As offices of the main opposition party were ransacked last week in the capital of Harare and police detained foreign journalists, rumors that 28-year Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe might step down peacefully to avoid the embarrassment of a run-off election (which most observers predict he would lose) began to look a tad optimistic.
Fans of Marxism and state-run economies in general keep insisting central planning married to brotherly socialism could still work, if only the right guy were to give it a try, in the right place.
The country once known as Rhodesia seemed like a fairly good candidate. Three-quarters of the way through the 20th century, the British colony with its mineral wealth and rich agricultural lands was the breadbasket of Africa.
And Robert Gabriel Mugabe, born in 1924, a young schoolteacher who began an idealistic struggle against white rule in the early 1960s, must have seemed like the right leader.
An avowed Marxist-Leninist, "Comrade Bob" assumed power in 1980 after a bloody guerrilla war, and immediately surprised former colonial ruler Britain by inviting white farmers to remain in the newly named Zimbabwe.
But such magnanimity was contrasted with acts of mass brutality: In the late 1980s his army reportedly slaughtered tens of thousands of ethnic Matebeles belonging to a rival political faction.
In the past decade, Comrade Bob has shown his true colors. In 2000, citing broken promises by Britain to help pay for land reforms, Mugabe authorized the violent takeover of the country's remaining, productive white farms. He promised to reallocate the land among the poor, but instead installed relatives and cronies of his ruling party, with little regard to whether any of them actually knew anything about agriculture.
With the destruction of the nation's agricultural sector, Zimbabwe's economy, once the envy of Africa, collapsed. Unemployment today is over 80 percent, and inflation is raging at 100,000 percent.
Friday, authorities introduced a new bank note denominated at 50 million Zimbabwe dollars, Zimbabwe's state-controlled (oh, there's a surprise) media announced. The new note is worth about one U.S. dollar at the trading rate of the widely used black market -- it'll buy three loaves of bread.
Last fall, Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, pleaded with Mugabe to abandon the price controls that have left the nation's retail shelves empty. Instead, Comrade Bob announced his intention to seize private companies that still have at least 50 percent foreign ownership -- especially mines and banks.
Mugabe's economic policies "have left our supermarkets with empty shelves while incapacitating the supply and delivery chains of basic services while at the same time creating a serious confidence crisis and mistrust between government and the business community," banker Gono warned.
"We will have to seize the companies, and the services ... whether transport or any other service being rendered by a company or organization," the 84-year-old dictator replied. "If they don't follow our way, we will take over the companies."
Gee, that's been working out well.