Zimbabwean opposition envoy Ralph Black: US has a role to play in this month's election

Facing a critical election on July 31, millions of Zimbabweans are hoping to vote fairly and freely to replace 89-year-old Robert Mugabe after 33 years as the country’s condescending, corrupt and authoritarian president. For decades, elections in Zimbabwe have been rigged, and voters seeking to cast ballots against Mr. Mugabe have been terrorized; many have been killed.

Why should the U.S. care about the upcoming Zimbabwe election? For starters, American rivals Russia, China and Iran hope Mugabe remains in power and are likely doing what they can to assure his victory. Each of those countries capitalizes on their relationships with Mugabe to make money — lots of money.  Russia and China exploit Zimbabwe’s diamonds, platinum and other natural resources, literally stealing hundreds of millions from the country’s people.

Iran wants Zimbabwe’s uranium and pays for some of it with sophisticated weapons for the Zimbabwe Defense Forces. Both Russia and China also pour weapons into the Zimbabwe military, bolstering its grip on Zimbabweans. In fact, Zimbabwean generals, already subsuming much executive power from an ailing Mugabe, are reportedly preparing to take the full reins of government after the election as the president suffers from what may be the final stages of prostate cancer. These generals are ruthless, rake in fortunes in bribes and kickbacks, and court America’s antagonists with vigor and promises of lucrative business deals.

Many of our mutual friends care about what happens in Zimbabwe. South Africa, Botswana and Zambia are among the world’s strongest democracies — after many years of struggle — embodying the ideals important to Americans. Those countries need a stable southern Africa to continue their roles as responsible members of the international community, building stronger economies, and assisting the U.S. and other nations in fighting the spread of terrorism in Africa and elsewhere.

There is precious little time remaining until the elections on July 31. The Mugabe regime has done all it can to keep opposition parties, such as Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), from organizing and registering voters.  There are massive irregularities in voter registration, and the legality of the election itself is in question as the nation’s highest court, appointed by and sympathetic to Mugabe, ruled on a lawsuit demanding early voting. The ruling negated a multitude of reforms mandated by a new constitution that include wider press freedom, voter roll inspection and strict prohibitions against military and police intimidation of voters and opposition candidates. So, momentum to rig yet another Zimbabwean election seems to be in Mugabe’s favor.

Still, Americans can help in a few ways.

First, American can ask members of Congress and the Obama administration to pressure the Mugabe regime to allow international monitors to observe the election. In addition, we can support the efforts of free press freedom advocates, such as Reporters without Borders, encouraging them to insist publicly that the Mugabe regime allow unfettered access by foreign media outlets to cover voting. Should Mugabe win, Americans should petition Congress to maintain targeted sanctions on aspects of the Zimbabwean diamond industry that may be funneling funds to conflict zones and terrorist organizations.

Should Tsvangirai and his party win, the United States should embrace his programs of legal, social and economic reform; urge other nations to do the same; and further engage Zimbabwean public and private sector institutions as they transition.

During the next three weeks, Americans can use the power of social media to show support for a free and fair election in Zimbabwe. Postings on social media platforms can encourage Zimbabwe's voters to remain brave and committed. Americans should share, for example, Facebook updates and tweets that expose voter fraud, government intimidation or harassment. Send such evidence to news outlets, congressional offices and nongovernment organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, among others.

Americans would be well served not to ignore what is happening in Zimbabwe. Instead, Americans should do what we can to enable the people there to pick the leaders they want to forge the future they deserve.

Ralph Black is a Zimbabwean political refugee and the U.S. Representative for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC-T.