WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama gave tentative backing to Zimbabwe’s fragile national unity government on Friday, but the country’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, left a White House meeting largely empty-handed.
Obama promised $73 million in new aid that a White House official said later would go toward fighting HIV-AIDS and promoting good governance in the poverty-stricken southern African nation. Significantly, the money will not go to the government but will be channeled through aid agencies.
The meeting underscored the quandary Obama faces -- how to support Tsvangirai’s efforts to rebuild Zimbabwe’s shattered economy without bolstering his rival, President Robert Mugabe. Western states accuse Mugabe of years of misrule and largely shun him.
Tsvangirai, a former labor official and longtime opposition leader, was in Washington as part of a tour of Europe and the United States to rally support for the power-sharing government he formed with Mugabe in February after bitterly disputed elections that saw his supporters beaten and jailed.
“We now have a power-sharing agreement that shows promise,” Obama said, with Tsvangirai sitting next to him in the Oval Office.
He praised Tsvangirai’s efforts to tackle hyperinflation that has devastated the economy and to improve the daily lives of Zimbabweans who face chronic food shortages and an unemployment rate of about 90 percent.
Tsvangirai, whose government says it needs $10 billion to rebuild the economy, has been trying to get funding for his cash-strapped administration and to persuade the international community to lift sanctions.
But Obama made clear that while the United States was prepared to work with Tsvangirai, it would not give money directly to the unity government because of concerns about governance.
A State Department official said U.S. humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe totaled $150 million in the 2009 fiscal year. A White House official said the $73 million announced by Obama was new money.
U.S. officials previously voiced frustration about the slow pace of reforms and Tsvangirai acknowledged on Friday that while there had been progress, “there are also problems.”
Obama extended sanctions against Zimbabwe in March, targeting individuals close to Mugabe and some local companies, but he has so far declined to follow in the footsteps of the Bush administration and call for Mugabe to step down.
“President Mugabe has not acted oftentimes in the best interests of the Zimbabwean people and has been resistant to the kinds of democratic changes that need to take place,” Obama said.
Critics accuse Mugabe of repressive one-party rule and international donors say they remain to be convinced that the new unity government is not simply a cover for Mugabe, 85, to extend his nearly three decades in power.
Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change has long accused Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party of using violence to maintain a grip on power, charges it denies. Arrests of MDC activists have strained the new government.
But Tsvangirai told Al Jazeera television in an interview for broadcast on Friday that “there is no evidence that there is a general campaign of intimidation and violence in the country.”
Additional reporting by Nelson Banya in Harare and Sue Pleming in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney