By David Hofisi
The US presidential election takes place on November 3, 2020. One week from the time of writing this, Donald Trump could be re-elected or, as suggested by the polling data, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States.
This post explores the implications of a potential Biden/Harris victory on relations between Washington D.C. and Harare.
Currently, there is no scope for government-to-government assistance between the US and Zimbabwe, save for the humanitarian sector. Thus, cooperation remains alleviatory. The US$318 million provided by the US in 2019 was in such fields as health, humanitarian and food assistance as well as disaster relief.
This is less than the US$500 million provided annually to neighbouring Zambia for instance. Further, it does little to account for the absence of non-humanitarian government to government assistance and non-eligibility for assistance through such avenues as the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
This state of affairs is rooted in the regime of sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe. The response to these restrictions has been varied. On the right, there is a government-driven sanctions obsession according to which the “sanctions must go” mantra is the panacea to Zimbabwe’s moribund economy.
The left insists on sanctions denialism, arguing that government malpractice is more problematic than any foreign restrictions.
This post does not seek to prove or disprove either position, focussing instead on US laws and whether a change in presidency could alter their effect.
US, ZIDERA and Zimbabwe
The US sanctions on Zimbabwe flow from two branches of government. The restrictions imposed by the legislative branch are contained in the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA).
The restrictions by the executive branch are in a series of executive orders issued by President George W. Bush and renewed by President Obama and President Trump. Under section 4(c) of ZIDERA, the US government is obligated to oppose and veto any application by Zimbabwe in a multilateral financial institution for services including, but not limited to, finance, credit facilities, loan re-scheduling and international debt cancellation.
These can only be permitted if the President of the United States certifies that the Government of Zimbabwe has met the requisite conditions set out in section 4(d) of the Act. These conditions are wide-ranging and include restoration of the rule law, respect for property rights and, following a 2018 amendment, also include pre and post-election conditions and restrictions on the role of military and traditional leaders.
The amendment also requires implementation of the SADC Tribunal rulings which were interpreted by the Government of Zimbabwe as a reversal of the land reform program. This is the extent to which ZIDERA contains economic sanctions. It undermines economic progress by using American votes and influence to exclude Zimbabwe from accessing international financial services.
Executive order (E.O.) 13288, 13391 and 13469 constitute what some people have called targeted sanctions or smart sanctions. By executive action, President Bush identified persons and entities whose properties and interests in the US were blocked and were not be …transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in.
Sanctions: a split discourse
In a nutshell, the sanctions differ in scope. The economic sanctions under ZIDERA target the entire Zimbabwean economy whilst the executive orders affect the specified individuals and entities.
Within political discourse, the sanctions-obsessed activists emphasise the effect of ZIDERA on the ordinary person whilst the sanctions-deniers present the targeted nature of the executive orders as representative of the entire sanctions regime.
These restrictions affect Zimbabwe in two ways. The first is real and quantifiable inability to access debt relief and lines of credit from the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank. The effect of these sanctions on such sectors as local banking have been observed by scholars.
The second, less quantifiable but more far-reaching consequence is irreparable harm to the nation’s financial reputation. The existence of sanctions lowers investor confidence and thus reduces foreign direct investment.
Some scholars rightly note that, by the time ZIDERA was enacted, the IMF had already suspended lending to Zimbabwe. This suggestion that ZIDERA has not had any effect on the Zimbabwean economy seems oblivious to the effect of sanctions on the investment climate as well as the damage done to the nation’s credit rating.
This is not to suggest that there are no internal rule of law challenges in Zimbabwe or problems with rampant corruption. The effect of sanctions on a polity is not mutually exclusive with the prevalence of internal governance failures.
US foreign policy: where does Zimbabwe fit?
The U.S. President has enormous powers in foreign policy. In the case of Zimbabwe, the American President could certify Zimbabwe to access financial assistance or debt relief in terms of section 4(c) of ZIDERA.
The President could also repeal the executive orders containing targeted restrictions. In his presidential campaign in 2008, then candidate Obama showed an openness towards détente, stating his willingness to meet with leaders of such countries as Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
This led to the Iran nuclear deal and moves towards normalisation of relations with Cuba.
Candidate Joe Biden’s campaign has been far less inspiring. He has eschewed any truly transformational promises, only pledging to restore the status quo prior to the Trump presidency.
“Nothing new is being promised…”
As Krystal Ball explained on The Hill, Joe Biden’s pledge to restore the soul of America is simply the liberal equivalent of Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA). Neither slogan is forward-looking, with both hearkening to an over-celebrated past, be it the 50s for Trump or the Obama years for Biden.
Nothing new is being promised, making it unlikely that new relations will be forged with erstwhile enemies.
As part of the MAGA agenda, Trump made it his mission to undo Obama’s legacy, from the Paris Accords to the Iran nuclear deal. Biden’s presidency would seek to reverse these actions. It is highly likely that the Iran Nuclear Deal will be reinstated and moves towards normalisation of relations with Cuba will resume.
On the other hand, countries perceived to be too close to Trump will be alienated, and this will likely be the fate for North Korea and Russia. Biden’s hawkish and neo-conservative approach to both has already been previewed by his remarks in the last presidential debate.
This is also the likely fate for Zimbabwe.
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien names Zimbabwe among “foreign adversaries” that he says are trying to take advantage of the violence in America.
“This isn’t something that our adversaries are gonna get away with for free…”pic.twitter.com/AXRyQZiFi0
— newZWire (@newswireZW) May 31, 2020
“Zimbabwe’s anti-govt activists will have a powerful ally in Biden”
Even though Trump was not conciliatory with Zimbabwe, the accusation that he was ‘cozy’ with dictators will make Biden sensitive to similar perceptions.
If he wins, President Biden will seek to restore and strengthen ties with traditional allies and not perceived pariahs like the regime in Harare. This is ironic since President Mnangagwa has, through Mthuli Ncube, adopted the neo-liberal obsession with budget surpluses and GDP growth which is highly regarded in Washington D.C.
The agreement to compensate white farmers also seems in line with the requirements in ZIDERA.
However, the reality is that the sanctions-denying activists will have a powerful ally if Biden secures the White House. ZIDERA was sponsored by a total of four senators, two of whom were Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Robinette Biden.
Hillary Clinton recently tweeted demanding the release of political prisoners in Zimbabwe, highlighting how the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is a powerful amplifier of opposition and civil society voices in Zimbabwe. With Joe Biden in the White House, the bipartisan agreement to financially isolate Zimbabwe and target persons and entities would thus continue without any significant alteration.
I'm calling for the government of Zimbabwe to release all political prisoners, including Godfrey Kurauone, who represent the country's future. Justice demands it.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 19, 2020
The establishment remains
In the Democratic Party’s primaries, there was only one candidate who insisted that “global institutions, like the IMF, World Bank and UN Security Council (which we lead) must reflect the changing global demographics and add Africa to leadership roles.”
In his words, “Africa must play a greater role in international development or else…we will repeat the colonialist/imperialist history of the 19th and 20th century that suppressed African opinions and impoverished Africa.”
That candidate was Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont.
Unfortunately, the nomination was won by a centrist neo-liberal politician who is unwilling to challenge the international development architecture.
Joe Biden would be the first establishment candidate to win the presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988. The successive run of outsider governors, a junior senator and a New York businessman, will be halted by the incumbency of a Washington insider who has the underwhelming agenda of resetting rather than reforming Washington D.C.
For countries like Zimbabwe, this can only mean a lukewarm serving filled with more of the same; an imperial global order which uses human rights speak to coerce the conformity of the global south by threatening economic consequences for countries that dare challenge the orthodoxy of wealth retention by monopoly white capital.
David Hofisi is a Human Rights Lawyer, YALI Mandela Washington Fellow, ILS Law and Society Graduate Fellow, Doctoral Candidate and guitarist. Click here to read his blog.