Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, July 2013
Iron Curtains & Imperialism
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, July 29, 2013
Winston Churchill1 popularized the usage of the term, “Iron Curtain,” to signify the monstrous Berlin Wall, and the European barrier that separated the Soviet Empire from the West after World War II. Presidents J. F. Kennedy and R. Reagan tried to convince the Soviets to “tear down the Wall,” as it was a symbol against “world peace, and world freedom.” It was necessary to expand the “frontiers of freedom.” These were noble views. Yet the US and Israel, two western stalwarts, have built walls of their own. The question that arises is, are the circumstances very different with these three walls?
After World War II, Berlin was divided into four sectors: American, British, French and Soviet. Within four years Germany, the vanquished country, was divided into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany.) On May 26, 1952 the border between East and West Germany, and East Germany and West Berlin was closed. The Soviet Army then went on to separate the East from the West progressively: on August 14, 1961, the Brandenburg Gate was closed and a few months later West Berliners were not allowed to use border crossings freely.2 Between 1949 and 1961, it was estimated that 2.7 million Eastern Europeans tried to flee Communism, and several died in their attempts. Even border guards tried to escape the Communist yoke.
Elizabeth Pond4 notes that the Soviets subdued several revolts as East Europeans tried to drive back the imperialists: East Berlin workers’ rebellion in 1953; the Hungarian uprising in 1956; Prague Spring in 1968; Poland’s uprisings in 1956 and 1981. Pond also notes that 1989 was the year that changed the world. The Soviet Union collapsed: its army withdrew from Eastern Europe without shedding blood, except in Romania; in November of that year the Berlin Wall was opened; within two years, on October 3, 1990, Germany was united once again. The British and French needed some convincing from the US as they did not want to see a powerful and united Germany.
Not every liberated East German was pleased with the system in the West. Reverend Christian Führer complained that “the banks and shops here became temples of this capitalist region.” Employment was no longer guaranteed. Unemployment was distressingly high at 20%.5 It was difficult for distressed people to realize that the successful re-unification of Germany would take time and immense optimism.
What the Soviets left behind was anathema to European culture: the Death Strip. There were two parallel barriers with no man’s land in between that was booby-trapped and dotted with bunkers, watch-towers and electrified fences. The 96 miles long strip had gone through four generations of improvement and it was a haunting symbol of the Cold War.6
One cannot escape ironies of history: in this case, the chief liberator of Europe, the US, itself has an Iron Curtain that is almost 2000 miles long, from the southern tip of Texas to California. By the 1983 La Paz Agreement7 America’s Iron Curtain is 62.5 miles north and south of the international boundary. On the American side, four states are involved, Texas, New Mexico Arizona and California; on the Mexican side, the wall covers six states, Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Tampaulipas. The Wall also involves 44 counties, and 80 municipalities, and 43 points of entry. In some places the Wall is just a sign or a fence, in others there are barbed wires and tall steel barriers. The large metropolitan centers, like San Diego, El Paso, and Tijuana have double or triple fencing, more horrendous than the Berlin Wall.
Given that Mexican low-wage workers are seeking economic gain by entering the US illegally, America has a problem controlling the inflow. Almost 70% of the 2.2 million undocumented migrants who applied for amnesty were Mexican, and another 10% were from other Latin American countries, mainly Central American. Mexico is the source of 33.7 million American migrants who will, by 2030, contribute approximately $35 billion a year to the American economy. The money that is repatriated home to Mexico amounts to approximately 5% of Mexico’s GDP.8
Immigration policy, which has therefore become a major issue in the US today, is tied with other problems. Easily available guns from the US are bought and sold in Mexico, while drug and human smugglers have taken over the control of the Mexican border. Parts of the border have developed into a war zone: the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Apprehension data showed that in 1961, 88,823 were apprehended coming illegally into the US; the figure rose to 1.8 million in 2000; the figure was much lower ten years later, 516,992. Many have died crossing the Sonoran desert through dehydration and hypothermia.
Yet Mexico is the US’s third largest trading partner, after Canada and China; in 2000, the trade was valued at $261.7 billion. It is estimated that 300 million people cross the border daily.
Consequently, the US has taken laudable steps to strengthen its southern border and instituted legislation for development of the region. In 1965, the emphasis was on border patrols. In 1993, the US introduced the INDENT System. Since September 9, 2001, the southern border became a national issue and border patrol was increased by 63%. Five years later, the Secure Fence Act extended the Iron Curtain by 700 miles, mainly in Arizona and California. Later, overall plans, much more positive than before, were broadened and updated with Border 2012 and Border 2020.
By contrast the US has managed to monitor its northern border, including Alaska, which is 5,500 miles long, much more effectively without much trauma. By inter-governmental cooperation, effective environmental partnerships and more than 30 Agreements have been worked out.9 Perhaps, cultural similarities have to do with this high level of cooperation.
So far, we assumed that the US was the victim of illegal immigration, especially from the South. But when we realize that the US maintained through the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 that Latin America was its responsibility, we have to assume that it was for the better not for exploitation. The Monroe Doctrine was the first sign that the US was on an imperial course.
The second series of steps that placed the US on an imperial trajectory was Manifest Destiny. Based on this principle, the US took Mexican lands by force. The US started the Mexican War (1846-8) which enabled it to annex the southern states that are bearing the brunt of illegal immigration. The last of the Jacksonians President Polk (1845-9) annexed Texas, and then the southern territory extending to California. The Rio-Grande became the official US-Mexican boundary by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.10
If the Berlin Wall was the symbol of the Cold War, of US-Soviet rivalry in peacetime, the Iron Curtain along the US-Mexican border reflects US’s imperial policy in the New World during the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Israel’s pro-apartheid fence, which is 472 miles long, twice the 1949 ceasefire line, is a perfect example how the Iron Curtain exploits thoroughly.10 If we assume that the Green Line, which the UN recognizes as the current border between Israel and Palestine, is the 1967 border then 80% of the Wall is on the Palestinian side. Some encroachments are as much as 22 kilometers. Israel will have annexed 16.6% of the West Bank, the western aquifer, and entrapped 60,500 Palestinians between the Green Line and the Wall. The 500 checkpoints and roadblocks are intended to make daily life unbearable for the Palestinians.11 As in South Africa, Israel’s apartheid policy is to choke Palestinian development through uneconomic “bantustans.”
The Palestinian Manifest Destiny is to recover first the 1967 border and then all occupied Palestinian land. They have graduated from slings to missiles. The latest is demolition of parts of the wall that divide their agricultural lands. To commemorate Nakba Day, May 15, 2013, the 65th anniversary of the presence of an Occupier, a group of 20 Palestinians broke down the wall at Abu Dis to link Ezzarinya and Abu Dis with the Ras il-Amood neighborhood of Jerusalem.12 The Palestinians have documented all the injustices that they have suffered from Day One.
Regrettably, the purveyor of democracy and freedom, the West, is also involved in other modern Iron Curtains. The Spanish built on Moroccan islands of Ceuta and Melilla three rows of walls, 12.4 miles long at a cost of €30 million.13 About a 100 Iron Curtains, or “peace lines,” separate Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, Northern Ireland.14 A more explosive Iron Curtain stands on the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea. The wall, 154 miles long, was the outcome of the Armistice signed in 1953. This Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is in fact a “cease-fire line.”15 Lorenz feels that the DMZ is the most dangerous place in the world because the North Koreans have threatened to use atomic weapons. For practical purposes, the US-Mexican border is the most dangerous in terms of loss of life, while the Israeli one is the most thorough in choking Palestinian heritage.
July 18, 2013
© Henry D’ Souza, 601-3700 Kaneff Crescent, Mississauga, On, L5A 4B8, Canada
Essays on Contemporary History
Images will be deleted when commercialized
Berlin Wall, July 1974 Brandenburg Gate, July 1974 Demolition of Berlin Wall, 1990
Rev. Dr. Christian Feuhrer
US-Mexico Border Wall, 2013
An old border wall Salvaging the dead
Reagan and Gorbachev Part of the Great Wall of China
Israel’s 760 kms wall in Palestine
Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, apprended in Nuevo Laredo for drug and human trafficking
President James K. Polk (1845-49)
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