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Editor’s Memo

A welcome change

Iden Wetherell

RETURNING to a wintry and straitened Zimbabwe after two weeks in the United States, where summer is at its height and everything is plentiful, can be a

depressing experience.

But this is the reality few of us with roots here can escape. Nor is it a challenge any journalist should wish to dodge. But just for a couple of weeks, at least, the change was as good as the holiday which keeps eluding me!

I was a guest of the US State Department’s International Visi-tor Programme which seeks to familiarise foreign guests with the workings of government and civil society. It provided an opportunity to meet leaders in a variety of fields and learn the priorities of policy-makers on “US engagement in the post-9/11 world”.

Ours was a small party of African editors but much larger groups from a wide range of countries visit for longer periods. I bumped into MDC chief whip and Mutare Central MP Innocent Gonese on a tour of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. We both froze at 11 400 feet!

Alumni of the programme, I was told, include Festus Mogae, Margaret Thatcher, John Kufuor, Mwai Kibaki, Tony Blair, Bakili Muluzi, Megawathi Sukarnoputri, Mahathir Mohamad, Gerhard Schroeder, and Hamid Karzai. A large number of civic players and journalists have also benefited.

While largely centred on Washington DC, our programme did provide a major excursion to Denver, Colorado, where we visited the nearby US Air Force Space Command and met Denver’s Homeland Security chiefs. In Washington we met with Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa, economist Dr George Ayittey who cut through much of the verbiage on African politics with an incisive analysis of where the continent’s problems really lie (not anywhere else!), and Congressional staff members.

I was particularly impressed by Salih Booker of Africa Action whose penetrating and fluent analysis of America’s role in the world left nobody in any doubt as to his credentials as a severe critic of his government. He has been pilloried by Zimbabwe government spokesmen as an Uncle Tom because, with other distinguished African American activists, he dared criticise the Mugabe regime. I asked him what he thought of the December 12 Movement. “Be suspicious of any organisation with a date in its name,” he joked.

Briefings at the Pentagon were off the record so I cannot repeat them here. But I was struck by the openness and readiness of political staff and serving officers to discuss with the media the strategies and actual workings of the Defence department as it faces a number of threats to the security of the US. The Americans openly say that US security interests are linked to the elimination of terrorist networks and that vulnerable states, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, create threats to those interests. As in Liberia they are committed to working with sub-regional organisations like Ecowas (Sadc isn’t mentioned any more!) while at the same time cultivating strategic port and airfield access.

This explains the emphasis on stability and combating the spread of HIV/Aids during President George Bush’s recent tour. The US conducted US$22,4 billion in trade with Africa in 2000.

In Colorado a huge airbase hosts the US’s eyes-in-space command where satellite surveillance, in addition to providing weather, communications, intelligence and missile-warning roles, also ensures the “friendly” use of space through what are termed “counter-space operations”. Here, every item that it is possible to detect in space is monitored including a glove that one astronaut lost and paint particles floating around posing a hazard to space vehicles.

The new mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, had only been in office four days when we met with him. His brewing company and chain of restaurant/bars have done much for the city’s revitalisation.

Many US cities are engaged in energetic downtown renovation. We saw the results in Washington, Baltimore and Denver where people are moving back into immaculately maintained city centres bringing life and revenues. Free transport on Denver’s main thoroughfare makes getting around easier. But I don’t know if the sound of lowing cattle emerging from grilles in sidewalks, designed to evoke the city’s cattle-herding past, did much for one’s appreciation of local history!

For me, user-friendly American bookstores are a treat. Armchairs and sofas encourage browsers to relax with coffee and cookies while leafing through the world’s greatest array of books and magazines. We also saw how public television, although comparatively tiny compared to the commercial stations, can provide a useful alternative. Ray Suarez, senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, gave us a fascinating glimpse of the workings of a financially pressed but much-respected broadcaster.

I had to tell an editorial staffer at the Denver Post that members of our party found the mainstream American press bland. Nothing invites the reader to buy a US paper. Headings are dull, news reports are formulaic, and preoccupation with balance often means pointless journalism. Our host agreed and said he always asked friends returning from Britain to bring papers with them so he could show his staff what a lively press looks like.

I raised with Homeland Security personnel at every opportunity the contradiction of the US promoting the rule of law in Africa and then facilitating the abduction of terrorist suspects from countries like Malawi where they enjoyed court protection orders. The officials invariably professed ignorance of this episode and promised to investigate. I’m not expecting a response any day soon!

At the end of a hectic two weeks I could tell our hosts that while we were unlikely to return home as enthusiasts of America’s new world order or its sudden discovery of Africa, we could at least comment with more insight and depth on this amazingly diverse and energetic society that for better or worse influences our lives in every degree.

A concluding thought for those who like to talk about American imperialism: Americans of Hispanic origin now form a majority in several cities. Cubans in Miami, Puerto Ricans in New York, and Mexicans in LA, they are visible and voluble.

Spanish is virtually a second official language used extensively.

Spanish-language radio and TV stations are available in all hotel rooms. The Latin beat can be heard everywhere.

This demographic tide is adding vitality and diversity to American society, just as irish and Jewish immigrants did in the past. So what will the face of American “imperialism” look like in 20 years time?

Less like George Bush, more like Jennifer Lopez?

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