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Report painting Robert Mugabe as hero plows over the victims

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Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe attends the 16th African Union summit in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa Jan. 30.Reuters

Mussolini got the trains running on time, cynics say in an insensitive dismissal of fascism’s horrors.

In a similar vein, The New York Times applauds the success in Zimbabwe of a few tens of thousands of Robert Mugabe supporters who benefited from the African strongman’s violent evictions of white farmers and their workers in 2000.

The so-called reform left hundreds dead, thousands beaten, tortured or raped, and helped cause widespread misery by accelerating Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.

Yet in a recent Times front-page story, reporter Lydia Polgreen writes that “amid that pain … new farmers overcame early struggles to fare pretty well.”

These “new farmers” were Mugabe thugs, cronies and supporters.

“Why should one white man have all this?” she cites new farmer Stuart Mhavei as saying. “This is Zimbabwe. Black people must come first.”

'The so-called reform left hundreds dead, thousands beaten, tortured or raped, and helped cause widespread misery by accelerating Zimbabwe’s economic collapse.'

The report’s focus would have surely been different had she been in, say, the United States, and one of her interview subjects had said: “This is America. White people must come first.”

The report is about tobacco production by Mugabe’s favored few. Its cheerful headline ­– In Zimbabwe Land Takeover, a Golden Lining – plays off the color of the cash crop's dried leaves.

It describes a 1990’s auction house launched by Roger Boka of Harare, and says a “handful of white farmers” would wait there for their “big checks to be cut.”

Today at the same location, “every single one of them was black,” Polgreen eagerly reports.

Boka’s daughter Rudo, who now runs the auction house, welcomes the change.

“Now it is for everybody. It is a beautiful sight,” Polgreen quotes her as saying.

Polgreen fails to challenge Boka’s use of the word “everybody.” It excludes not only whites, but blacks opposing Mugabe. Throughout the 2008 national elections, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change says pro-Mugabe militia killed at least 86 of its supporters, and forced 200,000 others from their homes.

At a human rights conference in New York last fall, self-exiled Zimbabwean political activist Grace Kwinjeh said Mugabe’s ZANU-PF systematically raped to intimidate MDC female members and supporters.

“Patterns that emerge from survivors show that history in Zimbabwe is repeating itself,” she told the “We Have a Dream” gathering staged by UN Watch and others.

Polgreen says 60,000 almost exclusively black farmers now grow tobacco in Zimbabwe, most on small plots, compared to the less than 2,000 mostly white farmers operating larger estates before 2000.

Fine, but the United Nations Development Program said in a 2008 report that the farm invasions caused 1 million people – the vast majority of them black workers and their families – to lose their livelihoods as commercial farming jobs disappeared.

No matter, Polgreen reports the farm invaders and their beneficiaries “made a go of it” and more than tripled tobacco yields from 105 million pounds in 2008 to more than 330 million pounds this year.

She acknowledges there was “hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger” in the wake of the farm invasions.

But it’s only toward the end of the article that she quotes a farmers’ union chief as saying reform could have been achieved without hundreds and thousands of Zimbabweans losing their jobs and without huge economic losses to the country.

It’s also toward the end that she says the personal cost to whites was "immense," highlighting a farmer whose family bought their property after Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain. In other words, not all the dispossessed farmers had benefited from colonial-era preference.

Polgreen’s final paragraphs return to offering statements that help mitigate the illegitimacy of Mugabe’s land grab. To explain how tobacco yields remain well below the peak of 522 million pounds in 2000, she turns to tobacco farming researcher Tendai Murisa, who offers a somewhat Obama-esque theory.

“No one ever argued that this is a more productive form of farming,” Polgreen quotes the researcher as saying. “But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? Those things have value, too.”

Isn’t that the gist of what we’re increasingly hearing from the U.S. president?

The report serves to legitimize the Mugabe land confiscations, the accompanying violence, and the subsequent economic catastrophe.

It risks being just as offensive to Mugabe’s victims as the refrain that Mussolini’s alleged train schedule success shows totalitarianism has its good side.

Polgreen says in a blog she will take questions on the issues raised in her report, and pledged to post her responses. She should begin with an apology to the victims of the farm invasions.

Steven Edwards is a United Nations-based writer on international issues. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenmedwards