BARACK Obama’s new top envoy to Zimbabwe assumed office on Thursday with a vow to “listen and learn”.
Bruce Wharton, who has previously worked at the United States embassy in Harare as a Public Affairs Officer, presented his credentials to President Robert Mugabe at State House and “delivered President Obama’s greetings”.
The new United States ambassador takes over from Charles Ray, whose stint in Zimbabwe was less dramatic than those of the previous two ambassadors - Christopher Dell and James McGee - who presided over a deterioration in relations between Harare and Washington.
If career diplomat Ray oversaw the lowering of rhetoric, Wharton told Mugabe he sought to “engage in a dialogue that is respectful”.
Citing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments last August that they would meet “action for action” in their relations with Zimbabwe, Wharton said: “American policy toward Zimbabwe is not static, and will respond positively to Zimbabwe’s progress on the roadmap to constitutional reform and elections.”
Mugabe, who is subject of a United States travel and assets ban, has previously used encounters with American diplomats to call for the lifting of personal sanctions as well as trade embargos imposed on state-owned companies including diamond mining firms.
Wharton said: “President Mugabe and I had a good discussion of where our relationship has been over the last few years, and how we would like it to develop in the coming years.
“I... expressed the US government’s sincere desire to find common ground to enhance the bilateral relationship.
“I pledged to President Mugabe our continued support to the people of Zimbabwe and their efforts to build a more just, prosperous and healthy society. The government of the United States and the government of Zimbabwe share this desire for a better future for the people of this great nation.
“When we differ on the best means of achieving those goals, I will seek to engage in a dialogue that is respectful and that seeks to uphold the universal values and rights that Zimbabweans fought so hard to gain 32 years ago.”
Zimbabwe is due to hold a referendum on the new constitution, shortly to be followed by general elections. Wharton said the two events were a watershed moment in Zimbabwe’s history and could define the two countries’ relations going forward.
“We support the democratic reform process underway since the start of the Global Political Agreement and, along with SADC and other friends of Zimbabwe, we will stand by the people as this process reaches its conclusion,” he said.
The United States had spent over $1 billion over the last decade on health and humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe, the ambassador said, adding: “I am also personally interested in supporting women’s empowerment, education, conservation, freedom of expression, and the rights of all people.”
Wharton will begin his term "by listening and learning about the goals of the Zimbabwean people, and how the United States can be a good partner. As I learn, I will begin to add my own ideas in support of what is clearly best for both our nations: a strong, prosperous, just and healthy Zimbabwe,” he added.
AMBASSADOR WHARTON ON ZIM RETURN