Some Zimbabwe observers were surprised Tuesday to learn that US Ambassador Charles Ray had met for one hour with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe in a discussion that the envoy later described on Facebook as congenial.
Relations between the United States and the side of Zimbabwe's unity government run by Mr. Mugabe's former ruling ZANU-PF party have remained difficult, though without the kind of bilateral vituperation seen before power sharing started in 2009. And in recent weeks Harare politicians, diplomats and journalists have experienced a barrage of US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, embarrassing ZANU-PF in particular.
One of the cables quoted Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono as saying he had been told that Mr. Mugabe had prostate cancer and might not live beyond 2013. Other cables showed many senior ZANU-PF officials surprisingly candid with US envoys.
But Ambassador Ray told VOA reporter Violet Gonda that neither he nor Mr. Mugabe brought up the subject of the Wikileaked cables, saying he requested the meeting well before the latest round of released US documents seeking to build confidence, to better understand Harare political dynamics, and to highlight US programs in Zimbabwe.
“My focus was to try and move the conversation away from constantly talking about where we disagree and to try and put the focus on the areas where we should be working together to try and improve living conditions" for Zimbabweans, he said.
The ambassador said the two governments had to make an effort to try to talk and listen to each other more, "rather than talking at or over each other."
Asked about Mr. Mugabe's physical presentation, Ray said that for an 87-year-old the president was 'mentally alert' and held his own through the one-hour conversation.
"This was in the afternoon so he would have been working for most of the day but he did not look unhealthy to me," the ambassador said. "He looked like an 87 year old who could still make his way around unaided."