Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Breadbasket to Basket Case

PARIS - Robert Mugabe, who died in ignominy this month at 95, swept into his first African summit in 1981 as a conquering hero, a teacher-turned-guerrilla leader in a snazzy suit and silk tie. He preached Marxism, but as prime minister he ran a laissez-faire economy that was anything but.

“I'd lay good money that Zimbabwe is going to hold together and prosper to boot,” Gregory Jaynes wrote in the New York Times. “Mugabe fought colonialists of British stock for majority rule and a finely tuned capitalist system he appears to want to keep.”

We reporters at that Nairobi summit mostly agreed, and that remained a safe bet for more than a decade. Despite a vicious seven-year civil war that took 20,000 lives, Zimbabwe thrived with a multiracial parliament and an uncommonly well-run government.

White-owned commercial farms exported enough maize to feed 10 percent of Africa and paid laborers fair wages. Industry bustled. Tourists flocked to the spectacular Victoria Falls, hobnobbed with rhinos along the Zambezi and explored ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins.

Harare was sensational when jacaranda blossoms fell like purple rain on the main city square outside the elegant paneled bar at Meikle's Hotel. Wealthy Zimbabweans, black and white, filled restaurants, clubbed until late, walked home without looking over their shoulders. Reporters blew in without visas, and officials spoke freely with rare frankness.


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No Country for Old Men?

PARIS — My friend Sidney died in Arizona. I saw him there not long ago, and he exuded life. He pocketed his latest Apple iWhatever so we could pig out in peace on mammoth racks of fiery ribs. Then we drove off, laughing, in his new Tesla. When his time finally ran out late last month, he was two years short of 100.

Sidney Rittenberg’s trajectory from Mao Zedong sidekick to well-heeled adviser who helped presidents and industry moguls fathom the opaque Middle Kingdom tells us much about the complexities of human nature.

I think of him when a kid tries to find a nice way to say dotty old fart. “Old age” is relative. Nature might deal from the bottom to cause early dementia. Some people sink into sofas at 40, brains atrophying. Others blaze on until their lights flicker out.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, at 87, bounds out of hospitals to ensure America is not handed over to a kangaroo court. Jimmy Carter, almost 95, still shows why he was so vastly underrated as president. Donald Trump, 73, at times evokes a spoiled 3-year-old.

New generations have dissed old ones since forever, but it’s different now. Technology helps smart young people be smarter. But it also gives a false sense of omniscience that causes others to spurn elders as irrelevant wastes of space.


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“Our House Is on Fire!” (Yawn)

WILD OLIVES, France — An old New Yorker cartoon has a couple sitting among flowers on a mountainside gazing upon a see-forever view under sunny skies flecked with wispy clouds. Birds and butterflies swoop by. And the guy says something like, “The world is shit.”

I get it; I’m even beginning to bore myself. A Mort Report meant to range widely, with stabs at humor, has descended into a one-note screed about a Machiavellian miscreant back home in America. Friends of sound mind know better than to invite me to dinner.

True, this is still a pretty good world. Yet in Biarritz beyond the horizon, President Emmanuel Macron welcomed leaders to the G7 summit with an alarm-bell tweet: “Our house is on fire!” He meant it literally.

Amazon, for most people these days, evokes Jeff Bezos’ empire of books and canned beans. But in the real Amazon, half the size of Europe, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is getting away with a crime to end all crimes: planetary ecocide.

Fires in Brazil to clear land for cattle, crops and timber approach 80,000 since Bolsonaro took power in January — 85 percent above last year’s rate. Black smoke turns day to night in São Paulo, thousands of miles away from the Amazon. In the last eight months, flames consumed 4.6 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon.

Those figures are from the prestigious National Institute for Space Research, but new ones will be suspect. Bolsonaro sacked its director for reporting that fires soared 278 percent in July over the same month last year, saying he was unpatriotic for damaging Brazil’s reputation.

The Amazon emits 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen, and it traps carbon. Waterways it shelters add moisture that keeps it healthy. If this vital lung were to collapse, scientists calculate, atmospheric damage could equal what was done over the last 150 years.

At the summit, rich-world leaders pledged $20 million to help fight the fires, only four times more than Leonardo DiCaprio donated on his own. The big dog among them skipped the session on climate change. Donald Trump’s aides say he had private talks with Angela Merkel and Narendra Modi who, in fact, were with everyone else at that session.

Bolsonaro tells critics to butt out of Brazil’s business. Colonial days are over, he says, and all that land is too valuable to be left to half-naked Indians and do-gooder environmentalists. He has savaged laws, enabling wealthy developers who put him in power to burn and bulldoze.

When Pope Francis, among others, recently voiced concern, he replied: “Brazil is a virgin that every foreign pervert desires.” That raises a crucial question: How much can a domestic pervert in a single country be allowed to defile when an entire planet is struggling to survive?

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Extra! GateHouse Eats Gannett, Still Hungry

PARIS - Two words sum up the existential threat to America. The first is obvious: Trump. The second is a catchall noun so vague it has no meaning, and yet it enables a would-be despot to twist truth and tie a superpower into knots: media.

Excellent news sources abound for people who find them amid a blizzard of bullshit motivated by profit or propaganda. Instead, many pluck dubious snippets off the internet and react with all the reflection of invertebrates stuck by a pin. For them, it is all “the media.”

Donald Trump understands this. If one reporter gets something wrong - or, more often, gets something right that annoys him - he dismisses “the media” with his trademark label: fake news. That works for him because of a worsening industry trend that helped put him in office.

Newspapers that once informed America are still with us, adapted to digital delivery, but most are shadows of their former selves. They replace solid up-close reporting with thumb-sucking at a distance or word sausages made up of news bits from slipshod common sources.

Now GateHouse is about to swallow Gannett and use its familiar brand name. America's two largest chains plan to merge into a Frankenstein's monster of more than 260 dailies and 300 weeklies in 47 states. That, they say, will “enhance quality journalism.” Talk about blowing credibility right off the bat.


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In Ilhan Omar’s Somalia

PARIS - Ilhan Omar might have been one of those hollow-eyed Somali kids at the edge of survival I saw back in the early 1990s, covering humanity's ugly underside for the Associated Press.

The world had ignored foreseeable famine. A warlord despot battled with murderous rivals, all demanding chunks of whatever was left to plunder. Heading inland from Mogadishu, I wrote:

“On the blacktop road to Baidoa, a sunbaked corpse lies in the center, the chest emptied by vultures. It might have been a bullet, a bus or hunger. In Somalia, no one stops to find out.

“Scores of thousands have died this year, another 2,000 with every sunrise. A million may follow. But beyond the numbing statistics, the impact comes one death at a time.

“In Baidoa, Amina Sheikh Mohammed, a nurse, stood in the yard of a feeding center and told a visitor that six children had died that day. A man spoke softly in her ear, and her face clouded.

“'Make that seven,' she said.”

Omar was born in 1982, the youngest of seven siblings. When she was two, her mother died. After her father, a teacher, saw Somalia falling apart beyond repair, he led the kids on a harrowing trek to spend four years in Dadaab, a hellhole refugee camp in Kenya.

The family made it to New York in 1992 and sought asylum, the way my father's family escaped Russian mayhem in 1921. Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000, at 17, six years before Melania Trump.

Decent Minnesotans put her in the state legislature. Hijab notwithstanding, she won 78 percent of the vote. After a single term of watching her in action, they sent her to Congress.

It is not likely Ilhan Omar hates her new homeland. And it is no surprise that she reviles Trump, who evokes the sort of ruthless demagogy and blind greed that pushed Somalia into a “shithole.”

No one still reading this needs a recap of Trump's cynical jihad against Omar. Yet a close look at how he distorts her words and twists their context shows depraved indifference to truth.


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