January 27, 2006

Modern-day David and Goliath

The facts and figures were by themselves quite impressive and made it easier for participants to the 3rd Asia Pacific Regional Conference on Solidarity with Cuba to transcend political and ideological differences and unite behind the call to end the 46-year United States embargo against the small, socialist island state.

I was fortunate enough to be one of 194 delegates from over a hundred organizations from 17 countries meeting in Chennai, India over the weekend to hear about Cuba’s astounding achievements.

According to Mr. Sergio Corrieri-Hernandez , president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, economic growth was 11.8% in 2005 compared with an average for Latin America of barely 4%.

Over half of industrial sectors experienced significant growth: nickel exports benefited from buoyant international prices while tourism was up by 12%. In the pharmaceuticals sector, production of medicines rose by over 26%.

We were appraised by the Sri Lankan Minister for Science and technology that Cuba had successfully developed a vaccine against dengue hemorrhagic fever and had been free of outbreaks for the last two years. Cuba’s remarkable advances in biotechnology had also resulted in vaccines for head and neck cancer for which foreign, including US multinational drug companies, were negotiating production agreements.

Wage rates and retirement pensions were increased substantially, a fact that would be the envy of workers and ordinary employees in the Philippines.

Hundreds of schools and health centers have been renovated with over 140 social programs in public health education, culture and welfare successfully implemented.

For example, 21 district intensive-therapy units, equipped to modern standards, were completed; restructuring and extension works were carried out at 52 national hospitals, equipped with the world’s best technology.

If Cuban doctors and other health professionals are going abroad in the thousands, it is not to seek greener pastures and more professionally rewarding working conditions like their Filipino counterparts. To date 27,000 are selflessly serving in 60 countries across the world, particularly in Latin America and Africa. 2,345 of them are in Pakistan, working in difficult and hazardous situations in far-flung areas, to respond to the humanitarian crisis recently wrought by a devastating earthquake.

At the same time, dozens of thousands of international students are being trained in Cuba, of whom 12,000 are studying medicine.

The process of making higher education universally accessible has benefited 500,000 students. Thus Cuba is becoming what some observers call a “university nation” where higher education for all is no longer mere rhetoric but a concrete reality.

These solid achievements are all the more astounding considering what Cuba has been up against since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. It involved the loss of 85% of Cuba’s markets for its main exports like sugar, 80% of imports and a 35 percentage-point nosedive in its GNP.

Mr. Hernandez matter-of-factly pointed out that not many governments could have withstood such a blow. Argentina, for example, lost only 12% GNP in its own crisis and subsequently had three presidents in just two years.

But since the victory of the Cuban Revolution against the Batista dictatorship in January 1959, the US and its allies have not stopped attempts to destroy and overthrow the first socialist state in the western part of the hemisphere.

An economic, commercial and financial embargo has been imposed on Cuba by the US, which is still in place after 46 years, making it one of the most enduring embargoes in modern history. It is estimated that the embargo has so far caused Cuba the direct economic impact of US $82 billion with ongoing annual loss of around $2 billion.

The economic blockade that has been legally reinforced in the last decade with other laws that ban Cuba from importing goods of US origin from third countries, impose penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba, permit U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors who make use of American-owned property seized by the Cuban government, and deny entry into the U.S. to such foreign investors.

Now the question begs to be answered. What can justify such a cruel and shameful embargo that is undermining the fundamental right of a sovereign nation to chart its own destiny? What gives the US the legal and moral right to deny the Cuban people their choice of the kind of social system – socialism – that will sustain and develop their collective goals and the kind of government – led by the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro – that will steer the people in their chosen direction.

Furthermore, how can such an embargo stay when, in the past 13 years, more and more countries have been voting in the United Nations General Assembly for the US to lift its irrational and unjustifiable sanctions? In the 2004 vote, there were 179 in favor of the resolution, only 4 against and 1 abstaining.

Clearly, the US embargo against Cuba is violating fundamental principles of international relations and directly subverts the sovereignty and independence of Cuba. The hostility of ten US administrations during the last 46 years has proven itself in every means that the US has utilized to destroy the Cuban revolution, from armed invasion and state-sponsored terrorism, to assassination attempts against Mr. Castro and up to the introduction of plant and animal plagues that will affect civilian populations.

But according to the Cubans, no administration has been as hostile as that of George W. Bush. On May 2004, Mr. Bush approved a 450-page report issued by the “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba” which included measures to tighten the blockade, destroy Cuba’s tourism industry, prohibit foreign investment, restrict Cubans in the US from sending money to their families, etc.

The Cubans have no illusions. They see such a report as a “document of colonization” underscoring heightened US interference meant to force Cuba to undertake “regime change”. They know that Cuba is in the crosshairs of the US so-called “war on terror” along with Syria, Korea and Iran because they have been demonized as “rogue states”. In fact Cuba appears on all the blacklists that the Bush administration has seen fit to draw up: human rights, terrorism, drugs etc.

It is incumbent on all honest and fair men and women who can appreciate the heroic efforts of the Cuban people and its leaders to stand up to US punishment, bullying and outright aggression to stand in solidarity with them.

Only in this way can the Davids of today prevail over the monster Goliath that also goes by the name US imperialism.

Jan. 27-28, 2006

January 20, 2006

All wrong

Some people sometimes do the right things for the wrong reasons. Others claim to be doing the right things for the right reasons, when all the while they are merely trying to cover up for doing exactly the opposite, the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her die-hard supporters and sycophants, her reluctant backers and the more opportunistic ones, belong to the second breed.

GMA exhorts the people ad nauseam to "forget politics and move on with nation building", then pushes hard for charter change purportedly in order to replace the rotten presidential system she points to as the cause of our problems with the . She thinks the people are stupid enough to forget, at her bidding, that she has thrived in such a political system and now personifies the treason, plunder and bad governance (“walang kwentang gobyerno” in Filipino) that invariably goes with it.

Former President Fidel V. Ramos is campaigning for an early charter change (“chacha”) purportedly as a means of clipping GMA's powers, if not totally unseating her from the Presidency, in a "constitutional" and "orderly" manner -- a noble goal, indeed, were it not for the fact that FVR, during his own term, had pushed for “chacha” in a thinly-veiled attempt to keep himself in power by amending the constitution to extend his term.

Speaker Jose de Venecia, the self-proclaimed "Peacemaker", "Great Compromiser", and finder of "win-win" solutions, is resigned to the fact that he could never be elected President in a presidential system but could be Prime Minister in a parliamentary system and retain this post as easily as he has gained and held on to the House Speakership through much wheeling and dealing.

In truth, the wrong reasons for revising the 1987 Constitution are plentiful. According to the lawyers group Counsels for the Defense of Liberties (CODAL):

“Pres. Gloria Arroyo's proposed revision of the 1987 Constitution goes beyond the 'seven points' mentioned by Speaker Jose de Venecia, as it substantially impacts on the political, economic and human rights of the Filipino people. To wit:

1. Pres. Gloria Arroyo will remain President, with more executivepowers, until 2010 with or without the 2007 elections.

2. The safety mechanism (in the 1987 Charter) that checks the Executive's powers to declare martial law or suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is taken away; and

3. The economic revisions proposed go beyond the mere 'easing of restrictions on foreign investments' as it grants aliens the right to own lands in the Philippines and exploit natural resources, both rights previously reserved to Filipinos under the 1987 Constitution. Worse, it opens to foreign ownership the operation of public utilities.

These 'revisions' virtually overhaul substantial provisions that protect the peoples' economic and political rights under the current Constitution.

Pres. Arroyo is deluding the Filipino people by withholding the fact that under her proposed Constitution, she remains in power until 2010, with more powers than she currently has through the grant of power to dissolve the Parliament and deletion of provisions that will check her martial law authority.”

CODAL summed up its reading of the real intent of Mrs. Arroyo’s “chacha” as a “brazen attempt to attack the economic, civil and political rights of the Filipino people through the complete revision of the 1987 Constitution” and as “a recipe for dictatorship by a president whose mandate to stay in power is under question.”

For its part, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), the umbrella alliance of progressive cause-oriented organizations that has been at the forefront of last year’s campaign to oust Mrs. Arroyo from power, said that “chacha” is not the answer to the deep and intractable problems of Philippine politics and society.

Mrs. Arroyo’s push to amend the charter, allegedly to bring about the substantial reforms our people have been crying out for, is nothing but a grand deception. In truth, it will only deepen the rut of poverty, backwardness, huge income and social inequalities and continuing political and economic crises that have been the bane of the Filipino people since colonial times.

The Arroyo “chacha” is an obvious ploy, not only to deflect all moves to question GMA’s legitimate and legal hold on the presidency, but to further consolidate it with the end in view of entrenching her clique’s dominance in the country’s political landscape far beyond 2010.

More ominous are the economic revisions that are touted as innocuous and meant only to boost foreign investments in order to stimulate the growth of the economy and the upliftment of the people’s standard of living. In reality, such proposed changes take away any semblance of protection of our national patrimony and sovereignty and institutionalize, at the level of the basic law of the land, the highly destructive and controversial neoliberal policy framework of liberalization, deregulation and privatization.

In other words, GMA’s “chacha” portends the sell-out of our national interests, lock, stock and barrel.

No less worrisome are the proposed changes that will scuttle the categorical nuclear-free and foreign bases-free provisions of the 1987 Constitution and thus harmonize it with highly controversial and contentious provisions of the pro-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Supplies and Logistics Agreement (MLSA).

Finally, in a bid to totally eradicate the remaining civil libertarian provisions of the 1987 Constitution that are a legacy of the struggle against the Marcos fascist dictatorship, GMA’s “chacha” tries to undermine civil and political rights, so far surreptitiously, by qualifying the basic right to freedom of expression with the word “responsible”.

Coupled with government moves to pass a draconian anti-terrorism bill, the door will soon be wide open for the Arroyo administration to interpret what is “responsible” as well as who is a “terrorist”. A regime as anti-people and undemocratic as Mrs. Arroyo’s (recall the “calibrated preemptive response” policy and the spate of unsolved political killings of social and political activists as well as documented cases of human rights violations against entire civilian communities perpetrated by government forces) and one that is still fighting for its political survival clearly wishes to utilize “chacha” to cow the people and its opponents into acquiescence.
Thus Mrs. Arroyo and her minions may wish the people to dance to the tune of the “chacha” but when their heinous plot is exposed, they will find themselves rejected wallflowers. Or worse.

Jan. 20-21, 2006

January 13, 2006

Games of the elite

“But the empress has no new clothes!” would be the wide-eyed declaration of an innocent child who sees things as they are and would simply say so as well. Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, aka Philippine President, but to a majority of Filipinos, a usurper who refuses to step down from power, is our own petulant version of the Empress. (Our apologies to Hans Christian Andersen for taking liberties with the gender of his fairy tale’s male protagonist.)

People are tired of Mrs. Arroyo and the old, unresolved issues and scandals that continue to swirl around her. No one really believes the pretense of a new beginning -- a “reformed” political system through charter change highlighted by grateful, overstaying politicians; a reshuffled Cabinet of uninspiring and, to some, disgusting loyalists; more promises of an economic take-off when it is not at all clear how this can happen; a 35 billion-peso worth of new year’s dole out to the poor who NEDA officials cannot seem to find, ad nauseam.

What’s new, or at least is newly entertaining, is the game called “chacha” that former President Fidel V. Ramos and Mrs. Arroyo are playing against each other when before they seemed to be on the same side. Problem is, the two have each their own versions. GMA’s version sees her staying on till 2010 and beyond while FVR’s bright idea was a “graceful exit” by 2007.

The GMA-handpicked constitutional commission finally gave prima facie evidence of what the GMA clique intends when the recommendation for scrapping the 2007 national elections surfaced. Nothing like a good, old fashioned bribe of extended terms to get the honorable ladies and gentlemen of Congress to back Mrs. Arroyo’s version of “chacha”.

Too bad for Mrs. Arroyo, FVR has been there and back. He’s been playing the “chacha” game since 1997 for the same opportunist reasons of wanting to stay in power longer than he ought or far longer than the people would tolerate. FVR can see right through Mrs. Arroyo’s moves that she is hell bent on staying on in Malacañang despite their little modus vivendi that saved the day for her last July 8.

So is he or isn’t he – still on GMA’s side, that is. Considering that FVR has managed to foist himself in the public’s mind as the purported tipping point who can make or break Mrs. Arroyo’s tenuous hold on the presidency, his moves and feints and her reactions can hog the headlines and op-ed pages for some time to come.

But Mr. Ramos, ever the psywar expert, is playing coy. Yes, he is and yet, he isn’t.

And Malacañang, replete with FVR men crowding each other in the GMA inner circle, are saying they believe him but they are watching Mrs. Arroyo’s back.

What is clear is that neither side trusts each other anymore (maybe they never did) and are surely making their moves for the anticipated break up in their alliance of convenience.

The anti-GMA Opposition is in the game too, whether they like it or not. Senate President Franklin Drilon (and likely Mrs. Corazon Aquino) would just love to have FVR on the same side all over again. After all, with Cardinal Sin gone and FVR officially a GMA supporter, the elite formula for high jacking “people power” from the people for the ends of the defenders of the status quo, has been lacking in crucial elements.

The Cory-Drilon-Black and White scenario: the President and Vice-President out of the way (How? Maybe FVR and shadowy figures will see to that.); Mr. Drilon takes over as constitutional successor then presides over special elections; the political elite are back to the old game of jockeying for the topmost position in the land and the bureaucratic largesse that goes with it.

Apparently this takes care of the messy post “people power” uprising scenario that raises undue expectations from the masses (and is problematic legally too if we go by convoluted Supreme Court decisions pertaining to the Cory and GMA take-overs) and neatly sidelines the pesky Leftists, their followers and allies and their radical reform agenda.

After seeming to bite, the Erap camp appears to have gotten hold of its senses, jarred by the condescending words coming from FVR himself, their supposed prospective ally. Mr. Estrada must grasp the point that the FVR-Cory-Erap triumvirate being dangled at him isn’t premised on equal standing and common interests but merely on using his remaining influence over the masa and his resources to get Mrs. Arroyo out of the way so that their elite alliance can take over.

And where do the masses and the real middle forces (that is, the middle class and not the anti-Arroyo rich pretending to be poor) fit in all this? The anniversary of EDSA 2 is fast approaching. Is there still a meaningful way of marking the day that “people power” was roused a second time to oust a regime deemed oppressive and unworthy of the people’s mandate?

Firstly, let January 20 be the opening salvo of the people’s movement rejecting “chacha”, both the GMA and FVR versions, but most especially Mrs. Arroyo’s ill-disguised scheme to tiresomely go on and on.

Secondly, let us make it clear that the deadly games being played by the different factions of the political elite, in and out of power, can no longer be the deciding factor in a regime change that the people will support through massive protests and the moral imprimatur that are both indispensable for success.

This time around, the people cannot and will not allow themselves to be used.

13-14 January 2006

January 06, 2006

Lying presidency

There is a powerful disconnect between the glowing Malacañang press releases as well as the overly optimistic predictions of stock market analysts on the economy versus what the ordinary man/woman on the street feels in his/her gut.

When the headlines say that the peso is the best performing currency in the region, that doesn’t translate into more food on the table and less scrounging around for money to pay the house rent and water and electricity bills.

For most of us, the peso has actually been shrinking in value while our earnings haven’t grown at all. Because the trend has been going on since anyone can remember, the peso’s continued devaluation appears to be a god-given thing (by Mammon, the god of money, that is.) In fact, the current phenomenon of an appreciating peso must be an aberration.

Now since they’re the experts and we just happen to exist on this part of the planet, how can they be wrong. Things must indeed be getting better and the benefits of this economic turn-around should be trickling down to the middle class any moment now. The masses will have to wait just a wee bit more. (Like forever, maybe.)

Sarcasm aside, let’s tackle the claims on the macro economy head on.

Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, our de facto president, says that the peso appreciation indicates that the fiscal reforms her administration undertook, in particular, the expansion in coverage and the impending 20% hike (from 10 to 12%) in the expanded value added tax was correct. This has supposedly resulted in increased investor confidence in the Philippine economy, validated by the influx of speculative investments this last three months of 2005, despite the gloom and doom political scenarios that have kept the Arroyo administration on the brink.

The truth is the much-hyped “good news” on the economic front is ephemeral because it is unsustainable and highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the international market and the volatile domestic political climate.

We dare say, the Philippine economy is fundamentally unsound. Because of the backward, pre-industrial character of the economy, the country never produces enough export goods to pay for its imports, both for consumption and production, leading to a chronic trade deficit that we hardly ever break out of. This in turn necessitates foreign and domestic borrowing, the servicing of which has taken up two-thirds of government revenues. This year it is projected to take up to 87% of the national government’s earnings.

Thus the strengthening of the peso can not be taken as an absolute indicator of the health of the economy. In fact, it is when the peso is weak that exports are relatively stronger; i.e. Philippine exports are more competitive price-wise and ergo sells faster and better.
However, with the peso weak, imports become costlier and generally, leads to a slow down in production, especially of export goods that are more than 90% dependent on imported material for their production, e.g. electronics and garments.

On the other hand, when the peso is strong, Philippine goods for export become more expensive, and thus less competitive in the international market. This leads right back to the situation where the country can’t earn enough foreign exchange from exports to pay for imported necessities such as oil and machineries all the way to consumer goods such as computers, household appliances and make-up. Moreover, servicing of the $56 B foreign debt is still top priority in the government’s allocation of scarce foreign exchange earnings.

It’s a classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Except that in the case of the economy, it is the IMF-World Bank-WTO combine, multinational banks and firms and our spineless political leaders that have damned the country to a perennially poor, underdeveloped and debt-ridden status.

On the claims of increased investor confidence, on the contrary, it can be said that increases in the sales of stock certificates and other portfolio investments could be viewed more soberly as a vote of no-confidence as compared to the entry of more foreign direct investments that reflect the intention to do business in the country and not to take flight at the slightest hint of trouble in the economy or the country as a whole.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis has shown how predatory speculative investments are. The spike in portfolio investments under the Ramos administration from less than fifty percent to more than eighty percent of foreign investments was merely a momentary boost to the country’s dollar reserves. With the complete liberalization of foreign exchange controls, the hot money that flowed in just as quickly flowed out when domestic and regional conditions spooked currency speculators or attracted them elsewhere.

The so-called confidence that the foreign investors display in the Philippine economy has been at the expense of the people who have been at the receiving end of the kinds of policies the former have been hankering for; i.e. higher taxes, wage freeze, labor contractualization, prioritizing debt service in government expenditures over social services, cutbacks in government subsidies for producers such as rice farmers, removing protection for local manufacturers, opening wide areas of investment including those reserved for citizens such as mining etc.

As mentioned earlier these policies do not translate into alleviating the misery of the poor and hungry but, in fact, aggravate their already sordid and desperate conditions.

The Arroyo government’s deliberate attempt to misrepresent the improvement of the peso as a turn-around in the economy and as indicator that she has weathered her worst political crisis shows that it has not changed its old, discredited ways.

Its still is a no good, lying presidency.

Jan. 6-7, 2006