HARARE, Zimbabwe — The political crisis in this southern African nation has turned history upside down, transforming heroes into villains, sinners into saints.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, once a respected statesman and liberation fighter, has become an international outcast for plunging his country into turmoil and shunning suggestions from Western nations about how to reverse the chaos. Meanwhile, white farmers who prospered from decades of injustice and inequality under former white rule are winning sympathy for the malicious way in which they are being driven from their land.
Mugabe has sanctioned the invasion of hundreds of white-owned farms by black veterans of the country's 1970s liberation war and other pro-government supporters. He has argued that the squatters are justified in their actions because distribution of land remains grossly distorted in favor of the country's white minority, which makes up less than 1% of the country's 12 million people.
The land-grab violence has left at least 10 people dead, among them farmers, farm laborers and members of the political opposition. After a meeting with farm officials Friday, leaders of the war veterans said they will order their followers to refrain from violence but won't demand that the squatters vacate the land.
The president's supporters praise Mugabe for what they insist is proof that he cares first and foremost about the country's black majority, and they commend him for standing his ground against Western imperialists, whom they view as trying to bully an African head of state and undermine his leadership. But political opponents, diplomats and local analysts argue that Mugabe's recent deeds are the actions of a desperate man--one politically on the rocks but determined to stay in power.
Onetime supporters of the 76-year-old Mugabe, and even opponents, expressed disappointment at the steady decline of a man once viewed as one of Africa's most promising leaders.
"What we are seeing [today] is an explosion of political incompetence and corruption," said Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. "People see this as a great betrayal from the liberation of the 1980s. There is disappointment that this old man has allowed his legacy to be destroyed."
The regret is particularly poignant because Mugabe had gotten off to a good start. After spending 10 years in jail for fighting the white rule of Prime Minister Ian D. Smith's then-Rhodesia, he defeated rival liberation leaders in 1980 to become prime minister. A seven-year bush war ended in a negotiated settlement with colonial power Britain.
Even his opponents give Mugabe credit for the strides he made in the early 1980s in developing Zimbabwe. A Jesuit-educated guerrilla chief who holds seven university degrees, he introduced free education and health care, built new roads and opened the doors to blacks into the formerly white-only economy.
He also promised reconciliation with former enemies in the hopes of fostering a nonracial society that would set an example for neighboring South Africa, then still under apartheid rule.
"He was a father [figure]. He was a statesman. He was a darling of the international world," said Margaret Dongo, an independent member of parliament who fought in the liberation struggle alongside Mugabe while still a teenager.
In 1987, Mugabe became president after rewriting the country's independence constitution, and he consolidated power by crushing an armed rebellion in Zimbabwe's western Matabeleland province. There was a world outcry over alleged atrocities against civilians, and estimates from members of the clergy and lawyers indicate that as many as 20,000 died before Mugabe signed a unity pact with Joshua Nkomo, leader of the rival Zimbabwe African People's Union.
The agreement created a virtual one-party state under which white parliamentary representation was abolished and the government was allowed to nominate 20% of the 120 members of parliament. Today, there are only three opposition seats.
"When we created an executive president, we created a monarch . . . a king who alienated himself from the whole society," opposition leader Tsvangirai said.
A Western diplomat based in the capital, Harare, said the ruling party's undoing is "a bull-headed determination to find their own way. They will not be dictated to."
Mugabe has blamed "sabotage" by whites and his political enemies for his country's poverty and economic demise. But the record shows that he has continued to commit many financial blunders.
The Zimbabwean dollar has crashed. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are all well above 50%. The budget deficit is 12% of the country's gross national product. Foreign debt stands at $4 billion. Thousands of export industry workers have lost their jobs, while others have been put on three-day shifts. In recent months, the country has seen gasoline shortages and food riots.