US Takes Firm Stance On Zimbabwe As Economy Falters

By Mark Klusener | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Harare, Zimbabwe ( - The U.S. government has launched its most scathing attack yet on Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, blaming him for the economic crisis the country now faces.

The U.S. also said it would no longer have normal relations with Zimbabwe until the violence and intimidation has ended.

The attack, made by the State Department's African Bureau head, Walter Kansteiner, is being viewed in a serious light in Harare. Although there was no official response Friday morning from Mugabe's office, highly-placed political officials said the statement has been met with concern.

The country's opposition leaders also went into a special meeting to discuss the announcement.

"We have viewed the statement with interest, but it doesn't make any specific reference to what steps the U.S. government will take," said a spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Zimbabwe currently faces its worst economic crisis in its 21 years of independence. As Mugabe's ruling party struggles to cling to its grip on power in the country, it's being forced to resort to drastic steps to appease a restless electorate. Mugabe's party lost 57 of the 120 seats contested in last year's parliamentary elections.

All the seats went to the newly formed, union based MDC, which has posed the most serious challenge ever to Mugabe's rule. The MDC won a resounding victory in the urban areas.

Mugabe has tried to use the land issue and the race card to secure the support of the poverty stricken rural population, where he still holds some sway.

The government has gazetted more than 3,400 farms covering 16 million acres for resettlement by black farmers, in a bid to redress colonial-era inequalities in land ownership.

The land reform scheme has been wracked with violence since February last year, when militant veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation war began a politically charged and violent campaign of farm invasions.

Mugabe's land reforms have been heavily tied to political violence targeting the upstart MDC and the farm invasions have lead to the collapse of the agricultural industry, formally Zimbabwe's second largest income sector.

The government has tried to blame the failing economy on the international community and on Britain in particular. British journalists have been expelled from the country or not had their work permits renewed. Militant supporters have also attacked foreign diplomats and aid workers. They have also threatened to invade embassies in the capital.

Official harassment jeopardizing tourism

Zimbabwe faces a massive fuel shortage, resulting in long lines outside gas stations throughout the country. Government last week announced a massive 70 percent fuel hike bringing the price to a whopping $6.75 a gallon.

The hike was timed to coincide with the solar eclipse last week when scores of tourists were expected to arrive in the country.

"They've been stockpiling fuel for months now so that when the foreigners come they can get their currency," said Ernest Zhou, a curio seller in Harare. He says very few tourists have visited Zimbabwe in the last year.

"We have many beautiful things to see in Zimbabwe but people are scared to come because of the violence," he said.

Tour operators at Lake Kariba, a popular destination for game fishermen and safari operators, say they are losing clients to the continued harassment by government officials.

"We have armed members of the secret police following tourists around in town, and they are afraid. They're just going elsewhere," said one guide who asked not to be named.

"I lost over $10,000 in the week around the eclipse just because the authorities were being difficult. One American tour group had all their camera equipment confiscated at the airport because authorities said they were spies. They just got back on to their plane and went home."

Political analyst John Makombi from the University of Zimbabwe warned that the U.S. government statement was only likely to put Mugabe and his government on the defensive.

"Their backs are to the wall and they are fighting for their survival. This is when they could be most dangerous," he said.