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…