Relations between Harare and Washington, perceived to be on the mend over the past year and a half, appeared as strained as they have in some time following hostile remarks by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at a funeral Sunday in Harare and comments Tuesday by U.S. President Barack Obama questioning Mr. Mugabe's leadership.
Vituperative comments by Mr. Mugabe on Sunday triggered a diplomatic incident when he castigated the United States and other Western countries in remarks at the interment of his sister Sabina at National Heroes Acre, Harare.
President Mugabe told the West to "go to hell" for what he characterized as interference in Zimbabwean politics. This led U.S. Ambassador Charles Ray and his German and European counterparts to walk out in protest. Summoned by the Foreign Ministry for an explanation, the diplomats said Mr. Mugabe had used insulting language.
President Obama focused attention on Mr. Mugabe further Tuesday in calling Zimbabwe's plight untenable.
"I'll be honest with you," the American president said. "I am heartbroken when I see what has happened in Zimbabwe."
In a White House meeting with a group of young Africans, Mr. Obama added: "Mugabe is an example of a leader who came in as a liberation fighter and - I'm just going to be very blunt - I do not see him serving his people."
Mr. Obama said Harare must signal more convincing reforms are being implemented before Washington will consider lifting travel and financial sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his inner circle.
A spokesman for Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party called Mr. Obama's criticism "hogwash." Rugare Gumbo accused the West of causing the suffering of Zimbabweans by imposing sanctions over the past decade.
Sydney Chisi, one of the three Zimbabweans attending the White House youth forum, said Mr. Obama’s remarks were on target, adding that Harare invited sanctions by engaging in gross human rights abuses.