RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Back a few years ago, when Zimbabwe's inflation rate was a mind-boggling 200 million percent, it abandoned its currency and adopted the U.S. dollar. Colorful Zimbabwe billion and trillion-dollar bank notes were stuffed in large bags to pay for basics, like a billion-dollar loaf of bread. Today, the economy is again in a tailspin, and U.S. dollars are in critically short supply. From Harare, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Zimbabweans are hurting during this cash crunch. One sign is the winding lines outside banks and ATMs here in Harare, with people desperate to withdraw cash, like Audrey Munemo. She's been waiting since dawn.
AUDREY MUNEMO: I've been here in the queue at the bank for about four hours. Ever since morning, I was just here. And the banks are saying that they don't have money. And I was just trying to withdraw my money before this bond note starts circulating because we don't know what these authorities are planning to do.
QUIST-ARCTON: Munemo is talking about the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank's plan to bring in new bond notes at the end of the month, supposedly on a par with the U.S. dollar. Zimbabweans have depended on the greenback since it was introduced as the main currency seven years ago to end cycles of hyper-inflation.
Now, fiscal mismanagement, a crippled economy and people frantically trying to ship their cash out of the country have left dollars in short supply. As cash runs out, talk of the new notes has caused panic, despite assurances from Reserve Bank governor John Mangudya. He says the incoming bond notes are an incentive for exporters, and not because of cash shortages.
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JOHN MANGUDYA: I think people are now confusing that the bond notes are coming in to cater for cash shortages. No, there's no relationship.
QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabweans are not convinced. The governor's announcement has led to a run on the banks.
I'm outside an ATM, and there are - what? - I'd say about maybe up to a hundred people in this line. Ma'am, your name, please?
PATRICIA SHARAUNGA: I'm Patricia Sharaunga. They are we saying we should not put our money in the bank. Of course, we can't take it. We'd rather put it in a drawer in the house.
QUIST-ARCTON: Under the mattress?
SHARAUNGA: Yes, under the mattress is better. But we don't have cash.
QUIST-ARCTON: Depositors, like mother of three Patricia Sharaunga, wearing a large, purple hat, matching dress and sneakers, hope to withdraw as many U.S. dollars as they can from their accounts. She's about number 20 in this long line.
SHARAUNGA: It's is frustrating because I should be in the bank 20, 30 minutes; I take my money, I go home. I shop for my children, and I feed my children.
QUIST-ARCTON: Like many Zimbabweans, Sharaunga juggles several jobs. She's a freelancer, she says, teaching schoolchildren road safety and also selling whatever she can locally - tomatoes, onions, even goats - to look after her family.
SHARAUNGA: We are surviving hand-to-mouth. No more luxuries these days. It's just basics - pay rent, pay electricity and pay fees for the children. That's all.
QUIST-ARCTON: There have been audacious and increasingly strident hashtags and street protests, calling for 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe to go. He's struggling to pay government workers. Echoing the president's mantra, Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chomobo blames Zimbabwe's economic problems on Western sanctions.
IGNATIUS CHOMOBO: We are fully aware that Zimbabwe is under sanctions from the West.
QUIST-ARCTON: What do targeted sanctions have to do with Zimbabweans having to queue for hours to get very little money?
CHOMOBO: But that is exactly the impact of the sanctions, which you are calling selective, imposed on Zimbabweans so that the Zimbabweans can rise and remove a legitimately elected government.
QUIST-ARCTON: In 2002, the U.S. and other Western governments slapped personal sanctions on President Mugabe, family members and loyalists for violations of human and democratic rights. Corruption and cronyism are also cited by critics. Economist Prosper Chitambara says profligate government spending is hampering Zimbabwe's economic recovery.
PROSPER CHITAMBARA: Definitely. We need need some serious fiscal austerity.
QUIST-ARCTON: As factions quibble over economic strategy and calls for a financing conference to help ease Zimbabwe's foreign debt arrears, Mugabe's vocal detractors oppose any outside deal that they feel could bail out their beleaguered, nonagenarian leader. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.
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