February 28, 2008

On everyone's lips

Barely three weeks ago, the notion that “People Power” is passé and that the people are no longer willing to undertake it, appeared to have gained widespread acceptance. From 2004, when evidence of electoral fraud surfaced, to the 2005 “Hello Garci” scandal, and through 2006-2007, years marred by extrajudicial killings and more corruption scandals, Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo has managed to survive calls for her resignation, if not ouster, albeit through cover-ups, bribery and intimidation, deception and political repression.

Street protest actions peaked at the 2005 State-of-the-Nation address but failed to gather momentum when the harsh “calibrated preemptive response” policy was instituted by government to violently disperse demonstrators even before they could mass up. Congressional investigations were stonewalled; impeachment moves quashed; military “revolts” preempted; all the while state repression was continually stepped up.

All this has changed after the Lozada exposé – the solid, unimpeachable testimony of a highly credible witness that corroborated earlier revelations of astoundingly huge kickbacks in the National Broadband Network-ZTE deal. Implicated were, not only the First Gentleman and Cabinet members close to Mrs. Arroyo, but the de facto President herself. That this damaging witness should come at a time when Mrs. Arroyo’s credibility is at its lowest, according to the religious who gave Mr. Lozada sanctuary, is nothing short of providential.

Now, “People Power” is on everyone’s lips again.

There is talk of it in the spate of protest actions these past two weeks, many of them held in campuses of exclusive schools and in churches, with a significant mass of people – students, religious, those from the middle class -- who have previously stayed away but who are now drawn out to participate actively and enthusiastically “in search for the truth”, if not for an outright change in government.

The Catholic Bishop’s Conference in the Philippines (CBCP) is compelled to describe its current position as “People Power with a difference”, even as it has not budged, in fact it has even retrogressed, from its 2005 pastoral letter. The CBCP not only refused to call for GMA’s resignation, it interprets only those measures that are strictly legal and constitutional to be “according to the Gospel”. The “difference”, it turns out, is that the CBCP’s idea of “People Power” is one that is led by GMA herself!

Even Malacañang could not avoid invoking “People Power” but continues to distort its meaning in order to mislead. Parroting the CBCP’s call, Mrs. Arroyo enjoined “government, the Church, the people, and the media … (to) help each other, to prove to the public that there is truth and justice in our democratic and legal institutions.” According to Mrs. Arroyo, “This is the new people power; watchful of legal processes to ensure that the truth will come out.”

Prior to all these, although huge rallies were not the order of the day, there were many signs that a growing majority viewed the Arroyo administration with distrust, if not disgust. Organized groups and Opposition figures sustained protests on a host of issues. The mass media kept up its coverage of government anomalies and atrocities. Surveys showed plummeting popularity, approval, performance and credibility ratings. The Opposition win in the 2007 senatorial elections was undeniably an anti-GMA vote. But why is there so much talk now of “People Power” when the gigantic street demonstrations that culminated in the popular uprisings of 1986 and 2001 have not yet materialized?

Anyone who experienced any of these two “People Power” phenomena can sense the buildup of widespread outrage triggered by the series of revelations on the corrupt NBN-ZTE deal. Mr. Lozada’s testimony is the most compelling because it was attended by attempts at a cover-up most foul – including attempted bribery, abduction and attempted murder -- under the direction, no less, of the President’s men.

Many perceive that an honest investigation into this latest case of official roguery and the prosecution and punishment of all involved has already been foreclosed by this high-level cover-up that seeks to protect first and foremost Mrs. Arroyo. Moreover, there have been more than enough intricate but bungled cover-ups and botched investigations into official wrongdoing that many have simply lost faith in investigations by the Justice Department, the Ombudsman and, much less, by Malacañang itself.

For the truth to come out, people realize and are demanding that Mrs. Arroyo get out of the way, she must stop obstructing justice. In fact, to a fast growing number of people, she must resign.

But it is also becoming crystal clear that Mrs. Arroyo will never step down from power voluntarily. Unlike the former Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who acceded to popular demand that he renew his mandate to rule by calling for snap elections, Mrs. Arroyo admits of no such necessity to legitimize her continuation in office. Her unpopularity and the innumerable scandals rocking her administration do not faze her. She is in a complete state of denial.

It has also been proven that Mrs. Arroyo will flout all legal processes geared to make her accountable, especially the independent investigations being conducted by the Senate. For one, she persists in misinterpreting the Supreme Court ruling on Executive Order 464, on the parameters of “executive privilege”, in order to prevent officials under her from testifying on what they know of misdeeds in government. She has also, time and time again, wielded the administration majority in the House of Representatives to torpedo any bona fide impeachment complaint.

There are those who think a military surgical action – a coup d’état-- is the more viable, if faster and surer solution. But for an overwhelming number of people, a military junta or dictatorship would be just as bad, if not worse. Besides, the prospects for a successful coup have been greatly diminished by the fact that the AFP leadership has become deeply beholden to GMA through concessions, privileges and presidential largesse.

Patriotic and democratic elements within the military have come to realize that they can best contribute to the endeavor of changing a corrupt regime by withdrawing their support at the proper time; i.e. after the civilian population has clearly manifested its collective will through the concerted actions of hundreds of thousands.

The current protest actions, media coverage, various truth forums are all providing widespread education – discernment, if you wish -- and agitation. The regime’s clumsy attempts to further cover up its crimes will only highlight its guilt, utter moral bankruptcy and rejection by the people.

More and more people are bound to collectively perceive that all legal and constitutional avenues of establishing the truth, seeking accountability, and instituting meaningful change have not only been foreclosed, they have instead been used to promote the interests of those in power. Thus the only remaining viable avenue is the people’s direct exercise and assertion of their democratic will.

Until an unstoppable chain of events is reached that may unleash the firestorm of an uprising, there is need for building up the momentum towards bigger demonstrations, paralyzing actions and even the more passive, though no less effective, acts of civil disobedience. This will not just make manifest the people’s will but make the country ungovernable for the Arroyo regime.

Tuluy-tuloy na ba ito? This is the question on everyone’s mind. Three weeks ago, nobody would have foreseen that they would be asking this question now. Similarly, it would be impossible to foresee how long, how far and how fast events will go, including the unraveling of this “evil” regime.

The important thing to realize is that everything now depends on all of us – the people. #

February 08, 2008

The breaking point

To many political observers, the ease and speed with which House of Representatives Speaker Joe de Venecia was ousted from power in the early morning of Tuesday, seems to indicate how formidable and invincible the Arroyo political machine has become.

Consider that Mr. de Venecia had been Speaker for an unprecedented five terms. He knew all the tricks of the trade, as it were, in the realm of transactional politics. He was the consummate traditional politician who knew how to stay in power by wheeling-and-dealing: appointing committee chairmen on the basis of loyalty to him; using the congressional pork barrel as a carrot-and-stick devise to keep legislators in line; handing out cash incentives and all kinds of perks to get the legislative mill grinding for Malacanang’s urgent bills. Mr. de Venecia appeared safe from being ousted until only a couple of weeks ago.

The perception that the GMA regime can get away with murder -- figuratively and in actuality -- is reinforced even more by the unabashedly criminal manner by which Mr. Jun Lozada, the would-be star witness on the ZTE broadband scam, was intercepted upon arrival from abroad (where he is suspected to have been forced to go in order to prevent him from testifying at the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee) and abducted reportedly by Presidential Security Group elements. No less than PNP chief Gen. Razon was covering up the crime, obviously upon "orders from the higher ups".

Doubtless, the masterminds and hatchet men for both operations, as well as a host of administration sycophants, supporters, dependents, hangers-on, etc. are beside themselves with glee and are congratulating each other for getting away once again with the most flagrant abuse and misuse of power, to the extent of engaging in patently criminal acts.

What escapes each and every one of them, including and especially the illegitimate occupants of Malacanang Palace, is that these "successful" operations -- which are in no small way intended additionally to serve as a stern warning to whoever would cross their path or challenge their supremacy -- are really signs of weakness and vulnerability, not of strength nor invincibility.

Why else was there need for the Arroyo boys to flaunt their kinship with the de facto President in pressuring fellow congressmen to toe the line. Why resort to dumping a long standing ally who had been instrumental in rescuing Mrs. Arroyo from being forced to step down. Indeed, why engage in criminal acts (abduction, illegal detention, grave threats and who knows what else), why dish out blatant lies to the victim’s relatives and the public (that Lozada and his family requested police protection), why frustrate the perfectly legitimate and legal move of the Senate to arrest Mr. Lozada, a vital witness in a Senate investigation, and risk being charged with obstruction of justice and worse?

There is some truth to the observation that these strong-arm measures are aimed at securing a pliant congress that would pave the way for Charter change and ensure Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on power beyond 2010.

At the same time, these are desperate measures to cover up the massive corruption and grave anomalies originating principally from Malacanang. Speaker JdV may no longer be cooperative in succeeding congressional investigations/hearings. Impeachment proceedings still loom large in the 2008 horizon. Malacanang's attempts to silence Mr. Lozada betray sheer panic, rather than a clear-headed plan, indicating the possible damage his testimony could bring on the regime.

The Arroyo regime has little choice now but to resort to these desperate and ultimately counterproductive measures because the crisis it is mired in is spinning out of control. Its main preoccupation today is survival even as it continues to plot in order to remain in power past 2010.

It may be argued that there is nothing new in these recent measures that could bring about the people's outrage. After all, GMA has gotten away with hundreds of extrajudicial killings, even congratulating in her SONA her most ruthless and unrepentant butcher, General Jovito Palparan. And Mr. Lozada is not the first potentially damaging witness to be coerced, bought or intimidated to recant their testimony.

The Arroyo regime/government has become like a dam trying to hold back tons and tons of water. It is a dam that is fundamentally flawed in design, made of substandard material and shaken and damaged by too many social tremors, causing cracks here and there. The cracks have not been enough to cause it to burst instantly, but as the pressure remains or slowly builds up, the cracks widen and a point is reached when the whole dam can just burst.

Mrs. Arroyo and her henchmen are correct in calculating that whistle blowers, investigations and mass protest can truly cause pressure build-up that could eventually break the GMA dam.
The highhandedness, the arrogance, the repeated episodes of flagrant abuse of power are all calculated to intimidate, coerce and deter would-be whistleblowers, investigations, and mass protest.

What they miscalculate is that strong-arm, illegal and criminal tactics cannot always deter whistleblowers and will even inevitably spur more damaging investigations. A point shall be reached when the people's resilience, patience and tolerance will likewise break -- "Sobra na! Tama na!"

We will collectively act to put a stop to all this madness. #

* Published in Business World
8 – 9 February 2008

February 01, 2008

Gloria's energy program

Today is the last day of the "pre-summit" of the 2008 Philippine Energy Summit that the Energy Department is organizing. The summit proper is actually on February 5 where the event's outputs and action plans shall be presented to Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, who is expected to give a keynote address to the participants.

I have been doubtful about the real agenda of the Energy Summit since Mrs. Arroyo announced it in the first week of January. Malacañang's announcement of the activity came amid the reported $100 per barrel oil in the global futures market that triggered renewed calls from various sectors and legislators to repeal the 12% value added tax (VAT) on petroleum products and repeal the Oil Deregulation Law (ODL). Based on the organizers' initial pronouncements, I sensed that the Energy Summit is some sort of a publicity ploy to give the public the impression that the government is willing to listen and is actually responding to the people's urgent demands.

Yet, as the national debate on what concrete and immediately doable options are available for the government raged on after the Energy Summit was announced, it became clearer that this regime is not about to give up the 12% oil VAT if only to provide some breathing space to the ordinary income earners who could no longer cope with exorbitant and escalating pump prices. Nor is it ready to seriously rethink the deregulation policy that allows oil firms to automatically implement oil price hikes. Instead, Mrs. Arroyo issued an executive order lowering the tariffs on crude oil and petroleum product imports based on certain trigger prices in the global spot markets. The tariff cut resulted in a P1 per liter rollback in the prices of diesel, suspiciously announced to coincide with the Energy Summit's opening.

Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes, in his opening remarks at the Energy Summit, finally admitted that the activity does not aim to "solve high oil prices" but intends to forge "consensus on recommended policies that will reduce our vulnerability to world oil prices". And for the government, that means pursuing the development of renewable energy in the medium and long term, which is what the Energy Summit is all about.

Here lie the fundamental problems of the Arroyo regime's approach to the energy sector. First, the quick-fix oil tariff cut, in reality, has an insignificant impact on ordinary oil consumers. It did reduce diesel prices by P1 per liter but the prices of other petroleum products like gasoline, kerosene, and LPG that are commonly used by the people for their livelihood and daily household consumption remained unchanged. In addition, this amount will be easily wiped out in two or three weeks of sustained high global oil prices.

Compare it with the potential impact of lifting the 12% oil VAT. Immediately, it could bring down the pump prices by at least P4 per liter across various petroleum products and not only diesel. LPG cost could go down by around P59 per ordinary (11 kg cylinder) tank. As a result, the daily income of jeepney drivers could go up by around P123 and that of tricycle drivers by P19. Small fishers could expect an increase in their income of as much as P49 per fishing trip. These three sectors alone represent around 1.72 million people, excluding members of their families who also rely on their income. Furthermore, 8.6 million households will see their monthly spending on LPG fall by around P169 while 9.4 million households (particularly in the countryside and in urban poor communities) will experience a reduction of P20 per month on their kerosene spending.

The Arroyo regime's economic managers paint a doomsday scenario once the oil VAT is removed, citing dire warnings from credit rating agencies like Moody's and multilateral financial institutions like the IMF about the harmful effects it could create on the country's fiscal situation. We could not afford it, they say, especially now that the government is on the verge of totally reversing the fiscal crisis. Well, I suggest that finance and budget officials ride a jeepney and tell the poor tsuper that he must pay P120 more for diesel because the government needs the money to balance its budget and address the fiscal problem. For the poor, a healthy fiscal condition means nothing, especially if it does not translate to improved incomes and livelihood, more jobs, more food on their table, not to mention decent, social services. As for the need to raise revenues, the government argues as if it has nothing more to collect but the oil VAT when in 2006 alone, it failed to collect P82 billion in income taxes from corporations, P28 billion more than what the government expects to collect from the oil VAT this year. Where is the logic, and justice, here?

Even the pump price reduction that the lifting of the oil VAT could create may be offset in several months when global oil prices continue their uptrend. To address this, a repeal of the ODL must be pursued to ensure reasonable domestic pump prices. The ODL has been a gross failure – until today, more than 90% of domestic petroleum sales and more than 90% of the total number of gasoline stations nationwide are still controlled by the Big Three while 100% of the country's refining capacity is monopolized by Petron and Shell.

Meanwhile, the people are burdened with steep and frequent oil price hikes as a result of automatic price adjustments under the ODL, with the average retail price of all petroleum products jumping by 576% since the policy was first implemented in 1996.

ODL and free market apologists would dismiss the call for state regulation as empty propaganda but I urge genuinely concerned policy makers, academics, and experts to read House Bills 3029, 3030, and 3031 that are currently pending at the House of Representatives. These legislative proposals, jointly filed by party-list groups Anakpawis, Bayan Muna, and Gabriela Women's Party, outline concrete and detailed provisions on how we can implement the regulation of the downstream oil industry.

The second major point I want to make pertains to the agenda of the Energy Summit to pursue renewable energy over the medium and long term. Let me state first that the development of alternative, clean, and indigenous sources of energy must be pursued. If we seriously intend to achieve genuine and sustainable national industrialization, it is indispensable that we attain energy independence and security.

But my problem with the Arroyo regime's energy program is that it relies too much on foreign capital, technology, and markets. Thus, in the process, it has reduced energy independence and security into a program of attracting foreign investments and plunder, instead of developing and utilizing indigenous energy resources for industrialization. The government has been doing this since the 1990s and with dire consequences on the economy and the people.

Look the at the country's power sector reforms that began under President Ramos where the government aggressively pursued the privatization of the country's power generation resources. The program resulted in onerous power supply contracts, bled government coffers dry, and unjustly bloated the consumers' electricity bills. Mrs. Arroyo has continued to pursue this path under the EPIRA since 2001.

Another case is the Malampaya natural gas project, which is controlled by Shell and Chevron. Malampaya also contains crude oil reserves but its development has been greatly delayed because the foreign operators refused to develop it since they are already making billions of pesos in profits from extracting natural gas. In 2001, Shell and Chevron pumped crude oil from Malampaya as part of an extended well test but exported it to South Korea .

The Biofuels Act of 2006, meanwhile, is feared not only to cause environmental problems and undermine food security but also threatens to further concentrate vast tracts of agricultural lands in the hands of foreign agribusiness corporations and local comprador-landlords at the expense of genuine agrarian reform. Renewable energy development, as promoted in the Energy Summit and with funding support from the ADB, World Bank, USAID, and JICA, will be pursued within the same flawed framework. This leaves little or no hope that the country's energy resources, including renewables, will be used to serve the people and genuine national industrialization. #

*Published in Business World
1-2 February 2008