Friday, May 02, 2008

Waiting For the Great Leap Forward

Over a month ago, there were elections in the southern African country of Zimbabwe. After delaying the results for weeks, the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission announced that there was going to be a runoff election, since supposedly neither candidate got at least 50% of the vote. Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change allegedly got 47.9% of the vote, while longtime leader Robert Mugabe got 43.2%.

Most observers believe that Tsvangirai got over 50% of the vote. Since the election, opposition leaders have been jailed, and supporters have been inimidated, beaten, jailed and even murdered.

When Mugabe's rebels forced the racist white minority government to yield to a democratization of the country in 1980, the world rejoiced. 28 years later, though, Zimbabwe is in shambles because of Mugabe's lack of democracy and his economic incompetence. Unlike nearby South Africa, which realized it needed both to protect the rights of the white minority, as well take advantage of the skills they possessed while building the country, Mugabe has driven most of the whites out of Zimbabwe.

A couple of recent events have made me reflect on Zimbabwe's future.

A few weeks ago, a Chicago legend, Bill Wirtz died. Wirtz owned the Chicago Black Hawks, Chicago's National Hockey League team. For years, at Wirtz' behest, Black Hawks games were not available on television, not even cable. Recently, it was announced that the Black Hawks were going to televise all of their games in the upcoming season. For years, interest in the Black Hawks has declined, as people were not able to watch them on television.

More news of change comes from Cuba. For years I've talked to friends about what would happen to Cuba when Fidel Castro left. Some years back, I'd read Tad Szulc's excellent book on Castro, "Fidel." He dealt a little with Fidel's brother Raoul, who has succeeded Fidel as leader of Cuba. The prospects did not seem good, according to Szulc.

Happily, Raoul Castro has been surprising. He has rapidly launched economic reforms that Cubans have desired for years. One of the most important of these has been to allow Cubans to purchase consumer items-- microwaves, dvd players, scooters and home appliances. Another has been to open up places that had been off-limits to ordinary Cubans-- hotels and beaches. These had been set aside for foreign tourists who brought in desperately needed cash. He has also allowed Cubans to plant crops on unused agricultural land.

There was no reason that Fidel Castro couldn't have launched these reforms, except that he feared the loss of control. Just the same, Bill Wirtz clung to zealous overcontrol of the Blackhawks, to the point of hurting them.

Robert Mugabe is doing the same with Zimbabwe. He was an successful leader of a rebel movement; not so good a leader of a country. Zimbabwe's people are suffering under staggering economic hardship, and what has amounted to a brutal dictatorship.

With Cuba and the Blackhawks, it took the medical incapacitation or death of a leader to bring about change. And I suspect that it will take the same, sadly, with Zimbabwe.

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