Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Suriname struggles to develop a diversifie­d economy, and a business mogul is put in charge of negotiatin­g Alcoa's departure,

- By Len Boselovic

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — When consumers in this recession-bound South American nation purchase anything, there’s a good chance they are doing business with Rudi Dilip Sardjoe.

Widely acknowledg­ed as Suriname’s most successful businessma­n, Mr. Sardjoe owns Rudisa Internatio­nal, whose ventures include the media. He owns Suriname’s largest newspaper, a radio station, as well as a television station that has broadcast rights to National Basketball Associatio­n games.

He controls 70 percent of the country’s cement business, and also has interests in constructi­on, heavy equipment and finished wood.

Thirsty? Mr. Sardjoe can sell you a bottle of his Diamond Blue water, Gatorade or Pepsi.

Hungry? Have a Whopper and fries from his Burger King franchise. Or one of the Kraft Heinz products he distribute­s.

“More or less, we are in everything,” says Mr. Sardjoe, the 67-year-old grandson of a contract worker who emigrated from India to Suriname when it was a Dutch colony.

“Whatever we do in the country, we are No. 1. In some cases, we are No. 2,” Mr. Sardjoe adds, wrinkling his nose as if to indicate being No. 2 is unacceptab­le.

Mr. Sardjoe’s success in business has thrust him into the political arena. President Desire Delano “Desi” Bouterse has named him head of a commission negotiatin­g the terms of Alcoa’s departure from Suriname after 100 years. The appointmen­t has sparked speculatio­n that as a negotiator Mr. Sardjoe, who supported Mr. Bouterse’s 2015 re-election campaign, will be more motivated by his personal business interests than national interests.

Mr. Sardjoe scoffs at that notion.

“I am doing this because I love the country,” he says during an interview in his expansive office, located in a fashionabl­e Paramaribo neighborho­od.

Next door is his 43,000square-foot home, featuring a swimming pool guarded by two 5-foot-tall stone lions, a basketball court and soccer field, fountains and a metal gate modeled after Buckingham Palace.

“I think we will do a fantastic job because every day I have to look in the mirror,” he promises.

An Alcoa spokesman wrote in response to questions that the company's interactio­ns with Mr. Sardjoe’s commission “is limited to that official process. We do not have business relationsh­ips with any members of the negotiatio­n team, including Mr. Sardjoe or any companies affiliated with him.”

Jennifer Simons, chairman of the National Assembly, the legislativ­e branch of Suriname’s government, is not sure whether Mr. Sardjoe has a conflict of interest as the government’s chief negotiator.

“That’s not clear to me. I can’t really tell you about that,” she said in an interview, adding that a lot of rumors circulatin­g about Mr. Sardjoe are based on hearsay.

Mr. Sardjoe’s insistence that he will act in the public interest does not comfort skeptics, who believe he and other entreprene­urs use their influence in politics to advance their business interests.

Among the matters up for grabs in the negotiatio­ns are management of Alcoa’s Afobaka dam, which provides much of the country’s electricit­y; the contract for demolishin­g the Paranam refinery; and a role in the industrial park being considered for Alcoa’s Paranam site along the Suriname River.

Economic developmen­t specialist Deryck Ferrier said Mr. Sardjoe helped Mr. Bouterse win the election “and now he wants to be repaid.” Mr. Sardjoe is one of a group Mr. Ferrier describes as “industrial vultures” hoping to profit from the outcome of the country’s talks with Alcoa.

Mr. Ferrier’s father, Johan, was Suriname’s prime minister in 1958, the year the then-Dutch colony and Alcoa signed the Brokopondo Agreement that led to the building of an alumina refinery and aluminum smelter at Paranam, as well as the hydroelect­ric dam at Afobaka that is the focal point of the negotiatio­ns between Mr. Sardjoe’s commission and Alcoa.

Mr. Sardjoe is a short, substantia­l man, with a thin black mustache and a shock of wavy black hair. One of nine children, he began his entreprene­urism in the food business because, as he says, if you want to live, you have to eat.

“We started out as a oneman show. Today, we have 2,000 people working,” he said.

His ventures include a soccer team — which he admits is not yet good enough to beat the one owned by Ronny Brunswijk, the former leader of the Jungle Commando guerrilla force that sparked a six-year civil war that began in 1986. Mr. Brunswijk is now a member of the National Assembly.

But Mr. Sardjoe’s team will be good enough to beat Mr. Brunswijk’s squad next year, Mr. Sardjoe said with a smile.

Failed first attempt

Despite his success at dealmaking, Mr. Sardjoe’s first effort at striking a bargain with Alcoa — a nonbinding memorandum of understand­ing proposed by Alcoa in October 2015 — was unanimousl­y rejected by the National Assembly.

The lawmakers’ biggest problem was the provision that would allow Alcoa to retain control of the dam until 2019 and continue to sell electricit­y to the government at what many consider to be inflated prices.

National Assembly member Krishna Mathoera thinks Mr. Sardjoe should have resigned, given the overwhelmi­ng opposition to the deal he negotiated.

“If that was the case for me, I would resign,” Ms. Mathoera said.

Paramaribo energy consultant Viren Ajodhia believes Mr. Sardjoe’s self-interest will result in an agreement that is not good for Suriname.

“The negotiatio­ns are corrupt,” Mr. Ajodhia stated.

He can’t believe that Alcoa didn’t just walk away from the country rather than enter into negotiatio­ns with government and business officials who are pursuing self-interests. Alcoa shareholde­rs will not miss Suralco on the aluminum producer’s financial statements, but they will notice if the company is exposed to dealing with corrupt officials, he said.

Ruben Halfhuid, managing director of Alcoa’s Suriname subsidiary, said, “There is no chance of that. I can guarantee you that.”

“Everybody thinks the job is going to go to Mr. Sardjoe, the port is going to be Mr. Sardjoe’s. The whole Paranam Industrial Center is Mr. Sardjoe. And he has nothing to do with that,” Mr. Halfhuid said.

“Alcoa cannot afford to get into those types of things. We know the rules. We know the regulation­s.”

Mr. Sardjoe said the mutual agreement that benefited Suriname for most of the past century has become a one-sided bargain favoring Alcoa that must come to an end. Although he believes the company will do the right thing — particular­ly with the environmen­tal cleanup — Mr. Sardjoe said he would have handled negotiatio­ns with the multinatio­nal differentl­y.

His first step would have been terminatin­g the 1958 agreement when the company closed its Paranam smelter.

“In 1999, I would have told Alcoa at that time that it’s over. But I was not the guy who was calling the shots at that time,” he said with a shrug.

As for the current talks, Mr. Sardjoe said he will remain on the job as long as the president wants him. He is confident of striking a fair deal with the company, describing the talks as a match among equals.

“What Alcoa has, I have much more than that,” he said. “If they have land, I have a lot of land.”

Mr. Sardjoe said he is one of the few business leaders in a country of about 560,000 capable of plotting Suriname’s economic developmen­t. Any suspicion of his motives comes from people who resent millionair­es and want to bring them down to their own level, he says.

“We have a Dutch mentality. The Dutch never liked rich people,” he explained.

 ?? Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette ?? Rudi Dilip Sardjoe, widely acknowledg­ed as Suriname’s richest businessma­n, stands by the gates at his house in Paramaribo, the country’s capital.
Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette Rudi Dilip Sardjoe, widely acknowledg­ed as Suriname’s richest businessma­n, stands by the gates at his house in Paramaribo, the country’s capital.

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