"Frankly obscene," Australia's foreign minister said.
Australia's Stephen Smith was referring to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe's appearance at a U.N. food conference earlier this month.
Yes, a dictator who uses starvation to scatter and kill his own people making an appearance at an international conference devoted to raising food and feeding the hungry is an obscenity -- though I add, without cynicism, that the situation isn't all that unusual. Petty tyrants, terrorist enablers and tribal killers cluster about the wine and cheese smorgasbords of international community fetes and summits.
At these forums, they blame the United States for, well, virtually anything and everything. Anti-Americanism -- or in Mugabe's case, a worn-out '60s-style "anti-imperialist" pitch aimed at Great Britain -- provide media camouflage for their hideous genocides and cruel depredations.
Mugabe, a classic Marxist rebel leader, plays this game quite well. Toppling Southern Rhodesia's white dictatorship made him a cult hero. The left-leaning internationalists gave Mugabe's mass murder in Zimbabwe's Matebele land a pass. That brutal campaign of the early 1980s, conducted against his former anti-colonial allies, included imported North Korean mercenary-advisers.
But his obscenities are catching up with him.
His greatest obscenity is his war on his own impoverished nation. Mugabe's tyranny has savaged Zimbabwe, making the country yet another tragic example of a nation brutalized by its own government. Zimbabwe is blessed with rich farmland and ought to be an agricultural breadbasket. It was, until Mugabe's "land redistribution" and "farm policies" turned it into a starving basket case.
Once a major regional food producer, today a substantial number of Zimbabweans go hungry or flee. Since 2000, an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans have escaped to neighboring nations, with South Africa a preferred destination.
Zimbabwe's economy is a string of obscene numbers. In late 2007, the Zimbabwean government said the annual inflation rate was 7,600 percent. The IMF forecast predicted 100,000 percent. A 2008 estimate said 200,000 percent. These statistical differences are meaningless -- the currency is a fraud, another form of governmental theft.
In early 2008, Zimbabwe's estimated unemployment rate ran from 50 percent to 80 percent. Whatever the number, Zimbabwe's once flourishing tourist industry has all but disappeared. In 1999, 1.4 million tourists visited Zimbabwe. In 2007, only a handful came. Commercial agriculture jobs once boosted Zimbabwe's economy. Since 2000, Zimbabwe has lost between 250,000 and 400,000 agricultural jobs.
Mugabe's latest trail of obscenities involves election theft, violent intimidation and more murder. Under Mugabe, elections have been little more than window dressing for his cult control of the nation. His use of the police, military and loyal militias like the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association has kept opponents intimidated and citizens terrorized.
However, his obscene economy and brutal arrogance has led to a loss of grassroots support in his own once-plaint political organization, the ZANU-PF.
Zimbabwe's March 29 presidential election confirmed this. Election observers believe that if the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, did not win the March vote outright, he came close. The MDC claimed victory. Under any circumstances, Mugabe's electoral window dressing fell, and with it fell the last media facade masking his tyranny.
Mugabe has manufactured a run-off election, scheduled for June 27, pitting him against Tsvangirai. The "war veterans" are out with their clubs and knives. The MDC claims at least 40 of its supporters have been killed since March 29. Moreover, they allege that Mugabe is plotting to assassinate Tsvangirai. Mugabe's police have repeatedly detained and harassed Tsvangirai.
Nobel Prize winner former Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has called for international peacekeepers to ensure the elections are fair and safe. It may not matter. This week, Mugabe said he will ignore the election results. Yet the political heat on Mugabe is increasing -- primarily from Europe and the United States. The real disappointment is South Africa President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki was supposed to help "mediate" Zimbabwe's political crisis, but his mediation has been a biased farce in favor of Mugabe.
Why? "Old radical solidarity" is one possible reason. Mbeki's memories of anti-colonial struggle produce a soft spot for Mugabe. Pray that it's blarney, but this kind of embedded, selfish bitterness from the political past does scar the present and damage the future. True or not, Mugabe continues to kill and steal, with obscene impunity.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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