Wednesday, August 05, 2009


The Guianas don't fit well within our conception of Latin America. For instance, at the last Latin American Studies Association congress (in Rio de Janeiro earlier this summer), there wasn't a single paper on this part of the world among 1,270 panels. Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane are a geographical oddity: in South America but not of it.

In fact, it's surprisingly difficult even to travel to the Guianas from elsewhere in Latin America: there are no road links between Guyana and its neighbor Venezuela, for instance, while from Brazil the only overland links are to Guyana connecting with the difficult road from Lethem, and to Guyane via a boat across the Oyapock river to the rather lonely outpost of Saint-Georges de l'Oyapock. Meanwhile, air services are limited to a fairly intermittent schedule by small plane between the northern Brazilian cities of Boa Vista and Belém to Georgetown and Paramaribo. The Guianas are much better connected to North America and Europe (with direct flights for instance to Toronto and Amsterdam), and to the Caribbean via Trinidad and Tobago.

Guyana, or its populated coastal strip at least, is Caribbean in culture and outlook even though in fact it borders the Atlantic Ocean directly. Guyane has probably a fair amount in common with other French overseas departments such as Martinique and Réunion. Suriname, however, appears to be a case apart.

Compared to Guyana, the first thing to strike you is how orderly and even tidy Suriname is. In part, this is a consequence of the fact that the population is much smaller (less than half a million compared to Guyana's 750,000) and that more than half live in the capital, Paramaribo. Here, there is not the same profusion of people strung out along the coastal road. But even in Paramaribo itself, especially the historic core near the Suriname river, there is a marked absence of litter along the narrow streets that are flanked by often impressively-restored colonial-era wooden buildings. It's all very... well, Dutch. There are even blond-haired youths dashing around on bicycles (though to be fair these seem to be tourists).

On the riverfront there is a delightful open-air food market with stalls selling creole and Javanese dishes, music playing, and people hanging out, drinking beer, taking a stroll, or (while I was there at least, during the Confederations Cup) watching football on television. Nearby are some fairly fancy bars and restaurants, as well as all the major public buildings: the national palace, the Treasury and other ministries, and the impressively huge wooden Cathedral.

Not far away, also by the river, is Fort Zeelandia, well preserved and immaculately restored with permanent and temporary exhibitions devoted to the former colony's history. Everything's beautifully and professionally arrayed. By contrast, in Georgetown, Guyana, when I went looking for the former fort nobody knew where it was and I found myself straying through a decidedly ramshackle area full of weeds and rusted old vehicles.

Yet there's a darker underside to Suriname, too, for all its polished and cultivated sheen. For Fort Zeelandia was, not all that long ago, the site of the so-called "December murders" in which on December 8, 1982, fifteen opponents of the military government then in power were killed in circumstances that have still to be fully clarified. Suriname is not so far distant from the rest of Latin America in that in the 1980s it, like much of the rest of the continent, was also subject to a succession of coups and military leaders. And though these regimes were not particularly bloody, the transition from dictatorship was messy to say the least, with a rebellion by former maroons from the interior and east of the country, and a short but fairly brutal civil war.

As so often, a country that is apparently set apart from the region in fact has more in common with the rest of Latin America than its inhabitants (and its tourist office) might want to acknowledge. There are few, if any, real exceptions in the history of the Americas.

Link: OAS Report on the Human Rights Situation in Suriname (1983), including discussion of the "December murders."

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