countries since COVID-19.

  • We look at the importance of the country's new President, seen by many as a radical change for the country and who came to power into a depressed economy which had failed to take advantage of new oil reserves, and a foreign policy which had recently oriented much more toward China than ever before.

  • Suriname's diversity is critically important to understanding how it works as a country, which Perri Grace helps us understand in looking toward the direction the country will move in the future. The growth of the Chinese ethnic community has raised tensions with the traditional economic primacy of the Hindustani ethnic groups.

  • We look at the economic consequences of the pandemic in Suriname and the Caribbean, and where they are looking to regain economic stability and development.


Part 3: Pulling up the Drawbridge (36:42)

  • With Christopher Sabatini we dive further into the domestic politics of the country, from its corruption scandals to the former President's son's attempt to allow Hezbollah to set up a training camp in the Surinamese jungle, to the role of Brazil and China.

  • We overview the energy poverty of the Caribbean region, and their history of working together as a bloc in international forums. If Suriname is able to develop its oil industry and export, what role is it likely to play in the Caribbean? Is there potential for it to take a significant leadership role through cheap oil exports, and who might compete with it?

  • On the other side of things we look at the potential negative impact that oil could have on the country, looking at how it has affected other countries in its region and in a similar position, as well as the country's historical issues with organised crime, drug trafficking, and corruption.

  • We examine regional issues and how they may affect Suriname. This includes the collapse of Venezuela, Suriname's border dispute with Brazil, and the border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana. We also talk about the role that the United States plays, which is primarily working to combat corruption and recently stepping up its diplomatic presence after the finding of oil.


The Red Line's Suriname Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading should you be interested in delving deeper into the geopolitics of Suriname.


History of the Guianas

David Robbins

Forgotten Continent

Michael Reed

Suriname in the Long Twentieth Century

Rosemarijn Hoefte


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Jimothy, Captain Cook, and Karl Sharma.


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