November 28, 2015

Post-APEC ruminations

To the Aquino government and the designers, contractors, entertainers and others fortunate enough to have partaken of the 10billion-peso outlay for the 2-day APEC extravaganza, it was a resounding success, a paean to Filipino hospitality and of having “arrived” on the global stage.  To the people who live and work in Metro Manila and those who had to fly in or out for the duration of the APEC Summit, it was a living nightmare of cancelled flights, endless traffic, lost man-hours, lost income and frazzled nerves amidst the recurring thought bubble, “What the heck for?”

Indeed the last time the country hosted APEC nineteen years ago, it was held in the former US naval base in Subic, Zambales where the Ramos administration built luxury villas for the visiting APEC heads of state.  At that time “globalization” was a much-hyped mantra of the international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and the neoliberal economic ideologues in governments, big business, the academe and dominant mass media. 

The unsuspecting public was made to believe that “globalization” and the “free market” simply meant the tearing down of trade and investment barriers so that goods and capital could flow unhindered among countries, rich and developed or poor and backward or somewhere in between, thereby generating growth and prosperity for all the peoples of the entire globe.  Apart from supposedly being universally beneficial, “globalization” was described as the inevitable outcome of the lighting-speed developments in digital technology; ergo it was said to be unstoppable. 

Its ideologues trumpeted neoliberal economic doctrine as the fitting orthodoxy accompanying the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc.  “Socialism” was pronounced dead and capitalism hailed as “the end of history”.  It was logical to ensconce the “invisible hand” of the “free market” and profit-seeking as the underlying impetus of all of society organized around the capitalist economic and social model.

More than three decades later, neoliberal globalization does not have the sheen nor does it generate the mystique that tantalized so many.  The neoliberal policies of investment and trade liberalization, deregulation of social and environmental protection, privatization of state assets and denationalization of underdeveloped economies, wage squeeze and social welfare cutbacks are being unmasked as the reasons behind unprecedented joblessness, poverty, income inequality and social unrest and upheaval.  These are also the underlying causes of the recurring economic and financial crises that have battered the global capitalist system since the nineties and exacerbated the sufferings of a vast majority of the world’s peoples.

As for APEC, after declaring in its 1996 Leaders’ Summit "full confidence that the APEC process will produce substantial, concrete, measurable and sustainable results which will tangibly improve the lives of all our citizens by the turn of the century", it has little to show for such boast. (An excellent piece that explains this is IBON’s economist Sonny Africa’s “APEC: special lanes, for whom?”

Many suspect that this is the real albatross that the Aquino administration has had to carry while preparing to host this year’s summit.   How does one justify spending a huge amount of public funds (that government claims it is always short of) and disrupting the people’s hardscrabble lives for an event that hasn’t meant anything to them at all? 

Since the economic benefits have not been felt except for rapid growth rates that the Aquino administration incessantly crows about but have been exclusively for the socio-economic elite (most notably the owners of the multinational banks and corporations and their domestic partners among the abiding names in Philippine big business) Malacanang and its parrots have had to draw attention to the frippery.  Such as: the top-of-the-line appointments and decorations in the venues of the APEC meetings and festivities; the Filipino fare in the meals with a “global” twist; the mish-mash of Filipino performers from classical pianist Cecile Licad to folk dancers to pop singers; and not to be missed, the parade of world leaders who arrived for the party ranging from the so-called “hotties” from Canada and Mexico to the most powerful honchos from the US and China.

Ironically, the anti-APEC forces grouped under the People’s Campaign against Imperialist Globalization (PCAIG) and BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan) sought to popularize the pun #APECtado (#YouAreAffected) in social and the dominant media to draw attention to APEC, what it really means and why it should be protested and, ultimately, done away with. 

The anti-APEC protests together with the numerous school forums, community meetings, and group discussions as well as the informational and educational materials produced and disseminated were part of valiant efforts to get the facts and the truth known.  Elite institutions including corporate mass media outlets that shape public opinion did not really scratch the surface on the critique of APEC and why there are anti-APEC protests. 

This is partly intentional (mass media after all is also part of big business that is embedded in APEC) but also partly because APEC is both not easy to sell to the broader public as opposition to it is not something you can catch in sound bytes.  Many times the anti-APEC demonstrators are made to appear like they are only sloganeering, not really understanding why they oppose APEC.  As always, their protests are reduced to violent confrontations with the police. Worse, they are even depicted as merely posturing for the media cameras. 

This thought should give pause to some of our kababayan who easily dismiss the demonstrators:  Why do you presume that when ordinary people oppose and protest APEC and macroeconomic policies in general, they are biased ignoramuses or perennial naysayers? 

The worker who can make the connection between starvation wages, job insecurity, inhuman work conditions and neoliberal economic policies is not dumb, he is enlightened.  The landless peasant who realizes that rampant land grabbing, land use conversion, unfair competition for their agricultural produce due to imported goods dumped into the country – all in the wake of liberalization policies -- is not brainwashed, he is awakened. The indigenous people of Mindanao and the rest of the country who sees “globalization” as the plunder of their ancestral lands and their displacement and death as a people, are not being paranoid, reality has been shoved into their faces.

Long after APEC fades from the limelight, the multitudes who were kept out of the summitry will continue to suffer under its benighted legacy.  Conversely, the ranks of the awakened can only swell and their struggle to bring about change, grow ever stronger. #

Published in Business World
30 November 2015

November 01, 2015

Manilakbayan 2015’s opening salvo

Lumad extrajudicial killings and forced evacuations due to military and paramilitary forces rampaging across the indigenous people’s ancestral domain in the remaining frontiers of Mindanao have finally made its mark on the national public consciousness. 

The arrival of the Manilakbayan 2015, a contingent of more than 700 people who traveled from Mindanao to Manila by land, consisting of lumad from different tribes, peasants, trade unionists and social activists, has served as a dramatic and colorful high point of the campaign to seek  justice for gross human rights violations; to defend lumad schools, communities, land and resources; and to resist corporate plunder and government’s war against the people of Mindanao in the guise of fighting insurgency.

While the sorry plight of the lumad “bakwit” (a colloquial Filipinized term for evacuees) has been ongoing for far longer, certain developments served to bring it to the fore.  One was the frustrated attempt by North Cotobato representative Nancy Catamco, with the help of hundreds of police, paramilitary groups and other government people, to force about 700 Manobo evacuees who had taken refuge in a church compound in Davao City  to go back to where they came from.  Erstwhile presidentiable, Davao City mayor Duterte, intervened to avert more violence, providing buses for those willing to leave voluntarily but not one availed of his offer. 

The other dramatic event was the brutal murder of the executive director of ALCADEV, a lumad school in Surigao del Sur and two lumad leaders and the burning of a lumad cooperative, by paramilitary forces under the wing of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).  This led to another exodus, this time by close to 3000 individuals – men, women and children – to the provincial capital, Tandag City. 

The killings and arson were condemned as the handiwork of right-wing paramilitary death squads recruited from among the lumad by the AFP.  The military tried to distance themselves from the killers and turn the tables on the victims by tarring them as supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA).  When this didn’t work, the AFP and Malacanang tried to echo the call for a stop to lumad killings while blurring who are behind such killings and for what reasons or else pointing to the NPA as the culprit.

Now the Manilakbayan is serving as a compelling and hard hitting testimonial not only to the travails of the lumad and other oppressed people in Mindanao but to their heightened social and political awareness; their courage and steadfastness in the defense of their organizations, schools and communities; and to their pride in their culture and traditions harnessing these to assert their rights as a people.

During the five-day caravan through Eastern Visayas, the Bicol region and Southern Tagalog, the Manilakbayan caravan was warmly welcomed.  The “lakbayanis” were provided food, lodging and other wherewithal to ease their stay. They held rallies in major stops to explain the issues and demands they carried. There were cultural exchanges with various groups especially the lumad youth with their counterparts.

Their journey culminated in their triumphant entry into Metro Manila wherein the Baclaran church gave them a place to rest briefly overnight; students and teachers from St. Scholastica, De La Salle, Philippine Christian College, Philippine Normal College and University of Santo Tomas welcomed and cheered them on the following day; a “salubungan” and solidarity lunch took place with various sectors at the Bonifacio Shrine; the Manilakbayan and their welcomers marched to Mendiola  to bring their protest to the doorstep of the Presidential Palace; followed by the final leg, the caravan to the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines (UP). 

At UP, the long day was capped by a huge, rousing welcome in front of the iconic Oblation statue symbolizing academic freedom and the university’s avowed service to the people, with flags waving and people chanting and cheering.  Manilabayan leaders gave UP Chancellor Michael Tan a red tubao to wear on his head while the latter handed out several “sablay” or the UP sash worn at graduation and other formal events to the leaders.

The UP community laid down a red carpet welcome for the Manilakbayan not in terms of luxurious accommodations (they were assigned a wide, open space near Commonwealth Avenue where camp of make-shift kitchen and dining area, shower rooms and toilets, and sleeping quarters were set up by UP personnel and volunteers) but in terms of a week-long series of events open to the public.

There was a press conference held at the historic stairs fronting the old College of Arts and Sciences or “AS steps” with UP officials formally receiving the Manilakbayan contingent (present en masse in a sea of colorful but mainly red traditional garb).  The lumad performed a ritual to bless their stay and their hosts.  It was a joy to see lumad kids playing basketball with the UP varsity team.  There was a steady stream of visitors to the camp both UP and non-UP denizens to interact with the guests and to take photos to memorialize the occasion. 

In the daytime there were conferences, forums and group discussions such as on agribusiness and mining corporations continuing to monopolize land in Mindanao and fast encroaching on lumad ancestral domain as well as on prospects for peace in Muslim Mindanao with the uncertain passage of a highly diluted Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).  There were also protests at government offices such as the Commission on Human Rights and the National Commission on Indigenous People seen as veritable accomplices to the impunity with which state forces were attacking the lumad. 

At night there were cultural solidarity sessions in the camp as well as fund raising events such as the one held for lumad schools by musicians and artists that even featured the Filipino choreographer and dance historian Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa who has been awarded for her lifework of documenting and teaching the “pangalay”, a pre-Islamic dance tradition among the peoples of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Despite initial trepidation by some quarters that UP’s hosting of the Manilakbayan might be disruptive of the university’s daily life as an academic institution or worse, be interpreted as aiding and abetting those that the AFP is wont to label as “enemies of the state”, both the hosts and the guests were one in declaring the one week UP stay of the Manilakbayan as a bona fide, if unique, learning experience for all.  It also underscored the fact that in UP, the counterculture of protest is alive and well and that UP’s other moniker as the “University of the People” stands on firm ground.

The Manilakbayan moves to the Liwasang Bonifacio where they will set up camp for the following weeks until the protests for the upcoming APEC Summit.  The “lakbayanis” are well aware that policies of neoliberal globalization including the policy of opening up the economy and national patrimony to unbridled exploitation by multinational corporations are behind the intensification of plunder and war in Mindanao.

It is hoped that the Manilakbayan’s highlighting of the urgent issues and demands of the people of Mindanao, especially the lumad, will lead to the dismantling of paramilitary groups, the demilitarization of lumad areas, justice for victims of extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations and the further unmasking of the destructive forces of monopoly capitalist greed and bureaucrat capitalist corruption that are at the root of their exploitation and oppression. #

Published in Business World
2 November 2015

October 19, 2015

Illusion of democratic elections (or PH elections as farce)

There are two things that the common tao considers as indicators, if not necessary proof, that our political system is a democracy.  The first is national elections.  The second is the Philippine Congress.

When Ferdinand E. Marcos decided to suspend both in 1972, there was no doubt in the ordinary Filipino’s mind that a full blown dictatorship was upon us.  When he was overthrown in 1986 and both elections and the Congress were restored, the common tao rejoiced in the end of the dictatorship and the “restoration of democracy” in our country.

Thirty years later, we now have a clearer picture of what kind of political system was really restored or what it had become.

The definitive arrival of the election season is heralded by the hoopla, gimmickry, horse trading, political intrigue and disinformation thrown in with the grotesque as well as hilarious line-up of candidates from serious to not-so, from relative to absolute cuckoos. 

We are being gulled into thinking that 130 instead of a handful of presidential candidates to choose from would make the process or our choice more democratic.  The real irony is that while it is very likely that one or two of them are better qualified and more deserving of the presidency than any of the established frontrunners, there is absolutely no chance or hope in their getting elected.

Is the key question making the right choice? What choices are available in the first place?  Is it really a level-playing field or is the system skewed in favor of those with the advantages of the backing of a political dynasty and the economic elite; the incumbent’s “pork barrel”; name recall, media exposure and popularity; and last but not the least, the good housekeeping seal of the mighty US of A. 

Clearly what candidates stand for – not just in terms of pronouncements and promises but track record -- is of least importance.  It is more the image that is created and built up that is why advertising tricks do make a whale of a difference.  One’s political party and its ideology, politics, and even affiliations have all gone down the drain.  Running as a supposed “independent” suddenly makes sense as the candidate can distance himself from the opprobrium of traditional parties even as he can be “adopted” as a guest candidate by the same parties or coalition of parties. 

Everything is reducible to winnability -- who has the resources, the image and the machinery to win.

Resources are the key to mounting an effective campaign.  Dominant mass media visibility means hundreds of millions if not billions for political ads and media “padulas”.  Actual campaigning through sorties is still important for creating illusion of accessibility; one’s mobility, entourage and campaign rallies depend on how much money you are willing and able to spend.  As to political machinery – the layers of campaigners, vote-getters and vote-buyers down the line from the provincial to the barrio level -- it has been proven that this truly has no loyalties. It goes to the highest bidder and proof of this is that party switching is at its peak as the electoral exercise nears. 

What of the leftist Makabayan Coalition (currently composed of six progressive parties) that has invariably ended up as parliamentary opposition no matter the regime in power?  It is clear that electoral politics for them is not the be-all and end-all.  The struggle to overhaul the exploitative and oppressive socio-economic and political system to one that is truly of, for and by the people does not hinge on participation in elections as such.  Arousing, organizing and mobilizing the people, most especially the masses, is still the mantra of these parties. Elections are maximized as an occasion to highlight their nationalist and democratic program, gain adherents and allies, as well as elect their top caliber leaders into office.  The latter is an uphill climb but given the proven validity and viability of the Left’s platform, and the accumulated strength of the progressive movement through the decades, it has been proven possible.

And now the question of the electoral exercise itself.  Convincing the voters to vote for a candidate is one thing; getting them to actually do so is something else.  Massive vote buying/selling continues to this day and will be around so long as people are kept destitute and look to elections as a means to tide them over another day.  Getting the vote counted correctly is another matter.  This used to require an army of poll watchers and a bevy of election lawyers. In time electoral fraud grew into a sophisticated, high-stakes operation run by a well-entrenched mafia in the Commission on Elections.  By means of wholesale “dagdag-bawas”, a presidential candidate could win by “convincing” margins and senatorial wannabees could make it to the magic 12 of winning candidates or even top the race.

So the real clincher is the question of who actually controls the electoral process in a really insidious but critical way that could spell who wins and who doesn’t.  Automating the elections was supposed to significantly reduce, if not totally eliminate, manipulation and fraud.  But because automation is known to have inherent dangers and pitfalls the law mandating automated elections put in place necessary safeguards. 

Thus the 2010 and 2013 elections were automated, but with COMELEC and SMARTMATIC, the US-based company commissioned to conduct the elections, ignoring the required safeguards. The poor performance of the precinct count optical scan or PCOS machines in the 2010 and 2013 national elections and the dedicated effort of the IT experts and anti-fraud groups under AES Watch to expose the flawed system have taken away much of the gleam of automation.

It is perhaps a measure of how blatantly foreign interests can intervene in our supposedly “independent” electoral process and spoil the “sanctity” of our ballots that a foreign businessman and “political strategist”, British Lord Mark Malloch Brown, could publicly boast that he had played a key role in securing the electoral victory of Cory Aquino against Marcos in the 1986 elections. This, when the Omnibus Election Code barring foreigners from participating in the electoral process and aiding any candidate in any way was then barely three months old.

This revelation is even more appalling and alarming now that this person – certainly not by chance – is the Board Chairman of SGO, the parent company of SMARTMATIC, and has no qualms in saying that the coming elections is very important for the future of the Philippines’ business relations with the US, Britain and other centers of foreign capital. 

It would be the height of political naiveté, and falling into the trap laid by our elite politicians and their foreign patrons, to fall for the repeated lie that elections are the litmus test of a democracy.  The democratic character of elections in a particular society is always shaped by the democratic or non-democratic character of that society. 

The elite classes continue to rule by violence and deception.  Periodic elections are part of the deception. The different factions of the elite make it their business to master the electoral game to their advantage.  The democratic classes wishing to change the rules of the game -- not just to have a fighting chance to win under its rules -- cannot rely on reactionary elections.  Only by actually strengthening the independent, organized power of the people can they have a real chance to change the ruling system. #

Published in Business World
19 October 2015