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US Ambassador: Removal of Zimbabwe Targeted Sanctions Dependent on President, Congress

  • Blessing  Zulu

Ambassador Harry Thomas, Jr

Ambassador Harry Thomas, Jr

United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe Harry K. Thomas Jr. says Washington is willing to engage with Harare though his country will continue to push for reforms that Zimbabweans themselves are demanding from their government.

In an exclusive interview with VOA Studio 7 reporter Blessing Zulu, Ambassador Thomas says targeted sanctions are not the reason Harare has failed to access international credit lines, but its failure to pay arrears.

Who is Harry Thomas Jr.?

Mr. Thomas has been Ambassador twice before and has had extensive experience in developing countries, including in Zimbabwe where he served as Labor/Political Officer from 1989 to 1992. Having held a number of the most senior positions in the Department, he also is well known for his leadership abilities.

Previously, Mr. Thomas served as U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines (2010-2013), Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources (2007-2009), and Executive Secretary of the Department (2005-2007). Prior to that, he was U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh (2003-2005), attended the Senior Seminar at the Department’s Foreign Service Institute (2002-2003), and was Director for South Asia on the National Security Council Staff (2001-2002).

He also served as Director and Deputy Director of the Department’s Operations Center (1998-2001), and Political Officer at U.S. Embassy New Delhi, India (1995-1998). Mr. Thomas’ earlier assignments with the Department included serving as Operations Officer in the Operations Center, as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Staff Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Political/Economic Officer at U.S. Consulate, Kaduna, Nigeria, and as Consular Officer at U.S. Embassy Lima, Peru.

Zimbabweans Christian him Tapiwa

Ambassador Thomas says some Zimbabweans who have been interacting with him have given him a Shona name, Tapiwa, meaning “we have been given or gift”. Typical of the Zimbabwean culture the name also comes with a totem - Mhofu or Eland. Totems among some African ethnic groups serve as an account of a lineage’s history and character. Totems should not be consciously consumed by a member of the clan.

Q: Blessing Zulu

Ambassador, we understand you met with Mr. (Morgan) Tsvangirai of the opposition M-D-C, what was the meeting all about?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Thank you Blessing. Our policy is to meet with everyone, government officials, we met with the President (Robert Mugabe), foreign minister, the environmental minister, the finance minister, the reserve bank governor and now we are starting to meet with the opposition. We met with Mr. (Tendai) Biti, Mr. (Welshman) Ncube, Mr. (Dumiso) Dabengwa, and this is part of our rotation of normal things diplomats do, meeting everyone. Clearly I knew Mr. Tsvangirai when he was a trade unionist when I was here before, so it was good to reconnect. But, it was just to learn about what his aspirations were for his party, as well as the people of Zimbabwe.

Q: Blessing Zulu

Are you also engaging leaders of the non-government organizations, or CSOs?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Yes! Maybe a month or so ago, we met with many leaders of civil society, and those were the first, before we met anyone in the opposition, we met them. And what we’ve asked them is to tell us, what they hope for the future for Zimbabwe, in terms of democracy, human rights, as well as economic opportunity investments, so we are looking forward to hearing from them. We don’t want this to be a top down exercise.

We want civil society organizations to tell the United States as well as other international actors, how to assist them, and then we can make an assessment.

Q: Blessing Zulu

Talking about economic engagement ambassador, it is not likely that, for example, the arrears clearance plan for Zimbabwe will succeed, without the complete support of the U.S., because of what Harare calls restrictive provisions under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA). As the U.S. are you going to block Zimbabwe from accessing loans from the IMF?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, thank you for that. Let me be clear, Zimbabwe is not eligible for loans from the international financial institutions because as you know, it stopped paying before 1999 and that made Zimbabwe ineligible. And that has nothing to do with ZIDERA. We do encourage economic reform, we would like to see economic reform. We were very encouraged with our meetings in Lima (Peru), we’ll have to see what happens in May, but there is a long way to go before there will be any discussion of money and disbursement. We have to see as of other members of these organizations what Zimbabwe’s complete plans are, how they intend to implement those plans and structure their reforms. So it’s premature to talk at this point, about new lending until we see what the government will do. We are encouraged by the fact that they want to do it, but now we have to see what they are going to do.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

But more recently, Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, stating that the current law requires the president to make a number of certifications including the restoration of the rule of law in Zimbabwe, satisfactory election conditions in that country, equitable legal and transparent land reform. Are these not some of the issues that you should also be looking at?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, that is what the Senate would like. Clearly, I work for the President of the United States who has made his position clear on the need for economic and governance reform, we are not going to get into a list or tit-for-tat, that will be counterproductive, but we would like to see government reform as well as economic reform.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

What are you doing to promote trade between Harare and Washington, say involving business people from the two countries?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Yes, as you know, my illustrious predecessor Ambassador (Bruce) Wharton brought a delegation to the United States last year, also, through the Corporate Council for America in February of this year, Zimbabwean business persons went to Addis (Ababa, Ethiopia) to meet with business persons. I think also your deputy Reserve Bank Governor was part of that meeting. The World Economic Forum will take place in August and September in Rwanda. We are encouraging the Zimbabwe business persons to go there. There’ve been a number of American companies, not many, but several that have inquired about businesses here. We can only tell them what is going on, and of course, American businesses make their own decisions. But we would clearly like to see American businesses give Zimbabwe a look.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

Ambassador, there was a recent article in Zimbabwe’s government-leaning, Sunday Mail newspaper, saying that the United States government is blocking transactions, blocking thousands of institutions and individuals, as part of an elaborate plan to influence Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections. Your take?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Nothing can be further from the truth. Our sanctions are on 98 individuals, 68 companies. If that, one of those listed companies or individuals are trying to enact transactions that is when ZIDERA takes place. Clearly we are not trying to block Zimbabwean people, the average person is able to send remittances to Zimbabwe. I think the challenge Zimbabwe has as a dollar economy, is that you have to perform as a dollar economy, that means higher standards, that means lack of corruption, that means open transparency, that means being able to remit your funds, but in no way are we trying to effect regime change.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

Talking about the issue of democracy in Zimbabwe, are you happy with what you are seeing on the ground?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, it’s quite complex, Blessing. What we are trying to do is work with all parties, including the ruling party to ensure that the constitution passed in 2013, is fully implemented. This is a constitution that all parties agreed to and we would like to see it implemented because this is what the Zimbabwean people have said they would like. Recently there have been a march in support of Itai Dzamara on his one-year anniversary of his disappearance that was allowed without violence. And the MDC was able to go to court with a court order and had a march without violence. There are comedians as you know, plays, theatre going on. I think the question is not what we are seeing, it’s the Zimbabwean people are seeing and what they would like to see. Clearly we want to see the law enforced in terms of farms, commercial, and we are very concerned when there is a violent take-over of farms. We are very concerned when we see reports that there would be conservancies taken over. We are very concerned when we see reports that social media may be monitored or censored, or people charged with crime for expressing their freedom of speech. We are very concerned when we hear that the gay community may be blocked. We are very concerned when we don’t see a follow up on sexual assault or domestic abuse charges, or that people have to pay kickbacks for employment in public and private sectors. All those issues have been raised by the Zimbabwean people who are most affected by that.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

Talking about the land reform ambassador, some officials in the government (Harare) are saying that America reneged on its pledge to provide $75 million every year for the first 10 years of the country's independence. The pledge was allegedly made when nationalists were negotiating for a political settlement at Lancaster House. What happened to that pledge?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, I have never heard of that number. Lancaster House, United States and Britain, did pledge and did provide funding for the initial 10-years. But what you have to look at is that the United States in the intervening 36-years has provided over $2.6 billion to Zimbabwe. We continue to be the largest donor by far. Right now you have a terrible drought going on, we are giving $55 million to stem the drought. The challenge people have in getting food, the food insecurity again we are the largest donor in that. We are doing many things that I would hope that is highlighted. Yesterday (last week) was World Malaria Day, the United States has given over $14.5 million to combat malaria in the last 10-months. Last week I was privileged to go to Matabeleland North to Gwanda to see real work on the ground, where we are working to provide dams to people, to help prevent mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS through proper breast feeding. Food distribution. All those things have been gifts of the United States people. Clearly you yourself know that we have built a lot of the teachers colleges, helped to add to University of Zimbabwe. In fact in that 10-year period you are talking about in one year we gave $100-million to the department of education for the construction of buildings. So our assistance have been long and deep and remain that way. We are so excited about President Obama’s Washington Mandela program, where so many fellows are able to come to the United States from Zimbabwe. We think our programs are wide and deep and effect change. Changing lives, not only in the HIV/AIDS-affected communities but facilitating scholarships, awarding fellowships, having these robust programs that really impact the average person on the ground.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

But there have been complaints Ambassador that there has been a lot of politicization of over this food issue. Are these complaints reaching your desk?

A: Ambassador Thomas

I have not had any directly. We have a monitoring program that is very strict for the $55 million that we will be donating through the World Food Program, and we monitor that at all times. When we announced our initial donation of $35 million, I was quite clear to the media and the public that if they have any specific complaints, they should come to me directly or Stephanie (Funk) our very able USAID Director. If we get any complaints on that, clearly we will act.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

Lastly, Ambassador, talking about the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe, we have heard that there is also a bit of donor fatigue, though USAID said that it is happy that Washington has been responding to the crisis. You have been to some rural areas to assess the food situation. What is the situation like?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, I can only speak for the United States government. I said we have increased our aid from $35 to $55 million to combat food insecurity, and when you look at the World Food Program, the World Health Program, and the UN Agencies, the US government also contributes 20-30% of funding to each of those agencies, so I believe the United States, or the American people have been extremely generous in trying to assist the people of Zimbabwe. I know that our colleagues in Brazil are donating rice that other countries are donating what they can, but I cannot speak for them.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

The U.S. is also building a new embassy in Zimbabwe, but we have also seen some European Embassies relocating to South Africa. Why is Zimbabwe a priority?

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, our new embassy complex Blessing, shows the great commitment by President Obama and the American people to Zimbabwe. It’s a $180 million facility, we are going to be hiring about 700-locals, $32 million is devoted to their salaries. These should be three to four year jobs, it’s going to be a beautiful facility because the exterior is going to pay tribute to Zimbabwe by looking like the Great Zimbabwe. We think that the multiplier effect on the economy, which is the largest construction job Harare has seen in many years, will be tremendous. So we are very excited, most of our buildings end up being LED gold and silver, and we hope that this will show our commitment to the environment. We are also pleased that our project manager is a woman, our architect is a woman, it shows our commitment to gender equity, and the fact that we are going to break through any glass ceiling. We plan on having Zimbabwean students shadow our workers on occasion, we have already provided donations to a school that is near our facility and we’ll look to see other ways in which we can assist but this is, again, another example of the longstanding commitment the American people have had for the Zimbabwean people.

Q: Blessing Zulu:

Lastly, there was a question here from my good friend, a Zanu-PF MP and chairman for Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Kindness Paradza, who said the new ambassador must prioritize the removal of targeted sanctions in Zimbabwe.

A: Ambassador Thomas

Well, again, as we’ve said, that is the decision for our president, for our Congress and that will be dependent upon economic performance, and governance, human rights. And that is extremely important. There must be accountability. You can’t see funding without accountability. Elimination of corruption. Those are things that we will have to weigh as we move forward. But please remind our honorable member of parliament that we will continue to be by far the largest donor. I am sure he’ll appreciate that.

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