Zimbabwe joins the likes of Cuba and Myanmar as nations that have had to transition from the prolonged rule of dictators. When Robert Mugabe came to power, Zimbabwe was focused on its struggle to transition from British rule to independence and a deeply entrenched legacy of racial disenfranchisement. Ironically, Mugabe’s rise to power represented a new era of freedom for Zimbabweans. Now, his successor represents freedom from Mugabe. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has promised to focus on the economy and the needs of the People. As Mnangagwa formulates his economic agenda, he will also have to decide the political fate of Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa will have to decide if he is willing to release power to an elected successor, thereby fostering democracy in Zimbabwe, or become the next Mugabe.
Zimbabwe faces the stark reality that economics and governance are connected. Government will struggle to succeed in the face of a failing economy while an economy will eventually buckle under the weight of civil unrest. Both Cuba and Myanmar had hoped to embrace limited democratic reforms in order to garner the favor of wealthy Western democracies, particularly the United States, and reap the economic fruit of improved relations. Their reluctance to fully and honestly embrace democracy, however, has stunted improvements in their international standing, thus their economic prospects have dwindled. As men like Robert Mugabe use fear of the imperialist West to deflect blame for their own failing and economic weakness, one must ask if Zimbabwe has to become a democracy to succeed economically.
The modern world order is a democratizing Intentional Community of democratizing nations and Peoples dominated by the influence of Western democracies. Obviously, China, a communist nation and the world’s second largest economy, has done well despite the fact it is ruled by an authoritarian government. China’s success was due to the wise embrace of free market reforms on behalf of the Communist Party as well as the willingness of wealthy Western nations to embrace the exploitation of practically unlimited cheap Chinese labor. During the Cold War, Western powers decided to combat communism by economically crippling the Soviet Union, which allowed capitalism to achieve victory. In contrast, China’s economic success, under capitalist reforms, was seen as a means to democratize China, thus China’s development was supported by Western powers.
Since then, China has been increasingly seen as a threat. In turn, Western support for China’s economy has increasing shifted to India and smaller export nations. In time, China’s economy may, or not may, suffer due to international opposition to its undemocratic government. Venezuela, which recently defaulted, is a socialist nation ruled by an elected dictator that often blames the US and its allies for its economic woes. The US has certainly tried to cripple Venezuela’s economy with sanctions, yet Venezuela’s problems stem from overspending and an over reliance on commodities, which experienced a price collapse due to too much global supply. In other words, the “imperialist” West may conspire against governments it does not like and their economies may suffer, but the influence is only a limited factor.
Cuba, for example, has experienced relatively strong economic success in the face of a prolonged US embargo. Cubans do not enjoy economic security and the modern conveniences that their neighbors do, but their ingenuity and endurance has allowed them to overcome obstacles from the International Community and the Cuban government. Zimbabwe does not have to embrace democracy to achieve economic success. It will, of course, make it far easier, especially since Mnangagwa likely does not have the same level of support Mugabe used to protect himself from external forces. Any honest reforms embraced by Mnangagwa could help remove international opposition to his agenda and attract foreign aid. They might also help ease domestic opposition to his rule.
The world is ruled by powerful democracies, so being a democracy makes it easier to work with powerful nations, their Peoples, and businesses. The nations of the world are also democratizing, so the embrace of the democratization process will make it easier to function in a changing environment. More importantly, the Peoples of the world are democratizing, which means authoritarian regimes face pressure for change from their own populations. Zimbabweans need and want financial opportunities. Government cannot give Zimbabweans all of their needs and wants nor can government assure them they will have the opportunities to meet their own interests. An authoritarian regime takes on the responsibility of providing for the People’s needs and wants, thus government is to blame when those interests are not met, which fuels economically crippling civil unrest. In today’s global political environment, Zimbabwe’s government can only achieve so much success as an ill-democratic government.
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