- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

The House finally found its voice, but only a mild one, to denounce racist violence and government repression in Zimbabwe.

Late Monday night, with less than five minutes of debate and no roll call, the House passed a non-binding resolution condemning violence and encouraging the government, which has brutally suppressed both black and white, to enforce the rule of law. The Senate has not considered a similar measure.

"Certainly, we should speak to it more, but does our speaking to it cause a cessation of the violence?" asked Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican and chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. "No, I don't think we're of a mind to intervene there. I don't think to the American people it is that visible."

The Black Caucus, often quick to denounce racism anywhere and usually the leading congressional voice on African affairs, has taken no formal position on the disintegrating situation in Zimbabwe, the former British colony of Rhodesia.

"This is one of the priorities, but there are some much more trying questions we've had to deal with," says Rep. Donald M. Payne, New Jersey Democrat and the leader on foreign-relations issues for the caucus.

The caucus, he says, has been dealing with crises in other parts of Africa, including the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the civil war in Sierra Leone and the conflicts in Congo.

For years, Zimbabwe had been seen as one of the more stable and successful black African countries. Longtime President Robert Mugabe, who inherited a prosperous nation when whites gave up power, was a hero to many black Americans for his sustained fight against the whites-only government of Rhodesia.

In recent months, black squatters, encouraged by Mr. Mugabe, have seized white-owned farms, raping and killing some white owners. Mr. Mugabe at first "tolerated" the seizures, then openly sided with the squatters. But black opponents of the Mugabe government have been brutally beaten, too.

With elections set for next week, meanwhile, Mr. Mugabe has been trying to tighten his control on power. He has moved to restrict the opposition parties, and international observers now say the elections may be rigged. An opposition rally on Monday, led by blacks, dwarfed in size an earlier rally by Mugabe supporters.

"I think we had a lot of faith and a lot of hope in his government," says Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and caucus member. "What is happening there now is not good for Zimbabwe, not good for the continent of Africa."

The caucus meets today and may discuss Zimbabwe, members say.

"I think the caucus is going to be more vocal about this," says Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat. "I know a few members are talking about going over to the election as observers."

When asked, Black Caucus members condemn the violence in Zimbabwe, but they seem split on the intensity of their views of Mr. Mugabe, who until recently was considered one of the more enlightened black African leaders. But he has since, say his critics, presided over an economic chaos of his government's making, and as the standard of living disintegrated he tightened control of the country.

Many caucus members appear reluctant to criticize Mr. Mugabe. "I believe the president has not handled this in the best manner possible," says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat.

"He still is the George Washington of Zimbabwe," says Mr. Meeks. "It's painful that he's done some things we don't like."

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, however, takes a stronger view, calling for the suspension of what little financial aid the United States provides to Zimbabwe.

"It is pretty clear Mugabe has moved his fledgling democracy in Zimbabwe to near-tyrannical proportions, doing almost anything possible he can to maintain control over the country and ensure his own election," he says.

Mr. Jackson faults the Western nations for the breakdown of order, for reluctance to send aid and peacekeepers to Africa.

"We provided them no Marshall Plan at the end of the Cold War," he says. "We provided them no means for basically providing education for their people, providing health care for their people, or ensuring the quality of life in sub-Saharan Africa would grow."

A few members of the caucus say there is little to be gained by talking about the issue. "There are limits to what we can do publicly that are constructive," says Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat. "Things that can be done in public may make us feel good, but may not be constructive, given the long history of this conflict."

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