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Zimbabwe's Humanitarian Crisis Deepens

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a new study in Philadelphia examines the persistent wage gap between men and women, and notes just how large that gap is for women of color. But first, the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Earlier today, the president of South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe, said his country will launch an urgent humanitarian campaign in the hopes of saving Zimbabwe from economic collapse. Zimbabwe's citizens have lacked adequate food, sanitation, and medical care for some time now, and that's leading to a growing outbreak of cholera. The World Health Organization says 1,000 people have already died from the disease, and tens of thousands more are infected.

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Many blame the current crisis on the political stalemate in Zimbabwe. Long-time leader Robert Mugabe is widely believed to have lost a March election to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But Mugabe has refused to step down and forced a run-off election in June, which Mugabe won after widespread violence aimed at political opponents. Power-sharing talks since then have yet to result in a functioning government. Joining us to talk more about all of this, is United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee. Ambassador, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JAMES MCGEE (United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe): Thank you, Michel. Happy to be here this morning.

MARTIN: Now, you just returned from Zimbabwe. Can you describe the situation in Harare and as much of the countryside as you've been able to see? How are people coping with the situation there?

Mr. MCGEE: Yeah, Michel, it's a very difficult situation. The systems in the country that should be in place to take care of the people have totally failed. Every major hospital in Harare has closed. Every one. There's no emergency rooms, there's no - nothing in there, in the health system. Virtually all the schools have closed. The education system, which at one time was the pride of all of Africa, has totally failed right now. And there are foreign currency stores where you'll find the shelves totally filled if you have access to U.S. dollars or South African rand. Any other store, the shelves are absolutely bare.

And of course, Michel, we're all aware of the - as you mentioned earlier - the cholera infection that's happening in Zimbabwe. Over 1,000 deaths and over 18,000 people reported to have been infected with cholera. And we're just getting reports yesterday of another major city, Chegutu, with 121 deaths, and that's - one-third of all the people who have been infected with cholera are dying from this disease. Something that's very, very treatable.

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MARTIN: Now, South Africa's president Kgalema Motlanthe held a press conference in Pretoria earlier today, where he said, he believes a coalition government will be formed this week between ZANU-PF, which is Mr. Mugabe's party, the ruling party, and the Movement for Democratic Change, the leading opposition party. Is there any evidence of that? Do you see any evidence of that?

Mr. MCGEE: No, I don't. The global political agreement between ZANU-PF and MDC right now is not viable as long as Robert Mugabe fails to comply with its provisions. And there's nothing to show that, based on his actions to date, that he will comply with the provisions of the global political agreement.

MARTIN: What do you - accounts, in your view, for the reluctance of President Motlanthe, who is a caretaker - who's perceived as a caretaker president - who was installed after Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign and is holding that position until elections will be held early next year. But he has refused to call for Mugabe to step down, as others have. You have, Kenya has, Botswana has. What do you think accounts for the reluctance of the South Africans to take that step?

Mr. MCGEE: I wish I could answer that question, Michel. I think in many cases President Mugabe is still viewed as a liberation leader. Maybe as the preeminent person in the liberation struggle in the Southern African region. But the bottom line is this. We still call on the nations of Africa, and especially South Africa as leader of the Southern African development community, to work towards the goal of a new government in Zimbabwe.

MARTIN: Some people have said that the fastest way to resolve the situation is for South Africa to close its borders to Zimbabwe, which would stop all trade, which would result in the collapse of the government. Do you think that that's a viable option?

Mr. MCGEE: That's something that South Africans are going to have to take a look at themselves. I'm not willing to go that far to espouse that.

MARTIN: You just told us that there is no functioning hospital in the capital. Most of the schools are closed, and if you - you have to assume that if the hospitals in the capital aren't functioning, then the hospitals in the rest of the country aren't either. Surely Mr. Mugabe's supporters are affected by these circumstances? If the country's water supply is contaminated, surely Mr. Mugabe's supporters are affected by these circumstances as well? How then can he maintain his intransigence?

Mr. MCGEE: I think it's simple. He still has complete control of all the security forces in the country, and through political patronage and payouts he still controls what goes on in this country each and every day. The people of Zimbabwe are increasingly beaten down, and there's just no one who's willing to stand up to this brutal regime and say enough is enough.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with James McGee. He's the United States ambassador to Zimbabwe, and we're talking about the situation in Zimbabwe.

Well, one person who's been willing to stand up and say enough is enough, is opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. And what is he doing at the moment?

Mr. MCGEE: Well, right now I understand that Morgan has been consulting with regional leaders and is currently in Botswana, trying to win over regional leaders towards his position on Zimbabwe, which - number one, there's no goodwill, there's no good faith on the part of ZANU-PF and the Mugabe regime. You know, as the titular prime minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai has not even been given a passport by the country. He's traveling on what's known as an ETD, an emergency travel document, which typically is issued to repatriate dead bodies from outside the country back into Zimbabwe. So, here is a man who is in a power-sharing agreement - supposedly - with Robert Mugabe, and he can't even get a passport from his own country.

MARTIN: What do you think the role of the international community should be in this moment?

Mr. MCGEE: Well, I think the role of the international community is very clear. We need to continue with our humanitarian assistance. The long-suffering people of Zimbabwe deserve better than what they're receiving from their government. And I think that the international community has done a very, very good job in stepping up to the plate and providing the humanitarian assistance that's needed by these folks. Secondly, I think that we need to continue to pressure African nations. All along, South Africa and other African nations have said this is an African problem that deserves an African solution. And I think the time now is, let's quit talking about the problem, let's move on to the solution. So, the pressure needs to continue.

MARTIN: Exactly what pressure, though, can continue? The president of the United States last week called for Mugabe to step down, a number of European leaders called for Mugabe to step down, a distinguished group of former heads of state - of an international group of heads of state and distinguished leaders from around the world called on Mugabe to step down. What more can they do?

Mr. MCGEE: Well, I think that these actions are starting to bear fruit finally. And we understand that the African Union has proposed to meet with regional economic immigration organizations such as SADC, ECOWAS, and the EAC in the coming days to discuss Zimbabwe. And we welcome this leadership role in resolving the political impasse and the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. So, I think that the diplomatic initiatives that we've seen over the last two months are really starting to take effect. People are starting to step up and listen to what's happening in Zimbabwe, and especially at how the situations in Zimbabwe are affecting the countries that surround Zimbabwe.

MARTIN: On the other hand, every time - particularly people from Western Europe - speak about this, Mr. Mugabe uses it as evidence, in his view, of why the West is trying to take over and run Zimbabwe, and interfere with their national sovereignty. Do you have any sense of whether his citizens consider that persuasive at this point?

Mr. MCGEE: To be honest with you, Michel, some do. If nothing else, there is an extremely effective propaganda machine in Zimbabwe. The government controls all the press. There is no free press in Zimbabwe whatsoever. So, the information that comes out is coming out tainted through the government propaganda machine.

What we are seeing are stories such as President Mugabe saying that there is no cholera, the cholera situation in Zimbabwe has been eradicated. And we all know that that's a joke. We just get stories recently that the deputy health minister is saying that the cholera outbreak was caused by the British. That they purposely started this as a way of effecting regime change in Zimbabwe. These are ridiculous stories, but you know, there are people in Zimbabwe who believe these things. So, you know, part of the problem is to get the truth out, and I think that's what the international community continues to try to do is shine a light on what's happening in Zimbabwe.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, on a more personal note? You've been ambassador to Zimbabwe since November of 2007, and I'd just like to ask what it's like for you to watch this unfold in front of your eyes? I mean, you've served in the region for a long time. And as you pointed out earlier, that the country, in many ways, was considered the jewel of the continent. It had, you know, the - among the best infrastructure, the best educational system, was considered the bread basket of the region. And to watch all this collapse in front of you, I just have to ask what that's been like for you?

Mr. MCGEE: It's a very, very difficult situation, Michel. The - in the year that I've been in Zimbabwe, I've seen such a dramatic downturn in the plight of the people, the ability of the country to take care of itself, and it's totally disheartening. It's so difficult to look at a country that - as you mentioned - was at one point the jewel of Southern Africa, turn into something that is now a total basket case. You know, we'd love to be able to do more, but until we get this goodwill effort on the part of the government in Zimbabwe it's just not going to happen.

MARTIN: Is it possible that this country could just simply collapse? I mean, do you view it as a failed state, now?

Mr. MCGEE: I think we're very, very close to failed-state status in Zimbabwe. The lack of ability, or maybe I should say willingness of the government to take care of its people, leads me to believe that this country is teetering on the brink of failed-state status. You know, we see hundreds and hundreds of luxury cars being bought for ministers. We see plasma TVs and houses being bought for judges. And the newspapers actually print these stories to say, you know, this is what's happening with your money. So, you know, I think that's a clear indication of a failed state.

MARTIN: Your term of services is coming to an end. What do you think it's most important for the next administration to do in regard to the situation, as President Obama takes office?

Mr. MCGEE: That's a great question, Michel. I think it's very, very important to make abundantly clear to Zimbabwe, as well as the neighbors of Zimbabwe, that this situation is not going to be accepted any longer, that we need to continue our efforts to see meaningful change happen in Zimbabwe, and see that meaningful change happen right away.

MARTIN: James McGee is the United States ambassador to Zimbabwe. He was kind enough to join us from the State Department in Washington D.C. Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MCGEE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.