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In Zimbabwe, diplomats tread lightly

Zimbabwe's dictator and his propaganda press make it hard for ambassadors to be diplomatic.

Elsewhere, evidence of meaningful reform is scarce. The Human Rights Commission has been told it cannot investigate events before 2009. As much of the electoral violence took place in 2008, this lets a lot of state employees off the hook. An intelligence officer from Mugabe’s office who has been mentioned in court proceedings in connection with burning to death two MDC activists in 2000 remains free.

Many diplomats arriving in the country reflect the upbeat mood of MDC leaders and only later discard their Pollyanna perspectives. The U.S. envoys by contrast remain skeptical.

Speaking after meeting, a bipartisan delegation from Zimbabwe on Sept. 23, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and Senior Director for African Affairs Michelle Gavin said “the current political and human rights environment remains troublesome,” pointing to the recent harassment of WOZA — Women of Zimbabwe Arise — and the violent disruptions of constitutional reform meetings in Harare by Mugabe's supporters.

“Our sanctions are under regular review,” the U.S. officials said in response to pressure from the Zimbabwean negotiators to lift sanctions, “but as long as human rights violations, land seizures and intimidation of those participating in the political process continue, the sanctioned individuals and entities on the list who continue to perpetrate and benefit from these acts are unlikely to be removed.”

In the week before the Zimbabwe negotiators arrived in Washington, one of Mugabe’s most influential ministers, Didymus Mutasa, said Zanu-PF would never allow Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to rule the country.

“If we go to the polls and he defeats Mugabe, Zanu-PF and the people of Zimbabwe will not allow that,” Mutasa told supporters.

It is difficult to be upbeat in these circumstances, activists point out.