If President Barack Obama thinks he faces an economic nightmare, he should glance overseas to the challenges facing newly installed Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe: 94 percent unemployment, the highest inflation rate in the world, and currency so worthless Zimbabweans used it for confetti at Tsvangirai's swearing-in last month.
Add to that a tumultuous relationship with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe-one of the most ruthless dictators in the world-and then top it off with personal tragedy: Just three weeks ago Tsvangirai's wife, Susan, died in a car crash that left the prime minister injured and bereaved.
But despite a slate of crushing hardships, Tsvangirai signaled Friday he's ready to overhaul a ruined nation-even it if means staring down a hardened dictator-by announcing that anyone invading Zimbabwean farms would be arrested and prosecuted.
The announcement may sound unremarkable to Western ears, but it represents a direct challenge to Mugabe's long-standing policy of land grabbing in the Zimbabwean countryside, a practice experts say drove the country's precipitous economic collapse over the last decade.
Mugabe began seizing land from white farmers in 2000 and giving the lush farms to poor, black citizens. The president said the policy would alleviate poverty, but experts say it's done just the opposite: Inexperienced citizens allowed the fertile land to languish, destroying the agricultural sector that drove the nation's export-based economy and depleting the country's own food supply.
Worsening conditions in Zimbabwe spiraled quickly last year while Mugabe refused to act. An incomprehensible inflation rate reached into the quadrillions of percent, according to some economists. The country abandoned its worthless currency earlier this year, and billion-dollar notes littered the streets after both Tsvangirai's swearing-in and his wife's funeral.
The economic toll wreaked humanitarian havoc: Hospitals closed as the population faced a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 4,000 people since August. Food prices have soared, and the United Nations says at least half the population faces starvation.
Zimbabweans expressed guarded hope after Tsvangirai and Mugabe reached a power-sharing agreement last fall. And after months of intense international pressure, Mugabe swore in Tsvangirai as prime minister last month.
The prime minister Friday condemned reports of land grabbing in the country over the last few weeks, calling the acts criminal and directing the minister of home affairs to oversee arresting offenders. Reversing the land-grab policy is critical to restoring relations with the outside world: The United States and Europe maintain targeted sanctions against Mugabe, citing in part the land policy. Officials from the International Monetary Fund said the group wouldn't offer financial assistance to Zimbabwe until the government establishes sound economic practices.
Mugabe says he won't back down from his land policy, and Tsvangirai faces an epic challenge to restore economic and social justice to the beleaguered nation while Mugabe remains in power. Earlier this month, the All Africa News service described the Zimbabwean challenge in biblical proportions: "The expenditure needs of government stretch from the North Pole to the South Pole, while its revenue options are as terse as the shortest verse in the Bible-'Jesus wept.'"