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Zimbabwe Goes from Bad to Worse in Difficult Year

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

It has been a difficult 12 months in Zimbabwe, where the economic crisis deepend and the political deadlock showed only the slightest sign of easing. The year ends with hyper-inflation, the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar, high unemployment, and more international isolation than ever. When the year started Zimbabweans thought things could not get any worse, but they did.

For most Zimbabweans, just surviving 2003 was a significant challenge. The co-ordinator of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, John Makumbe, says the country is worse off now than it was a year ago. "We have seem more arrests, more beatings. We have, in fact, seen more human rights violations by the state against the opposition, against civil society, against the public in general. And I would say 2003 has become more difficult for Zimbabweans, in all sectors of life, than any year previously," he said.

Zimbabwe's multi-year economic collapse accelerated in 2003. The shortage of foreign currency needed to import essential items got so bad that the government gave up its monopoly on the importation of fuel. It allowed oil companies to import oil products and sell them at what Energy Minister Amos Midzi called market-related prices.

This means there is more fuel available, but at much higher prices. Some retailers even ask for payment in U.S. dollars, which illegal.

The government tried to control prices of basic commodities to cushion the poor from the high inflation, which reached an estimated 620 percent. But price controls put many producers out of business because they could not cover costs, which resulted in shortages and the development of high-priced black markets. At various times during the year Zimbabweans had to spend hours lining up for fuel, bread, cooking oil, flour, sugar, and even money. The high prices meant people needed huge amounts of cash even for routine shopping. And that resulted in a shortage of bank notes.

The crisis was compounded because the government did not have enough foreign currency to buy the paper and ink to print more bank notes. The situation has somewhat improved with the introduction of locally printed large denomination bearer checks, which function just like money.

Banker and economist Andy Hodges says the shortages and high inflation and unemployment have left ordinary Zimbabweans unable to maintain even a modest standard of living. "I think it is fair to say that we have had very bad times in the last 12 months. We are a country with a high inflation rate, a parallel market, which obviously has an impact on goods and services. If you look at the wages and salaries of the ordinary man on the street in terms of inflation, in terms of all the price rises around him, it has not really matched at all, it is very disparate, so the ordinary man on the street is worse off," he says.

Many of these issues were carried over from the previous year, but 2003 also saw several new developments. The government forced the country's largest independent daily newspaper, The Daily News to stop publishing because it refused to apply for a license under a new media law. The government has ignored court orders allowing the paper to resume publication.

Meanwhile, the treason trial of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai began, based on charges that he conspired to assassinate President Robert Mugabe. His two co-defendants were acquitted by the High Court, but Mr. Tsvngirai's trial continues. He also faces an additional treason charge for calling marches and a nationwide general strike to protest the government's policies.

In some parts of the country the lines of people receiving food aid from donor agencies are getting longer. Unfortunately for those people, the U.N. World Food Program announced a few days before Christmas that it would have to cut food rations in half in Zimbabwe because of a lack of donations.

About half of Zimbabwe's people depend on those donations. Zimbabwe used to be a food exporter, but that has changed in recent years because of a combination of continuing drought and the government's chaotic and sometimes-violent land reform program.

As the year ended, almost two months into what is normally the rainy season, the rains have been patchy and insufficient. And even if enough rains fall, the majority of the farmers lack the funds to buy seed, fertilizer and other agricultural requirements.

The exodus of Zimbabweans wanting to look for a better life elsewhere also continues. While some go through the legal route of getting visas from the places they want to go to, thousands simply walk across borders into neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's international relations continued to deteriorate. In early December, President Mugabe withdrew the country from the Commonwealth after it refused to end Zimbabwe's suspension that was imposed after the 2002 elections. Mr. Mugabe won the election amid widespread charges of violence and fraud.

President Mugabe argues that the suspension is racially motivated and the country is better off out of the Commonwealth.

Political analyst Heneri Dzinotyiwei says the decision to extend Zimbabwe's suspension was wrong. "Those who are directly affected, namely ourselves in Zimbabwe and member countries in the region, felt that further progress could be done while Zimbabwe was within. It is a better approach for all of us to have the country non-isolated than to have it isolated," he says.

Zimbabwe's continued suspension seems to have increased the impetus for the resolution of its problems. One of Zimbabwe's chief supporters in the Commonwealth, South African President Thabo Mbeki, visited Harare. He convinced Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Tsvangirai to resume the dialogue between their political parties.

Analysts believe the economic situation is pushing the government toward reaching an agreement that could include Mr. Mugabe's retirement and new elections. The success or failure of the political talks will likely be the biggest story in troubled Zimbabwe in 2004.