Desi Bouterse's dictatorship brought Suriname economic hardship and rights atrocities and ruined the former Dutch colony's relationship with the Netherlands and the US.
Two decades later, the convicted drug trafficker facing prosecution for the 1980s killings of political opponents is rousing crowds as he campaigns to return to power in elections today.
Bouterse is wooing the young and poor with energetic speeches peppered with street slang, anti-imperialist rhetoric and renditions of local pop songs.
"We have plenty of friends in the world -- China, India, Brazil -- so don't worry about the [United] States," he told reporters after a political rally on Saturday.
Although polls indicate his National Democratic Party is trailing the New Front coalition, his feverish following among many Surinamese worries Washington and the Hague, Suriname's biggest aid donors. Both bluntly warned in March that relations would suffer if Bouterse took power, citing his 1999 conviction for cocaine trafficking in the Netherlands.
The conviction and 11-year prison sentence has left Bouterse a virtual prisoner in Suriname, whose laws prohibit it from extraditing citizens to the Netherlands.
Popular sympathy for Bouterse, 59, mystifies government officials, who point to President Ronald Venetiaan's progress in turning around the economy and mending foreign relations.
"I honestly cannot grasp what makes someone in their right mind ever choose someone with blood on their hands," said Hesdy Pigot, Venetiaan's personal assistant. "Even people who have lost loved ones because of the military regime are among Bouterse's followers. It's beyond my comprehension."
What Bouterse lacks in track record and concrete proposals, he makes up for with style that resonates with poor citizens who complain the government's economic reforms haven't made a difference in their lives.
Bouterse spins tales of government conspiracies, cracks jokes about traditional politicians and labels the president a puppet of Suriname's former colonial masters -- all in Surinamese, a Creole commonly used by citizens but jettisoned by more formal politicians like Venetiaan, who favors Dutch.