CHICAGO — With the Zimbabwean economy in a state of collapse and President Robert Mugabe stepping up repression against the country’s population, activists here called for extending greater solidarity to the people.

The gathering of 100 participants under the auspices of the Chicago Forum on Zimbabwe was held June 2. A panel of veteran activists of the Southern Africa solidarity movement and Zimbabweans helped shed light on the complicated situation.

Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia under British colonialism, won its independence from white-minority rule in 1980 after a long liberation struggle. Mugabe was a key leader of the liberation movement and is still revered by many, particularly in the rural areas.

In sharp contrast to that memory is the current descent into repression and corruption by Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party, which has generated large and growing opposition.

“Zimbabwe is in crisis,” said Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Lucy didn’t mince his words: “This crisis rests on the heads of Zimbabweans every day, especially trade unionists who are up against both the government and Mugabe, a brutal dictator.”

Lucy was invited to get a firsthand view of the crisis by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). But Lucy and the CBTU delegation were barred from entering the country. On Sept. 13, 2006, one week prior to their planned visit, the Mugabe government brutally attacked a trade union demonstration. ZCTU has been stepping up its efforts to organize mass “stay-aways” of workers to bring pressure on the government.

Panelists, who included Lucy, Nicole Lee of TransAfrica Forum, Elizabeth Mhangami of Vanavevhu (Children of the Soil) and Arnold Tsunga of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, wove a complex narrative of the current situation and interests at work — including British imperialism, the Bush administration and the Zimbabwean ruling class — along with a history of the liberation movement.

Once considered the jewel of the Southern Africa liberation struggles, Zimbabwe, with its multilayered crisis, is of great concern, activists said. Today unemployment is around 80 percent, food shortages abound and nearly 30 percent of the population has fled the country. Life expectancy has plummeted 20 years and is now less than 37, the lowest in the world. Annual inflation is over 3,500 percent, the highest in the world.

Despite whatever the Bush administration is trying to do, progressives, human rights activists and unionists can’t stand by and let this repression continue, TransAfrica’s Executive Director Lee said.

Under Mugabe, panelists said, Zimbabwe has become a closed society. A variety of delegations have been denied entrance including human rights organizations, the Congressional Black Caucus as well as international media.

Panelists said Mugabe implemented the World Bank’s stringent policies, even though they were hurting the Zimbabwean people. The result is Mugabe uses major repression and violence against the people. For example, the Public Order Security Act bans political protest by declaring that three or more people who are unrelated have to get a permit from the government to meet.

Tsunga, executive secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe and director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, described the 2002 land reform. The government used land reform to reclaim legitimacy following the imposition of these “structural adjustments,” Tsunga said.

Mugabe gave the once white-owned land to his cronies in the army and government, Tsunga said. Agriculture, which once fed the nation and employed 500,000 farm workers, is at 40 percent of capacity and employs only 150,000, he said.

Moderator Prexy Nesbitt, a longtime solidarity activist, authority on Africa and teacher, has led groups to Zimbabwe regularly. But he said he thought seriously of cutting short the last visit because of the dangers. He described roadblocks throughout the capital city, Harare, manned by armed ZANU-PF youth, harassing people.

The panelists urged broader public awareness of the situation, greater support for the Zimbabwe trade union movement and other civic organizations, pressure on elected officials to take a stand, and support for the process being unfolded by leaders of other southern Africa nations. They also urged calling the Zimbabwe Embassy to demand the Mugabe government restore democratic rights.