Sunday, November 28, 2004

Alternatives to a dysfunctional gov't

Alternatives to a dysfunctional gov't

Updated 05:09am (Mla time) Nov 28, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 28, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TWO venerable national figures this week offered blunt solutions to the problems confronting our society. National Artist and novelist F. Sionil Jose called for a "revolution" in a lecture at the University of the Philippines. Business leader Washington SyCip told a forum of the League of Corporate Foundations that the country might benefit from a switch to authoritarian rule at this time. In their separate ways, they have publicly articulated views that many thoughtful Filipinos are expressing in private gatherings.

The specifics of such solutions are seldom clear. The two are not known to be ideologues. I was present at Jose's lecture, but on SyCip's intervention at the Makati briefing, I am only relying on newspaper reports.

Jose argued that mass poverty is the principal problem of our society. He ascribes this to three factors: the loss of our ethical moorings, our lack of a sense of nation, and the betrayal of the nation by its leaders. The masa, he says, must free themselves through a revolution launched by their own leaders and guided by their own creed.

SyCip's comments were prompted by a paper read by UP Prof. Ben Diokno on the current fiscal crisis. He said that he was realistic enough to know that Diokno's recommendations would be ignored by Congress. "There is nothing wrong with the Filipino," SyCip was quoted as saying. "But there is nothing right in our political system. We follow blindly the things that work in western countries but do not work in Asian developing countries. What we have right now is not working."

I agree absolutely with Jose that mass poverty is our society's biggest problem, but I am not certain that a masa revolution, whatever it may mean, is feasible today or even that it is the best approach to solving poverty. My doubt stems from the belief that what is referred to as the Filipino masa today, unlike in Bonifacio's time, is not a politically or economically coherent force capable of mounting its own revolution. I also believe that mass poverty in our country is only partly the result of the unequal distribution of wealth. Its basic cause is the underdevelopment of our economy-the lack of dynamism in the technological front, the low level of skills of our people, the paucity of new investments, the lack of jobs, the slow pace of modernization in agriculture, etc. The experiences of China and Vietnam show that these conditions are not necessarily corrected by a masa revolution.

SyCip's argument about the dysfunctions of our blind adoption of the western political system, on the other hand, seems so commonsensical one can hardly disagree with it. Definitely, we should find a mode of government that works for us, that is consistent with the culture of our people, and appropriate to the urgent problems we confront today. But, again, the question is: what form shall it take? What makes us think that President Macapagal-Arroyo can pull a trick similar to martial law, or that anyone can seize power by extra-constitutional means and impose an authoritarian regime? I believe only those who imagine scenarios outside of history can seriously think that Filipinos would be willing to give up their liberties again and try another dictator.

Our problem is not that the presidency lacks powers. Our problem is that we have an incumbent who cannot exercise the powers inherent in the office. This situation arises from the deeply flawed manner by which Ms Arroyo rose to the presidency in 2001 and in 2004. In both instances, the stabilizing and legitimizing role of electoral majorities was not allowed expression. The vacuum was filled by political operators and organized groups that successfully manipulated the public's need to quickly restore normalcy. It is to these powerbrokers that the President feels beholden. Lacking in moral authority, she is unable to demand sacrifices from a public that did not vote for her. Weak and having no constituency of her own, she finds herself kowtowing to fellow politicians and predatory syndicates that could turn against her anytime. The role of the public must be restored.

Three steps at least are needed to turn the country around. First, a large and articulate constituency for reform must assemble itself from the countless fragmented voices and social movements that are already making themselves heard in our society today. Its first task is to draw and agree on a realistic roadmap to national recovery, carefully marking out the main obstacles and dangers and indicating the immediate priorities to be tackled. Second, the document must be explained and debated in public fora all over the country, refined, and then presented to the President and Congress for action. And third, depending on the response of the present political leadership, the reform movement may either call for new elections or a constitutional convention or both.

As important as drawing such a roadmap is the whole exercise of forming a public consensus in which the vast majority of our people can participate. This is what the last presidential elections should have achieved if the political discourse had not been distorted by the fears and resentments arising from Edsa II.

Our problems may seem awesome but they are not insurmountable. The opportunities for social transformation are already to be found in our present milieu. However, we must contend not only with the forces of reaction but also with those whose idea of change is limited to what the writer Roberto Unger calls "an all-or-nothing, cataclysmic regeneration of society."

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Hacienda Luisita

Hacienda Luisita

Updated 01:41am (Mla time) Nov 21, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 21, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IT is a testimony to the power of modern symbols that the name "Hacienda Luisita" today evokes only images of a busy shopping mall, a sprawling golf club and a techno-business park. Not too long ago, it referred distinctly to the largest sugar land estate in all of Central Luzon, owned by one of the region's wealthiest clans, the Cojuangcos, and encompassing in its vastness 11 barrios in three towns in the province of Tarlac. Despite its veneer of modernity, however, the 6,453-hectare Hacienda Luisita is still a sugar plantation, one of the last relics of the pre-capitalist era.

How the hacienda survived successive land reform laws and remained intact as a land estate controlled by the same family across generations dramatizes the essentially static character of the Philippine class structure.

When Tarlac Rep. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, a fifth-generation Cojuangco scion, protested that the trouble at the hacienda recently was an industrial dispute and not an agrarian problem, he was technically correct. The workers both at the sugar mill and at the farm were demanding higher wages, not land. They were negotiating with a management team, not with a landlord. They were constituted as a workers' union, not as a peasant movement.

But the memory of social identities long established is not so easily erased by a change in nomenclature. The Cojuangcos are still looked upon in Tarlac as landlords. And that term carries both positive and negative associations. Their old workers still look upon them as moral elders. As sources of benevolence, it is to them they turn for all their problems. The younger people who have gone to school however see them merely as feudal survivors who stubbornly cling to their traditional possessions and privileges. The democratic view is that instead of seeking refuge in a stock distribution scheme, they should have transferred their landholdings to their tenants and workers, and moved on to become real industrialists in the new era.

The agrarian question was clearly not the issue in this dispute, but now it has framed, both emotionally and ideologically, the conflict that led to the violent death of 14 people last Tuesday. The public does not distinguish between the workers at the sugar mill who were not striking, and the thousands of farmhands and sacadas at the plantation who had put up the barricade. When the police and military troops appeared on the scene with an armored personnel carrier, the simple message instantly communicated by this picture was that of a government coming to the rescue of an obsolete ruling class.

The classic themes of the Huk rebellion and the Maoist revolution have suddenly come to life. The class wars of the 1950s and the 1960s have returned to the political consciousness to interrogate the democratic claims of the intervening years. The two Edsa people power events are suddenly stripped of their meanings. And that serene icon of the first Edsa, Cory Aquino, is dragged back to the front stage to answer for the massacre of the peasants at Hacienda Luisita. The Maoists would have been stupid not to see the potency of these images.

But the fact that the armed underground movement is exploiting these events for its own purposes should not diminish the public outrage over this brutal and unconscionable display of state power. This is what we fought against at Edsa-the arrogant use of armed troops of the state to break up the protest action of defenseless civilians, and the privileging of the rights of property over the lives of people.

This is not a fight between the legacy of Edsa and the promise of a real revolution waiting to happen. Because of its urban middle class composition, Edsa I may not have been forceful about agrarian rights. But it was unequivocal in its espousal of human rights and political democracy. Its image may have been tarnished by the decision of President Cory Aquino's family to retain ownership of Hacienda Luisita through a stock option maneuver. But the general spirit of social reform that Edsa I embodies has made it possible for social movements and people's organizations to insert the people's agenda in the public consciousness.

There is widespread horror and indignation over the cruel dispersal of the strike at Hacienda Luisita because of this. There is renewed interest today in the fate of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law also because of this. It is as it should be. We must build from the democratic gains of all past struggles and uprisings. Only by defending and remaining faithful to the values for which they fought do we honor the memory of those who offered their lives to these struggles.

All the same, there is no justifiable reason to picket the former president's home on Times Street or to lay the blame for the Hacienda Luisita workers' death at her door. She has no hand in the running of the family corporation. We become a stronger people, I think, when we choose to remember Cory as the brave widow who, after her husband's murder, accepted a role thrust upon her by history and catalyzed the unity of a nation against tyranny. We ultimately do ourselves a great disservice if we paint her as the enemy.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A school in Macarascas

A school in Macarascas

Updated 05:38am (Mla time) Nov 14, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 14, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

MACARASCAS is one of the many sparsely populated barrios of Puerto Princesa in Palawan. It is the home of the St. Ezequiel Moreno Parish, about an hour's ride by jeep from the city center on the newly built concrete road to Sabang and the famous St. Paul underground river. A cut on this tourist highway leads to a narrow dirt road that goes to the impoverished community of Macarascas. This is the other face of Palawan, the one hidden by the opulence of classy resorts like Amanpulo, El Nido and Dos Palmas and by big-ticket projects like Malampaya Gas.

More than five years ago, the parish priest of Macarascas, Fr. Broderick Pabillo, embarked on his own dream project-a rural boarding school for girls that would serve the more than 30 communities comprising his parish. The idea struck him after seeing how the children, who lived in the parish while they were attending the public schools nearby, routinely lost interest in learning. One by one they would quit school, either to work as house help in the city or to go back to their communities, get married and have children of their own. He thought something had to be done to break this cycle of ignorance, poverty and hopelessness. He sensed that the public schools were trapped in their own inadequacies, mechanically promoting illiterate children year after year in fulfillment of their bureaucratic mandates. A great believer in the transforming power of education, Father Pabillo refused to yield to this reality.

He sought permission from his bishop to set up a non-formal school in which the children of his parish could be given the education he thought they deserved and needed. He linked up with the DepEd-accredited Angelicum School in Quezon City which follows a non-graded curriculum based on varying levels of competency. In effect, what he was setting up was a comprehensive tutorial boarding school that would help the children graduate to higher levels through periodic examinations.

He then explained the concept to the parents in his parish. Their response was enthusiastic, but the school could not possibly admit every child. Father Pabillo decided to start with 40 kids ranging in age from 12 to 18, focusing on the girls who, in the typical scheme of rural life, were deemed most undeserving of a proper education. He worked on the intuition that the rural revolution by education he had in mind stood a greater chance of succeeding if women were at the center of it.

His parishioners, mostly peasants and indigenous tribes who gathered forest products for a living, were in no position to contribute money toward the education of their children. He did not expect them to, but they offered to send food and, more important, to help build the school. Father Pabillo wrote to his friends and contacts in Manila and abroad for assistance in maintaining the school. The money is always short, but he has become used to running this free boarding school from month to month on a tight and uncertain budget. In his mid-50s, this man of deep faith is unfazed. Besides running the school, he continues to minister to the spiritual needs of remote villages, riding a small motorcycle every day, hiking for hours, or crossing the sea so that he could celebrate Mass for his isolated parishioners at least once a month.

In October this year, my wife and I, with our three children and granddaughter, went to Macarascas to visit our youngest daughter who had volunteered to teach in this school for a year. I had imagined it to be a cool idyllic retreat up in the mountains, surrounded by waterfalls and lush forest growth.

Macarascas bears no resemblance to these postcard snapshots of the travel agency's Palawan. Electricity has not reached this community. Water from the wells is not potable; the school harvests rain water for drinking. The land is barren, the surrounding hills show the scars of relentless logging, and on the day we arrived, it was hot and humid. But the children's faces were full of life and wonder. This was a field of dreams, and from the moment I set foot on it, I was certain that our daughter had found what she was looking for when she left a secure career as a corporate executive to become a Jesuit volunteer.

When I was a student in the '60s, we used to distinguish the hard-nosed activists who did political organizing from the soft-hearted do-gooders who volunteered for community work. In an age dominated by the rhetoric of radical anti-imperialism, the word "do-gooder" was a vicious slur. The university was supposed to produce political activists and not social workers.

Things have changed. Political organizing no longer holds the same spell on students as in those days when not a few abandoned their studies to become full-time cadres of the revolution. The kind of compulsion and sense of duty that drew an entire generation of young Filipinos to political activism just vanished. The good news is that, today, there is a rekindling of this radical selflessness among many young people, and it is finding expression in many acts of quiet volunteerism.

It is to such a generation that individuals like Fr. Broderick Pabillo speak. Educated abroad in biblical studies, he taught theology and philosophy at various seminaries for many years. He was a scholar and read papers at conferences. One day, he realized that the priesthood in our time must mean more than this. He wrote the bishop of Puerto Princesa and asked to be assigned to a remote parish. The bishop sent him to Macarascas. He never looked back.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Middle America

Middle America

Updated 10:40am (Mla time) Nov 07, 2004
By Randy David
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the November 7, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

NO other country today affects the world the way America does. Americans have a full appreciation of their nation's immense power but, in general, they tend to have a retarded view of the great responsibility that comes with this power. Global in reach, they remain incredibly parochial in consciousness.

The presidential election last Tuesday brought out the power of insular Middle America. Conservative, deeply nationalistic, moralistic and wary of foreigners, this side of America found its voice in George W. Bush. The other America-progressive, cosmopolitan, pragmatic and tolerant-found itself buried by an avalanche of voters who could find nothing in common with the more urbane John Kerry.

The rest of the world was reduced to watching how American voters choose their leaders, faintly hoping that the results would somehow reflect global sentiments against American unilateralism under a Bush presidency. But in the end, Middle America's voters did not really care how their country behaved in the world stage. They looked at global conflicts through the narrow prism of their own domestic security. And so, while intervention abroad-whether benign or imperialistic-does not sit well with them, they understood what Bush was saying: America has to fight the terrorists abroad so that it need not fight them at home.

We were wrong to think that, with Iraq and the global war on terror emerging as the focal point in the presidential debates, voters would see the folly of having gone to war alone and the danger of further isolation. We forgot that the average American does not read the New York Times or the Washington Post or watch BBC. He would not be able to point Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines on the map. While he would be distressed by the number of dead American soldiers being brought home from the war front, he would be unaffected by any suggestion that his country has violated any international law. It is an ironic fact that foreign affairs remains foreign to most Americans. This election was inward-looking, and probably even more so than previous US elections.

But more than the insularity, it is the further drift to right-wing conservatism and moral absolutism that has been the hallmark of this election. Bush's strategists appear to have been fully aware of this shift in the cultural life of America, and they responded to it by weaving morality-based themes into their campaign agenda. But more than this, they succeeded in narrowing the meaning of moral values to suit the definitions of the Christian Right. One leaflet widely circulated in Ohio said it all: "George W. Bush shares your values: Marriage. Life. Faith." These words were printed on a picture of a typical American family going to a small church. Rural and traditional Americans came out to vote. They voted against same-sex marriage and abortion, and proclaimed the importance of moral absolutes in the nation's life. Yet they ignored the dishonest way Bush avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, and the dirty way in which political power has been used to advance the business interests of the Bush family and their partners.

There is no way Kerry could have won these votes. A divorced Catholic who married a divorcee, this progressive liberal from the New England state of Massachusetts shied away from sectarian pronouncements. The Democrats could not have found a better candidate than this level-headed man-a decorated war hero, a veteran senator who understood the nuances of global politics, and a statesman who felt squeamish about quoting the Bible to score a political point. In a world threatened by a clash of fundamentalisms, such a leader should be president of the United States. His defeat demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the Democrats have lost the ideological battle. In retrospect, perhaps, not even the charismatic Bill Clinton would have been able to override the moral stigma that his moment of weakness with Monica Lewinski appears to have stamped upon his party.

But it is clear that America remains an ideologically split nation. Bush won 51 percent of the popular vote, while Kerry took 48 percent. Kerry won the economic centers of the East and West Coast, while Bush carried the small rural counties of the Midwest and the South. Kerry won the black and immigrant vote, while Bush took a big majority of the white vote. Kerry won the intelligentsia but lost Middle America.

The Democrats must now re-assess their situation to be able to fight for a more tolerant and progressive America. Democracy is no good without an effective opposition, and an American Empire run by a triumphalist right-wing party is a big danger to the rest of the world.

It was no doubt in the spirit of fighting another day and preserving what is left of the support the party enjoys that Kerry graciously conceded the crucial electoral votes in Ohio instead of going into a prolonged audit of the contested provisional votes. No one loves a sore loser in American society, especially at a time when Americans need most to feel united. And so, as in the controversial 2000 election, the Democrats allowed the institutional process to dictate the electoral outcome and decently acknowledged their defeat.

America may have made a big mistake in re-electing Bush, but few will deny its admirable vitality as a democratic nation. We can criticize America for its arrogance in world affairs, but there is much to admire in the way Americans govern themselves. They follow the law and take their government seriously. They are unflinching in their beliefs. They love their country, and their country takes care of its citizens. Such is a strong nation.