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Forget the Mexican Wall: Trump Has Delivered His “Tear Down this Wall Moment” over Venezuela

By: Daniel Raisbeck - @DanielRaisbeck - Feb 21, 2017, 12:49 pm
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Donald Trump demanded the release of Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López while standing next to his wife, Lilian Tintori. (Twitter)

Forget the Mexican Wall Amid the mainstream media outrage about Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, few people have pointed out that there is an enormous difference between a defensive structure built to protect a nation or city-state from external threats and a barrier built around a ruler’s own country in order to prevent the natives from seeking a better life elsewhere. Whereas the latter type of wall is a preferred method of brutal, poverty-enhancing dictatorships, the former type of wall was built by states widely considered to have been among the most enlightened in human history. They also happened to be extremely prosperous.

Classical Athens, for instance, built the Long Walls from the city to the ports of Piraeus and Phaleron in order to protect Attica from the invasions of the dreaded Spartan infantry. Pericles, the far-sighted statesman who was educated under the great philosophers Zeno and Anaxagoras, strengthened the Long Walls in the 440’s BC. According to the historian Thucydides, “during the whole period of peace-time when Pericles was at the head of affairs the state was wisely led and firmly guarded, and it was under him that Athens was at her greatest.” Arguably, the Long Walls helped provide the security that allowed Athenian democracy and maritime trade to flourish in the Classical period. They also provided the political stability that allowed extraordinary Athenian writers such as Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes to produce their immortal works of literature during the second half of the fifth century BC, even as the city waged a prolonged war against Sparta. No Long Walls, no “Athenian enlightenment,” one might contend.

In the second century AD, Hadrian, a Roman emperor known for his cultured philhellenism (he was nicknamed Graeculus, “the small Greek”, as a youth), built his famous wall in Britain “to separate the Romans from the barbarians” according to the author of the Historia Augusta. Although this phrase would strike today’s Social Justice Warriors as a despicable discriminatory measure, Hadrian’s Wall was built after Rome’s decision not to conquer the northern part of Britain. Despite Virgil’s earlier imperium sine fine (empire without end) rhetoric in the Aeneid and the expansionist policies of his predecessor Trajan, who invaded what is now Iraq, Hadrian recognized that world conquest was impossible with Rome’s available resources. He had little problem with peaceful peoples living beyond the empire’s frontier. Hadrian, in fact, built his British wall with its milecastles and turrets in order to thwart destructive raids into and marauding attacks against Roman territory by warlike Celtic tribes. Hadrian’s Wall was also meant to control the flow of merchants and travellers who constantly entered and exited the empire. Some 1894 years before Brexit, Hadrian chose to “take back control” of immigration into Roman Britain.

Hadrian replicated these measures in many of the Roman Empire’s immense frontier zones, including along the Rhine and Danube rivers. According to the Historia Augusta, “in many regions where the barbarians are held back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade.” As scholars D.J. Breeze and B. Dobson write, “the reign of Hadrian saw the construction of (artificial) barriers not only in Upper Germany, Raetia and Britain but also perhaps in Africa, where the frontier complex known as the Fossatum Africae was possibly built at this time.”  According to archaeologist J. Baradez (see D. Cherry), the Romans’ “African ditch” and its walls were built, “to protect agricultural lands against the depredations of nomadic raiders from the desert.” No stable, settled, rich community— whether empire, city-state, or sea-stead— is ever safe from such predatory attacks.

Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, broadly maintained his policy of well-defended linear frontiers with few adjustments, building his own wall in the Scottish Lowlands in the 140’s AD as he pushed the Roman frontier in Britain 100 miles to the north (the effort would fail and the Romans would return to Hadrian’s Wall in the 160’s). The other emperors of the Antonine Dynasty also maintained the Hadrianic system. The result, as Edward Gibbon famously wrote, were frontiers “guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour” and peace across a territory that included “the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind.” The Pax Romana arose, in part at least, due to defensive walls.

It is evident that, much like Hadrian, Barack Obama understood the importance of border defences, at least during his brief stint in the Senate. In 2006, when he supported President George W. Bush’s Secure Fence Act, which ordered the construction of linear defenses along the southern border, Obama stated that the bill would “authorize some badly needed funding for better fences and better security along our borders, and that should help stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.” Twenty-five other Democratic senators, including Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, supported the measure as well.

In 2009, then President Barack Obama ordered the completion of the border wall begun under George W. Bush. His justification: “I think the American people, they appreciate and believe in immigration, but they can’t have a situation where you just have half a million people pouring over the border without any kind of mechanism to control it.” Very Hadrianic of him.

So when Obama told the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 that “today a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” he was blatantly contradicting the rationale he used to justify building the Obama-Bush border fence along the Mexican border. Obama’s convictions, you see, can shift considerably depending on political necessity.

Obama and Hillary Clinton, however, are not the only politicians who sought to virtue-signal their way into progressive hearts by grandstanding in their opportunistic and hypocritical opposition to Trump’s Mexican wall. In Germany, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller tried to lecture Trump, stating that border walls only create “servitude and suffering.” Müller added a reference to the wall that cut off West Berlin from Eastern Germany during the Cold War:

I call out to the American president: think of your predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Remember his words: ‘tear down this wall.’

Greenpeace, natch, also felt compelled to make a muddled, historically illiterate comparison between the Mexican wall and the Berlin Wall, tweeting a photograph of activists standing before the Berliner Mauer while holding signs that read: “MR. PRESIDENT, WALLS DIVIDE, BUILD BRIDGES!”

Neither Müller nor Greenpeace bothered to clarify that, unlike defensive and regulatory structures like Hadrian’s Wall or the Obama-Bush wall or Trump’s proposed wall, the Berlin Wall’s sole purpose was cruel internal repression. As a young communist security chief, Erich Honneker, future leader of the ill-named German Democratic Republic (DDR), supervised the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 in order to forcefully prevent East Germans desperate to flee the horrors of communist rule from reaching freedom in West Berlin. Between the creation of the Soviet and allied occupied zones in Berlin in 1945 and the raising the Berlin Wall 16 years later, in fact, 3.5 million East Germans, who weren’t allowed real democratic elections in their own country, voted with their feet by escaping to the west. Contrary to Obama’s wall, the Berlin Wall sought to “stem all the tide of illegal emigration out of ” the DDR. The difference is monumental. This is why Müller’s reference to Ronald Reagan’s legendary “tear down this wall” speech concerning the Berlin Wall makes no sense in terms of the US border wall.

One might expect Greenpeace fanatics to spout nonsense regularly, but senior German politicians tend to be reasonably well educated. Müller, however, reveals a profound ignorance of his own country’s history by categorically claiming that all border walls create “servitude and suffering.” This completely overlooks the history of the the Hanseatic League, the confederation of over 180 northern European merchant cities led by the north German town of Lübeck which, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, “supplied the dismembered German Empire with a seapower and gave it commercial predominance on the seas that wash the German coasts.”** Practically all Hanseatic cities were fortified with walls in order to defend its industrious burghers from piracy or invasion. As the OED explains, the words burgher and borough come from the Old English burg or burh, which means fortress or citadel and later means “fortified town.” The word is “of Germanic origin; related to Dutch burg and German Burg.”

The German word for citizen, Bürger, originally means the inhabitant of a fortified town. The mayor of such a fortified town is the Bürgermeister. As Karl Marx puts it in the Communist Manifesto, “from the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.” Berlin itself (then called Berlin-Cölln) joined the Hanseatic League in 1360, and any map of the Early Modern city showcases its defensive walls. Bürgermeister Müller, in other words, forgets that the repressive Berlin Wall was an anomaly in German history. In the development of Medieval and modern German civilization and indeed in the history of the city he governs, defensive border walls have been of vital importance.

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Berlin with its defensive walls in 1737.

While Honneker could build a wall around all of West Berlin since the border with East Germany spanned a mere 96 miles, other communist regimes have used other methods to imprison their citizens within their country’s borders. As I wrote recently,

Since Cuba is an island, the late communist autocrat Fidel Castro didn’t have to build a Berlin Wall-type structure around his country in order to force citizens to stay against their will. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Cubans fled any way they could, often risking their lives on rafts on the high seas in an attempt to reach the coast of Florida and gain the opportunity to lead a decent life. In 1980 alone, when Castro temporarily allowed Cubans to leave for the United States, South Florida was left with a humanitarian crisis following the arrival of 125,000 refugees from Castro’s communism.

In Venezuela, the Chávez-Maduro regime hasn’t clamped down on emigration altogether, but the 21st Century Socialists have taken certain authoritarian steps in this direction:

The infamous “Tascón List” is exemplary of the Chavista regime’s penchant for political persecution. As the Guardian explains,

“in 2004, the National Electoral Council (CNE) published the names of individuals who had signed a petition seeking to oust the late president Hugo Chávez, by calling for a recall referendum. The Tascón List, as it came to be known, was later used by the government to deny those who had signed the petition access to state jobs and welfare programs.”

According to the Spanish daily ABC, some 500,000 state employees mentioned in the Tascón List lost their jobs for signing in favor of the recall referendum against Chávez. Others faced obstacles when obtaining a passport, personal documents or foreign currency or when simply trying to leave the country.

After bankrupting Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro lacks the funds to build any effective wall structure to further repress his people, but he has walled up major opposition leaders for daring to speak out against his government’s disastrous misrule. As Venezuelan human rights lawyer Alfredo Romero explains,

since student protests rocked Venezuela in 2014, there have been hundreds of political prisoners, but the actual number in jail at any one time rarely rises above 100 to avoid international scrutiny… The Venezuelan government’s revolving-door method of dealing with political prisoners (is to) ‘keep people for four months, one year, 20 days… Then they release them and put new people into prison. It’s never the same people. It’s never the same number.

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Leopoldo López on his way to prison: Twitter

The best known Venezuelan political prisoner is Voluntad Popular party leader Leopoldo López. As Human Rights Watch writes,

In September (2014), a judge convicted Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, and sentenced him to more than 13 years in prison for crimes that include “public incitement” to commit crimes during a demonstration in Caracas in February 2014. Three students whose cases were linked to López’s were also sentenced, two to four-and-a-half years, and one to more than 10. The judge ruled all three could serve their sentences in conditional liberty.

During Lopez’s trial, the prosecution failed to provide credible evidence linking him to a crime, and the presiding judge, who is a provisional judge and lacks security of tenure, had not allowed his lawyers to present evidence in his defense. In October, one of the prosecutors fled Venezuela and claimed the case had been a ‘farce.’

With very few exceptions, Latin American heads of state have been pusillanimous towards the Maduro regime, continuously claiming, as did Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, that Maduro’s systematic repression (even against Colombian citizens) is a matter of internal politics and, as such, off limits for discussion due to national sovereignty. For his part, Barack Obama pursued a deliberate policy of appeasement toward the Venezuelan autocracy during his time in office.

As the PanAm Post wrote in 2016, the Obama administration and its Secretary of State John Kerry implemented a three-pronged strategy in Latin America in order to advance a left-wing agenda. They sought to support Santos’s deal with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, to renew diplomatic and economic ties with the Castros’ Cuba, and to appease the Maduro regime in Venezuela. The third element was essential if the other two were to succeed. From Obama’s perspective, the stability of the Chavista government, which was a guarantor of the Santos-FARC negotiation, was vital to the Colombian agreement due to the historic ties between the Chávez-Maduro government and the Colombian communist terror group. On the other hand, Maduro’s permanence in power was fundamental for the short-term relative solvency of the Cuban economy, which has become so dependent on Venezuelan oil subsidies that it would likely not survive Maduro’s downfall in Caracas. Chaos in Cuba easily could lead to a Mariel Boatlift-like refugee crisis in Florida, a situation that Obama wanted to avoid at almost any cost.

Although Obama often lectured audiences about the “respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law,” and he once spoke up in favor of Leopoldo López in 2014, the fact is that, as Victor Davis Hanson has written, word must match deed.

And Obama’s deeds toward Venezuela undid his mere words about López’s unjust incarceration. In fact, last October, when a series of massive opposition protests in Caracas and other cities finally had the Maduro regime against the wall, Obama threw a desperate Maduro a lifeline by sending the hapless Tom Shannon, his Under Secretary of State, to bolster the Vatican’s ill-starred effort to hold negotiations between the Venezuelan dictatorship and a few foolish opposition leaders who fell into a trap. The result: Maduro was able to buy time while the opposition’s protests fizzled and its leaders were completely discredited when nothing came out of the Vatican talks. All thanks to Obama and Shannon.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, didn’t mince his words last week when he not only demanded (via Twitter, natch) that Venezuela release López “immediately,” but he also met in the White House with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, who has become a global symbol of freedom-loving Venezuelans’ resistance to socialist tyranny. As The Wall Street Journal wrote, Trump delivered the best tweet of his presidency by supporting Tintori and openly calling López a political prisoner.

The diplomatic effects could be felt a mere two days later, when Argentine President Mauricio Macri, whose position toward Venezuela has been wishy-washy at best, stated that Maduro respects neither democracy nor human rights. As the brave Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado (who recognized the Vatican envoys in Venezuela as Greeks bearing gifts) has constantly said, isolating the Maduro regime from the international community is an essential step in order to bring about its eventual downfall. Unlike Obama, Trump is achieving just that.

As a free-marketeer, I have often criticized Trump for his ill-advised economic protectionism, but one has to give credit where credit is due. Much of the media will continue to harp on about Trump’s Mexican Wall without reference to similar structures such as the Athenian Long Walls, Hadrian’s Wall, or even the Obama-Bush border wall. Less than a month into his presidency, meanwhile, Trump delivered his own version of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” moment. And the media still haven’t taken notice.

**E. Daenell. “The Policy of the Hanseatic League Concerning Respecting the Mercantile Marine,” The American Historical Review Vol. 15, No. 1 (Oct., 1909), pp. 47-53. 47

Daniel Raisbeck Daniel Raisbeck

Daniel Raisbeck is the PanAm Post's Chief Editor. He ran for Mayor of Bogotá in 2015 as an independent candidate. Follow him @DanielRaisbeck.