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If you have one of Zimbabwe's $100,000 bills in your pocket, you might be able to buy a soda; but you should buy it quickly because inflation in that country exceeds 1,000 percent. Most people are unemployed and millions don't have food enough to survive. This morning, we will follow along on a rare visit to one of the world's more troubled countries.
Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.
JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:
The streets of Harare are deceptively peaceful: shops are open, there are goods in the shelves, a few shoppers. Zimbabwe used to be one of the most prosperous nations in southern Africa, and much of the infrastructure from those days remains. There are still paved roads and gleaming skyscrapers in Harare. Polished, late-model Mercedes sedans mix with dilapidated taxis in the rather light traffic on the streets. Meikles Hotel still keeps its urinals filled with chipped ice.
The signs of the economic collapse are subtle: the piles of burning trash that are starting to pop up on Harare streets; the long lines outside financial institutions as banks run out of cash; the vacant lots where the government bulldozed what used to be bustling slums.
Mr. PETERSON MARAVANIKA(ph): Our future is in going west. There's no improvement. (Unintelligible) we are struggling, but I can say there's hope.
BEAUBIEN: Peterson Maravanika's house was destroyed by the Zimbabwean government during an urban cleanup campaign last year. According to the UN, the cleanup campaign demolished the homes and businesses of some 700,000 Zimbabweans. The government says the houses had been constructed illegally.
Maravanika used to have a small stall selling groceries, but it too was destroyed in the cleanup drive. Now, he makes a living by breaking rocks into shoebox-sized chunks and selling them as building material.
Mr. MARAVANIKA: I don't know if we moved to another country is better. (unintelligible) Mozambique, I can move to Mozambique. I can come big and buy in my own house, a legal one. (Speaking foreign language).
BEAUBIEN: Since the late 1990s, between four and five million Zimbabweans, or more than a third of the population, have fled the country. And the economy has shrunk by 40 percent. Last week, the City of Harare started rationing water because they can't afford to fix a pump by its municipal reservoir.
Zidan Maringa(ph), who breaks rocks with Maravanika, says the problems in the country are primarily political.
Mr. ZIDAN MARINGA: I think if we think to improve, we need a new government.
BEAUBIEN: The decline of Zimbabwe has been so rapid and so spectacular that the U.S. Ambassador, Christopher Dell, dispensed with customary diplomatic rhetoric in his speech at a Zimbabwean university late last year. Dell blamed the economic collapse on, quote, "the Zimbabwe government's own gross mismanagement of the economy and its corrupt rule."
President Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, after leading a guerilla war against the white, colonial regime. The current economic crisis deepened dramatically in the year 2000, when Mugabe launched a chaotic and violent land reform program.
The program was supposed to return white-owned commercial farmland to poor blacks. But many of the farms ended up in the hands of Mugabe's friends, family and allies. And agricultural production, which used to be the backbone of the economy, collapsed.
John Makumbe, professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, says Mugabe falsely portrays himself as a defender of the black man.
Professor JOHN MAKUMBE (Professor of Political Science, University of Zimbabwe): Robert Mugabe's taking of white-owned properties and wealth has nothing to do with benefiting black Zimbabweans. It has everything to do with him staying on in power, in political power for as long as he likes.
BEAUBIEN: Makumbe says President Mugabe has also seized the farms and businesses of black Zimbabweans who support the political opposition.
Inflation is so high now that low-wage workers often can't afford even to feed their families. For instance, unionized farm workers currently earn a minimum wage of $1.3 million Zimbabwean, or roughly $6 U.S. a month. This will buy a half a chicken and fries at a fast-food restaurant in Harare. Makumbe says Zimbabweans are being squeezed so dramatically by the collapse of the economy that he predicts there will soon be a popular uprising against Mugabe.
Prof. MAKUMBE: I think Zimbabweans have to come to the realization that freedom is not free. There is a price to pay. Secondly, they have to realize that all the other elements outside of the borders of Zimbabwe can only support; but they cannot initiative the salvation of Zimbabweans.
BEAUBIEN: Political analysts warn that even if Mugabe left power immediately, the salvation of Zimbabwe is going to be a long, difficult process. The foundation of the economy has been destroyed. It's now unclear who owns what used to be Zimbabwe's most productive asset - its farmland. The government's been frantically borrowing and printing money to pay its bills. With no money in the governments' coffers, a leading horary economist says Zimbabwe's eventual reconstruction could take decades.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien, who has just returned from a reporting trip to Zimbabwe.
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