By Stephen Gowans
Zimbabwe is in the grips on an economic crisis. Food and electricity shortages plague the country, but because Zimbabwe is singled out in the Western media for special attention, it seems as if its problems are unique, not part of a wider pattern of scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa, but the product of the misguided policies of the Mugabe government. There’s a message in the Western media spin on Zimbabwe: reclaiming land and working to put the economy into hands of nationals leads to economic meltdown. It’s best to leave historical patterns of domination alone, and to adapt to the prevailing balance of power.
In a July 28, 2007 article on the regrettable state of Zimbabwe’s economy, The Washington Post points out that “daily power outages are forcing Zimbabweans to light fires to cook and to heat water.” Wood poachers have stripped nearly 500 acres of conservation woodland.
But what the Post doesn’t point out is that it’s not only Zimbabweans, but people throughout sub-Saharan Africa, who are stripping forests bare to provide heat and cooking fuel. (1)
The reason why is rolling power blackouts. “Perhaps 25 of 44 sub-Saharan nations face crippling electricity shortages.” (2) Drought, climbing oil prices, and the chaos caused by privatization of formerly state-owned power companies have created an “unprecedented” power crisis that not only affects Zimbabwe, but Zambia, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Togo.
Even South Africa was hit by rolling blackouts in January and sporadic power failures continue to bedevil the country.
Yet, as a mark of how the Western media frame their reporting to discredit Zimbabwe, it is in Zimbabwe alone that the electricity shortages are attributed to the policies of the government.
Zimbabwe’s “power, water, health and communications systems are collapsing,” the Post notes, “and there are acute shortages of staple foods and gasoline.” The newspaper points to critics who say economic mismanagement and Harare’s land reform policies are to blame.
But acute food and gasoline shortages are common to neighboring countries. If Zimbabwe is short of gasoline, “Uganda’s gas stations are…short of diesel for vehicles.” (3) If there are shortages of food staples in Zimbabwe, there are close to two dozen other countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are contending with food scarcity, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
Since neighbouring countries have not pursued Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform policies, and have tended to shy away from the economic indigenization policies Harare favors, gasoline, electricity and food shortages can hardly be attributed to policies uniquely pursued by Harare. The aim of the media’s propaganda is clear: to discredit the Mugabe government’s economic independence policies by suggesting they are to blame for the country’s economic difficulties.
Unlike other sub-Saharan countries, Zimbabwe is a target of economic sanctions, which have made the region-wide drought and oil-price-rise-induced crises more acute. The sanctions, imposed by the US and EU, deny Zimbabwe access to international development aid. NGOs, following the Western governments that provide their funding, have also cut off assistance, amplifying the sanctions’ effects.
Are the sanctions justified?
The West’s opposition to Zimbabwe began in the mid-90s, when the Mugabe government failed to undertake pro-foreign investor (often called neo-liberal) economic reforms as quickly as the International Monetary Fund prescribed.
The IMF expected Zimbabwe to pare back government social spending, reduce the size of the civil service, devalue its currency, and move strongly toward an export-oriented economy – measures that would benefit international investors but would increase the hardships Zimbabweans already faced.
The IMF also insisted that Zimbabwe pay full market value for the land it sought to acquire as part of its program to resettle the rural poor – land that had been stripped from indigenous Africans by European settlers.
Zimbabwe had received assurances in 1979 from the Thatcher government that Britain would fund the purchase of land from white settlers, but the Blair government reneged, proposing instead that it lend Zimbabwe money in return for Harare enacting policies to enhance investor confidence (i.e., policies to increase the profits foreign investors could extract from Zimbabwe.) Since this would amount to taking on new debt to buy back what had been stolen in the first place, the offer was refused. Farmland was reclaimed without compensation (except for improvements the European settlers had made.) The expropriated farmers were told to seek compensation from London.
By 1997, Harare was in open revolt. IMF-prescribed programs the government deemed to be injurious to Zimbabweans were rejected and the IMF’s prohibitions on pursuing economically nationalist policies were ignored. Mugabe announced new tariffs to protect domestic businesses from foreign competition and introduced an affirmative action program that differentially benefited domestic firms at the expense of foreign investors. Western governments, ever vigilant about promoting the export and foreign investment interests of their own corporations, saw red.
By 1998, the EU had had enough. Mugabe’s land reform program – and now, the military aid Harare was providing to the young government of Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo – bid that steps be taken to force the independence-minded Mugabe out. Kabila, who the US and Britain were trying to overthrow, was following economically nationalist policies reminiscent of those of Patrice Lumumba, who the West had deposed in a CIA-sponsored coup decades earlier. Washington and London recruited Uganda and Rwanda as proxies to invade the DR Congo, but their plans were frustrated when Zimbabwe intervened militarily on the side of the Kabila government. To counter Mugabe, the EU set out to build civil society — the unions and NGOs — as opposite poles of attraction to Mugabe’s government of national liberation.
Soon, Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the Zimbabwe Trades Union Congress, emerged as leader of a new political party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The white commercial farmers abandoned their old party, the Rhodesian Front, and lined up behind their new vehicle, the MDC. With a war chest filled with generous funding from Western governments and corporations, the MDC was to lead the opposition to the Mugabe government from within Zimbabwe.
By 2001, the Sunday Times was urging London to spearhead a worldwide economic boycott of Zimbabwe. “Until decisive action is taken,” the newspaper warned, “the whole region is a high-risk area for investment.” (4)
The same year, the US enacted the US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. The arch-conservative Jesse Helms was a co-sponsor, along with Hilary Clinton. The act obligates US officials to vote against assistance to Zimbabwe at the IMF and World Bank; allows the president to fund groups and individuals working to overthrow the Mugabe government; and makes respect for the rule of law (i.e., reversal of Zimbabwe’s land reform program) a condition of ending sanctions. US Representative Cynthia McKinney asked legislators what law European settlers had respected when they seized the land by force.
Sanctions have one aim: to make the lives of Zimbabweans miserable so they’ll oust Mugabe. The MDC, which supports the sanctions, and is indefatigable in calling for additional punishments, uses the economic hardships sanctions have aggravated to call for Mugabe’s departure.
Mugabe’s program has always been one of independence. As a leader of the guerrilla movement that fought for national liberation, the goal was an end to Rhodesian apartheid. As leader of the government, the goal since the mid 90s has been economic independence; to be secured, first, by reclaiming the land the indigenous population had been dispossessed of by European settlers; and second, by putting the economy in the hands of Zimbabweans as owners, not just employees.
The inevitable consequence of this project has been the backlash of foreign corporations, Western investors and their governments.
While the Western media would have you believe Zimbabweans are champing at the bit to oust Mugabe, the reality is that Mugabe is widely supported, not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout Africa. His credentials as the leader of a national liberation movement have established his reputation, his land reform policies have strengthened his support among the rural poor (who make up the majority of Zimbabweans) and his insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy have made him a rallying point for anti-imperialist sentiment in Africa. As recently as August 2004, Mugabe was voted number three in the New African magazine’s poll of the 100 greatest Africans (behind Nelson Mandela and Ghana Kwame Nkrunah, the first president of post-colonial Ghana.) One of Mugabe’s most vehement critics, Archbishop Pious Ncube, grudgingly acknowledges his popularity. “The United Nations should take (Mugabe) out but that will not happen because Africa supports Mugabe.” (5)
It is fashionable in some circles to profess admiration for Mugabe, as the leader of the armed national liberation struggle, while denouncing Mugabe, the politician. Mugabe once fought for national liberation, it’s said, but as a politician, he simply clings to power for power’s sake. Power has corrupted him.
This is the typical screed against the leaders of all really-existing movements that seek to end the oppression of class or nations. They are invariably accused of demagogy and corruption and of betraying their movement’s goals. The revolution betrayed is the constant theme. The purpose of these accusations is to breed cynicism, disillusionment and ultimately pessimism, passivity and capitulation. It’s all in vain, the detractors say. You’ll simply end up with something worse that you started with. Your movement will be hijacked by authoritarian strongmen who utter leftist-sounding phrases while enriching themselves and their cronies.
The goal Mugabe has pursued, whether in the armed struggle or in government, has never changed: independence. Placing the economy in the hands of Zimbabweans, as Mugabe is working to do now, is just as much – indeed, is even more significantly a part – of national liberation as achieving nominal political independence is. Zimbabweans got their own flag in 1980, their land after 2000, and now are working to secure control of their mines and businesses. To say, then, that Mugabe was true to the goals of national liberation once, but is no longer, reveals either a miscomprehension of the centrality of land reform and indigenization to national liberation, a surrender to the barrage of propaganda against Zimbabwe’s national liberation movement, or an absent commitment to true national liberation.
(1) New York Times, July 29, 2007.
(4) Cited in Rob Gowland, “Zimbabwe: The Struggle for Land, the Struggle for Independence,” November, 2002. http://www.cpa.org.au/booklets/zimbabwe.pdf
(5) Cited in The Sunday Mail, July 28, 2007. http://www.sundaymail.co.zw/index.aspx
By Stephen Gowans
Michael Moore’s Sicko is an entertaining and emotionally compelling film. It exposes the harshness of profit-based healthcare to the majority of Americans, and does so in the film-maker’s accustomed engaging way. There is no one as deft in connecting on issues of concern to the left and ordinary people with as large an audience as Moore. On this, he has no peer.
While the film has been labelled controversial by the US media, it is anything but. Few Americans would disagree with the thesis of the film – that for them a program of universal healthcare would be far better than the current profit-based system.
What controversy the film has generated has been confined to those in whose interest universal healthcare is inimical: insurance companies whose profits would suffer grievously were universal healthcare adopted; banks, investors and corporations, who have an interest in shrinking the commons, not seeing it expanded; and the media, which – owned by the same class — reliably promotes its interests.
Media pundits accuse Moore of fudging the facts, warn Americans that Canada, France, Britain and Cuba (countries whose healthcare systems are highlighted in the film) are not healthcare paradises, and stress that free healthcare for all is not free, but comes with crushing taxes. (It is not pointed out, however, that the taxes are mainly shouldered by those most able to pay, i.e., the same people sounding the alarm about universal healthcare.)
For a Canadian who knows something about the single-payer health insurance plan Moore idolizes, the US media campaign against Moore’s film is a transparent propaganda offensive whose goal it is to discredit Moore and universal healthcare. It’s true the Canadian system has flaws – fatal ones if you believe the US media spin — but the flaws US scare-mongers cite have nothing whatever to do with the system itself, and everything to do with what Canadian politicians have spent the last two decades doing: under-funding the system to make Canadians increasingly dissatisfied so they’ll demand the wonders of the US for-profit system CNN is always touting and investors privately clamor for.
The fact of the matter is that the US spends considerably more per capita on healthcare than Canada does, and yet healthcare outcomes for ordinary people are better in Canada. The US spends infinitely more than Cuba does, but only manages to place a few notches higher on healthcare rankings. That the richest country in the world only manages to edge out a Third World country – and one it has spent the last four and half decades trying to strangle economically — says (1) much for Cuba’s system, (2) unless your wealthy, the US for-profit system sucks and (3) the Cuban system in an industrialized country would — by comparison to what’s available today — be the “healthcare nirvana” the US media warns doesn’t exist.
While Moore has cogently exposed the deep flaws of the US for-profit healthcare system, his comments to the media on what Americans should do to secure a better system are less compelling.
In a testy exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Moore suggested that “the people (who) have gone to my movie, the people that are concerned about this issue … write to Mrs. Clinton and say, please, universal healthcare that’s free for everyone who lives in this country.”
In response to the charge that the government is incapable of competently administering healthcare, Moore counters that there’s nothing wrong with the government, only with the people who get elected.
The implied solutions are straight out of Moore’s high school civics class textbook. Vote, write letters, be informed. If we press for universal healthcare, and elect the right people, we’ll get what we ask for.
But a deeper analysis would ask two questions:
Why is it that the “right” people rarely, if ever, get elected?
Why did Hilary Clinton’s proposal for healthcare reform die 14 years ago?
Contrary to what Moore and others learned in their high school civics classes, the US political system is not democratic, but plutocratic. It is minimally responsive to the interests of the majority of people, but maximally responsive to the interests of the slim minority that owns and controls the economy, and is able, by virtue of its ownership and control position, to command the resources that allow it to tilt the playing field decidedly in its own favor. Sure, there are elections, and most everyone is free to vote. But those who have money – and lots of it — can dominate the system. And who has lots of money?
Money power plays an overwhelming role in selecting candidates to stand for election, and not surprisingly, those candidates who are best able to command the considerable financial backing needed to get elected lean towards looking after the interests of the wealthy people and corporations cutting the checks. As a Canadian prime minister once said of politicians elected in capitalist democracies, “You dance with the one who brought you to the dance.”
Moore himself points to the subversive role money plays in politics. Hilary Clinton, who has reconciled herself to the monstrosity of the US healthcare system, is one of the largest recipients of insurance industry backing. Moore’s website calls her a leading “Sicko for Sale.”
So why does the film-maker think that people writing letters to beseech a co-opted Clinton for free healthcare is going to make a difference, especially when, as Moore acknowledges, 14 years ago the insurance industry “went after her” and “stopped her cold”? What has changed in 14 years to deny the insurance industry the power to stop (or co-opt) champions of universal healthcare?
Moore also genuflected to the nonsense he learned in high school civics classes when he scolded Wolf Blitzer and the US media for not doing their job in acting as an unofficial opposition, not safeguarding the public interest, and “not bringing the truth to (Americans) that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.”
Like other liberals, Moore is aggrieved that the US and its institutions don’t live up to their rhetoric, believing that through pressure and moral suasion, politicians, CEOs, and the media can be forced to hew to civics textbook ideals.
But where, outside of the nonsense kids are force-fed in school, does it say the media have to be an unofficial opposition? And where does it say the media have to behave in a manner that puts the mission of informing the public ahead of their first and only obligation – to make profits for their owners?
CNN, FOX, The New York Times and other major media are under no obligation to ask tough questions of US leaders, to act in the public interest (is there a public interest that reconciles the conflicting interests of class?) or to “tell the truth to Americans that isn’t sponsored by some major corporation.” As businesses, their only obligation is to their owners, and their owners’ interests are decidedly at odds with those of the people who go to Moore’s films.
Call it a class-issue. If you deploy capital to generate profits, you have interests opposed to those of Moore’s audiences: war for oil profits versus not dying as a grunt in Iraq; the profits to be secured from private healthcare versus the security of free healthcare; a media that instils an ideology congenial to your profit-making interests versus one that challenges it.
Notwithstanding Moore’s complaints, Blitzer and other journalists haven’t failed to do their jobs. They’ve performed remarkably well. What Moore hasn’t figured out is that there isn’t a public interest for Blitzer to serve, only class interests. And since it’s not white and blue collar workers who own CNN, but the owners of Time-Warner who do, Blitzer isn’t working for us. He’s working for people who have an interest in private, for-profit healthcare, an aggressive foreign policy that’s good for business, and any other policy that takes money, wealth, labor and sweat from you, me, Iraqis, Venezuelans, Cubans and so on, and gives it to them.
Moore has also shown a certain blindness when it comes to Canada. On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Moore pointed favourably to Canada for not invading other countries and for operating a healthcare system Moore believes the US should adopt.
Canada’s healthcare system, while preferable to that of the US, still comes up short against Cuba’s. Moore explored the relative merits of the US, Canadian and Cuban healthcare systems in a “healthcare Olympics” segment of his former TV program TV Nation. While network censors forced Moore to declare Canada the winner, the film-maker admitted that Cuba had really won. If Cuba’s system is better (and it is) why endorse Canada’s?
As to Moore’s lionizing Canada for not invading other countries, he’s under the spell of an illusion.
•Canada took part in the UN “police action” in Korea in the 50s, which saw a US-led coalition invade the Korean peninsula to put down a national liberation movement operating in both the north and south.
•Canada is part of a force that invaded Haiti after its president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was ousted by US intrigues.
•Canadian troops are occupying Afghanistan. Since US forces kicked down the door, and were never invited in, Canada’s occupation – which frees up US military resources to concentrate on the occupation of Iraq — is in any practical sense an invasion.
It might also be pointed out that Canada doesn’t play in the same league as the US and Britain when it comes to invading other countries, not because Canadians are peace-loving, but because Canada doesn’t have the military heft to mimic its neighbour to the south. Canada is driven by the same profit-making imperatives that impel US and British policy makers to use force, subversion, economic pressure, diplomacy and civil society to secure export and investment opportunities in other countries. Had Canada its neighbor’s military muscle it would just as ardently use bombers, missiles and tanks to kick down foreign doors.
Moore’s film, Sicko, is to be commended for the entertaining and engaging way it addresses an important issue. But the film-maker’s high-school civics class understanding of system, and his naïve illusions about Canada, leave much to be desired.
By Stephen Gowans
When Africa scholar Mahmoud Mandani looks at the slaughter and displacement of civilians in Darfur he notices something odd. The mass death of civilians in Darfur has been called a genocide, but slaughters of civilians of similar magnitude in Iraq and on a larger scale in Congo have not.
According to the World Food Program, about 200,000 civilians have died in Darfur, 80 percent from starvation and disease, and 20 percent from violence. Close to 700,000 have been displaced(1). This, the US government, calls a genocide.
But 600,000 Iraqis have died since 2003 as a result of violence related to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (2) and 3.7 million have either fled to neighboring countries or are internally displaced (3).
“I read about all sorts of violence against civilians,” says Mamdani, “and there are two places that I read about – one is Iraq, and one is Darfur … And I’m struck by the fact that the largest political movement against mass violence on US campuses is on Darfur and not on Iraq.” (4)
If Darfur is modest in comparison to Iraq, both are pipsqueeks compared to Congo. There, some four million civilians have been slaughtered over several years, largely as a result of intervention by US proxies, Uganda and Rwanda.
In Somalia, 460,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting sparked by a US-backed and assisted invasion by Ethiopia (5). That invasion was aimed at ousting the popularly-backed Islamic Courts Union, which had brought a measure of stability to Somalia. “In the six months the Islamic courts (governed Somalia), less than 20 people lost their lives through violence. Now, that many die in 10 minutes,” observes Hussein Adow, a Mogadishu businessman (6).
Why is there is a Save Darfur Campaign, but no Save Congo Campaign and no Save Somalia Campaign?
Mamdani says that people in the West don’t react to the mass slaughter of civilians but to the labels their governments and media attach to them.
“Genocide is being instrumentalized by … the United States,” he explains. “It is being instrumentalized in a way that mass slaughters which implicate its adversaries are being named as genocide and those which implicate its friends or its proxies are not being named as genocide.”
Mandani calls this “the politics of naming.”
The politics of naming isn’t limited to the question of which slaughters are named genocide and which aren’t. It applies too to the question of which regimes are called dictatorial, repressive and brutal (and so must be changed), and which are not (and so should be left in peace.)
Take the case of Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Tons of printer’s ink have been consumed by Western newspapers denouncing Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. According to the Western narrative, he is as a dictator who steals elections, represses the opposition and cracks heads to stay in power.
But Mugabe’s government, in view of concerted efforts from outside and within to overthrow it, is remarkably restrained. Archbishop Pious Ncube, one of the government’s most vociferous critics, recently called on Zimbabwe’s former colonial master, Britain, to remove Mugabe through military means. “We should do it ourselves,” he added, “but there’s too much fear. I’m ready to lead the people, guns blazing, but the people are not ready.” (7) (Imagine Noam Chomsky calling for a coalition of Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran and north Korea to invade the US to force Washington to end its occupation of Iraq. “I’m ready to lead the people, guns blazing,” he might say, “but the people are not ready.” How long would it be before Chomsky was hustled off to jail?)
Ncube isn’t the first government opponent to threaten a campaign of violence to oust Mugabe. And yet Ncube and others remain at liberty to call for sanctions, outside military intervention and insurrection to depose the government.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, is a cipher. It receives little coverage from the Western media, and even less attention from people who routinely denounce the Sudanese and Zimbabwean governments from the left.
That’s odd, for the Ethiopian government has all the flaws the Zimbabwean government is said to have that arouse so much moral indignation.
Ethiopia “jails it citizens without reason or trial, tortures many of them, and habitually violates its own laws.
“The government was … severely criticized for a 2005 crackdown in which tens of thousands of opposition members were jailed and nearly 200 people killed after elections in which the opposition made major gains.
“Ethiopian officials … have expelled many foreign journalists and representatives of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.” (9)
Disputed elections, crackdowns on the opposition, expulsion of journalists: this resembles the charge sheet against Mugabe. So why isn’t Melawi as thoroughly excoriated as Mugabe is?
A July 9th Reuters’ report says, “Ethiopian prosecutors demanded the death penalty for 38 opposition officials convicted of trying to overthrow the government, treason and inciting violence.
“The officials were convicted last month of charges relating to violent protests over disputed elections in 2005 that the opposition says were rigged.
“Nearly 200 people were killed in clashes between protestors and security forces over the vote.
“Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he regretted the post-poll violence, but blamed it on opportunistic rioters and an opposition conspiracy to topple him by force.”
I read the Reuters’ article to a friend, but replaced Ethiopia with Zimbabwe and Zenawi with Mugabe. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary to her. And indeed, it’s likely that most people in the West would not have detected the deception. It meshes with the Western narrative on Zimbabwe. If you’ve been reading Western press accounts, you would expect Mugabe to round up the opposition (whose leaders have long threatened the violent overthrow of the government), charge them with treason, and seek their execution. But he hasn’t.
Had he, a storm of indignation would have swept the Western world. Yet Zenawi does the same, and no politician works himself up into high moral dudgeon, no calls are made for sanctions or Western military intervention, and no emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is convoked. Just a solitary Reuters’ dispatch. Why?
The answer is that Ethiopia is fully within Washington’s orbit, acting as a reliable proxy enforcing US geopolitical interests in the resource-rich Horn of Africa. Zimbabwe, by contrast, pursues the opposite tact, implementing policies that seek to free itself from Western domination and to frustrate US imperial designs on the continent.
Zimbabwe indigenizes its agriculture and economy; Ethiopia intervenes militarily in Somalia at the behest of Washington, to restore a US-puppet government.
Weeks before Ethiopia invaded Somalia, US General John P. Abizaid flew to Addis Ababa to arrange for Zenawi to unleash the US-trained Ethiopian military on Somalia. Washington even went so far as to shelter Ethiopia, whose military relies on equipment made in north Korea, from penalty for violating UN-sanctions against north Korean arms sales. Ethiopia needed to import replacement parts from north Korea if the invasion was to go ahead without a hitch. Washington, which championed the sanctions, said “go ahead.” (9)
Numberless people are being manipulated by Western governments and media, their outrage harnessed to achieve geopolitical goals that have nothing whatever to do with human rights and democracy, and everything to do with the question of who gets to control the oil spigot, mining concessions and vast tracts of fertile land.
Mamdani calls those caught up in the Save Darfur Campaign innocents. The same could be said of those caught up in the dump Mugabe campaign.
1. UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimate, cited in The Guardian, June 20, 2007.
2. Johns Hopkins study, published online by The Lancet, cited in The Guardian October 12, 2006.
3. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, cited in Workers World, February 15, 2007.
4. Interview with Mahmoud Mandani, Democracy Now! June 4, 2007.
5. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (Guardian, June 20, 2007).
6. Quoted in the The London Times, cited in Party for Socialism and Liberation, July 3, 2007.
7. The Sunday Times, July 1, 2007.
8. The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2007.
9. The New York Times, April 8, 2007.