May 30, 2008

Populist posturing

I can imagine the political strategists of the Arroyo regime patting themselves on the back for successfully shifting media and public attention from the rice and oil crisis and generally gloomy economic prospects by means of Mrs. Arroyo’s populist posturing about bringing down the cost of electricity, freezing tuition fee increases in state colleges and universities and, as an added boon, making cell phone texting free of charge.

Too bad for Mrs. Arroyo and her bright boys, her credibility is so shot and the propaganda spin so full of holes, their attempts to pass on the blame for the people’s economic woes on everyone but the Arroyo regime itself is bound to backfire in no time. Yet it is also true that consumers, especially those in the low to middle-income brackets, are already groaning under the weight of the sudden, dramatic increase in the cost of living this first five months of the year and they welcome any relief, no matter if brokered by the Devil herself.

As a case in point, let’s take the popular demand to bring the cost of electricity down. Despite the nagging suspicion that all the sound and fury generated by the media war between Meralco and Napocor, the congressional investigations, and the boardroom battle for control of Meralco between the old-rich Lopez clan and Malacanang surrogate and power czar wannabe, Winston Garcia, will eventually amount to nothing, people still cling to the hope that at the end of the day their monthly electric bill will be significantly reduced.

But will it? Maybe, to some extent. Napocor can indeed reduce its generation rates with the coming of the rainy season and thus a more efficient use of its hydroelectric dams; electric consumption will also generally go down with cooler weather ahead; and if the reimbursement due from Meralco for the meter deposit every customer forked over to the utility firm and which the Energy Regulatory Commission has already ruled should be given back, will soon be deducted from the monthly bill.

Significantly? We doubt it. The Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2002 or EPIRA, the overarching policy framework that has resulted in government relinquishing effective direction and control over the power industry, is very much in place. The privatization of the generation and transmission of electricity is ongoing with multinational corporations and Arroyo crony-capitalists gobbling up these state assets even as Napocor’s huge outstanding debts are absorbed by the government and eventually passed on to the unsuspecting consumers.

The anomalous and highly onerous contracts between Napocor and independent power producers (IPPs,) with the provision that all contracted power must be bought and paid for by Napocor whether or not it is “used” or in turn sold to power distributors such as Meralco, are also in place. In fact these preceded Meralco’s own contracts with Lopez-owned IPPs with the same provisions that government knew about and approved of but that Malacanang’s allies now loudly denounce as a patent case of conflict of interest. (In short, Meralco buys power from its sister companies even when their rates are higher than Napocor or the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market.)

The Arroyo regime refuses to countenance any VAT exemption for electricity sales. Finance officials recite the same old line that doing so would deprive government of much-needed revenue to spend on infrastructure and social services. They conveniently gloss over the fact that the biggest items in government expenditure are debt payments, the President’s unaudited pork barrel including so-called intelligence funds and the counter-insurgency program. In between the lines, read government wastage, mispriorities and humongous corruption.

Even all the noise generated by Arroyo allies in Congress exposing Meralco’s unacceptable practice of passing on their inefficiencies and overhead costs to consumers disguised as “systems loss” has not resulted in any Malacanang-certified urgent bill to rescind the law making such practice perfectly legal.
(No doubt that law passed through the persuasive lobby efforts of Meralco and other distribution firms.)

The power struggle at Meralco promises to be a long-drawn out affair with its customers and the people in general sidelined by the intra-corporate maneuvers and counter-maneuvers and blatant government interference in the light of the Lopez clan’s determined efforts to retain control over the highly profitable company. Mr. Garcia, the head of government employees’ insurance fund, wants the public to believe that all he is interested in is to lower electricity rates. However his close ties to the Aboitiz clan, the power magnate in the VIsayas, and his being an unabashed Arroyo loyalist makes his public declarations highly incredulous.

The only way the people will gain economic reprieve from this tussle among local vested interests (the Lopez-led Meralco, the Arroyo regime and the Garcia-Aboitiz rival power business group) is for them to push forward the genuine reform agenda on power. In other words, clamor for the review and eventual repeal of EPIRA, the renegotiation of Napocor’s IPP contracts, the immediate removal of VAT from electricity and a stop to the unjustified systems loss pass-on charge by Meralco and all other distributors to their customers.

Mrs. Arroyo, despite her tact of using popular demands in order to survive politically, is not about to turn her back on the neoliberal policies and programs she has committed herself to out of her own pro-imperialist and pro-big business bias and the pressure made to bear on her regime by multilateral financial agencies such as the IMF-World Bank, imperialist governments, international credit-rating agencies and the entire international infrastructure of monopoly capital.

Will the Arroyo regime bring prices of prime commodities and services down in the remaining two years of her stolen term of office? Don’t bet on it. #

May 22, 2008

Ka Bel's legacy

The accolades coming the way of Anakpawis Representative Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran, in his untimely death, salute his honesty and self-sacrifice, his courageous resistance against all forms of political repression, his unwavering commitment and service to the cause of the working class, his example of humility, good cheer and sincere concern for the lowly and downtrodden and, not the least, his being a loving and responsible family man who found time to rear ten children in the midst of his life-long struggle against exploitation and oppression.

It is not difficult to imagine what sorts of blandishments, bribes and outright persecutory schemes were thrown at Ka Bel by his foes who were, as far as we know, all political and ideological and not personal, adversaries. The most outrageous recent ones have been chronicled in the mass media: an attempted bribe of P2 million pesos for him to support a flawed-and-programmed-to-fail impeachment complaint against de facto President Gloria Arroyo and his 15-month detention on rebellion charges that were dismissed by the Supreme Court as baseless and a gross violation of his right to due process.

As a grizzled icon of the trade union movement in the country, the opportunities to grow rich by compromising the interests of workers were always present. As chairperson of the multisectoral alliance, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, a volte face in his leftist viewpoint and politics on many a burning issue would have been a boon to ruling regimes and the elite class interests they protect and promote.

As a bone fide member of the House of Representatives (he didn’t use public funds, military generals and corrupt members of the Commission on Elections to get elected) he acted in true form – a radical oppositionist in a reactionary institution. He spoke on and filed countless bills and resolutions addressing the urgent and most basic problems of the nation from the P125 legislated minimum wage increase to genuine agrarian reform to making the US-backed Arroyo regime accountable for its grievous crimes against the people. But never for a moment did Ka Bel forsake the Parliament of the Streets where his familiar smiling face, firm handshake and steady stride inspired both demonstrators and onlookers alike.

Ka Bel had traveled to many places around the world but not to the United States of America. Succeeding administrations, whether Republican or Democratic, had continued to blacklist him as an unwanted alien long after the downfall of his jailer, the Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and even when he had already attained the title of “Honorable” as an elected representative to Congress. His staunch anti-imperialist stance and his identification with progressive causes and leadership role in the International League for Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS) have earned him the ire of rabid pro-imperialists while endearing him to struggling peoples and their movements worldwide.

Next to having devoted his entire life to the struggle for national and social emancipation, the most remarkable thing about Ka Bel is how he remained simple and humble despite his fame and stature. He is the best, if not the only person we know who could get away with wearing a dressy suit or barong tagalong without losing his “masang-masa” aura.

Now the secret is out, ironically revealed by his accidental death. Ka Bel looked like a man of the masses, not only because he always took up the cudgels for them and was with them in their day-to-day as well as historic struggles, but because, in truth, he lived and died a man of very modest means. His wife of more than 50 years, Ka Osang, recounted between sobs, how he had been recently occupying himself with repairs on their house, clearing a space in their cramped residence to park an old van he had been using but was badly in need of repair and sweetly promising that he would help her pull the weeds from the garden in the coming weeks so that their vegetables would grow well and help feed the hungry.

His comrades, co-workers and subordinates and even some on the opposite side of the fence in many a bruising political battle, can attest to Ka Bel’s good-heartedness and humility. He never threw his weight around in meetings nor did he demand special treatment wherever he went. He was always willing to give his time and energy to undertake risky, strenuous and even unglamorous roles so long as these were needed. He was concerned about the welfare of kasamas, the ordinary people and his growing brood of grandchildren.

Ka Bel was never intentionally mean to anyone (of course he would get angry at oppressors and exploiters and would have willingly engaged his persecutors in the Department of Justice in a street brawl). He was generous, some say to a fault, in giving even the policemen standing ready to violently disperse demonstrators, the option to disobey unlawful orders from their superiors by addressing them as kababayan (countrymen) and asking them to open their eyes to what was happening in the country.

Those in the Arroyo regime who contributed in no small measure to Ka Bel’s deteriorated health condition, his economic difficulties and his unabated political persecution would now want to act as if they had, all along, only the highest regard for Ka Bel despite their disagreements with his ideology and politics. They send flowers and make sympathetic noises now that he’s dead and even wish to let it appear that as far as they are concerned, bygones are bygones.

Let us in the democratic mass movement express ourselves clearly and emphatically. Ka Bel was an uncompromising, untiring fighter for freedom, justice and fundamental reforms. He has left us a legacy that serves as an inspiration to generations of activists and the toiling, struggling masses he so loved and whom he served to his last breath.

We celebrate his life by affirming the progressive, nay revolutionary, principles and national democratic program he fought for. As the marchers who accompanied his hearse to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente Cathedral shouted resolutely, “Ka Bel, tuloy ang laban!”#

May 08, 2008

The gut issue

De facto president Gloria Arroyo knows what could be done to bring down power rates in short order and mitigate the effects of soaring prices of rice, fuel and other basic goods and services. She only has to certify to Congress as urgent the repeal of laws imposing VAT on electricity and fuel and allowing distribution companies like the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) to charge systems losses (or their inefficiencies) to customers. This translates to more than twenty per cent savings for consumers and could do wonders for Mrs. Arroyo’s rock-bottom popularity.

So why has she chosen to let loose her attack dogs on Meralco, the Philippines’ largest power distributor, on which all Metro Manilans rely for their electricity supply. The signal fire was Mrs. Arroyo’s speech before big business groups which she urged them to join the “tough legal fight” against Meralco before the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC). Government has filed petitions that is says will compel the distribution utility to lower its rates.

Then the launch of a campaign by the head of the state-fund Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) that, together with other government corporations, have a 33 percent stake in Meralco, against present management accusing it of fraud in bilking its customers, lack of transparency and other forms of mismanagement. While Malacanang denied it was planning a government “take-over” it made clear that it could wrest management control of the firm from the Lopez group when its stockholders meet on May 27, should it choose to do so.

Pampanga Representative Juan Miguel Arroyo and Senator Miriam Santiago, heads of key congressional Energy Committees, have called for public investigations into why and how Meralco charges such high electricity rates, allegedly the highest in Asia. Both are playing the role of crusaders against corporate greed while turning a blind eye to the laws that were passed under Mrs. Arroyo’s watch, such the Electric Power Industry Reform Act or EPIRA that critics contend is the single major cause for the continuing unwarranted power rate increases.

From where we sit (a swelteringly hot office that can’t afford an air conditioner, much less one that runs on electricity!) it looks like a clear case of the big, grimy pot calling the kettle black. Or if you’re not into metaphors, it simply means that the Arroyo regime is trying to pin the entire blame for inflating electricity bills in Luzon on Meralco. In the process it hopes to cover-up once more its own bigger share of the blame and even appear to be the one working hard to ease the consumers’ burden.

On the one hand, the Arroyo clique could not have chosen a more credible target of attack. The monopoly distribution utility firm just recently upped power rates by another 67.17 centavos while reporting a healthy 23 per cent increase in quarterly earnings for 2008. It garnered a first quarter net profit of P655 million (US $15.4 million) compared to P532 million for the same period last year while most Filipinos are just barely able to survive.

Not a few recall how Meralco tried – and fortunately failed – to pass on its tax obligations from 1994 to 2003 to its unsuspecting customers for which it was ordered by the Supreme Court to refund more than P30 billion that it had overcharged. Prior to this, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan argued before the ERC that the unbundling of rates under the EPIRA has allowed Meralco to sneak in what amounts to an unapproved rate hike. With its long record of doing business and raking in profits under monopoly conditions, the Lopez-led Meralco is seen by many, and with good reason, as being privileged, avaricious and callous especially in light of the latest exacerbation of the economy’s festering situation in the form of the rice and oil crises.

It appears then that the government has all of a sudden taken the consumers’ side and decided to tame the greed of the power monopolist, something it could have done a long time ago if it really wanted to.

The gut question, however, is the one which matters most to the consuming public: will government control of Meralco really bring down the monthly electricity bill?

We think not. The truth is the Arroyo regime has not made any major change in policy framework as outlined in EPIRA with regard to the power sector. Ever since the critical power supply shortfall in the late 80s and early 90s, all the post-Marcos governments responded, upon the advise of the IMF-World Bank-Asian Development Bank , not by building the necessary infrastructure to meet the growing demand but to contract out power generation to independent power producers or IPPs. Furthermore, steps were taken to privatize the whole power industry effectively abandoning government’s role in providing this most basic service to the public as well as in carrying out the development of this most strategic sector of the economy.

Due to pressure from the country’s international creditors to fast track the privatization of the power sector before the release of loans to finance the country’s power development program, the EPIRA, was railroaded by Congress and signed into law by President Gloria Arroyo in 2001. The law was passed despite opposition from the people.

The EPIRA seeks to restructure the electricity industry and privatize the National Power Corporation or the NAPOCOR. The government’s objective in privatizing NAPOCOR is to cut losses from loans and pass on the burden of power infrastructure investment to the private sector, while earning revenues from the sale.

But contrary to what was promised, the EPIRA has not caused any real decrease in power rates. According to studies by the consumer group People Opposed to Warrantless Electricity Rates (Power), the EPIRA legitimized the onerous Purchased Power Adjustments (PPA) from anomalous contracts entered into by NAPOCOR with IPPs. These IPPs are mostly owned by foreign multinational corporations in partnership with big local power tycoons. In the findings of a government inter-agency committee tasked to review IPP contracts, only six out of 35 contracts were found to be without any legal or financial questions.

Moreover, POWER points out that EPIRA favors power industry players over consumer interests. It legitimizes the passing on of all costs of power generation to end users. For example, the system loss charges appearing on electricity bills, passes on the inefficiency of distribution utilities to end users. Stranded costs and debts by both the NAPOCOR and power utilities are also to be recovered from the general public under the item universal charge.

The unquestioned and unaltered policy frame on the power industry as embodied in EPIRA and pursued by the Arroyo regime is one that has perpetrated collusion and monopolistic control that have in turn resulted in unreasonably high rates and intermittent price hikes.

It is all too clear that in “taking on” Meralco, Mrs. Arroyo merely seeks to deflect the people’s righteous anger over high electricity prices while maneuvering to position her own cronies and subalterns to gain a stronger foothold in the power industry.#

May 01, 2008

"Globalize" resistance and protest

"It's a global phenomenon-- there is nothing we can do about it." This has been the stock response -- or cop-out -- of the Arroyo regime whenever oil prices go up. Now, with the price of rice suddenly leaping sky-high; the long queues for government-subsidized rice an everyday scene; government at its wit’s end trying to secure contracts from foreign suppliers to fill the country’s production shortfall; and foreign creditors ringing alarm bells over looming hefty increases in the government’s budget deficit, the regime again resorts to the worn-out excuse to sidetrack its failure to effectively address the rice crisis.

But this time around, we can readily agree that the rice/food crisis is happening worldwide and its immediate causes and historical roots cannot be strictly confined to the specific policies and concrete situations obtaining in particular countries. Indeed, the international agribusiness cartels such as the small clique of corporations that control the world's fertilizer and pesticide market, the largest seed companies (e.g. Monsanto), the largest grain traders (e.g. Cargill) and the world’s big food processors (e.g. Nestle), their local business partners in third world countries and the homegrown trading cartels (e.g. in rice) have made a killing in the midst of growing hunger, food riots and panic buying by governments and households.

Having said that, we reiterate that the Arroyo regime is not blameless, in fact it must own up to and be held accountable for the neoliberal policies and programs it has perpetuated and even accelerated in implementation that today aggravates the rice crisis.

The World Bank and mainstream analysts highlight demographics such as increasing populations and the supposedly higher standards of living in countries with large populations like India and China, together with the massive shift to biofuels in a world grappling with record high fossil fuel prices, as the culprits behind the rising global grains demand while supplies have been dwindling because of natural calamities, climate change brought about by global warming and extensive land use conversion. So allegedly, no one is really to blame, least of all the national governments that are facing political instability because of the food/fuel crisis.

What we are slowly finding out is that of the host of factors that are man-made and preventable, corporate greed and neoliberal globalization policies pushed by the IMF-WB-WTO and readily adopted by subservient governments of developing countries like the Philippines, are actually what underlies the surge in prices of wheat, cooking oil, fruit and vegetables, as well as of dairy and meat since 2007, and the sudden spikes in rice prices at the start of 2008.

According to GRAIN (see, an international non-governmental organization which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity:

“Nothing that the policy makers say should obscure the fact that today's food crisis is the outcome of both an incessant push towards a 'Green Revolution' agricultural model since the 1950s and the trade liberalization and structural adjustment policies imposed on poor countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since the 1970s. These policy prescriptions were reinforced with the establishment of the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s and, more recently, through a barrage of bilateral free trade and investment agreements.

“Together with a series of other measures, they have led to the ruthless dismantling of tariffs and other tools that developing countries had created to protect local agricultural production. These countries have been forced to open their markets and lands to global agribusiness, speculators and subsidized food exports from rich countries. In that process, fertile lands have been diverted away from serving local food markets to the production of global commodities or off-season and high-value crops for Western supermarkets. Today, roughly 70% of all so-called developing countries are net importers of food. And of the estimated 845 million hungry people in the world, 80% are small farmers.” (Underscoring supplied.)

Governments of rice exporting countries like India and Vietnam have banned and/or restricted sales outside their borders in an attempt to delink their local rice pricing from out-of-control speculation in the international commodities market, tame domestic inflation and protect their own food security. On the other hand, governments of rice-importing countries, foremost of which is the Arroyo regime, are trying to assure their own rice buffer stock by hiking their target volume of imported rice or buying earlier than normal, in the process driving up prices even more. Countries that are not self-sufficient in rice, lured by the IMF-WB line about it being more efficient and cost-saving to simply import rice than grow it themselves, are reduced to scrambling to buy as much as they can even at such artificially inflated prices or risk being booted out of power. Indeed, there is a direct connection between the Arroyo regime’s own political crisis and its rice-buying frenzy.

GRAIN reveals, “Today the world's poorest countries are forced into an intense bidding war against speculators and traders, who are having a field day. Hedge funds and other sources of hot money are pouring billions of dollars into commodities to escape sliding stock markets and the credit crunch, putting food stocks further out of poor people’s reach. … One firm calculates that the amount of speculative money in commodities futures -- markets where investors do not buy or sell a physical commodity, like rice or wheat, but merely bet on price movements -- has ballooned from US$5 billion in 2000 to US$175 billion to 2007.

"Such record profits have nothing to do with any new value that these corporations are producing and they are not one-off windfalls from a sudden shift in supply and demand. Instead, they are a reflection of the extreme power that these middlemen have accrued through the globalization of the food system. Intimately involved with the shaping of the trade rules that govern today's food system and tightly in control of markets and the ever more complex financial systems through which global trade operates, these companies are in perfect position to turn food scarcity into immense profits. People have to eat, whatever the cost."

Now more than ever, toiling peoples everywhere -- blue collar and white collar, those working the fields as peasants or as independent farmers, those who labor in sweat shops of the Third World or in factories of the advanced capitalist countries, those who work at home as subcontractors or on the sidewalks as itinerant vendors -- must realize how neoliberal or imperialist globalization is surely and rapidly destroying their livelihoods, their right to decent standards of living, and their aspirations for a more just, peaceful and egalitarian society. There is no other recourse than to “globalize” resistance against such unbearable conditions of existence and to struggle together to win a future with hope. #

*In celebration of May 1, the International Workers Day