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The African nation of Zimbabwe may be suffering from food shortages and rampant inflation, but it is poised to chair a United Nations commission on sustainable development. The U.S. was furious that Zimbabwe won last week's secret ballot in New York. Washington has accused Zimbabwe's government of mismanaging its economy and cracking down on dissent.

One man who's been particularly vocal is the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, and NPR's Michele Kelemen recently caught up with him.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Some ambassadors might shy away from public disputes, but Christopher Dell seems to thrive on them. And he doesn't mind the bad press he's gotten in Zimbabwe.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER DELL (U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe): The headline says, Mugabe to Dell. Mugabe: Dell Can Go to Hell. I have the front page of that paper framed in my office, you know, sort of a badge of honor. You don't get many trophies like that in a career.

KELEMEN: Dell is just winding up a three-year assignment to Harare. He says he's only had one lengthy conversation with President Robert Mugabe, who has run Zimbabwe for 27 years. And though some still see Mugabe as a liberation leader, Dell says the president is a much different man today.

Mr. DELL: In his ruthless determination to hang on to power at any cost, he sort of - he's betrayed his own legacy.

KELEMEN: Dell accuses Robert Mugabe of ruling Zimbabwe through a combination of patronage and fear, mismanaging the economy and bringing Zimbabwe to a tipping point.

Mr. DELL: The metaphor I have is, it's like a lake. And as the waters in the lake recede, more and more of the fish are being left behind to die in the mud. At the center where it's deepest, the big fish are still swimming around quite nicely and making huge fortunes, huge fortunes.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Dell says now there are power struggles within Mugabe's ruling party. He's also been witnessing a brutal crackdown on opposition figures.

Back in March the ambassador received calls from activists worried about Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, who had been taken into custody. Dell and his British counterpart went to the prison where they thought Tsvangirai was being held. They were turned away, but later told their presence may have stopped, or at least slowed down, the beatings.

Mr. DELL: It was pretty clear we were going to continue to get a runaround, but I thought it was important to show that we were following this, we were on it, we were paying attention. And they didn't have the shelter, if you will, at the dark of night in which nobody was looking to get away with this. It seems to have worked. I'll never know for sure.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Dell went to the courthouse a few days later and described the scene as pandemonium. He says one young man was literally dying on the floor before an ambulance came to take him to the hospital.

Mr. DELL: It was a demonstration not only of the chaos, the disorganization of the regime, but also just - I mean the sheer brutality of it. These people have been brutalized in the past few days. Tsvangirai's head was shaved and stitched together, his eye was swollen shut. And there they were sitting there quietly on the bench and all these sort of dangerous looking young men with shotguns pointing at them, in a very small, enclosed space.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Dell says that as a diplomat he can only play a role on the margins and try to be, as he put it, a voice of conscience. He says the U.S. and its partners have also been thinking about the future, considering what sort of aid package would be needed once Mugabe leaves the scene.

Mr. DELL: One way or the other, Robert Mugabe is a fading force and we need to be thinking about the day after.

KELEMEN: Dell won't be there to witness that, though. In a couple of months, he's expected to go to his next tough assignment: Kabul, Afghanistan.

Mr. DELL: We have a saying in the State Department: no good deed goes unpunished. So you get - you know, survive one like this and they think you're ready for another one.

KELEMEN: He expects to be in Kabul by the end of the summer.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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