RELATIONS between Washington and Harare are definitely nowhere near the “extraordinarily strong” level of the United States and South Africa. And recent events and political statements certainly show it.
The week before last, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said the “insane” US should not lecture Zimbabwe on its upcoming elections, and for it to keep its “pink nose” out of his country’s affairs.
“Your prisons are still full of blacks. Where is your democracy? There is lots of racism in your country,” Mugabe further stated.
His remarks come after Mugabe also recently attacked America’s stance on gay marriage, and criticised US President Barack Obama for urging Africa to respect gay rights during his recent Africa visit.
Given the history between the two countries, this type of rhetoric is obviously expected, and to steal the 2011 words of former US ambassador Charles Ray, “the bilateral relationship today is like a dysfunctional friendship or a faltering joint venture”.
However, the issue of Zimbabwe's upcoming elections is no joking matter.
The US wants strong, peaceful elections and for all Zimbabweans to have a stake in their country’s future. Washington has been criticised because of its limited engagement. But contrary to popular belief, the US is Zimbabweans to fight some of the battles they face, albeit indirectly.
For instance, Zimbabwe was granted US$555m in May by the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria for the care and treatment of people living with HIV.
This money will be used to support antiretroviral treatment for over one million Zimbabweans as well as more than 145 000 pregnant women between 2014 and 2016.
The majority of this money comes from American sources. The US government is the Global Fund’s largest contributor, contributing $1.65bn in 2013, but this excludes other massive donations from American NGOs and businesses like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chevron.
More directly, observers from Africa and around the world including the US will be on the ground this week to help ensure free and fair elections.
America has worked with partners such as the University of South Africa to develop initiatives like the Democratic Elections in Africa Certificate Programme for African election officials and other administrators with the goal of leading to more professional, independent, and effective electoral commissions in Zimbabwe and across Africa.
Contrary to many other analysts who feel these elections might just be a repeat of previous ones, I am cautiously optimistic.
In a recent letter to Mugabe, US Secretary of State John Kerry offered to "revisit" current sanctions against Zimbabwe and the bilateral relationship if upcoming elections are transparent and peaceful.
Washington continues to maintain sanctions on some 50 to 60 government officials, and equally against some 50 to 60 Zimbabwean companies owned by those individuals or that are under the control of Zanu-PF or the military.
In line with the ‘poor’ bilateral relationship, the current trade status between the two countries is no different.
Zimbabwe is not eligible under the African Growth and Opportunity Act due to its governance, but there are trade agreements in place such as between the US and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, which Harare is a part of. The US and Zimbabwe also have a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.
Regardless, the foreign trade office of the US Census Bureau reports America’s goods exports to Zimbabwe from January to May 2013 only totalled $23m. This number is actually colossal, compared to the $4m in Zimbabwean exports to the US during the same time period.
Baby steps forward
US-Zimbabwe relations simply cannot get any worse and now is the time to improve them.
Certain American business personalities - like real estate tycoon and Chicago fundraiser for Obama Elize Higginbottom - have tried to promote US business in Zimbabwe, but have come under strong criticism for ‘schmoozing’ senior Zanu-PF figures, including Mugabe, to win lucrative business deals from the Zimbabwean government.
Nevertheless, the future of the relationship will ultimately be determined by what happens on July 31. The US does not favour one or another political party, but simply wants the elections to get a clean bill of health by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union.
The best-case scenario starts with credible, peaceful, and overall successful elections. This will allow the US to start slowly suspending sanctions based on these results and the recent referendum passed on a new constitution.
Although the politics will still be tricky, this will ultimately open the door to an economic partnership that will positively impact industry in Zimbabwe and provide a broad range of opportunities for both American exports to Zimbabwe, but more importantly, more Zimbabwean exports and access to new markets in the US.
It will take a long time for US-Zim trade figures to reach the current EU and Zimbabwe trade levels - around $800m compared with $447m in 2009 - but to quote Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
* Guest post by Dr Scott Firsing who is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University, South Africa, the director of the North American International School in Pretoria and a former South African Institute of International Affairs Bradlow Fellow. He is also the founder and president of Young People in International Affairs. Views expressed are his own.
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