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Transcript: Obama answers Zimbabwe question

United States President Barack Obama invited 115 young Africans, selected as the region’s future leaders, to take part in a three-day forum marking the 50th anniversary of independence in many of their countries, while looking toward the next 50 years.

Zimbabweans Cleopatra Ndlovu, Masimba Nyamanhindi and Sydney Chisi were also at the White House for the gathering. In this transcript Obama responds to a question from one of them.

Obama: Okay, looks like this side has not gotten a question here. So how about this gentleman right here.

Sidney Chisi: Thank you, Mr. President — I’m from Zimbabwe. Currently our government is in a transition between the former ruling party Zanu PF and the Movement for Democratic Change. And within this same context, Zimbabwe is currently under restrictive measures, especially for those who are party in line with Robert Mugabe under the ZIDERA Act.

How has been the success of ZIDERA — the formation of the inclusive government? Because in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is still using the rhetoric of sanctions, racist, property rights abuse, human rights abuse, in violation to the rule of law. How has been the success of that towards the implementation — the success or the growth of young people?

Obama: Well, you probably have a better answer than me. So you should be sharing with our team what you think would make the most sense. I’ll be honest with you — I’m heartbroken when I see what’s happened in Zimbabwe. I think Mugabe is an example of a leader who came in as a liberation fighter and — I’m just going to be very blunt — I do not see him serving his people well. And the abuses, the human rights abuses, the violence that’s been perpetrated against opposition leaders I think is terrible.

Now, Tsvangirai has tried to work — despite the fact that he himself has been beaten and imprisoned, he has now tried to work to see if there is a gradual transition that might take place. But so far, the results have not been what we had hoped.

And this always poses a difficult question for U.S. foreign policy because, on the one hand, we don’t want to punish the people for the abuses of a leader; on the other hand, we have very little leverage other than saying, if there are just systematic abuses by a government, we are not going to deal with them commercially, we’re not going to deal with them politically, in ways that we would with countries that are observing basic human rights principles.

And so there have been discussions when I’ve traveled with leaders in the Southern African region about whether or not sanctions against Zimbabwe are or are not counterproductive. I will tell you I would love nothing more than to be able to open up greater diplomatic relationships and economic and commercial relationships with Zimbabwe. But in order to do so, we’ve got to see some signal that it will not simply entrench the same past abuses but rather will move us in a new direction that actually helps the people.

And Zimbabwe is a classic example of a country that should be the breadbasket for an entire region. It’s a spectacular country. Now, it had to undergo a transition from white minority rule that was very painful and very difficult. But they have chosen a path that’s different than the path that South Africa chose.

South Africa has its problems, but from what everybody could see during the World Cup, the potential for moving that country forward as a multiracial, African democracy that can succeed on the world stage, that’s a model that so far at least Zimbabwe has not followed. And that’s where I’d like to see it go.