A Philosopher-Banker Who’s Shaking Up a Nation

CARACAS, Venezuela — Steven Coutinho was sitting in his office in an imposing colonial mansion overlooking a palm-strewn tropical garden one January evening when he received an unexpected text message: Suriname’s enigmatic president wanted to see him in his palace the next day.

At the Presidential Palace — an unkempt wooden Dutch edifice adorned with a bust of Hugo Chávez, the deceased Venezuelan strongman — Mr. Coutinho, a prominent banker, found the nation’s leader surrounded by his financial cabinet and the heads of the country’s top banks.

Then came the shock: After exchanging pleasantries, the president informed the bankers that a big chunk of their clients’ money was inexplicably “missing.”

Suriname’s government admitted the next week that it had used more than $200 million in banking reserves — 7 percent of the banking system’s entire hard currency assets — to import basic foodstuffs. For Mr. Coutinho, this latest abuse of power by President Desi Bouterse’s increasingly authoritarian government was the final straw.

As other banks kept quiet and most Surinamese shrugged, he publicly accused the government of stealing people’s money.

“This is absolute thievery,” said Mr. Coutinho, the chief executive of the country’s largest lender, De Surinaamsche Bank, said in a telephone interview shortly after the scandal broke. “Our cash reserves are not for potatoes and onions — they belong to our depositors.”

Overnight, the wonkish and reclusive Mr. Coutinho became a hero for Suriname’s beleaguered and shrinking civil society, helping ignite the country’s biggest protest in years. His legal campaign against the government’s financial malpractice has helped crack open the biggest corruption scandal in Suriname in years, damaging the seemingly invincible Mr. Bouterse weeks before crucial general elections.

Mr. Coutinho’s newfound fame in Suriname is a vindication of his 15-year campaign to bring change to the tiny nation, his homeland, through his theory of human development, a mash-up of behavioral economics, psychology and managerial self-help. The central message is the need for people in developing nations to overcome a fear, instilled in them by colonialism, of challenging the status quo.

“It’s been difficult for us to understand that we have rights,” said Xaviera Jessurun, a Surinamese business consultant and political activist who supports Mr. Coutinho. “That’s why we all loved him when he spoke out.”

Mr. Coutinho’s clamoring for change in Suriname even provoked something almost unheard-of in the 21st century: a public rally in support of a banking executive. When rumors spread that the government wanted D.S.B.’s owners to fire Mr. Coutinho in January, about 200 employees and well-wishers gathered outside the bank’s headquarters to demand that he stay on.

For Mr. Coutinho, 43, the showdown with the government was the culmination of a hitherto quixotic quest to shake up a conservative and conformist society, a task that he has returned to doggedly throughout his career.

“They always say here, ‘It is the way it is — don’t question it,’” Mr. Coutinho said. “There’s a constant fear of change, so everything remains frozen in time and space.”

The sense of stagnation is pervasive in Suriname, a former Dutch sugar and coffee colony of 600,000 people in northern South America. Most of the buildings in the center of the capital, Paramaribo — a mix of wooden cottages with gabled roofs and Brutalist gray office blocks — date to colonial times.

The country’s small size and isolation have also strengthened a complex system of oblique social controls that Mr. Bouterse, a former military dictator with as yet unenforced convictions for homicide and drug trafficking, relies on to stifle dissent, said Ms. Jessurun, the activist.

In this small, hierarchical community, the social price of dissent can instill as much fear as violent repression, Mr. Coutinho said. “If you cross the wrong people here, you’re socially dead.”

Government critics may find themselves passed over for promotions or attacked on social media. Their relatives’ businesses may lose a vital sanitary permit or be denied foreign currency to import inputs.

Mr. Coutinho was born in the Netherlands to Surinamese parents in 1976. His father was a prominent Surinamese intellectual and education official, while his mother, a housewife, traced her ancestry to Portuguese Jews who came to the tolerant colony to escape the Inquisition in the 17th century.

Inheriting his father’s intellectual ambitions, Mr. Coutinho obtained a master’s degree in physics in the Netherlands and an M.B.A. at Wharton in 2009. By the mid-2010s, he had risen to become the first ethnic Surinamese to run the Dutch Caribbean business of the largest regional bank, the Royal Bank of Canada.

As he traveled around the islands, Mr. Coutinho saw the same resistance to change that he remembered in his homeland. That prompted an intellectual journey that culminated in a 2018 book, “Breaking Rank,” in which he argued that colonialism had stifled Caribbean societies by instilling racial and class divisions that made people afraid of change.

“Every homo sapiens wants one thing only: predictability. It makes us safe,” he said. “That’s why if you live in a country that’s very hierarchical, the chances of it changing are next to nil, because people want to hold on to what they know.”

When De Surinaamsche Bank last year offered Mr. Coutinho the top job at the struggling lender, he jumped at the opportunity to apply his ideas for the benefit of his homeland.

Mr. Coutinho acknowledges that his elaborate theories can feel out of a place at a local bank that hands out mortgages and stocks A.T.M.s in a country with the population of Louisville, Ky.

But he says his relentless fight against conformity is bearing fruit at the stuffy 150-year-old bank, where people are feeling empowered to make independent decisions. To break down the bank’s hierarchy, Mr. Coutinho comes to work in jeans and a sweater, an iconoclasm in the conservative country, and insists on having everyone calling him Steven.

The bank’s performance seems to bear his policies out. In his nine months at D.S.B., Mr. Coutinho has pulled off the largest corporate bond deal in Suriname’s history and posted the bank’s best quarterly results in years.

Yet the enormousness of the task he set for himself has turned him into something of a recluse who spends the little spare time he has writing and meditating. He says he doesn’t socialize, and despite treating his colleagues equally, he keeps a distance to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

“I don’t have friends,” he said.

He does have plenty of enemies, however, particularly among Mr. Bouterse’s supporters, who see any attack on the government as a foreign plot to destabilize the country. In a nation where colonial history is too close for comfort, some allude to his Dutch passport and international résumé to question his motives.

Even among the business community, some find Mr. Coutinho’s outspoken style unbecoming a banking executive and his highbrow intellectualism too removed from the country’s real problems.

“He’s more of a philosopher than a manager,” said Winston Ramataursingh, a Surinamese economist.

Not everything has worked out the way Mr. Coutinho had hoped. His denunciation of the banking scandal has not led to the mass public uproar he expected. An opposition protest against the government’s raiding of banking reserves drew a large for Suriname crowd of 2,000, but deflated after a day.

A national strike that was supported by Mr. Coutinho in March to protest new restrictions on dollar transactions also quickly lost steam.

Despite the setbacks, he has helped break the aura of invincibility surrounding Mr. Bouterse, preventing him from quashing the scandal. The corruption inquiry he inspired has led to the jailing of the central bank governor and criminal charges against the finance minister, a close lieutenant of Mr. Bouterse.

“Bouterse has zero power. We’ve given him the power, and now we believe we’re powerless,” Mr. Coutinho said. “I’m standing up to change people’s minds. At least I can try.”

Harmen Boerboom contributed reporting from Paramaribo, Suriname.

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