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Zimbabwe's Free Fall

June 05, 2003

You know a country is scraping bottom when it's forced to deny checking the political views of its national cricket team members before sending them abroad. That's the position Zimbabwe finds itself in as its team appears in England. The worse the situation gets in the southern African nation, the more sweeping President Robert Mugabe's attempts to maintain control.

Mugabe confronts the worst crisis of his dictatorial rule. Anti-government strikes called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change shut down most of Zimbabwe this week. But Mugabe's ham-handed tactics have already caused the economy's collapse.

Once a flourishing farming nation, Zimbabwe saw its production reduced to nil by the draconian land reform program Mugabe sponsored. It allowed his army cronies and party followers -- often one and the same -- to take over large commercial farms held by whites. Reform was indeed necessary. But Mugabe's associates had no idea of how to farm, and many black workers received little arable land. The armed expropriations, coupled with a severe drought, threaten the lives of millions. Inflation runs at more than 200%, and food, fuel and medicine are scarce.

The dire situation bolsters the reform movement, but Mugabe has responded with the thuggery that has characterized his misrule. Police and troops race to arrest and crush protesters; under Zimbabwean law, the government can forbid demonstrations. The government has already put on trial Morgan Tsvangirai, an opposition leader, and two colleagues for treason for supposedly conspiring to murder Mugabe.

President Bush issued an executive order in March imposing economic sanctions on Mugabe and 76 members of his government. At the Group of 8 summit, the industrialized countries timidly expressed "concern about reports of further violence" in Zimbabwe.

European leaders, particularly British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Bush must push neighboring South Africa, which controls Zimbabwe's electric supply, to lean on Mugabe to relax his repressive rule. The influential South Africans also should try to coax him out of his crazed policies so his people won't starve. Left unchecked, Mugabe will push his country into chaos and humanitarian disaster. That's not in the interest of either South Africa or the West.

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