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Ambassadors enjoy Zimbabwe's climate while working to promote democracy.
The French and South African envoys also have imposing homes.
By contrast, the U.S. ambassador has to make do with a relatively small residence. Perched high on a hill, it boasts a panoramic view. But it does not have the grounds to accommodate large numbers of guests. A recent incumbent found entertaining there on the Fourth of July so difficult that he converted his car park at the bottom of the hill into an impressive reception area.
The Americans put on an impressive display of marching marines on their national day while a robust speech on the virtues of democratic governance can always be expected from the ambassador.
Britain’s Queen’s Birthday is the social event of the year in June during which medieval-style tents set out on sloping lawns house vast amounts of smoked salmon, stilton cheese and Scotch whisky flown in for the occasion. Strawberries and cream and tea and cake are served.
The Norwegians, Swedes and Dutch provide equally impressive spreads on their national days although not everyone is captivated by the prospect of reindeer.
The French are known for their elegant array of cheeses and chilled champagne. Last year, the cheeses were nowhere to be found, much to the consternation of pampered guests who have become used to special treats on certain occasions.
The cosmopolitan audience on Bastille Day (July 14) always like the bit in France’s national anthem, the Marseillaise, that goes "Contre nous de la tyrannie, L'étendard sanglant est levé", which translates as: "Against us, tyranny's, Bloody banner is raised." Its meaning is not lost on those present including the Zimbabwe government representative who can’t quite understand why voices are raised at that point.
Mugabe’s ministers, who once boycotted E.U and U.S. events, are gradually returning now that there is a government of national unity that includes Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
But Mugabe's hardliners are still casting a long shadow. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it wants to vet “political” speeches by ambassadors so ministers can respond. Most embassies ignore this requirement arguing they can say what they like on their own sovereign turf.
Others neatly get around the injunction. The outgoing Spanish ambassador a few years ago spoke at length about a country he knew well, isolated in the region of which it was a part. Presided over by an arthritic despot, it was locked in an unproductive time-warp as the rest of the region’s economies surged ahead.
“I speak of course of Spain,” the ambassador said to applause from a knowing audience that drew the implicit parallels with Zimbabwe. "Now under a democratic order, Spain is part of Europe’s success story," he concluded.
Cryptic messages of this sort were once common, but with the one-year-old unity government, ambassadors feel free to speak their minds. Many of the countries represented here are working hard to reverse the slide that has reduced Zimbabwe, under its “arthritic despot,” to penury but whose politics ensure a lively interest by well-wishers across the world.
The most recent arrival has been U.S. ambassador Charles Ray. He has this month been entertaining a delegation of congressional representatives who are exploring ways they can remove some of the sanctions introduced after flawed elections eight years ago.
If there is progress on political and economic reform, the way will be open to improved relations with the U.S. That might mean further expansion of the car park/reception area for the July 4th festivities. And more diplomats, of course.
Editor's note: this dispatch was updated to give a full translation of the phrase from the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.