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Will Zimbabwe Drag Down Its Neighbors?

A disaster is brewing in southern Africa. The once-prosperous nation of Zimbabwe faces intense turmoil in the weeks leading up to presidential elections scheduled for Mar. 9. The ballot pits President Robert Mugabe, 77, who has led the country since its liberation from white rule in 1980, against Morgan Tsvangirai, 48, a former trade union leader who heads the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Mugabe is doing all he can to ensure victory, from preventing young, urban voters from registering to inciting violence. Dozens of opposition supporters have been killed, while others have been beaten up or driven from their homes by backers of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. "The election has every prospect of being stolen," says Chester Crocker, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. If that happens, it will be "a failure not only for Zimbabwe and South Africa [but] for Western policy." Mugabe, in contrast, characterizes his opponent as a puppet of Western imperialism.

If the tragedy were confined to Zimbabwe, it would be bad enough. Already many of Zimbabwe's 11 million people are going hungry, victims of Mugabe's economic policies. But the crisis is also producing a contagion effect in a region hammered by poverty, a global recession, and the AIDS crisis. Refugees are pouring over Zimbabwe's border with South Africa, adding to that country's 40% jobless rate. Partly because of concerns about the widening crisis, the South African rand plunged 45% against the U.S. dollar over the past year.

The international community, distracted for months by the fallout from September 11, is becoming increasingly alarmed. The European Union and the U.S. are now identifying the overseas bank accounts of Mugabe and his aides, preparing to freeze assets if the political environment doesn't improve. "We don't want sanctions to impact the people [because] so many are on the verge of starving," says Congressman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa. "We want to send a message to those involved that they cannot launder money." The U.N.'s World Food Program is launching emergency shipments of maize, the local staple, to Zimbabwe. And South African President Thabo Mbeki and other regional leaders are calling on Mugabe to allow fair elections.

Yet it's proving difficult to curb Mugabe's excesses. Rejecting criticism, he has persisted with his controversial policy of confiscating without compensation land from white commercial farmers--a bid to gain rural voter support. Partly as a result, the economy shrank by 8% last year and could contract 5% in 2002.

If a free ballot were held, Tsvangirai might win. A poll late last year showed him ahead by six points. The former boss of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Tsvangirai is popular among educated, urban voters and has promised farmers compensation for their land. But electoral rules remain stacked against him. That's why longtime Africa observers such as Crocker think that if violence continues, Tsvangirai may drop out of the election and declare the ballot a farce, undermining Mugabe's legitimacy as a leader. That could put pressure on the president to resign. If the people come out into the streets, even the Army might urge Mugabe to step aside, Crocker says. "People not to be dismissed," he adds.

At this stage, such an outcome seems a long shot. But many Africa observers predict more refugees, hunger, and a slump in regional investment if Mugabe wins another six-year term. For Mbeki and other southern African leaders, that could be a bigger test than anything they have yet faced. It doesn't look good for the U.S. effort to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) pact by 2005, despite President George W. Bush's bid to reinject vigor into the hemisphere-wide trade talks in a Jan. 16 speech before the Organization of American States in Washington.

Latin governments are still stinging from the lack of attention the Bush Administration has paid to the region--even though the President promised to make this "the century of the Americas." Argentina, having recently devalued its peso and defaulted on $141 billion in public debt, is now closing ranks with Mercosur, the four-nation Southern Cone trade bloc. Dominated by Brazil, Mercosur has decried U.S. trade barriers and expressed little enthusiasm for the FTAA. "The FTAA is not going to be accomplished anytime soon, and even less now because of 9/11, Argentina, and the flatness of the U.S. economy," says George Grayson, a Latin American expert at the College of William & Mary.

Argentina's meltdown could also fuel support for anti-globalization candidates in coming elections in the region. In Brazil, Luiz In?cio "Lula" da Silva, an opponent of free trade, leads polls for the October presidential elections. Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia are also holding ballots. Meanwhile in Mexico, political leaders who had hoped for a revamping of U.S. immigration policy now seem resigned to a relationship focused on border security issues. To many Latins, it seems that Bush--despite his words--is treating their region as an afterthought.

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