October 22, 2004

Red flags and the red bogey

The news item was small and tucked away in the inside pages of the broadsheets. After all, there was nothing earth-shaking in President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's seemingly off-the-cuff statement that she would not be swayed by protest actions seeking the removal of GSIS [Government Service Insurance System] president and general manager Winston Garcia.

Arroyo intoned, "Whether I'm personally satisfied with his performance or not is beside the point when the red flags start coming out and demanding the ouster of anybody, that's the least effective thing."

The presidential message was loaded and meant to drive home several critical points about her leadership.

To the hundreds of GSIS employees who poured out of their offices for several days to denounce the mismanagement, corruption and oppressiveness of Garcia and call for his ouster, Arroyo has this sharp retort: Your protest actions turn me off and reinforce my inclination to ignore your appeals regardless of their merit. Moreover, stay clear of militant groups like COURAGE (Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees) because they are leftist troublemakers who have absolutely no persuasive powers over the Office of the President.

For Wall Street and the foreign chambers of commerce, Washington D.C. and the Heritage Foundation as well as Manila's rich and famous, Arroyo has this reassuring line: Contrary to rumors, I remain the decisive leader of a "strong republic" committed to free enterprise and the rule of law; therefore, I will not be swayed by Left-instigated mass actions regardless of the claimed validity of protesters' demands.

For the general public, Arroyo has this solemn pronouncement: Rallies and demonstrations are counterproductive, have no influence over the Executive and are nothing short of mob rule (just like President Erap said). After the EDSA II popular uprising that made me President, these protest actions have no place in a functioning democracy such as the one I now preside over by virtue of my having "won" the presidential elections.

But lest we get sidetracked by the presidential warning about "red flags," let's briefly take a look at the issues raised by the GSIS and other government employees.

The most compelling issue is the fact that under Garcia's administration, GSIS members' benefits have been drastically reduced and processing of claims intolerably delayed due to new rules such as the "premium-based policy" that penalizes members for the non-remittance and delayed posting of their monthly contributions for reasons beyond their control.

Contrast this with the ease with which Garcia and other favored GSIS officials receive their perks such as a combined PhP12-million housing and car loans for Garcia alone, not to mention six-digit salaries despite the Arroyo government's loud protestations about its fiscal crisis.

Ironically, while Garcia claims the GSIS is doing so well financially it can be likened to "a company generating substantial income and headed by an efficient and capable corporate executive with a six-figure income," it is miserly towards its millions of members who are the sources of GSIS' guaranteed income and who rely on the trust fund to help them with survival needs such as education loans, to tide them over life's exigencies such as illness or death in the family and provide social security when they inevitably retire from government service.

Then, there are highly questionable management decisions: the transfer of PhP19 billion of GSIS funds from the government-owned Land Bank to Union Bank, a private commercial bank owned by the Aboitiz family, said to have business interests closely allied with the Garcia clan; the purchase of the Juan Luna painting as a single, big-ticket investment item; and before we forget, the PhP1-billion loan to the Philippine Estates Authority for the overpriced President Diosdado Macapagal Avenue.

The proverbial "last straw" that sparked the walkout by the GSIS employees was alleged unfair labor practices that include the sacking of the president of the GSIS union, abusive and oppressive treatment of personnel, including non-favored GSIS executives, and the unprofessional patronage politics-driven management style of the embattled Garcia.

For far less, Arroyo has been known to blow her top and dress down publicly, if not peremptorily sack, erring subordinates. There is now more than enough controversy billowing from the GSIS that Arroyo, if she is serious about stamping out graft and corruption under her administration, should be calling for the fire brigade to immediately remove probable causes of the raging conflagration.

At first glance, the Arroyo government's oh-so-delicate handling and apparent foot-dragging on the GSIS and AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] scandals appear to be signs of indecisiveness and inaction on two explosive issues that Arroyo herself had been aware of for some time.

However, a closer and longer look would reveal a firm consistency and tight logic in Arroyo's decision -- and action through inaction -- to ignore the problem and thus allow it to fester, and then cover up instead of excising the causes of the problem so as not to stir the proverbial hornet's nest.

That logic is not so much due to patronage and utang na loob, even as Arroyo believes -- mistakenly -- that she owes her ascension to power largely to the AFP, and -- correctly -- her election "victory" to the Garcias of Cebu.

What determines Arroyo's action, inaction, and reaction is the fear of losing these pillars that she continues to rely on to prop up her morally and fiscally bankrupt presidency, standing as it does amid a destitute economy and rocked by continual protests from an enraged and hungry citizenry.

This is most clearly displayed in her recent pronouncements that her government will intensify its campaign to crush the CPP/NPA [Communist Party of the Philippines/New People's Army] because of its proven links with "international terrorists." Seemingly coming from out of the blue and totally without evidence or logic, even the most disinterested observers and commentators quickly dismissed this as part of the effort to divert the public's attention from the AFP corruption scandal.

It is in fact that and much more. This outburst of anti-terrorist rhetoric is clearly a cheap shot at shoring up US support for her beleaguered regime, coming as it does in the wake of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation's evaluation of her leadership as one of the weakest among the US allies in the region, and of an apparent US attitude of allowing the exposure and prosecution of the errant Army Gen. Carlos Garcia.

Indeed, Arroyo's nightmare, more than the specter of the AFP generals turning against her, is the threat, or even the mere perception, that the US would decide to dump her, as they have habitually done with many of their erstwhile marionettes, whenever these have become so discredited that US interests themselves are under threat.

The very measures that the Arroyo administration is resorting to in order to shore up US, the AFP's and the local elite's support for her floundering regime are precisely those weakening it to the core because they impose greater suffering and hardship on the people and push them to hoist up the red flag of protest and clamor for radical change.

Oct. 22-23, 2004


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