Why Western sanctions on Zimbabwe may not matter anymore

Yesterday, the European Union announced it would lift sanctions on Zimbabwe if the country held a referendum on a new constitution. How much do sanctions affect the country? 

Since 2003, the United States and the European Union have maintained “targeted sanctions” against individual members of the government of Zimbabwe, including President Robert Mugabe and many of his closest advisers and cabinet members.

Now, the EU is talking about lifting some of those sanctions – including travel bans and arms embargoes – if Zimbabwe holds a referendum on a new constitution by the end of this year.

Behind the usual chatter about whether it is time to lift sanctions or not is a more fundamental question: How much impact do “targeted” sanctions really have?

In a country like Zimbabwe, where the state and the ruling party maintain tight controls on who can buy and sell land, and on who can profit from the exploration of natural resources, the answer is more straight-forward than it might seem. If most of the country’s assets are indeed owned by the leadership under sanction, then it would make sense the country would suffer. If targeted sanctions were imposed on Bill Gates, for monopolistic tendencies perhaps, it’s likely that the company he founded, Microsoft, and the town of Redmond, Wash., would feel the effects of those personal sanctions.

After the EU announced yesterday that it might lift sanctions, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – a longtime rival of President Mugabe and now a member of a coalition government with Mugabe – was among the first to praise the move.

"Linking the suspension to the successful implementation of the constitution referendum is evidence that the EU is willing to respond to progress in reform of the democratic process in Zimbabwe," Mr. Tsvangira said yesterday.

In truth, by imposing sanctions for so long, the EU and the US may be losing their leverage. Today, Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner is South Africa, and China is its largest export destination, receiving 5.6 percent of all the goods and products that Zimbabwe produces.

These sanctions, though, have effects far beyond their “targets.” When Mugabe’s government launched a brutal “land invasion” campaign, urging militias to use force to push white commercial farmers off their lands starting in 2000, the agricultural economy began to collapse, and Zimbabwe began to run into arrears on its foreign loans. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – which rely heavily on US budgetary support – cut off Zimbabwe from any further aid until 2009, after President Mugabe had formed the coalition government with Mr. Tsvangirai’s party.

Zimbabwe’s coalition government of today is a far cry from the Mugabe government that President George W. Bush imposed sanctions on back in 2003.

Back then, Mugabe’s land redistribution policies helped turn southern Africa’s leading food exporter into its leading food-aid recipient. All the same ugly elements of repression by the Mugabe regime remain today: During the Arab Spring months, Zimbabwe police arrested a professor in Harare for watching a video about the Tahrir Square protesters, and charged him, along with 45 others attending his seminar that day, with treason. But the government has also begun a series of reforms that have helped turn Zimbabwe’s economy around.

In theory, the coalition government formed in Feb. 2009 after flawed elections in March 2008 shouldn’t function at all, and in truth, it doesn’t function all that well. But the coalition government has given breathing room for both of the major parties, and welcome relief for Zimbabwe’s citizens, who once struggled to survive with 1 million percent inflation rates and virtually empty store shelves.

As for those violent “land invasions” that were the cause of all these sanctions, there are signs that they, oddly, may have had some positive effects.

On a recent trip to Harare, Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times and photographer Lynsey Addario found a silver lining in Zimbabwe’s economic storm clouds. In the old days, Ms. Polgreen writes, the faces of the people selling tobacco and other produce to Zimbabwe’s export houses used to be white. Today, the farmers’ faces at export houses are largely black, and despite all the talk about land being given to Mugabe’s “cronies,” most of the new landowners are not members of the political elite.

Polgreen's article – which created a firestorm among Zimbabwe's vocal expatriate community – puts a different face on a policy that has been roundly, and rightly criticized. While the land invasion policies of 2000 were brutal, and certainly extra-legal, they may have given a broader number of farmers among Zimbabwe’s black majority access to land that they couldn’t have had a decade ago.

This creates a political challenge: If a growing number of people have benefited because of Mugabe’s land invasion, and more people have a vested stake in the new status quo, it becomes much more difficult to imagine returning Zimbabwe to the way it was before sanctions.

Have sanctions lost their target? If so, should they simply be stopped?

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