Mugabe’s mess, cyber-fears, and Putin-Trump therapy

Happy Friday, Signal readers. A few thoughts, questions, and ideas to take you into your weekend.

Something special: Ian sits down with J.D. Vance and mediates a domestic dispute of international proportions. You won’t want to miss this week’s GZero World!

Let us know what you think and, if you’re so inclined, sign up a friend here.

— Willis Sparks

Vaulting Ambition

Robert Mugabe was not always a cartoon dictator, and Zimbabwe was not always in crisis.

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

The military operation now underway is meant to help veterans of the liberation struggle regain control of the ruling party — and the power and privileges that comes with it — from a younger generation led by Mugabe’s imperious wife Grace. And the military will win, because the soldiers have guns.

Zimbabwe has gone from bread-basket to basket-case, and Mugabe, now under house arrest, is negotiating with the army over his future.

Graphic Truth: The Road to Despotism

Once viewed as his country’s liberator, Robert Mugabe led Zimbabwe down a long road to despotism that culminated in his removal from power by the military just this week. Here’s how things went so wrong.

GZero World With Ian Bremmer: The Deplorables Whisperer

Watch this week’s GZero World — Ian sits down with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy and finds himself caught between two world leaders engaged in a domestic dispute of international proportions.

And introducing Puppet Regime: a new project dropping today, which will be a recurring segment on the show! From the mind of Signal’s own Alex Kliment. Check out the full episodes of GZero World and Puppet Regime on Youtube.

The Urban Dilemma

How bad is New Delhi’s smog? Schools are closed, cars are colliding, helicopters are grounded, and Children’s Day has been postponed. It’s an over-crowded city with lots of traffic, and it doesn’t help that city officials can’t stop farmers in neighboring states from burning crops to prepare the ground for the next season.

There’s a larger story here. People flow from the countryside into dynamic emerging world cities like Manila, Nairobi, Shanghai, Lagos, Jakarta, Mexico City, and Dhaka. There are more people on the same number of streets, and the upwardly mobile want to drive. These cities, victims of their own success, become over-crowded, dirty, and more dangerous.

But this is a problem that can’t be solved simply by spending more on infrastructure. City planners know that when they spend more to improve a city’s quality of life, more people want to live in that city, straining limited finances and exacerbating existing problems. When the demand for progress collides with practical constraints, will leaders be up to the challenge?


Japan posted the longest period of economic growth in 16 years, a Mexican man was arrested for a drug gang’s execution of 72 South and Central American migrants in 2010, the Saudi intervention in Lebanese politics continues, Australians voted for same-sex marriage, two Iranian Olympians put gold medals up for auction to raise money to help victims of a devastating earthquake, and Merkel’s coalition discussions reached an impasse.


A fight is less likely when each side knows the other’s strength. It’s when the balance of power is no longer clear that things get more dangerous. US and Soviet nuclear weapons terrified the world, but those sorts of weapons can be photographed from space; we know how many the other guy has. When one side attacks, everyone knows it.

Cyberspace is a darker arena. No one can know the strength of his own offense or defense until they’re tested, and the test itself can render them obsolete. That’s why we should now worry more about cyber-conflict than about more conventional forms of war.


Israel — We think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be indicted in coming weeks on corruption charges. Elections would likely be called soon after the announcement — or just before if Bibi wants to push his fight into the court of public opinion.

The Chilean Shuffle — Under Chile’s constitution, a president may not serve consecutive terms. Michelle Bachelet of the center-left Socialist Party held the job from 2006 to 2010 and was then replaced by Sebastian Pinera of the center-right National Renewal party. In 2014, Bachelet succeeded Pinera. This weekend, Pinera will take the first step toward again succeeding Bachelet. Good thing Chile has such a civilized political culture. Imagine Obama-Trump-Obama-Trump.

Venezuela’s default — It became clear this week that the Venezuelan government has no apparent long-term strategy for repaying its debts. The problem will get much uglier in 2018.


World Cup 2018 — The Italians (four-time champions), the Dutch (consistent contenders), and the Americans (often scrappy) won’t be there. My vuvuzela stays in storage until 2022.

The Alabama Ghostbuster — President Trump has nominated 36-year-old Brett Talley — the author of several novellas about paranormal phenomena and member of a for-profit ghost-hunting organization in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — to be a federal judge. Mr. Talley has practiced law for three years but he admits he has never tried a case. We’re ignoring this story because we ain’t afraid of no ghost.

People banned from shopping malls — When an adult is (allegedly) banned from a shopping mall, you can be sure that person will never amount to anything. (Irony alert)


2: Only two world leaders have been in power longer than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (37 years) — Cameroon’s Paul Biya (42 years) and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (38 years).

32: Speaking of strongmen, Cambodia’s leader of 32 years Hun Sen succeeding in banning the country’s main opposition party this week, cementing his grip on power.

5: Since 2010, there have been five successful coups globally — Thailand, Egypt, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and Niger. #GoingForSix

1/3: One third of Brazilians would back another military coup. The South American country was ruled by a military government from 1964 to 1985.

6: Today, there are just six absolute monarchies in existence. Can you name them all?

52: Globally, 52 percent of people are not satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country. But only 26 percent believe autocracy would be a good alternative.


“Not taking part in the World Cup is an enormous slap; let’s use it to help everyone change radically at once.”

- Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on his country’s recent failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Didn’t work out so well the last time he called for radical change.

This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks, and prepared with editorial support from Kevin Allison (@KevinAllison), Leon Levy (@leonmlevy), and Gabe Lipton (@Gflipton). Spiritual counsel from Alex Kliment (@saosasha). Give a friend the Signal here.