The last time Zimbabwe went into economic freefall, in 2009, inflation was a mind-boggling 200 million percent. Shoppers had to carry the colorful bank notes, in billion- and trillion-dollar denominations, in bags to pay for basics.
To address the crisis, President Robert Mugabe's government abandoned Zimbabwe's own currency and adopted the U.S. dollar as legal tender. That helped end hyperinflation and helped stabilize Zimbabwe's economy.
But today, the economy is again in a tailspin and the country is in desperate need of a new solution. U.S. dollars are still the main currency, but they are in critically short supply.
A visible sign of the latest crisis is evident in the long, winding lines outside all banks and ATMs in the capital, Harare, where customers are desperate to withdraw cash. Audrey Munemo says she's been waiting since dawn.
"I have been here in the queue at the bank for about four hours, ever since morning, and the banks are saying they don't have money," she says. "I was just trying to withdraw all my money before these bond notes start circulating, because we don't know what these authorities are planning to do."
Last week, local and foreign-based banks reduced cash withdrawal limits to a maximum of $50 a day, though some bigger banks allowed withdrawals of up to $200. Yet many frustrated customers left banking halls and ATMs empty-handed after waiting for hours.
Munemo is talking about the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank's plan to bring in new bond notes at the end of October.
In theory, they will be on par with the U.S. dollar. But Zimbabweans have no faith that this will be the reality.
Fiscal mismanagement and a crippled economy have driven many to frantically ship their cash out of the country and have left dollars in short supply.
As cash runs out, talk of the new notes has caused panic, despite assurances from Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank governor, John Mangudya. He says the incoming bond notes are intended to help increase exports and are backed by a $200 million loan from the Africa Export-Import Bank.
"The purpose of bond notes is to deal with an incentive for exporters, but I think people are now confusing that the bond notes are to cater for cash shortages. No. There is no relationship. It's purely an export incentive scheme," says Mangudya.
Zimbabweans are not convinced. The governor's announcement has led to a run on the banks.
Patricia Sharaunga, a mother of three, is wearing a large purple hat, a matching dress and sneakers, as she stands in a long line outside a bank. Like the others, she hopes to withdraw as many U.S. dollars as she can from her account.
"It is frustrating, because I should be in the bank 20, 30 minutes, I take my money, I go home and I shop for my children. I've been four hours here," she says.
Like many Zimbabweans, Sharaunga juggles several jobs. She teaches schoolchildren road safety and also sells whatever she can – tomatoes, onions, goats — to look after her family.
"We are surviving hand to mouth," she adds. "No more luxuries these days, it's just basics. Pay rent, buy electricity, pay school fees for the children. That's it."
There have been increasing numbers of protests, in the streets and on social media, calling for Mugabe to go. His government is still struggling to pay government workers, and says the economic problems should be blamed on the West.
"Every country has its own economic problems," says Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chombo. "You are fully aware that Zimbabwe is under sanctions from the West, so [protesters] should be demonstrating at Western embassies, where those sanctions are coming from."
In 2002, the U.S. and other Western governments slapped individual sanctions on Mugabe, his family members and loyalists for violations of human and democratic rights. But the president and his supporters see it as part of a larger effort to undermine the government.
"That is exactly the impact of the sanctions which you are calling selective," says Chombo. "They are just sanctions imposed on Zimbabweans so that Zimbabweans can rise and remove a legitimately elected government."
Economist Prosper Chitambara says the government must rein in profligate spending, woo potential investors and rethink its priorities if Zimbabwe's economy is to recover.
"We need some serious fiscal austerity," he says. "We also need to rationalize the bloated structure of our government so that it's in line with the population of Zimbabwe and also with the size of the economy of Zimbabwe. And that could entail, for example, reducing the cabinet, reducing the size of parliament, firing deputy ministers — we have ministries for almost everything."
Zimbabwe, a country of about 16 million, has a cabinet that includes 41 ministers and 20 deputy ministers.
There are calls for an international conference to help ease Zimbabwe's foreign debt problem. Yet there are also critics of the president who oppose any such bailout, saying it would only prop up a president who has presided over multiple financial crises during his 36 years of rule and must go.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Back a few years ago, when Zimbabwe's inflation rate was a mind-boggling 200 million percent, it abandoned its currency and adopted the U.S. dollar. Colorful Zimbabwe billion and trillion-dollar bank notes were stuffed in large bags to pay for basics, like a billion-dollar loaf of bread. Today, the economy is again in a tailspin, and U.S. dollars are in critically short supply. From Harare, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Zimbabweans are hurting during this cash crunch. One sign is the winding lines outside banks and ATMs here in Harare, with people desperate to withdraw cash, like Audrey Munemo. She's been waiting since dawn.
AUDREY MUNEMO: I've been here in the queue at the bank for about four hours. Ever since morning, I was just here. And the banks are saying that they don't have money. And I was just trying to withdraw my money before this bond note starts circulating because we don't know what these authorities are planning to do.
QUIST-ARCTON: Munemo is talking about the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank's plan to bring in new bond notes at the end of the month, supposedly on a par with the U.S. dollar. Zimbabweans have depended on the greenback since it was introduced as the main currency seven years ago to end cycles of hyper-inflation.
Now, fiscal mismanagement, a crippled economy and people frantically trying to ship their cash out of the country have left dollars in short supply. As cash runs out, talk of the new notes has caused panic, despite assurances from Reserve Bank governor John Mangudya. He says the incoming bond notes are an incentive for exporters, and not because of cash shortages.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN MANGUDYA: I think people are now confusing that the bond notes are coming in to cater for cash shortages. No, there's no relationship.
QUIST-ARCTON: Zimbabweans are not convinced. The governor's announcement has led to a run on the banks.
I'm outside an ATM, and there are - what? - I'd say about maybe up to a hundred people in this line. Ma'am, your name, please?
PATRICIA SHARAUNGA: I'm Patricia Sharaunga. They are we saying we should not put our money in the bank. Of course, we can't take it. We'd rather put it in a drawer in the house.
QUIST-ARCTON: Under the mattress?
SHARAUNGA: Yes, under the mattress is better. But we don't have cash.
QUIST-ARCTON: Depositors, like mother of three Patricia Sharaunga, wearing a large, purple hat, matching dress and sneakers, hope to withdraw as many U.S. dollars as they can from their accounts. She's about number 20 in this long line.
SHARAUNGA: It's is frustrating because I should be in the bank 20, 30 minutes; I take my money, I go home. I shop for my children, and I feed my children.
QUIST-ARCTON: Like many Zimbabweans, Sharaunga juggles several jobs. She's a freelancer, she says, teaching schoolchildren road safety and also selling whatever she can locally - tomatoes, onions, even goats - to look after her family.
SHARAUNGA: We are surviving hand-to-mouth. No more luxuries these days. It's just basics - pay rent, pay electricity and pay fees for the children. That's all.
QUIST-ARCTON: There have been audacious and increasingly strident hashtags and street protests, calling for 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe to go. He's struggling to pay government workers. Echoing the president's mantra, Home Affairs Minister Ignatius Chomobo blames Zimbabwe's economic problems on Western sanctions.
IGNATIUS CHOMOBO: We are fully aware that Zimbabwe is under sanctions from the West.
QUIST-ARCTON: What do targeted sanctions have to do with Zimbabweans having to queue for hours to get very little money?
CHOMOBO: But that is exactly the impact of the sanctions, which you are calling selective, imposed on Zimbabweans so that the Zimbabweans can rise and remove a legitimately elected government.
QUIST-ARCTON: In 2002, the U.S. and other Western governments slapped personal sanctions on President Mugabe, family members and loyalists for violations of human and democratic rights. Corruption and cronyism are also cited by critics. Economist Prosper Chitambara says profligate government spending is hampering Zimbabwe's economic recovery.
PROSPER CHITAMBARA: Definitely. We need need some serious fiscal austerity.
QUIST-ARCTON: As factions quibble over economic strategy and calls for a financing conference to help ease Zimbabwe's foreign debt arrears, Mugabe's vocal detractors oppose any outside deal that they feel could bail out their beleaguered, nonagenarian leader. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.