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Home Banking and Financial Institutions A Philosopher-Banker Who’s Shaking Up a Nation

A Philosopher-Banker Who’s Shaking Up a Nation

Steven Coutinho was sitting in his workplace in an imposing colonial mansion overlooking a palm-strewn tropical backyard one January night when he obtained an sudden textual content message: Suriname’s enigmatic president needed to see him in his palace the following day.

At the Presidential Palace — an unkempt picket Dutch edifice adorned with a bust of Hugo Chávez, the deceased Venezuelan strongman — Mr. Coutinho, a outstanding banker, discovered the nation’s chief surrounded by his monetary cupboard and the heads of the nation’s high banks.

Then got here the shock: After exchanging pleasantries, the president knowledgeable the bankers {that a} large chunk of their shoppers’ cash was inexplicably “missing.”

Suriname’s authorities admitted the following week that it had used more than $200 million in banking reserves — 7 p.c of the banking system’s complete arduous foreign money property — to import primary foodstuffs. For Mr. Coutinho, this newest abuse of energy by President Desi Bouterse’s more and more authoritarian authorities was the ultimate straw.

As different banks saved quiet and most Surinamese shrugged, he publicly accused the federal government of stealing folks’s cash.

“This is absolute thievery,” mentioned Mr. Coutinho, the chief govt of the nation’s largest lender, De Surinaamsche Bank, mentioned in a phone 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 grew to become a hero for Suriname’s beleaguered and shrinking civil society, serving to ignite the nation’s greatest protest in years. His authorized marketing campaign in opposition to the federal government’s monetary malpractice has helped crack open the most important corruption scandal in Suriname in years, damaging the seemingly invincible Mr. Bouterse weeks earlier than essential common elections.

Mr. Coutinho’s newfound fame in Suriname is a vindication of his 15-year marketing campaign to convey change to the tiny nation, his homeland, by means of his principle of human improvement, a mash-up of behavioral economics, psychology and managerial self-help. The central message is the necessity for folks in growing nations to beat a worry, instilled in them by colonialism, of difficult the established order.

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

Mr. Coutinho’s clamoring for change in Suriname even provoked one thing nearly unheard-of within the 21st century: a public rally in support of a banking executive. When rumors unfold that the federal government needed D.S.B.’s house owners to fireside Mr. Coutinho in January, about 200 workers and well-wishers gathered exterior the financial institution’s headquarters to demand that he keep on.

For Mr. Coutinho, 43, the showdown with the federal government was the fruits of a hitherto quixotic quest to shake up a conservative and conformist society, a activity that he has returned to doggedly all through his profession.

“They always say here, ‘It is the way it is — don’t question it,’” Mr. Coutinho mentioned. “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 low colony of 600,000 folks in northern South America. Most of the buildings within the middle of the capital, Paramaribo — a mixture of picket cottages with gabled roofs and Brutalist grey workplace blocks — date to colonial times.

The nation’s small measurement and isolation have additionally strengthened a posh system of indirect social controls that Mr. Bouterse, a former navy dictator with as but unenforced convictions for homicide and drug trafficking, depends on to stifle dissent, mentioned Ms. Jessurun, the activist.

In this small, hierarchical group, the social worth of dissent can instill as a lot worry as violent repression, Mr. Coutinho mentioned. “If you cross the wrong people here, you’re socially dead.”

Government critics could discover themselves handed over for promotions or attacked on social media. Their family members’ companies could lose an important sanitary allow or be denied international foreign money to import inputs.

Mr. Coutinho was born within the Netherlands to Surinamese dad and mom in 1976. His father was a outstanding Surinamese mental and schooling official, whereas his mom, a housewife, traced her ancestry to Portuguese Jews who got here to the tolerant colony to flee the Inquisition within the 17th century.

Inheriting his father’s mental ambitions, Mr. Coutinho obtained a grasp’s diploma in physics within the Netherlands and an M.B.A. at Wharton in 2009. By the mid-2010s, he had risen to grow to be the primary ethnic Surinamese to run the Dutch Caribbean enterprise of the most important regional financial institution, the Royal Bank of Canada.

As he traveled across the islands, Mr. Coutinho noticed the identical resistance to vary that he remembered in his homeland. That prompted an mental journey that culminated in a 2018 ebook, “Breaking Rank,” through which he argued that colonialism had stifled Caribbean societies by instilling racial and sophistication divisions that made folks afraid of change.

“Every homo sapiens wants one thing only: predictability. It makes us safe,” he mentioned. “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 final 12 months supplied Mr. Coutinho the highest job on the struggling lender, he jumped on the alternative to use his concepts for the good thing about his homeland.

Mr. Coutinho acknowledges that his elaborate theories can really feel out of a spot at an area financial institution that arms out mortgages and shares A.T.M.s in a rustic with the inhabitants of Louisville, Ky.

But he says his relentless combat in opposition to conformity is bearing fruit on the stuffy 150-year-old financial institution, the place individuals are feeling empowered to make impartial selections. To break down the financial institution’s hierarchy, Mr. Coutinho involves work in denims and a sweater, an iconoclasm within the conservative nation, and insists on having everybody calling him Steven.

The financial institution’s efficiency appears to bear his insurance policies out. In his 9 months at D.S.B., Mr. Coutinho has pulled off the most important company bond deal in Suriname’s historical past and posted the financial institution’s finest quarterly ends in years.

Yet the enormousness of the duty he set for himself has turned him into one thing of a recluse who spends the little spare time he has writing and meditating. He says he doesn’t socialize, and regardless of treating his colleagues equally, he retains a distance to keep away from the looks of favoritism.

“I don’t have friends,” he mentioned.

He does have loads of enemies, nonetheless, notably amongst Mr. Bouterse’s supporters, who see any assault on the federal government as a international plot to destabilize the nation. In a nation the place colonial historical past is just too shut for consolation, some allude to his Dutch passport and worldwide résumé to query his motives.

Even among the many enterprise group, some discover Mr. Coutinho’s outspoken fashion unbecoming a banking govt and his intellectual intellectualism too faraway from the nation’s actual issues.

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

Not every little thing has labored out the way in which Mr. Coutinho had hoped. His denunciation of the banking scandal has not led to the mass public uproar he anticipated. An opposition protest in opposition to the federal government’s raiding of banking reserves drew a big for Suriname crowd of two,000, however deflated after a day.

A nationwide strike that was supported by Mr. Coutinho in March to protest new restrictions on greenback transactions additionally shortly misplaced steam.

Despite the setbacks, he has helped break the aura of invincibility surrounding Mr. Bouterse, stopping him from quashing the scandal. The corruption inquiry he helped encourage has led to the jailing of the central financial institution governor and legal fees in opposition to the finance minister, a detailed lieutenant of Mr. Bouterse.

“Bouterse has zero power. We’ve given him the power, and now we believe we’re powerless,” Mr. Coutinho mentioned. “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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