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FILE PHOTO: Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe addresses the ZANU-PF party's top decision making body, the Politburo, in the capital Harare, February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE (Reuters) - Despite his advancing years and increasing frailty, 93-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe shows few signs of losing his love for foreign travel, a predilection that is costing his cash-strapped country dear.
Having racked up 200,000 air miles since the start of 2016 and outspent the parliamentary budget on trips abroad, Mugabe jetted off to the Mexican resort of Cancun this week for a "Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction" conference with a three dozen-strong delegation in tow.
Back home the trip raised eyebrows, with opposition wags wondering whether Mugabe, who presided over economic collapse and multi-billion percent inflation a decade ago, was there to talk about causing disasters rather than preventing them.
The length of the trip was another bone of contention in a country where banks seldom allow withdrawals of more than $50 a day and the government frequently pays state wages late.
Mugabe left on May 19 on a private charter flight - his normal Air Zimbabwe plane is grounded - with an entourage of at least 35 officials, including cabinet ministers, bodyguards and reporters from state TV and the official newspaper, the Herald.
He is expected back on Friday - a seven-day trip for the three-day U.N. conference, also attended by leaders from the likes of Albania, Dominica, Swaziland and Kiribati.
During that time, Herald staffers will receive a daily allowance of $1,000 and other officials up to $1,500 depending on their rank, according to a government official who helped organise the trip.
By contrast, the average state employee in Zimbabwe is paid $500 a month.
To make the most of their overseas jaunts, many officials have been known to check in to cheap hotels far from conference venues to save up for property, cars or school fees back home.
"We have a bureaucracy that is getting extortionate per diems from the travels. It is a parasitic mindset," Tendai Biti, a former finance minister and opposition leader, told Reuters.
"When you look at the latest trip it shows a president who makes unstrategic trips to unstrategic countries."
Last year Mugabe made at least 20 trips abroad, spending $36 million in the first 10 months, up from $33 million the previous year, according to Ministry of Finance figures.
Meanwhile parliament, which has more than 300 members, made do with a budget of $30 million for the entire year.
Despite growing concerns about his health - the government denies he falls asleep in public, saying he is merely resting his eyes - there has been no let-up this year, with eight overseas trips, including two to Singapore for medical checks.
Mugabe spokesman George Charamba could not be reached on Friday but in comments in the Herald on March 5 he said Mugabe's globetrotting zeal proved he was strong enough to remain in office, and denied any waste of taxpayers' money.
"Diplomacy does not come cheap," Charamba said.
In Cancun, Mugabe attended the opening ceremony, a group photo and a closed-door meeting of leaders. He was the first to leave the session.
A security guard said the Zimbabwean delegation was not staying at the five star Moon Palace hotel complex hosting the conference.
Western sanctions imposed in reaction to widespread allegations of security forces using violence to crush political dissent mean Mugabe is barred from visiting the United States and European Union.
However, he has been able to exploit the diplomatic cover granted to the annual United Nations General Assembly to make regular visits to New York.
At the 2013 inauguration of Pope Francis, he flew to Rome but was met on the airport tarmac by an embassy limousine and whisked off to the Vatican, meaning he technically did not set foot on Italian soil.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Hares in Cancun; Editing by Ed Cropley and John Stonestreet)