Guerrilla Leader, Drug Baron, Gold Magnate … and Now Social Reformer?


MOENGOTAPOE, Suriname — A cavalcade of black sport utility autos pulled up at a small village in a jungle clearing in a distant nook of South America. A tall, heavyset man with thick gold chains hanging over a good shirt emerged from the biggest automobile to a refrain of cheers.

The person, Ronnie Brunswijk, the kid of subsistence farmers, had left the village of Moengotapoe in jap Suriname searching for a greater life 50 years in the past. He was returning now as one among Suriname’s richest, strongest and common males, to convey electrical energy to his long-neglected group composed of the descendants of people that escaped slavery, often called Maroons.

Mr. Brunswijk final yr grew to become the primary Maroon to achieve the publish of vice chairman of this small South American nation, perched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Amazon rain forest. Alongside the way in which, he had been an elite paratrooper, a soccer participant, a wished financial institution robber, a guerrilla chief, a gold baron and a father to at the least 50 kids.

His mom has mentioned he has so many offspring that unknown folks typically ask to hug her, claiming to be her grandchildren.

Mr. Brunswijk has been convicted of drug trafficking in Europe however has helped to convey democracy to his homeland. His generosity has earned him the nickname of Robin Hood and the worship of supporters, however has left many Surinamese questioning the supply of his wealth and his political motives.

In some ways, Mr. Brunswijk epitomizes the contradictions of Suriname’s small, insular society, the place strains between heroes and villains are in flux, the place historical past immediately turns into fable and the folks have discovered that to maintain social peace it pays to not ask too many questions.

“Every part I’ve, I give it to the folks,” Mr. Brunswijk, 59, mentioned in an interview in his workplace in a former colonial workplace overlooking Suriname’s staid capital of Paramaribo final month. “Ever since I used to be a toddler, I wished to assist others. I now have the prospect to assist the entire nation.”

Wearing a luxurious swimsuit and tie, Mr. Brunswijk tasks the aura of an imposing statesman, guiding his impoverished nation to grease riches from newly discovered offshore deposits and enhancing the lives of Suriname’s marginalized Maroon minority.

It’s a stark makeover for a person who used to bathe supporters with money from a helicopter and whose mug shot was displayed in wished posters throughout the nation throughout the years of Suriname’s army dictatorship, which formally led to 1988.

His unlikely life story is in some ways the story of Suriname’s turbulent journey by way of economic crisis and political violence because it emerged from Dutch colonial rule in 1975.

“Mr. Brunswijk has his historical past. We might take a look at his historical past and see that as a barrier,” mentioned Suriname’s president, Chan Santokhi, a former police officer who tracked Mr. Brunswijk as a fugitive within the Nineteen Eighties earlier than asking him to type a coalition authorities final yr. “We’re wanting ahead to a greater future, as a result of we’re two leaders who’ve been entrusted to guide this nation collectively,” he mentioned in an interview.

Mr. Brunswijk was born right into a household of 10 surviving kids, in one among Suriname’s poorest areas. The household lived totally on the rice, cassava and bananas they managed to coax from the skinny, sandy soil. The occasional meat got here from the wild animals Mr. Brunswijk and his brothers stalked with cutlasses.

“Life was not nice,” Agnes Brunswijk, the vice chairman’s mom, mentioned in an interview outdoors her dwelling close to Moengotapoe. “We needed to battle.”

She mentioned the household’s massive measurement and meager sources taught Mr. Brunswijk at an early age to share with others, a top quality that will change into his hallmark. He was a “mischievous” boy, she mentioned, who fought with neighboring kids but in addition reduce firewood for older folks.

Mr. Brunswijk’s life modified when a Roman Catholic priest picked him, the one one amongst his siblings, to attend a boarding college in a close-by city at age 10.

“I didn’t see electrical energy till I went to the boarding college,” recalled Mr. Brunswijk.

Additional research finally introduced Mr. Brunswijk to Paramaribo, the place in 1980 he mentioned he was drafted into Suriname’s budding nationwide military by Desiré Bouterse, the army dictator who had recently seized power with a promise to comb away the corruption of post-colonial rulers.

Singled out for his energy, Mr. Brunswijk grew to become one among Suriname’s first 12 paratroopers and was despatched for army coaching to Cuba, earlier than being handpicked by Mr. Bouterse as his bodyguard.

The 2 males grew shut, however Mr. Brunswijk mentioned their relationship soured because the dictator started murdering political opponents and cracking down on the independent-minded Maroon communities.

“Maroon folks don’t like being pressured,” Mr. Brunswijk mentioned. “In the future I mentioned, ‘That is incorrect.’ I had sufficient.”

The following cut up has outlined Suriname’s historical past ever since.

Mr. Brunswijk left the army in 1984, went on the run and started constructing his enduring Robin Hood fable, incomes a conviction for financial institution theft and armed theft and a fame amongst Maroon villagers for beneficiant handouts.

Mr. Brunswijk has denied committing the crimes, saying the convictions had been a part of Mr. Bouterse’s effort to discredit a rival. With out providing particulars, he mentioned his presents got here from the cash he made at a gold mine.

He was finally captured, however managed to flee and fled to the Netherlands, the place he joined Surinamese political exiles plotting Mr. Bouterse’s overthrow.

He returned to Suriname in 1986 and triggered an armed rebellion, commanding a pressure that grew to 1,200 males in a civil battle that lasted six years. What he lacked in army expertise and strategic imaginative and prescient he compensated for with sheer pressure of will, battle veterans have mentioned.

“He had a powerful spirit in him,” Adam Petrus, a former insurgent commander, mentioned in an interview. “He didn’t must pay folks. They got here to him, they obeyed him.”

The motley pressure managed to combat the federal government to a standstill and helped provoke Suriname’s return to democracy. However the political compromise got here at the price of hundreds of deaths and the destruction of Suriname’s economic system, from which the younger nation by no means absolutely recovered.

The battle was additionally the beginning of accusations that Mr. Brunswijk was concerned within the drug commerce, as both sides turned to cocaine to finance the battle, Dutch historians have mentioned.

In 1999, a Dutch courtroom convicted Mr. Brunswijk in absentia of operating a cocaine smuggling ring. The same conviction adopted in France a yr later, however he has steadfastly denied any involvement in drug trafficking.

He mentioned his fortune got here as a substitute from timber and gold-mining concessions he obtained after the battle. His first enterprise was a sawmill, which he arrange with a enterprise grant from the Dutch authorities.

He used the cash to enter politics, capturing the small however essential Maroon vote share and turning into the kingmaker in Suriname’s parliamentary electoral system. He was re-elected to Parliament final yr and shaped a coalition authorities with Mr. Santokhi, the president.

As a politician, Mr. Brunswijk continued to assist Surinamese in want, paying for medical payments, funerals and homes and incomes the devotion of Maroon communities.

The help ranges from the extravagant to poignant. He has purchased new vehicles for all the squad of a neighborhood soccer staff that he owns. However he additionally helped many refugees return to their villages after the battle.

His detractors say the handouts merely hold Mr. Brunswijk’s constituents dependent with out providing an actual path to self-improvement. However his supporters say the charity is a lifeline in a rustic with out actual social protections, and petitioners from throughout Suriname flock to his workplace every single day.

Mr. Brunswijk now hopes to make use of his excessive workplace to construct an actual social security internet in Suriname and to convey primary infrastructure to the distant communities which were ignored by the nation’s rulers for hundreds of years.

“It is a historic second, when the village of my start can lastly have fixed electrical energy,” a visibly moved Mr. Brunswijk mentioned after turning on an influence plant in Moengotapoe in December to the joyful chanting of residents. “I all the time wished to make this a actuality, and now that I’m the vice chairman, I lastly can.”

Ank Kuipers contributed reporting from Paramaribo, Suriname.



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