“The wall” does not yet exist, and it may never be built, but already the proposed 700 miles of fencing and electric sensors loom like a new Berlin Wall in the Latin American imagination.
The plan for a barrier along the border with Mexico was approved by the U.S. House in December and is scheduled to be debated by the Senate next month.
El muro, as it is called in Spanish, has been in the news for weeks not only in countries such as Mexico and El Salvador that are increasingly dependent on the money migrants send back home, but also those farther away, such as Argentina and Chile. Across the region, el muro is seen as an ominous new symbol of the United States’ unchecked power.
“The U.S. government has fostered an atmosphere of collective paranoia, given a green light to its spies ... and institutionalized torture,” Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya said. “The only thing missing was a wall.”
The brainchild of Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the measure calls for two “layers of reinforced fencing,” new lighting, cameras and underground sensors similar to those in place near San Ysidro, Calif. One new stretch would seal off nearly the entire 350-mile length of the Arizona-Mexico border.
“Our nation has lost control of its borders,” Sensenbrenner said on the House floor when introducing the bill in December. An estimated 1 million people cross illegally into the United States each year.
The bill proposes elevating illegal crossing from a misdemeanor to a felony, and includes new provisions to curb hiring of undocumented workers.
“Large majorities of Americans support efforts to restore the security of our nation’s borders,” Sensenbrenner said. The House later approved the bill by a vote of 239-182.
South of the proposed barrier, news of the vote has been greeted with expressions of confusion, sadness and official concern. The foreign ministers of 11 Latin American countries who met Feb. 13 in Colombia agreed to formulate a plan to lobby the U.S. Senate to kill the proposal.
Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, whose center-right government is close to the Bush administration, made an unusually strident statement about the bill last month.
“It seems to us a real affront that a government that calls itself a friend and regional partner only wants our money and our products, but treats our people as if they were a plague,” Stein said.
A minority of commentators have suggested that Latin American governments share at least some of the blame for the disorder on the U.S. frontier.
“The diatribes [against the wall] are a poor substitute for adequate policies,” Sergio Aguayo Quezada wrote in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma. “The long era of open borders is over, and the escape valve is slowly closing.”
Others point out that the walls already in place for more than a decade in Tijuana, El Paso and other border areas have driven illegal crossers into the Sonoran Desert, where hundreds have died.
Fearing that more fences will result in more deaths, Bishop Renato Ascencio Leon led a Mass in Ciudad Juarez against the proposal. “We pray to the Lord that this wall not be raised,” he said.
The president of Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights, Jose Luis Soberanes, called the proposal an act of “idiocy.”
The Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre sounded out the country’s artists and athletes, who unanimously condemned the fence.
“It’s one more slap in the face from the gringos, an example of their cynicism,” actress Patricia Orantes told the newspaper. “The walls are falling now. Berlin’s fell, and [the Americans] still haven’t learned yet.”
Bristling over the repeated comparisons with the wall built by East German Communist leaders, U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza responded last month with an angry letter.
“Comparisons of proposals to alter our border policies to the Berlin Wall are not only disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, they are personally offensive to me,” Garza wrote in a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy here. “The Berlin Wall was built to keep its own people trapped inside, and was created by an oppressive authoritarian government.”
The United States, Garza wrote, has an inherent right to defend its security.
U.S. relations with Latin America have been strained in recent years, especially since the invasion of Iraq. Latin American representatives on the U.N. Security Council in 2003, Chile and Mexico, opposed the war.
In Mexico, where perceived ill treatment by the United States is more than ever a national obsession, the rhetorical power of el muro has been hard to resist.
Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador refers to el muro in his speeches, saying, “If there is no economic growth in Mexico, people will continue to cross, no matter if they build walls.” Felipe Calderon, presidential candidate of the center-right National Action Party, called the proposal “historically unacceptable.”
In a televised interview last month, President Vicente Fox called the barrier “the wall of ignominy” and promised to fight it.
A few days later, during a visit to the city of Merida on the Yucatan peninsula, a group of union activists threw the metaphor back at the president. “Why won’t you talk to us?” the protesters shouted at Fox from behind a crowd barrier. “Here is the wall! The wall is here!”
In the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin, Marcelo Moreno compared el muro with Argentina’s exclusive “country club” gated neighborhoods. If the rich of Latin America are building barriers to keep out the poor, he argued, why should anyone be surprised that the U.S. is building walls too?
“When the Berlin Wall fell, many believed that with globalization on the march, the last great barrier had fallen,” Moreno wrote. “Now the opposite is happening. The walls are multiplying.”
Times researchers Alex Renderos in San Salvador, Andres D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires and Carlos Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.