HARARE, Zimbabwe — The lines around Robert Mugabe Road in the heart of Zimbabwe's capital stretch for blocks. There are lines for sugar, lines for bread, lines for milk, and lines at banks and ATMs for cash, so people can go and stand in the other lines.
A few weeks ago, most Zimbabweans couldn't afford even staple foods. Inflation had driven the price of a 2-liter bottle of cooking oil to 400,000 Zimbabwean dollars, less than $3 in U.S. terms but more than most teachers here earn in a week.
So President Mugabe — who's ruled this southern African country for 27 years, long enough to stamp his name on more than a few road signs — accused businesses of profiteering and ordered prices on all goods to be slashed in half. A state-owned newspaper proclaimed "Christmas in July" as businesses nationwide are forced to unload their stocks at a loss.
"It's panic-buying," said Kassam, a 30-year-old trinket-seller who didn't want to give his full name out of fears for his safety. "People are snatching anything because they don't know if it will be there tomorrow." Rather than restock their shelves, some shops have closed.
Price controls, chronic food and fuel shortages, and inflation officially estimated at 4,500 percent but probably much, much higher — this is life in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the world's fastest-shrinking economy. A decade-long string of calamitous policies has reduced this fertile land — which once exported food to its neighbors — to one that can't feed itself.
The World Food Program launched an emergency appeal Wednesday for $118 million in donations to help 3.3 million Zimbabweans facing severe food shortages.
Starting with the seizures of thousands of white-owned farms, many of which were handed over to Mugabe loyalists, the economy has shriveled by 40 percent since 1998, unprecedented for a country in peacetime.
Health care, pensions and other social services have collapsed. Life expectancy has plummeted to 36 years, the lowest in the world. Three million Zimbabweans are estimated to have fled to neighboring South Africa, most of them illegally.
The rest of the world blames the crisis on Mugabe, a slight, bookish 83-year-old who's ruled Zimbabwe since its independence and continues to tighten his grip on power. The State Department's most recent human-rights report accused his government of bullying, torturing and killing opponents and encouraging "pervasive and systematic abuse" by security forces.
Mugabe, still in seemingly ruddy health, delights in his longevity, and denounces his enemies in the West as "coup-plotters." He's expected to win another five-year term next March even if doing so means rigging the vote, as international observers think he did in the past two national elections.
Earlier this year, police assaulted his probable opponent in those elections, Morgan Tsvangirai, who sustained a fractured skull and badly bruised eye.
Analysts say that by reducing prices — and blaming retailers for consumers' woes — Mugabe may have eased some of the pressure on his government.
"From an economic standpoint it's completely irrational," said Eldred Masunungure, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "But government's motive is . . . maintain the regime and all else will follow."
The relief won't last. Economists warn that food stocks could run out within weeks. After that, it's unclear whether Mugabe will lift price controls and implement reforms or — as he's hinted — nationalize some key industries.
U.S. officials said last week that they were considering more sanctions against Mugabe and some top aides, who already are subject to travel and financial bans. Christopher Dell, whose term as U.S. ambassador ended in mid-July, offered Zimbabweans these parting words: "Keep the faith. Things will change soon." The people aren't so sure.
"The only change will come when the old man leaves. But the next election, he's going to win for sure," said Justin Mudzengerere, a 33-year-old debt collector who lives with his wife and two children in a long cinder-block house in a working-class suburb.
Mudzengerere is fortunate to have a steady job, working for a South African clothing retailer in Harare. But the price of fuel has tripled and his salary now barely covers bus fare. Like many others, he's developed a black-market business, buying whatever he can get his hands on — notebooks, candles, soap — and reselling it on the streets for twice or three times as much. "To live a normal life on our salaries," Mudzengerere said, "you can't make it."
Economists trace the troubles to the land seizures, which crippled the farm sector and drained Zimbabwe's key source of tax revenues and export earnings. To pay its bills, the government printed money, pushing inflation to the highest levels in the world.
Zimbabwean men joke that their pants pockets aren't big enough to hold the phonebook-thick wads of freshly printed bills needed to make basic transactions. On Tuesday, the government issued a new bill, the 200,000 Zimbabwean dollar note, worth a little more than a U.S. dollar. Monthly living costs for a family of six rose 129 percent from May to June, according to a government estimate. Under Operation Dzikisai Mitengo (Reduce Prices), those costs have come down. But experts say Mugabe ignores the economy's fundamental problems.
"They attacked the final symptom of a long chain of events and said, 'We fixed it,' " said John Robertson, an independent economist. "It's like having a headache when you have malaria and taking a pill to reduce the headache. But you might well die of malaria."
Stores are packed with people enjoying a purchasing power they haven't known for months. Plasma TVs were the first to go, for as little as $100 at black-market rates of exchange. Only the more prosaic items are left. At a downtown wholesaler's one recent morning, shoppers trooped out the door with giant bags of baby wipes and cheese puffs piled into carts.
Staples such as cornmeal — the basis of sadza, the thick porridge that's the national dish — don't even reach the shelves; they're snatched off the backs of trucks. Beef and dairy products are rare finds.
"Milk is very short," read one sign in a suburban market. "Please 2 per customer and don't come back for second time."
Mugabe has deployed a shadowy new task force to crack down on shopkeepers who try to sell above the price ceilings. In the first month, 4,926 people were arrested.
George Mekhdjian, an Armenian emigre who owns a stationery store in a tony outdoor mall, said a fellow store owner had been arrested for selling bottled water at a few cents more than the legal limit. When Mekhdjian saw the man days later, his face had been beaten to a pulp.
"Why should I take any chances?" he said. "Everything I am selling for half-price, and when it's gone, I am closing. If they come for me, I will hand over the keys to the store, say thank you and leave."
In such a fearful climate, Mugabe's critics say, the chances of a public uprising — or a coup from inside the movement — are slim.
"Remember, this was a liberation movement," said Wellington Chibebe, the head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. "They still know how to use guerrilla tactics."
Chibebe knows. While leading a protest last September, he was arrested by security forces and beaten for a half-hour. He sustained three fractures in his left arm and gashes on his head. He agreed to be interviewed in his parked car on a side street, out of sight of security agents who might be trailing him.
"They use whatever strategy helps them remain in power," he said, "whether it's right or wrong, whether it's political or whether it means beating people up."
Then Chibebe got out of the car. He had an appointment with his doctor, to examine his still-broken finger.