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Winston Lackin, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Interview - October 24, 2011
"Suriname should be developed in the first place on the basis of its natural resources with its own population and with the help from friendly countries in the region, in the wider region, within our bilateral relations, and with our international relations."
Suriname has come a long way in the past decade. Inflation has stabilized and the economy experienced tremendous growth, which peaked at 7% in 2008 and has remained buoyant ever since. Furthermore, investments from both the private and the public sectors have supported growth across all sectors of the economy.

Could you please give your opinion to our American readers on the state of the economy in Suriname, and what is your valuation about the way the objectives were achieved?

First of all, thank you. I think, for Suriname, it’s a great opportunity to communicate with you so that outside the borders of Suriname people can get information about who we are, what we want, and where we are going. So, I want to thank USA Today for this occasion.

We are in Government for more than one year, but the development conception on what we want it to be was formulated long ago within our party under the leadership of the actual President. We have thought for years what we wanted to do. There are some principles that we have, one of them is that Suriname should be developed in the first place on the basis of its natural resources with its own population and with the help from friendly countries in the region, in the wider region, within our bilateral relations, and with our international relations.

What we are doing right now, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to be the instrument for the President of the Republic in paving the path and filling in what has been formulated on what we call the Presidential diplomacy and connected with the development diplomacy, like we call it. The red line in this concept is the economic diplomacy, and this is where we want to make a connection of what we have as natural resources, what we have in human capital, and how we can make a link between these two important issues for us to penetrate export markets. First, what is in our direct region and what are the regional integration processes of which we are members.

For too long the folks of Suriname have been 8000km from here in the North Sea, while we have a unique position, we are a South American country that has a border with France, being part of the vast continent, being a member of CARICOM, and now a member of UNASUR. These are markers we want to use for our economic development.  For instance, yesterday we had a meeting with the Governor of the Central Bank and the Minister of Finance, and we have noticed a growth of 5%, but we know that if you look at what is happening now, the international financial crisis in Europe, in South America, and in the U.S., and that there is a need for Suriname as one of the countries with commodities that the development of our natural resources should be based on the connection with a level of education and investment in people and in health.

What we can see from our interviews is that the aim is to develop the natural resources sector in a sustainable way in order to boost all the sectors of the economy to diversify in the end.

In this sense, what do you think are the sectors of the economy that will be boosted in the coming years, or what are the sectors that present the most potential for growth?

At this moment, mining is important; the oil prices are good and gold is very high. We are very lucky that we have these natural resources, but we know that they will be finishing in the next 30, 40, or 50 years; it’s not sustainable. That’s why the policy is that we should use these natural resources as effective as possible, and the profits we get from them should be invested in sources that we control and own. In the first place, it means the Surinamese people. That’s why we should invest in education and in health.

We are convinced that we should do that in agriculture because, in our conception, agriculture is the area that should be developed. We know that we mentioned it before, from one hundred years ago Suriname was the main source for growth of the Netherlands. For example, by export of products from agriculture, we have to go back there. We have the land, when it comes to access to potable water, Suriname is between number one and number six in the world, we have the sun, and we have the experience in agriculture. It is very important; people need to eat. In 2015 there should be around 10 billion people walking around that need to be fed. That’s why the conception of the President is that we should join these forces. We are having a close cooperation with Guyana to see how we can join these agriculture resources. We have to be the food basket, not only for CARICOM, but also for the wider Caribbean.

Agriculture will be our main focus, but agriculture on a level where we can make a direct connection with industrialization. That means that our educational system should be adapted to that, the markets are there, we know where the needs are, and we have the possibility here, but we should put in the technical assistance that we need. I discovered not so long ago that Commewijne alone had more than eleven hundred plantations, and we know that more than one hundred years had gone, so that means that we should go back into agriculture.  

We see that this government has a long-term vision. The President is committed to bringing a positive international spotlight to Suriname, and that has been the case so far. Mr. Bouterse has focused on bolstering the regional relationships and assuming leadership positions in multilateral organizations. Bearing in mind the strong economic growth, the prudent monetary policy, and the good economic prospects, the international rating agencies have recently improved Suriname’s risk rating to a level of BB-.

Why do you think that the international rating agencies have decided to improve the rating at this particular moment in time, and how would you value the importance of Suriname increasing its credibility towards the international community?

In the first place, it is important for us. We know what we have to do, we know what are the needs of our population, and we know where we have to go. It is nice to have a notation from international organizations of B or B+, but we know there is a lot more that should be done. When we look at the rich town that we have, when they say that Suriname is the 17th richest country in the world, and when we look at the real situation, the living conditions of our people, that we are convinced that we are not there yet. So it is nice to have a B or B+, but we know that we have to work on health and on education. We look at the differences between the inland, and we look at the developed areas, like Paramaribo, Nickerie, and Wanica, we see the difference in education, in housing, in access to portable water, in infrastructure, and in energy supply. We as a country have a lot more to do than only focusing on a positive notation that one of these organizations has given. So, agriculture is one of the issues that we should look at and, of course, the connection with education and health. So, agriculture is one of the issues that we should look at, and of course, the connection with education and health.

In the next three years, Suriname will see over 2 billion USD in investments from IAMGOLD, Newmont, and Staatsolie. According to our sources of information, the national strategy is based on diversifying the economy using sustainable natural resource exploitation as a pillar of leverage.

What are the main challenges that Suriname is going to face, besides housing and education, in order to achieve this diversification?

On one side, when we look at our position in the region solely, we can’t look at our country separated from the rest. We are within CARICOM, we are within UNASUR, and we see what is happening. The effects of the world crisis were the issues in the meetings within UNASUR, the Ministers of Finance, and the Governors of the Central Bank, and it was the issue mentioned again during the UN General Assembly. We looked at what can happen with small and open economies, like Suriname, and at the possible effects. We are aware that we should continue on the path of prudent financial and monetary policies, that the 5 or 6% that we are reaching is good, but it is not enough. We are in a weak position when the effects come. So, we have to develop some sustainable areas. We should go into technology, and we should make a more effective use of the access we have to markets in our direct regional encounter, our policy of regional integration.   

There are some products in which Suriname really stands out, and some organizations are putting a lot of effort in increasing their competitiveness to export them and to create a strong country brand.

How would you evaluate the importance of encouraging the creation of a strong country brand in order to disclose Suriname’s products, people, and country as a whole?

This is very important for Suriname, and this is one of the things that we have in the portfolio of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is part of our foreign policy to help create markets to promote products made in Suriname. In our conception, it accounts not only to material products, we also have to sell Suriname as a country that has a richness that you don’t see in any other country in South America. In our conception, in diplomacy, culture is something that we have to sell, and the rich diversity is something that we have to sell. When you look at the conception, the composition of our population, we are the only country where you have the descendants from Indonesia, form India, from Africa, from China, and it’s something that we are doing as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we are selling this. It means that the Embassies and the Consulates that we have abroad will have a permanent occupation together with the private sector where you can see exactly what Suriname is: this is what we have, this is what we export, this is our weakness, this is what we have in tourism; to share information about what we have. Basically, our culture should be an industry, and in this conception, it is very important when the President of Suriname is the portfolio holder in CARICOM of four elements: youth, sport, culture, and gender. That the means these are issues that, within the policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we are selling.

You have to sell the country, especially when other countries in the region are doing the same.

Of course, and we are doing it together with the private sector. That’s why when the Minister of Foreign Affairs is traveling someone from the private sector is always private there. We are going next week to Korea and to Singapore, and the private sector is always there in order to make the fastest connection possible. I have to facilitate them to act quickly because the private sector is the best equipped to do this.

Your country and the United States engage in mutually beneficial relations, based on the principles of democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law, and civilian authority over the military. Thus, the U.S. remains one of Suriname's principal trading partners, being the largest import provider to Suriname, and the third largest export market for Surinamese, largely due to the natural resources. In fact, Mr. Caldeira told us that the U.S. has been the most important country in Suriname’s economic development.

How would you evaluate the overall state of Suriname-U.S. relations today, and what is or could be the role of the United States in the economy of Suriname?

We are very happy with the relation we have now with the U.S. We have a very good relation with the Embassy here, we meet with the Ambassador on a weekly basis, and there’s always the attention to see how we can do more business between Suriname and the U.S. There’s a Chamber a joint chamber from the U.S. and Suriname, and the Embassy has requested on different occasions to use this vehicle to do more business. Not so long ago, the Ambassador was here with representatives of the tourism sector because he wants to promote tourism in the U.S., that’s why I’m very happy that you’re here today. There is a proposal from the U.S. to get a kind of “Open Sky” policy, just to make a better connection. That’s something you need to do business, to promote tourism, these are issues that are on the agenda of the bilateral relations between Suriname-U.S. We have a relation with the U.S. for more than the last 80 years, but also agriculture exports to Miami, for example. There are positive prospects, good signs, and we know that the U.S. is one of the more important trading partners in our hemisphere. We’re looking for much better and more intensive cooperation. Regarding the private sector, we’re discussing the possibilities on the CBI, and we are looking for more opportunities, especially in tourism, investment, and transfer of technology.

Okay, let’s go step by step. Regarding tourism, Lonely Planet has placed Suriname as one of the top destinations. It is in the Caribbean, but its offer is totally new and exotic compared to what other countries in the Caribbean have – the cultural mixture, the food diversity, the nature tourism, and much more.

What are the competitive advantages that you would highlight about Suriname to become a major tourist destination, and what makes Suriname especially attractive to tourists?

Besides what I mentioned, the composition of the population with the history and the culture expressions, Suriname is one of the eight countries in the Amazon region. Although we are the smallest, we’re the only one that is covered with more than 90% of tropical rainforests. There are species and a kind of biological life that you will not see any more in Brazil, Venezuela, and other countries. This is because we use only 5-8% of the coastal area, and our interior is mostly inhabited. We have the kind of biodiversity and species that you won’t find any more.

I don’t know if you heard the story about the okko pipi, the medical plant project together with the University of West Virginia; what we have here can be very important to help with AIDS and cancer. I know it because I’ve been part of what Conservation International is doing here in this field.

We have something special to offer. If you have been to the interior, you’ll see expression of culture from the African continent that you will not see any more in Ghana or the west coast of Africa, where they came from. It has been conserved here – the traditions, the dressing, the way of constructing. It’s all still in place as it was three to four hundred years ago in Africa.

You mentioned as well the foreign direct investment.

What are the sectors that are more attractive for the foreign investors, and how would you evaluate the reception of Suriname to the FDI?

Yes, I don’t know if you followed the news this morning or yesterday about what we are doing now with our harbor. We want to use our geographical position; we want to play a role in the international sea origin transport. There is a project with the international sea harbor in the northeast coast of Suriname. We know what is happening in Trinidad with the trade, that’s why I discussed with the Minister of Foreign Affairs from Panama. We want to make a connection with the Panama Canal, and what we can do here with our harbor facilities with the connection to France. We know that France has problems with the sea harbor, so they need Suriname for transport of containers to be transported to Europe and to other places. This exactly what the private sector is doing. We have a joint venture with a major company from Dubai participating in expanding and modernization of our harbor facilities. We want to take advantage of the strategic location in Suriname to be the bridge between north and south using our geographical position, using our natural resources, being a major player in our services, and adapted to modern technology.
What is the importance of attracting FDI, especially from countries like the U.S., that comes with know-how and technology transfer?

It is very important, sometimes technology is more important than money. FDI is very important, that’s why we became members of this association from the World Bank. We’re promoting investing in Suriname because we know that we can’t do it alone, we don’t have the capacity in financial and technical terms. FDI is very important, but not only from the U.S., we’re also looking for partners in the Caribbean, the President has offered in the CARICOM meeting to the CARICOM members to become partners of Suriname, for example, in mining. We have a lot of gold, and they can be shareholders. Let’s develop the natural resources together with the Public-Private Partnerships and the FID. In this sense, the Governor of the Central Bank is doing a great job in promoting Suriname as a market for FDI.

Suriname is the undiscovered gem of the Caribbean. Bearing in mind the strong media impact of this communications campaign, in which all of our interviewees are acting as ambassadors of Suriname’s image at an international level,
How would you like your country to be perceived by the U.S. community?

Well, we know the position of the U.S. We are part of the western hemisphere, and our policy is that we should have the best relation wit the U.S. That means that we should bring the people together – the people of Suriname and the people of the U.S.

I was in the U.S. last month on holidays, and I met with the Surinamese society when they had the Suriname Day in a park in New York. We want to be together and do business together. I’d like to see more relation in the sense of transport, better access to each other’s natural resources, and we’re taking the necessary measures now in getting rid of unnecessary visa requirements to get access to the country. The President will announce it tomorrow, and we’re convinced that this is the way we should look at it. There’s technology there, there’s finance, and it is the willingness of Suriname to look at the private sector of the U.S.

As a matter of fact, the U.S. was the first country to have representation in Suriname. In the 18th century there was something like a consulate already here, and you know the trade between Suriname and New York. So we have all kinds of relations.

Suriname has scheduled payment of the debt with the U.S., and it’s looking very good. This will accompany more opportunities for doing business. I talked about the “Open Sky”, we want people to get here without a lot of paperwork, just get the airport and the tourist cards, and come and do business. The governor of the Central Bank is finalizing a document with all of the economic data, how to do business in Suriname, what our energy supply is, what the infrastructure is, the state of education and natural resources, how you can get a concession, and how to work with the Chamber of Commerce. It is a brochure for investors before getting to Suriname, a guideline of how to do business.

In your position, taking advantage of this opportunity to talk directly to the heart and soul of the first trade partner, the USA Today,

What final message would you send to the international community to invite them to come to Suriname?

Come to Suriname because this country is the jewel of the Caribbean, and it is the place you should be when you come to South America.