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U.S. Envoy Ending Turbulent Tour in Zimbabwe

Ambassador Christopher Dell says Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe "is a fading force," adding: "We need to be thinking about the day after."
/ Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR
Ambassador Christopher Dell says Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe "is a fading force," adding: "We need to be thinking about the day after."

The African nation of Zimbabwe may be suffering from food shortages and rampant inflation, but it is now poised to chair a United Nations commission on sustainable development.

U.S. officials were furious that Zimbabwe won that secret ballot in New York last week. The U.S. has accused Zimbabwe's government of mismanaging its economy and cracking down on dissent. And one man who has been particularly vocal about all of this is the U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell.

Some ambassadors might shy away from public disputes, but Christopher Dell seems to thrive on them. And he doesn't mind the bad press he's gotten in Zimbabwe — including the headline that read "Dell can go to hell, says president."


"I have the front page of that paper framed in my office, sort of a badge of honor," Dell says. "You don't get many trophies like that in a career."

Dell is just winding up a three-year assignment to Harare. He says he's only had one lengthy conversation with the president of the headline — President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 27 years. And though some still see Mugabe as a liberation leader, Dell says the president is a much different man today.

"In his ruthless determination to hang on to power at any cost, he's betrayed his own legacy," Dell says.

Dell accuses Mugabe of ruling Zimbabwe through a combination of patronage and fear, mismanaging the economy and bringing Zimbabwe to a tipping point.

"The metaphor I have is that it is like a lake," Dell says. "As the waters in the lake recede, more and more of the fish are being left to die in the mud. At the center, the big fish are swimming around nicely and making huge fortunes, huge fortunes."


Dell says now there are now power struggles within Mugabe's ruling party. He's also been witnessing a brutal crackdown on opposition figures.

In March, the ambassador received calls from activists worried about Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the movement for democratic change, who had been taken into custody. Dell and his British counterpart went to the prison where they thought Tsvangirai was being held. They were turned away, but later told that their presence may have stopped — or at least slowed down — the beatings.

"It was clear we were going to continue to get the runaround, but I thought it was important to show that we were following this, we were on it," Dell recalls. "We were paying attention and they didn't have the shelter of the dark of night to get away with this. It seems to have worked. I'll never know for sure."

Dell went to the courthouse a few days later and described the scene as pandemonium. He says one young man was literally dying on the floor before an ambulance came to take him to the hospital.

"It was a demonstration not only of the chaos of the regime, but also the sheer brutality," Dell says. "Tsvangirai's head was shaved and stitched together, his eye was swollen shut. And there they were sitting quietly and all these dangerous looking young men with shotguns pointing at them, in a very small, enclosed space."

Dell says that as a diplomat he can only play a role on the margins and try to be, as he put it, a "voice of conscience." He says the U.S. and its partners have also been thinking about the future, considering what sort of aid package would be needed once Mugabe leaves the scene.

"One way or another, Robert Mugabe is a fading force and we need to be thinking about the day after," Dell says.

Dell won't be there to witness that, though. In a couple of months, he's expected to go to his next tough assignment: Kabul, Afghanistan.

"We have a saying in the State Department: 'No good deed goes unpunished," Dell laughs. "Survive one like this and they think you are ready for another."

He expects to be in Kabul by the end of the summer.

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