By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
JOHANNESBURG -- Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is on his first official visit in Washington this week with a decidedly difficult sales pitch. He is expected to request funding for a nation that he recently said remains so unfree and unstable that it is "not a country where I can be confident about the future of all our children."
The former opposition leader joined forces in February with his nemesis, autocratic President Robert Mugabe, in a marriage of convenience that Tsvangirai's party hopes will help build its control and rescue Zimbabwe's shattered economy. But progress has been hampered by disagreements and continued human rights abuses by Mugabe allies -- and, most observers agree, because Zimbabwe is broke.
The arrangement has put Tsvangirai and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, in the difficult position of assuring investors and donors that coffers long looted by Mugabe are safe despite the rocky coalition. It has also posed a predicament for wary donors, including the United States, which are so far unwilling to offer economic aid even though officials in Tsvangirai's party insist money is vital to help redirect the collapsed nation toward a democratic future.
"The international community has a duty to invest in Zimbabwe," said Finance Minister Tendai Biti, an MDC member who has won praise for keeping tight reins on a small state budget that barely manages to pay civil servants. "We truly want this transitional government to work. There will be catastrophe if it fails."
Tsvangirai is scheduled to meet President Obama on Friday, the White House announced Monday. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said the two leaders "will discuss the difficult road ahead in Zimbabwe" during their Oval Office meeting.
Tsvangirai's trip carries echoes of one made 29 years ago by Mugabe, then the new leader of a recently liberated Zimbabwe. The Carter administration greeted him with a warm welcome and pledged millions in economic assistance. But relations soured over decades, as Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe's economy, violently repressed its people and refused to give up power.
In recent months, Zimbabwe's pleas have won it more than $1 billion in credit lines from African nations, boosts in humanitarian aid from Western donors and warmer relations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which cut ties with Zimbabwe years ago because of $1.24 billion in unpaid debts.
The nation has also received delegations from Western nations, including the United States. U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), who met Mugabe and Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe last month, said an in interview that the United States should expand aid to reach more Zimbabweans, noting that "we have more relations with Sudan," a country whose leader is accused of overseeing genocide.
But Zimbabwe is far from raising the $8.5 billion it says it needs. The United States, like other Western donors, channels humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe through charities but withholds developmental aid. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a recent television interview that she thought it "would be in the best interests of everyone" for Mugabe to step down. She said the United States, which last year gave $260 million in humanitarian assistance, is reviewing but "not yet ready to change" its policy.
"Is doing so rewarding ZANU?" asked a Western diplomat in Harare, the capital, referring to Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. "We're looking for real, true, irreversible change. We're not rewarding a ploy by ZANU to look good for six months."
MDC officials insist they have made progress. Now in control of the Finance Ministry, the party has stabilized the previously astronomical inflation rate. Store shelves are stocked, gas stations have fuel and public teachers and health workers are back on duty, thanks to new a $100 monthly stipend.
But much remains unchanged. The media cannot report freely, though Tsvangirai has said restrictions would be scrapped. The attorney general and the central bank governor are still in their jobs even though Mugabe appointed them in violation of the power-sharing agreement and MDC leaders have called for their ouster.
At least 170 farmers have been taken to court recently for "illegally" occupying their land in a continuation of a decade-long campaign by Mugabe to reclaim white-owned land despite a regional tribunal's order that it stop.
MDC officials say human rights abuses have declined, but many observers disagree. In recent months, opposition and civil society activists have been dragged in and out of courts and prison cells on charges -- widely considered fabricated -- that they plotted to overthrow Mugabe.
Critics say the detentions point to a central flaw in the power-sharing government: Though Mugabe's party co-chairs the ministry that oversees police, it retained key control of other security forces and influence over the legal system.
"I am a co-minister of home affairs and should be in charge of the police. But just recently, the attorney general . . . gave an order to the police to arrest journalists," said Giles Mutsekwa, the MDC's home affairs minister. "When something like that happens, it becomes difficult to convince the international community that we are in charge."
Some civil society activists complain that the MDC has waffled when it comes to continued abuses. Tsvangirai regularly voices somewhat diplomatic criticism of "forces" within ZANU-PF, but he has also drawn fire for comments such as those he made to a South African newspaper last month that the renewed arrests of prominent activists was a "mishap" and that the seizures of "one or two farms" had been "blown out of proportion."
"They're remaining absolutely bloody silent," said John Worsely-Worswick of Justice for Agriculture, a farmer's group that has long opposed Mugabe. "I've had a number of farmers recently say, 'Listen, we were better off before this inclusive government.' . . . That's an alarming thing to have farmers say."
But, he added, "it's much easier being in the opposition than being inside the government."
Special correspondent Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.