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'Our regional integration policy is based on economic diplomacy'

Article - August 28, 2012
The government used its six-month chairmanship of Caricom to spur further economic and commercial unity in the region and highlight Suriname's accessibility to major markets for foreign investors

During its six-month chairmanship of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in the first half of 2012, Suriname put changes in motion to revitalize the regional union. Agendas of the heads-of-state meetings were smaller and with a greater focus on matters of importance and projects for which financing had already been secured.

New arrangements were sought to reduce the region’s dependence on outside financial institutions, and Suriname encouraged increased cooperation among the region’s private entities.

Since becoming a full member of Caricom on July 4, 1995, Suriname has played an integral part in the regional integration process. Suriname’s president at the time of its accession to the community, Ronald Runaldo Venetiaan, set out the tone of the country’s commitment to fortifying the links in the union that continues to this day. In his address at the Opening Ceremony of the Sixteenth Meeting of the Conference in Georgetown, he affirmed: “Suriname casts its lot with that of Caricom in the effort for a sustainable development of our economies in the fight against poverty for the purpose of heightening the standard of living in our region… Suriname has joined the family of Caribbean nations so as to advance together with the peoples of the Caribbean towards the future, not too distant from now, where the promise of welfare, peace and stability for the entire community will be fulfilled.”

A constant commitment
Suriname’s political leaders continue to urge fellow Caricom members to show their commitment to strengthening the union by developing deeper ties with each other for both social and economic reasons. Winston Lackin, Suriname’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs, describes his nation as “a friendly, open country with a rich culture and diversity with a history” and takes a look at the efforts made in forging greater regional integration by “one of the unique investment opportunities on the South American continent”. 

Over the past few years, Suriname has achieved a series of milestones in its socio economic development and maintains its position as one of the top economic performers in the Caribbean. Its progress has been particularly notable since the new administration came into power in 2010. 

“When we took over government two years ago, we made some decisions based on our geographical location. We decided that our first focus should be on integration in the region,” says Mr. Lackin. “For the first time in history, we were obliged to develop the country without any aid, which we received when Suriname gained independence in 1975. That meant that we had to take development into our own hands. Based on that, we established a foreign policy that is related to our natural resources and level of education, and where we want to be within the next 10 years.”

"We aim to be the bridge between Caricom and UNASUR, building on our access to the market we have had for the past 50 years.

Our financial system is clear and sound, so
people know what our economy is like and what is possible.

We are not just looking for investors; we are looking for partners in development."

Winston Lackin,
Minister of Foreign Affairs

the Good neighbor
Suriname’s regional integration policy is based on economic diplomacy and includes capitalizing on its position as both a South American country and a member of organizations such as Caricom. Suriname is also in the enviable position of neighboring one of the larger BRIC countries: Brazil, the sixth-largest economy in the world. Another opportunity that has not been tapped into and is currently in the government’s sights is access to European markets via French Guiana and its close cross-continental links.

Mr. Lackin explains: “We have been looking at our borders and cooperating with our neighbors: that has been our main focus of foreign policy. As a small economy, you have to avoid issues with your neighbors, so we decided that we should look at what unites us and leave behind what divides us. We are focusing on our relations with Guyana, because Suriname and Guyana are two very similar nations. We aim to be the bridge between Caricom and UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, building on our access to the market we have had for the past 50 years.”

Increasing the country’s infrastructure is important. Without it, no development can take place. As such, Suriname is looking to boost its physical connections with the region and is carrying out a study for a bridge to link Suriname with Guyana.

Mr. Lackin says, “We are dealing with the Brazilians regarding a connection with the southern part of Suriname and the northern part of Brazil because we are convinced that this will give us the opportunity to tap into our natural resources. In this regard, we are inviting the private sector from outside Caricom and UNASUR to be part of what we want to do here when it comes to economic development. We are not just looking for investors; we are looking for partners in development.”

Presidential call for unity and cooperation
One of the ideas introduced by President Bouterse during his role as Chairman of Caricom was the creation of Caricom Enterprises. The aim is to encourage private sector companies within Caricom to work together and maximize each other’s strengths. “We want to create our own financial instruments based on our natural resources, technology and our own young people, and bring the private sector together. We have succeeded in doing that. We have succeeded in connecting South American companies with some very important projects,” says Mr. Lackin. “If you do not have unity and cooperation, you cannot guarantee sustainable development. Our former colonizers taught us to live peacefully side-by-side, but no one taught us to live with each other. That is what we are really looking at. We are the only country in this region that has this mix of people, cultures and religions. We are very happy that there have never been conflicts like there have been in other parts of the world. We are looking at bringing regions together. We want to use our rich cultural and ethnic diversity to be a fundamental supporter of our economic development.”

Encouraging youth in politics
In June, President Bouterse hosted the first ever high-level Caricom-UNASUR youth exchange. The President chaired a meeting held under the theme ‘Youth Participation for the Development of our Region; Developing our Region Through Cultural Connections’. During the exchange that the President himself had initiated, he challenged 32 Caricom Youth Ambassadors and the youth leaders from the 12 member UNASUR to get more involved in the representational politics of their regions.
“You are called upon not only to be politically savvy but to become involved in the politics of your regions. It is an important part of being a responsible citizen,” the President affirmed during the two-day gathering. “We need a social revolution and strong transformational and political leadership to achieve this revolution.”
President Bouterse urged youth leaders to make a difference in the region as transformational leaders, highlighting that they must think creatively and visualize the kind of world in which they wanted to live. The President said, “As creative thinkers, you must not only challenge the status quo but encourage creativity among your peers. You are called upon to explore new ways of doing things, introduce innovations and create new opportunities to learn.”

He added, “We are committed to helping you, but to whom much is given, much is expected.”
The exchange was also used as a platform to promote the successes of Caricom youth and demonstrate how they are integrated in political decision-making processes. It also threw the spotlight on youth leaders from UNASUR, the Caricom Youth Ambassador Program, and also Suriname’s Youth Parliament model of youth governance, which has been singled out as a regional best practice.

Encouraging greater private-sector interaction, the installation of the Caricom Youth Ambassadors, and launching the first youth exchange summit between Caricom and UNASUR are regarded as some of the top achievements of Suriname’s six-month turn at the helm of Caricom. According to President Bouterse: “Suriname has tried to build a bridge between the Caricom and the UNASUR because we deem this as the biggest challenge given the economic, social, political and cultural integration between our nations and people.”

Suriname Green
Suriname is in the middle of the Amazon region and more than 90% of the country is covered by tropical rainforest. The 5% of Suriname’s land that is actually in use is along its coast, which means the hinterlands are mostly empty. Economic development that leverages Suriname’s natural assets while maintaining its status as the greenest nation on Earth is the focus of Suriname Green, the government’s guiding principle for balanced policymaking and investment in its 2012-2017 five-year development plan.

“Currently we are looking for something very specific: technical assistance,” says Mr. Lackin. “We are aware that we will all be in danger if there is no change in behavior and that climate change will affect us. We want to sell ‘green’. In addition, we are working with some technical universities in the U.S. on some medical plans we can use for our objectives. The prospects are very positive.”

The government is creating five specialized agencies within the new green development framework that will cover areas such as health, education and the environment.
Nurturing growth from agriculture
As a small country surrounded by nations with larger mineral deposits that have traditionally attracted greater mining interest, the Surinamese government decided that agriculture should form the basis of the country’s sustainable development. Suriname has been an important exporter of agriculture for over 300 years.

Furthermore, it is estimated that in 2050 there will be more than 10 billion people on the planet, who will need to be fed.

“We have arable land, enough potable water and plenty of year-round sunshine, which is very important for agricultural development,” comments Mr. Lackin. “Whatever we earn from the mining sector should be invested in agriculture and education. We have lots of natural resources, but the most important resources are human beings. So that means investment in education and health. Only that will guarantee that we will be in a better position to bring ourselves up to world prices. That means food security, job creation and getting people into agriculture and our educational system. We have made that very clear.”

The potential for partnerships
Florida and Miami are known in the region as being the capitals of the Caribbean and Latin America in the U.S. Moves such as the recently announced open-skies agreement between the U.S. and Suriname aim to expand two-way traffic and relationships between the two countries.

“Every time we go abroad, either the President or myself, we make sure we bring representatives of the private sector with us to see if we can make connections happen much faster,” says Mr. Lackin. “We are also offering market access together with the private sector in Suriname within Caricom. We want to use our geographical position and membership of Caricom to get into the region’s markets. That is why part of our policy is to make sure that our financial system is clear and sound, so that people know what our economy is like and what is possible and what is not.”