By Stephen Gowans
The received wisdom among Western governments, journalists and some concerned progressive scholars is that there have been no broad-based, economic sanctions imposed upon Zimbabwe. Instead, in their view, there are only targeted sanctions, with limited effects, aimed at punishing President Robert Mugabe and the top leadership of the Zanu-PF party. The sanctions issue, they say, is a red herring Mugabe and his supporters use to divert attention from the true cause of Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown: redistribution of land from white commercial farmers to hundreds of thousands of indigenous families, a program denigrated as “economic mismanagement”.
Yet, it has always been clear to anyone willing to do a little digging that there are indeed broad-based economic sanctions against Zimbabwe; that there have been since 2001, when US president George W. Bush signed them into law; that they were imposed in response to Zimbabwe’s land reform program; and that Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown happened after sanctions were imposed, not before.
US sanctions, implemented under the US Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, effectively block Zimbabwe’s access to debt relief and balance of payment support from international financial institutions. In addition, the EU and other Western countries have imposed their own sanctions.
On occasion, Mugabe’s detractors have been caught out in their deceptions about sanctions being targeted solely at a few highly placed members of Zanu-PF rather than the economy, and therefore Zimbabweans, as a whole. At those times, they have countered that while sanctions may exist, they have had little impact, and anyway, they play into Mugabe’s hands. As progressive scholar Horace Campbell put it: “The Zimbabwe government is very aware of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments among oppressed peoples and thus has deployed a range of propagandists inside and outside the country in a bid to link every problem in Zimbabwe to international sanctions by the EU and USA.”
Campbell turns reality on its head. The fact of the matter is that the US government has deployed a range of propagandists, both within and outside Zimbabwe, in a bid to link every problem in Zimbabwe to the alleged folly of redistributing land stolen by European settlers to the descendants of the original owners.
Campbell’s argument echoes similar sophistry used to excuse the US blockade on Cuba. Economic sanctions on Cuba, the Castros’ detractors argue, have had little impact on the island’s economy, and are used by the Cuban government to falsely link its economic difficulties to US economic warfare. The Castros, they say, stay in power by diverting attention from their own mismanagement and laying blame for their country’s economic problems at Washington’s doorstep. That this argument holds no water is evidenced by the reality that Washington could easily deprive the Cuban communists of their alleged diversionary tactics by lifting the sanctions, but choose not to.
The idea that power-hungry leaders exploit mild sanctions as a dishonest manoeuvre to disguise their failings is insupportable. Far from having little impact, economic sanctions devastate economies; that’s their purpose. Denying the role they play in ruining economies is tantamount to denying that dropping napalm on villages creates wastelands. John Mueller and Karl Mueller pointed out in a famous 1999 article titled “Sanctions of Mass Destruction” – it appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the uber-establishment journal Foreign Affairs — that:
…the big countries have at their disposal a credible, inexpensive, and potent weapon for use against small and medium-sized foes. The dominant powers have shown that they can inflict enormous pain at remarkably little cost to themselves or the global economy. Indeed, in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated…
The improbable idea that sanctions have little impact invites the question: If they make little difference, why do Western governments deploy them so often? Supporters of the view that sanctions are minor inconveniences that punish a few powerful leaders, who then exploit them to draw attention away from their own economic management, expect us to believe that the leaders of major powers are simpletons who devise ineffective sanctions policies – and that they persist despite their sanctions playing into the hands of the sanctions’ targets.
If the sanctions supporters’ laughable logic and the reality that US sanction legislation is on the public record for all to see weren’t enough, legislation brought forward by US Senator Jim Inhofe ought to lay to rest the deception that sanctions haven’t torpedoed Zimbabwe’s economy.
The title of Inhofe’s bill, the Zimbabwe Sanctions Repeal Act of 2010, makes clear that sanctions have indeed been imposed on Zimbabwe and have had deleterious effects. According to the bill, now that the Western-backed Movement for Democratic Change holds senior positions in Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government, US sanctions against Zimbabwe need to be repealed “in order to restore fully the economy of Zimbabwe.” In other words, sanctions are preventing Zimbabwe’s economy from flourishing – the same point Mugabe has been making for years, cynically say his critics.
Yet, while the implication of Inhofe’s bill is that sanctions have undermined Zimbabwe’s economy (otherwise, why would economic recovery require their repeal?) Inhofe tries to disguise the role US sanctions originally played in creating an economic catastrophe in Zimbabwe, arguing that the sanctions were imposed only after Mugabe allegedly turned Zimbabwe into a basket case by democratizing patterns of land ownership. But it makes more sense to say that sanctions ruined the economy. After all, the purpose of economic sanctions is to wreak economic havoc. And what would be the point of trying to devastate Zimbabwe’s economy after Mugabe had allegedly already ruined it? Finally, in pressing for the repeal of sanctions to allow for economic recovery, Inhofe acknowledges that the sanctions do indeed have crippling consequences.
Inhofe may be able to argue (improbably) that the sanctions were imposed to punish Zimbabwe for Harare’s economic mismanagement (which would mean that Washington expected Zimbabweans to suffer an additional blow on top of the one already meted out by Harare’s alleged mismanagement — a pointless cruelty, if true); but he can’t argue that the sanctions didn’t undermine the country’s economy: his bill acknowledges this very point
Finally, the fact that Inhofe’s legislation seeks repeal of the sanctions because the MDC holds key positions in the Zimbabwean government, reveals that the MDC, as much as sanctions, is an instrument of US foreign policy. Sanctions were rolled out in response to land redistribution with the aim of crippling the economy so that the ensuing economic chaos could be attributed to land reform itself. With MDC members brought into a power-sharing government in key posts, it has become necessary in the view of Inhofe and others that sanctions be lifted to allow an economic recovery. If the bill is ratified and signed into law, the ensuing recovery will be attributed to the efforts of the MDC cabinet members, an attribution that that will be just as misleading as linking the destructive effects of sanctions to Zanu-PF’s efforts to fulfill the land redistribution aspirations of the national liberation struggle. The major part of Zimbabwe’s economic troubles – and a large part of the prospects for economic recovery – are sanctions-related.