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Ambassador Series

An Interview with David Wharton, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe David Bruce WhartonBefore accepting President Obama’s nomination for his current position as U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe in May, David Bruce Wharton held the title of Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. A career Foreign Service Officer, Wharton previously held posts in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Bolivia, and South Africa. He has received Superior and Meritorious Honor Awards through the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency. He also received the 2011 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy. Born in Basel, Switzerland, Wharton fostered his love for languages and cultures throughout his childhood, splitting time among various European countries and the U.S., in Texas. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

The Politic: What motivated you to become involved in Foreign Service?

The truth of the matter is I sort of stumbled into the Foreign Service. However, once I did get into it, a lot of what I had done as a kid and as a young adult began to make more sense. I grew up traveling. My father was an academic, and we [went] back and forth between Europe and the United States a lot for the first fifteen years of life. I went to a German boarding school for a while, and I learned to speak German and the Swiss version of German when I was a kid. So I grew up interested in other cultures and other languages.

I was the one American in a German boarding school in 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. My schoolmates and the faculty turned to me to explain what was going on in the United States at that time. That was a politicizing moment for me, and it made me see my country through a different lens. Then, later on in life, I continued my love for travel. I had opportunities to travel on an exchange program to South America and continued my interest in foreign languages by studying Russian at University. Then, I actually went to work in professional theater.

The Politic: How did you decide to pursue that path, and how has that helped you, if at all, during your career?

It is actually great training for a diplomat. Most of my career was dedicated to public diplomacy, which was to engage and influence foreign publics. So my work in theater was really quite useful for that.

The Politic: Outside of exploring through travel and understanding cultures, describe the importance of service in your life.

I think a sense of service is something that was instilled in me by my parents. It was a value for me that everyone should try to contribute something back to the community that they live in. We do that with military service for some members of my family; it was volunteer service for my mother; and I did the same thing when I was in high school and college, visiting kids from disadvantaged parts of town. The idea of service has always been important to me, and so the Foreign Service brought that all together for me.

I was actually working in theater in Washington, D.C. and talking to friends about how I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in theater. It is just too brutal of a lifestyle. When I decided to join the Foreign Service and was accepted, all of that history and background began to make sense. Here was something that I could do that combined my fascination for foreign cultures, foreign languages, travel, and the idea of service — with the notion that communicating is a powerful thing to do.

The Politic: What, then, do you find are some of the most significant challenges you face as a member of the Foreign Service, specifically in Zimbabwe? 

I think there are both professional and personal challenges. The personal ones are being away from family. It is hard to keep up with anniversaries and birthdays and weddings and funerals, and all of the business of being part of a family. They are 8,000 miles away from where you are, and that is the personal challenge for me — figuring out how to make family work when you are so far away.

The professional challenges haven’t really been that great. I think a lot of the challenge has to do with being frustrated by the machinery of bureaucracy. It is complicated, and things that you would like to be able to do very quickly take longer. On the one hand, it is usually understandable and defensible in that we shouldn’t be doing things irrationally or without careful thought and consultation with other people who are involved. But the bureaucracy does sometimes grow tiresome.

The Politic: You mentioned that one of the major challenges is the bureaucracy. How do you go about trying to work through that system and improve the relationship between the countries on a day-to-day basis? What does the structure of a day usually look like for you in terms of managing your responsibilities? I know that it must change from day to day, but could you just give a general sense?

It’s leadership and direction as much as anything else. Because we are about six hours ahead of Washington, I usually get up around 6:00 or 6:30 and spend 45 minutes going through emails that come in overnight from Washington, trying to respond quickly to questions or concerns that may have arisen. I usually get to work at about 8:00 in the morning, and my days tend to be full of meetings.

For example, this morning, I had a meeting with an inter-agency group here in the Embassy to talk about our approaches to the elections in Zimbabwe that are expected to take place in the next two or three months. Now, this was during a Monday morning, and over the weekend, there was a big meeting in Mozambique related to Zimbabwe’s elections. I had been in touch with people in the government of Zimbabwe and colleagues in our Embassy in Mozambique over the weekend to understand what was going on there. So this morning I came in with some fresh information for where our Embassy should be in the next few days — in terms of what we are reporting back to Washington, our public posture here, and the way we organize ourselves to respond to events here and advocate for those things that we think are important. That was a big part of my morning — providing direction and focus for our work on elections here.

I then spent some more time writing. There are some Congressional hearings coming up on Zimbabwe, and Washington is thankfully looking to me to provide some of the guidance and responses to possible questions. I spent a lot of time this morning making sure my colleagues in Washington are well-prepared to explain to members of Congress what’s going on in Zimbabwe and to respond to questions they may have.

Then, at lunchtime, I took one of my Zimbabwe colleagues out to eat. Embassies are funny places. At this Embassy, we have about 65 American staff members and closer to 200 Zimbabwean staff, and there are some differences between what those two populations do and can do. One of the management issues that I think is important is trying to understand those Zimbabwean colleagues and take advantage of their knowledge and expertise. So I do a number of things to make sure our community is as coherent as possible across national lines. I spent some time at lunch with one of our senior Zimbabwean colleagues. And this afternoon I spent a lot more time working to prepare for the Congressional hearings.

The Politic: Shifting the direction of the conversation to a little broader scope, I am interested to hear how you generally perceive the nature of the relationship between Zimbabwe and the United States. 

The bilateral relationship is complicated and difficult at times. Zimbabwe currently has a government of national unity that includes members of three different political parties, and the parties are pretty disparate. They don’t see things eye-to-eye. So, our relationship is good with some of the ministers and not so good with other ministers. We have a set of targeted sanctions against a group of about 113 individuals and 70 entities in Zimbabwe, so that is a stressor on the relationship. Basically, we’re saying to these people, “You can’t travel easily to the United States. If you want a visa to travel to the United States, it is going to be a complicated process.” Further, we are prohibiting American individuals and businesses from having commercial transactions with this group of individuals. These sanctions were all put in place about twelve years ago, between 2001 and 2003, in response to what we believe were anti-democratic, anti-rule of law, anti-human rights behavior by a small group of people in Zimbabwe who were leading the government at that time. Those sanctions were our attempt to change behavior — to say, “Hey, look, we’re really concerned about these things. We’re going to put these restrictions on you until such a time as you begin to respect these fundamental principles of human rights, rule of law, and democratic process.” So that makes the relationship complicated.

On the people side of things, the nongovernment relationship, it is very good. Off the top of my head, I would be willing to say 60 to 70 percent of Zimbabweans have a relatively positive view of the United States. They may not agree with our government or with our policy, but when they think about us as a society, they find admirable traits about us. And many people would like to live in the U.S. We have a huge amount of interest from Zimbabweans to study in the U.S. If you walk down the streets of Zimbabwe today and listen to the music people are hearing or look at the clothing they’re wearing, you would see strong echoes of U.S. culture and U.S. society.

I don’t think Zimbabwe is an outlier in attitude towards the United States. Zimbabwe broadly reflects other Sub-Saharan African countries. When I am out and about, I find very little hostility. By and large, people are very interested in who I am and what the Embassy is doing. I have fairly active Facebook and Twitter accounts, and I get a lot more positive vibes on those social media platforms than negative vibes.

The Politic: Overall, on the citizen side of the equation, there seems to be a positive relationship between Americans and Zimbabweans. That being said, would you say there are any misperceptions that any citizens have about American culture or Americans in general?

I suspect that a lot of Zimbabweans thinks that life is easy in the United States — that it is easy to get a job, that it is easy to get an education, and that people tend to live in nice houses and drive nice cars. I think a lot of people imagine that life in the United States would be easier than it is in Zimbabwe. And some of that is not terribly realistic.

But then there is another side to that coin too. And that is the image that people have of the United States as a very violent society — one in which family values do not matter that much and one in which consumerism is the great driving force. When I point out to people that Americans more regularly attend religious services than Europeans, they find that surprising. It doesn’t fit in with the stereotype of a more materialistic society. But I suspect that American television, American music, and American movies are big factors in shaping Zimbabwe’s public opinion about the U.S.

The Politic: Gearing now more toward issues facing Zimbabwe specifically, as a nation — if you had to pinpoint only three issues — what would you say are the three most critical issues facing Zimbabweans that government is trying to tackle right now? How has the United States been able to help in those areas and, if [they have] not, how could they help?

President of Zimbabwe Robert Muagbe

President of Zimbabwe Robert Muagbe

I think the most important issue facing Zimbabwe today is whether or not the elections that will happen sometime between the end of July and the end of October will be credible and peaceful and transparent. Zimbabwe has had a difficult history with elections in the last decade or so — elections characterized by violence, and by charges of vote rigging and vote fraud. So I think there is a lot of anxiety about how the elections are going to play out. That is the top issue right now.

The second issue facing Zimbabweans is economic; there are not enough jobs to go around. This economy has contracted significantly in the last 15 years, although it had some pretty good growth in the past four or five years under this government of national unity. They went through the world’s second worst episode of hyperinflation. Between 2003 and 2008, the economy essentially ground to a halt. Unemployment is still very high. Also, a lot of Zimbabweans have left the country to look for decent jobs in places like South Africa, Botswana, the U.K., and others. So economics and economic prospects, especially for young people, is probably the second most important issue.

The third one really depends on whom you ask. Health is a big issue here. HIV/AIDS is an epidemic. Right now, about 15 percent of the population is H.I.V. positive. That is down significantly in the last twelve years, but it is still pretty high. So public health in general, maternal child health, malaria, and HIV/AIDS are certainly the big public health issues.

The Politic: You underscored the importance of these next elections for Zimbabwe. What are some of the steps that are being taken to ensure there is minimal political violence during these elections and that they are credible, transparent, and peaceful?

The United States has been supporting a peace-building project here so that political parties and can come together to begin to understand each other and find ways of resolving disputes that do not involve violence. Zimbabwe has just come through a constitutional reform process. They have got a brand new constitution that was just approved by the people in March and signed into law in May. We think that constitution represents a big step forward, and we supported that process financially but also by providing information and verbal support for the process.

On the elections, the biggest regional organization is the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a subset of the African Union. SADC has played a very important role in being the guarantor of a Zimbabwean process called the Global Political Agreement, which is intended to move the country toward peaceful elections. And I referred to a meeting in Mozambique earlier this weekend — that was a meeting that SADC convened to bring together the political players in Zimbabwe to figure out how they’re going to get from where they are today to a credible, peaceful, transparent election. We’re very much supportive of SADC and their efforts. They have really taken the lead on political reform in Zimbabwe. I think working through regional organizations and neighboring countries is an effective strategy for us because we’re from far away. We do not fully appreciate the cultural and historical realities of Zimbabwe the way neighboring countries do. So we have done a lot of work to support SADC, and I think that is a good investment for us.

The Politic: Could you cite some of the major reasons why the relationship with Zimbabwe is important to the United States? 

There are a couple of reasons. But one of them is that, in 1980, there was a minority white regime here led by a man named Ian Smith. The United States was very active in supporting peace negotiations during a time of war in Zimbabwe. There was an ugly war then, called the Bush War, which lasted most of the 1970s. We were interested in helping to resolve that war, so we played a role in the negotiations.

In 1980, when Robert Mugabe came to power, he gave a brilliant speech about the importance of unity and appealed to everyone regardless of their background, gender, or the color of their skin. He looked like the future of Africa at that point. Robert Mugabe — educated, well spoken, thoughtful. We in the U.S. took a look at him and thought, “Yep, this is the way Africa can be in the future.” It was such stark contrast to people like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire — these military dictators that were so dominant in Africa during the 1970s, including the minority government in South Africa. Robert Mugabe really represented a bright future for Africa, and we invested very heavily here. We probably spent close to $1 billion on development projects in Zimbabwe during his first 20 years, between 1980 and 2000. There was this sort of aspirational interest in Zimbabwe.

The other reason Zimbabwe is important to us is that it occupies a really strategic geographic location — the bridge between the economic power of South Africa and the huge potential of Central Africa. Basically, everything that travels by road from South Africa up to the Congo, for example, goes through Zimbabwe. So Zimbabwe’s economic health and political health can be either a positive driver or a negative drag on the economies and political health of all the countries in this part of the world. Those are the reasons why we care about Zimbabwe and why we are trying to help it be as strong and stable as possible.

The Politic: Would you say there is maybe one experience or event or even person in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies, and how so?

I think the elections of 2008 — which were extremely violent and around which there are profound questions of whether or not they reflected the will of the people of Zimbabwe — had a really important impact on U.S. policy. But even going back further, there were elections in 2000 that were also plagued with charges of vote rigging and political violence. There were also the elections in 2002 that featured political violence, as well as charges of fraud and vote rigging. Those sorts of events really have affected U.S. policy toward Zimbabwe and caused us to provide these targeted sanctions that we have placed against a small number of individuals and entities here. So I would point to all of these elections as prime drivers of U.S. policy towards Zimbabwe.

The Politic: What are some of the types of exchange or community outreach programs that you are doing, as an Embassy, that you find particularly effective in making sure the relationship between Zimbabwe and the United States is as good as it can be?

We have been a hugely important part of humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe. And Zimbabwe has gone through both climate cycles and political cycles, which have affected the people’s ability to feed themselves. In 2009, the international community, with the United States very much in the lead, fed more than half of the people in Zimbabwe. We fed 7 million people here in 2009. So I think that people understand that and know that, when things get very tough, the United States will be there with emergency food relief.

Something else that we have done that I am very, very proud of is the PEPFAR program. It stands for President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. It’s been a program primarily all over Sub-Saharan Africa, but in other parts of the world as well. It is that program that I think is responsible for getting the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in Zimbabwe from 30 percent in 1995 down to 15 percent today. I think people understand that we are saving lives here. We are making sure that people have access to medical care, and we aren’t doing this alone. We are working closely with the UN AIDS organization, and very closely with Zimbabwe’s own Ministry of Health, which is a very competent and effective ministry. But there’s no question that we have had a huge and positive effect here. This year, for example, we are investing $92 million in the health of Zimbabwe. And I do a fair amount of public work to make sure Zimbabweans understand that, thanks to the taxpayers of the United States, these programs exist.

We do smaller programs as well. We have done a really wonderful and active educational development program. Zimbabwe has an extraordinary history of good education. It has the highest literacy rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. If you were to come here, you would be really delighted and amazed at what open, well-informed, outward-looking people Zimbabweans are. So what we’ve got here then is a population of 18-year-olds, who are extremely disciplined and gifted students, but they are very poor. They can’t afford to go to school anywhere. But there are universities in the United States that are interested in having diversity on their campuses, and when these kids are over-the-moon extraordinary, they are willing to provide them with scholarships. So every year, at this point, we get somewhere between 20 and 30 scholarships for gifted young Zimbabweans to get undergraduate degrees in the U.S. — on the understanding that, when they are finished with their education in the U.S., they come home, and they contribute to building this society whether it is business, law, government, or health. They have to commit to coming home and bringing their abilities back here to help make this country stronger. That is a really wonderful program.

We also have cultural exchange programs and other programs that we do with the public that send the signal that the United States wants Zimbabwe to be strong and successful. That is our long-term interest here, of course. It could be a dynamic, vibrant, successful nation — a good trading partner for us, a good ally in international law, and a place where we can do business.

The Politic: You mentioned these successful programs in areas where Zimbabwe is really improving, thanks to the United States. On the flip side, are there any areas in Zimbabwe where you think the U.S. should be doing more or areas where you wish we were doing more? 

Children scavenge for corn spilled by a truck along a road south of the capital, Harare

Children scavenge for corn spilled by a truck along a road south of the capital, Harare

I personally wish we were doing more to promote and support primary and secondary education. We aren’t doing that right now, in part because of our difficult bilateral relationship. That relationship is strained enough that our program here is mostly humanitarian. The education program I described earlier with the scholarships costs taxpayers almost nothing — that is all money from American universities. Our health programs — we view as humanitarian programs and also, frankly, ones that are in the U.S. national security interest. So in the long term, it is in our interest to help Zimbabweans be healthy, because that could have an effect on health in the United States. But we are precluded from doing certain government-to-government work. I know Zimbabweans appreciate the value of education. It’s just a matter of intellectual capability to take advantage of it, but right now, we are just not there. I wish we could do more in that area.

The Politic: Do you think there are any programs that could help promote primary and secondary education in Zimbabwe?

One of the programs is Access to Textbooks. Five years ago, when the government of national unity came into power, one student in ten had a textbook. Basically, kids were relying on tethered textbooks and photocopies of textbooks. So, the government of Zimbabwe and the Education Minister decided to make sure every kid in Zimbabwe had a grade-appropriate textbook. That mission is continuing, and that is one of the big things we could support. There isn’t anything political about that. That is just investing in the future.

The Politic: Although we have touched on a lot of these programs, generally, how do you strive, as an Embassy, to promote American economic, political, and cultural interests in Zimbabwe?

Our very first priority is to protect American citizens who live here, work here, or travel here, and their interests. We also have our consulate section, which is responsible for being in touch with American citizens, as well as missionaries and business people. It is not a huge population, but we probably have 2,500 American citizens who live in Zimbabwe, and probably another 50,000 each year who visit as tourists, missionaries, or volunteers. Our first priority is to make sure those folks are safe, and that involves a lot of communication. We have a warden network and a telephone tree, and we use emails to make sure they know where people are. When they have problems, we do everything we can to help them. That is our first imperative.

Our second imperative is to help Zimbabwe adjust its economy. We have about $160 million dollars in bilateral trade each year. That is up from $100 million four years ago, but I would like to see that number increase. There are huge opportunities here for American business. Railroads need to be overhauled, the electrical system needs to be improved — there are all kinds of things that American business could do in Zimbabwe. But we have got to get past the current political uncertainty, and, I hope, get past the U.S. sanction policies to enable some of those investments and business opportunities for American businesses.

The Politic: Stepping back for a final general question, we have touched a lot on Zimbabwe-U.S. relations. But, more widely, how do you feel U.S. is represented abroad, on a global scale?

I think we are very well represented. I know many people in the American Foreign Service, and furthermore, I know the caliber of the people we attract to work in our embassies from the host nation. The Zimbabweans who work in this Embassy are really great people — they are smart, they are committed — and the same is true in all of the other Embassies in which I have worked. So we have extraordinary human resources; really smart, open, dedicated people, most of whom have good communication skills and good cultural skills. The challenge that we face right now, on a global basis, is this really tough balance between security and outreach. If we make ourselves 100 percent safe, then we cannot get out and talk to people. And if we make ourselves 100 percent accessible, then we’re not safe. So that is a tough, tough balance, and we are still working on getting it right. But it’s a challenge for those of us who work in Embassies to strike the right balance between keeping ourselves safe and getting out and doing the work we are paid to do — to help people understand the United States and our policies in ways that make them our friends, allies, and business partners.

The Politic: Before we go, I just wanted to ask if there is anything — about the relationship between Zimbabwe and the United States, or maybe your experience in the Embassy in Bolivia — that I haven’t asked about or touched on and would be important to share?

At the moment, I feel doggedly optimistic about this place, because of the quality of the people here, the level of education, and the natural resources. There are so many positives about this place. But I am very much aware that Zimbabwe is at a cultural decision point. That decision point is the elections, and the critical element is whether or not the election represents the will of the people. If the election represents the will of the people, then I think there can be pretty dramatic and rapid positive change in Zimbabwe. And there is an opportunity for the people of Zimbabwe and the people of the United States to make money and to exchange ideas, and to do all of the things that countries normally do with one another. If the election is rotten, and if the voters are manipulated, and if there is a lot of political violence, then the decision is going to send the country back in the wrong direction. Our relationship with Zimbabwe will become more difficult, and the opportunity for Americans and Zimbabweans to profit from knowing each other and doing business with each other will decline. It will be interesting to see how that comes out. That is the big focus right now – being able to support credible, peaceful, and transparent elections. And I just do not know how it is going to play out.

Zimbabwe’s elections took place on July 31, 2013. Robert Mugabe was declared the winner with 61 percent of the vote; his challenger, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, received 34 percent amid allegations of vote rigging.

Embassy of the United States to Zimbabwe: http://harare.usembassy.gov/

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