- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Zimbabwe’s economy is in shambles amid a crippling cash shortage. So naturally, it’s a perfect time for the country’s geriatric leader to spend a week at a luxurious resort in Cancún, Mexico.
But don’t worry, it’s for official business.
Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old president, spent this past week slumming it at a resort in Cancún, host to a “Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction” conference with a three-dozen-strong delegation. (Rule No. 1 for disaster risk reduction: Don’t have Robert Mugabe as president.)
As is widely known, Mugabe’s greatest passion in life — outside of falling asleep in meetings — is discussing disaster risk reduction platforms, especially if it happens to take place in Cancún.
Being the fiscally conscientious leader he is, though, he only spent seven days in Cancún for the three-day conference.
Despite his age and ailing health, Mugabe has made a habit of jet-setting across the world with massive delegations in tow. Last year, he took at least 20 trips abroad costing Zimbabwe some $36 million according to the ministry of finance. (Zimbabwe’s parliament has an annual budget of only $30 million per year for its 300 members, as Reuters reports.)
This all comes at a steep price for the Zimbabwean taxpayers, who are caught in what’s been called an economic “death spiral” back at home as cash reserves run dry.
Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, has defended all the excess travel, saying it proves the nonagenarian, mumbling, ailing, sleepy dictator can outpace his younger counterparts. “That puts paid to any claims that the president is very ill. In fact, he is so well that he beats even the youngest politicians,” he told the state’s official newspaper the Herald in March.
Besides, Mugabe is never sleeping during meetings, Charamba said. He is just “resting his eyes.”
The Herald glossed over Mugabe’s minor potential ethical kerfuffles during the Cancún junket and other trips, the jailing and torturing of political dissidents, and rampant government corruption.
That omission is certainly is unrelated to the fact that Herald staff and other government officials received a $1,000 to $1,500 per diem on the trip, though. For reference, the average annual income in Zimbabwe is $860 per year according to World Bank data.
As another point of comparison, banks in Zimbabwe rarely allow cash withdrawals for more than $50 a day due to the country’s crippling cash shortage. (Though maybe Zimbabwe needs to save up all the cash it can to pay for Mugabe’s multimillion-dollar birthday bashes.)
But, as Charamba told the Herald, “diplomacy does not come cheap.”
Opposition figures back home aren’t buying into the pricey argument. “We have a bureaucracy that is getting extortionate per diems from the travels. It is a parasitic mindset,” Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and opposition leader, told Reuters. “When you look at the latest trip it shows a president who makes unstrategic trips to unstrategic countries,” he said.
Mugabe, who oversaw a massive economic disaster of his own when he drove his country into 79.6 billion percent inflation a decade ago, wasn’t allowed a speaking role at the Cancún conference on disaster risk reduction. He reportedly left the conference “in a huff.”
Update, May 27, 2017, 10:31 am ET: This article was updated to include the average annual income in Zimbabwe.
Photo credit: SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC/AFP/Getty Images