Magazine article Foreign Policy

An Emissary to Tyranny

Magazine article Foreign Policy

An Emissary to Tyranny

Article excerpt

Serving as a U.S. diplomat in Zimbabwe is tough. Life for African-American diplomats there is even harder.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE--When the U.S. Embassy here put out a statement in February denouncing the "continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe," then-President Robert Mugabe's spokesman responded by suggesting that American critics of the Zimbabwean government, including U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., should "go and hang on a banana tree."

It was a mild rebuke by the standards of Mugabe's government, which treated American diplomats with a level of contempt more befitting U.S. exchanges with Iran or North Korea than of a nation that maintained full diplomatic relations with the United States and was highly dependent on U.S. aid. Like a long line of U.S. ambassadors before him, Thomas was attacked by Mugabe's government and by its mouthpieces in the press. The pro-government Sunday Mail called him an "Uncle Tom" and a "house nigger dressed in a fine suit"--and that was just in his first week on the job.

"We are blamed for almost everything," Thomas said in October, about a month before the military seized power and brought Mugabe's 37-year rule to an end. Balding and bespectacled, with an unmistakable New York accent, Thomas has spent more than 30 years in the foreign service, serving in U.S. missions from Nigeria to India to the Philippines--but nowhere was he treated quite like this. "My staff and I are called names that the Ku Klux Klan doesn't even use anymore," he said.

Ever since the United States implemented targeted sanctions on Mugabe's government in 2003 over its disastrous indigenization plan (which involved the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms and led to the country's financial ruin), American diplomats have grown accustomed to being scapegoated for Zimbabwe's myriad failings. Boilerplate calls by U.S. emissaries to respect human rights and rein in corruption have been met with forceful denunciations and accusations of neocolonial meddling. After Christopher Dell, who served as U.S. ambassador from 2004 to 2007, blamed the country's economic woes on graft and mismanagement, the pro-government Herald famously ran the banner headline "Mugabe to Dell: Go to Hell."

But for African-American diplomats, the abuse has been intensely racialized. Dell's successor, the towering Air Force veteran James McGee, was also branded an Uncle Tom, as were Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. When Johnnie Carson, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2009 to 2013, mentioned Zimbabwe's poor record on human rights during a speech in Washington in 2010, a heckler yelled that he was "talking like a good house slave!" That heckler turned out to be Machivenyika Mapuranga, Zimbabwe's then-ambassador to the United States.

Relations between Washington and Harare weren't always so poisonous. When Carson served as U.S. ambassador in Harare in the 1990s, he enjoyed what he called a "pretty good relationship with Robert Mugabe." The two had met decades earlier in northern Mozambique, not long after Mugabe had been released from a decade in prison and joined the guerrilla war against the apartheid government of Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called). As president, Mugabe invited Carson to tea on a number of occasions. Their conversations were always cordial, but they left little doubt about the depth of Mugabe's animus toward white Zimbabweans, Western multinational corporations, and international financial institutions such as the World Bank. …

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