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Suriname leader draws close to Castro, represses coup attempts

It was after midnight. The streets of Paramaribo, the Suriname capital, were quiet. But at the Cuban Embassy a party was just breaking up. Despite a midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew, half a dozen cars roared away from the Cuban compound. Inside the vehicles were a number of top Surinamese Army officers, including Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse, who heads the military junta that runs the former Dutch colony on the northwest coast of South America.

It was not the first such gathering at the Cuban Embassy in Paramaribo, the sleepy river port where half of Suriname's 435,000 people live.

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Ever since he arrived last September to open the embassy, Ambassador Jose Osvaldo Cardenas has entertained Colonel Bouterse frequently.

In these four months, the Cuban connection with Suriname has grown stronger. But Colonel Bouterse is meeting stiff resistance to his friendship with the Cubans. In a move to eliminate opposition, his regime executed 15 Surinamese in December.

Three coup attempts to topple the Bouterse regime have been reported in recent months - the latest just this week.

Although the state-controlled Radio Suriname said Monday that the government ''prevented a new coup attempt,'' details are sketchy. There were reports, however, that 15 Army and civilian officials, including both present and past Cabinet ministers, were arrested.

The extent of Cuban influence in the country is a subject of conjecture, but there is growing concern in Washington that, seven years after it became independent, Suriname is slipping into the Cuban orbit. Cuban President Fidel Castro has warmly praised the Bouterse regime.

And Grenadan Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who is friendly with Castro, visited Suriname in October. According to observers, Mr. Bishop urged Bouterse to develop ties with Cuba quickly.

Whether Bouterse and Castro have met is unclear. Some Suriname observers say Colonel Bouterse went to Havana early last year for a secret visit with the Cuban leader. A Bouterse aide denies this, but the Suriname leader frequently speaks admiringly of Castro.

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All this is a big change from the days immediately after Colonel Bouterse came to power in a coup three years ago. During the first two years, he seemed to have no ideological direction, pushing Suriname onto an erratic course. Cabinet ministers came and went like revolving doors. Coup attempts were frequent. The economy of the former colony sagged.

In 1982 the Cuban connection began to develop. In September, official relations between Havana and Paramaribo were established and the ambassador arrived.

The Cuban Embassy staff is larger than the United States Embassy staff, and continues to grow. Several Surinamese officers have gone to Cuba for training.

Meanwhile, US officials worry that Suriname could become Cuba's first South American ally since 1973, when Chile's Salvador Allende Gossens was ousted.

Equally worrisome is the apparently increasing brutality of the regime toward its opponents. Those executed in December included some of the nation's most prominent educators, journalists, lawyers, businessmen, and labor leaders. The government says all 15 were shot trying to escape. That version is widely disbelieved.

In light of these developments, the Netherlands and the United States have suspended assistance programs.

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