Harare and Washington have since 2002 experienced sour relations owing to the latter’s imposition of economic sanctions on the former after the country embarked on fast-track land reform programme. Following on the move that was taken by the European Union to slap Harare with sanctions, the United States came up with the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which has a raft of restrictive measures that have over the years crippled Zimbabwe’s economy. However, the coming in of the new political dispensation in November led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa has somewhat thawed relations between the US and Zimbabwe. As the diplomatic career of the US ambassador to Zimbabwe HARRY K THOMAS (HT) comes to an end this month after 34 years in the Foreign Service, our reporter CHARITY RUZVIDZO (CR), managed to have a one-on-one session with the ambassador where he recounted his journey in Zimbabwe.
CR: Ambassador, you are retiring after 34 years in the Foreign Service and two terms in Zimbabwe. What have been your successes politically and economically?
HT: The United States has been the largest donor in Zimbabwe. One of the things we are most proud of is the PEPFAR programme for AIDS relief. The government’s goals were 90-90-90 but Zimbabwe is going to be at a 95-95-95 target ahead of that, which is wonderful. We started working with the government of Zimbabwe attacking trafficking in persons; it’s a global problem and modern-day form of slavery that’s found in every corner of the globe, including the United States. I’m glad that we are working with the international office of migration as well as the government of Zimbabwe to stop that.
Most importantly, the blesser culture must be cursed, they must stop what they are doing and only a good economy will help with that. Last year, we were feeding 2.4 million people each day. Now, thanks to the good rains and good crops, we hope to see an improvement in food availability.
CR: Are you going to visit former President Mugabe before you depart for the States?
HT: You have a good sense of humour! No, I will not be visiting former President Mugabe, I will call on current President Mnangagwa as diplomatic protocol requires before we depart.
CR: What are your opinions on the economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by the US given the warm relations that seem to now exist between Harare and Washington?
HT: Sanctions were issued by executive order and they are reissued every year.
The key, of course, would be free and fair elections and economic reforms.
The people to ask, in a few weeks we will have some very senior political delegations here, those are the people responsible for lifting sanctions or waiving sanctions and I would ask them because that’s their responsibility.
I would bet, even though am retired, that it would be based on free, fair and credible elections.
Just this week, the Indigenisation Bill was passed, we are waiting to see property rights, am sure we are also waiting to see media, all politicians, political parties being given access to state media.
Those are the things in the constitution.
So we hope to see but I think you need to give the government some time because they have been in office a short while to make good on their promises.
But they are off to a good start in terms of BVR (biometric voter registration), new ZEC (Zimbabwe Economic Commission) chairperson; you have even invited international monitors and observers, for the first time since perhaps 1980.
CR: What have you managed to do to enhance Zimbabwe’s education sector?
HT: We are so proud that Zimbabwe had three Rhodes scholars last year. When l was teaching in Arizona State, there were numerous Zimbabweans who were studying there, Masters and STEM (Science, Technology and Mathematics) there.
Almost every university in America, our most elite Harvard University and the second most elite, Yale, all have students from Zimbabwe and that’s highly commendable. Also, James Manyika established a fellowship for a Zimbabwean each year at Harvard. That way they also gain more information and come back to Zimbabwe to help others.
CR: What role do you think the civic society plays in the promotion of democracy in Zimbabwe?
HT: Well, the civic society has always played a tremendous role and I expect that it will continue doing its part.
The US funds many civic societies and we want them to continue through the elections to ensure democracy.
One of the organisations that we fund is run by women, Heal Zimbabwe, it’s a fantastic organisation. It aims to strengthen the peace-building efforts of local communities in Zimbabwe in order to prevent violence. We also promote the Musasa Project that helps women and girls who have been victims of domestic abuse. We are also on a campaign to help women access sanitary pads and the use of reusable sanitary pads and menstrual cups. In most rural areas, women have one or none to use. So, to help them with their health and dignity, the US will work with several organisations to assist those in poor communities.
CR: Prior to your deployment to Zimbabwe you worked in other countries. What are some of the unique characteristics that Zimbabwe has?
HT: Every country is different, no country is the same. I think the uniqueness of Zimbabwe is the love of the people to study. We had a group here, from the International Finance Corporation that was led by people from West Africa and South Africa. I asked them to ask Zimbabweans how many degrees they have and they were shocked to discover they had two or three degrees each. Zimbabweans are always going to school and their dedication to education is very high and commendable. You are a religious country and you highly value funeral wakes. Also, your humour even during the face of adversity makes you unique.
Now that Zimbabwe is in a new dispensation you all sound like people from my hometown in New York, you are talking freely and laughing. Freedom of speech is important, protect it, it’s yours as is guaranteed by the constitution.
The fourth estate must also ensure it’s protected.