“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The headline from President Ronald Reagan in 1987 came toward the end of 30 years of cold war.
Today, politics have changed. During Donald Trump’s candidacy announcement in June 2015, he said, “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.” Trump also told Larry King on CNN, “Look at Putin ... he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia ....”
The German wall became a symbol of the Iron Curtain that divided Western and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, a nonshooting but very tense conflict between Russia and the United States. The East German government (then part of the Soviet Union) built the wall in 1961 when I was a sophomore at Moscow (Idaho) High School. Gates to the wall were finally opened in November 1989; demolition of the wall began seven months later, on June 13, 1990.
One month after demolition began, I led a 31-person agricultural delegation to Eastern Europe. Participants were Idaho farmers, food processing executives and political leaders, including two young ranchers, Brad and Teresa Little. Brad is now Idaho’s lieutenant governor. Our first night’s stay on July 16, 1990, was at Hotel President in Berlin, East Germany. The next morning we viewed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. Our guide told us the wall was 110 miles long, built on August 13, 1961, in one night. She said 100,000 soldiers manned the wall and the number of people escaping from East Germany was cut to 100,000 after the wall was built. Prior to the the wall, about 3.5 million people escaped to the West.
Most food in East Berlin was imported with very limited exports. Bleakness and disrepair were immediately evident. We observed long lines at store entrances. Wages in East Berlin averaged about one-third that of West Berlin. Food costs were inflating rapidly with very little East German food stocked in their stores.
We laughed about how quickly capitalism takes over from communism. East German entrepreneurs made a thriving business of renting hammers and chisels so that tourists and locals could chisel pieces of concrete from the wall for souvenirs. Local artists sold painted chunks of concrete with interesting faces and figures. We have several examples of the art in our Boise home.
Are there any similarities with Mexico? Mexico today is our third-largest trading partner. According to the Idaho Department of Commerce, “Idaho exports to Mexico include: food and agriculture products, wood and building materials, paper products, high tech, hides and leather goods.”
In 1996, Idaho agreed to a sister-state relationship with Jalisco, Mexico, and our departments of Commerce and Agriculture manage a trade office in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco.
Many factors shape our opinions, but the trade debate today sorts down to two differing policies: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” versus “I will build a great, great wall.”
Dick Rush, retired, has served as administrator of the Idaho Wheat Commission, director of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, and vice-president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.