October 29, 2009

The curious case of Chiz Escudero

Yesterday, Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero, a popular contender in the May 2010 presidential elections, resigned from his party, the National People’s Coalition, in a clear bid to distance himself from NPC Chair, business tycoon and putative presidential kingmaker, Mr. Danding Cojuangco. The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the electoral arena. Other candidates and their respective camps, as well as political pundits of all stripes, will have a field day analyzing the underpinnings, implications and possible scenarios generated by Mr. Escudero’s bombshell decision until he makes his final announcement of his political plans in the coming weeks.

I first met Mr. Escudero when I, together with other victims of human rights violations under the Marcos dictatorship, sought a dialogue with members of the House of Representatives over a bill that would respond to the victims’ demand for justice and restitution. He was then a first term representative from Sorsogon. I ended up berating the cocky lawyer-congressman for seeming to trivialize the victims’ plaint and attributed his apparent lack of concern to the fact that his father had been one of Marcos’ loyal Cabinet members. Back then, he already struck me as somewhat of a jaded politician despite his youth.

In time though, Mr. Escudero has become a curious case, not unlike the hero in the fanciful film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, who started out physically old and emotionally naïve, then inexplicably grew younger as he matured.

Sen. Escudero’s decision stands out because it is a refreshing departure from the display of political opportunism that has so far suffused the campaigns of the both the administration and the front running opposition candidates. It gives a premium to independence on substantive issues over patronage and finance/machinery/logistics, the so-called winnability factors.

Most broadsheets failed to mention or underplayed Sen. Escudero’s amplification of what he meant by taking an independent stance from the vested interests locked into his membership in the NPC, or any other mainstream political party for that matter. He pointed to the fight against corruption: what if those he needed to run after were members of his own party? Or, the political godfather himself, Mr. Cojuangco?

Sen. Escudero reiterated his rejection of the pork barrel system in Congress that undergirds and reinforces patronage politics, including Malacanang’s hold on Congress by the Chief Executive’s power to disburse the coveted “countryside development funds” of both congressmen and senators. He said that his membership in a party with a host of Congress members weakens his position.

He highlighted his stand against the contractualization of labor as part of his commitment to uphold the rights of ordinary working people. He categorically said he is against oil deregulation and pointed out how the small fry like jeepney drivers are strictly regulated when it comes to hiking passenger fees while giant oil firms are free to fix the price of fuel according to the dictates of profitability.

He also mentioned upholding the dignity and integrity of the work of government employees like soldiers, police and even ambassadors who are made to act as footstools of political bigwigs rather being allowed to do their job of giving service to the people unhampered.

Rather than safe motherhood statements about government reform, alleviating poverty and caring for the disadvantaged, Mr. Escudero concretized his position by taking on existing policies and ways of doing things. In the process he gave notice to big business, foreign and domestic, to his fellow politicians especially those who have yet to be made accountable for their corruption and other crimes against the people, and most of all to the people whose support he courts, where he stands on issues.

According to the senator, he left the NPC because he has come to realize that anyone who is planning to seek higher office should owe his loyalty not to any party but to the country and the people. Such lofty rhetoric is not original. We’ve heard it before and have learned to take such claim with a huge grain of salt.

Yet Mr. Escudero’s decision appears to go against everything a politician in this country learns as he makes the climb to the top; that is, to make sure one has the backing of those sections of the ruling elite who matter – the ones with the big bucks, the clout and the organizational machinery to get you where you want to go. Of course, one knows the quid pro quo.

To be sure, the scuttlebutt is that Sen. Escudero failed to get the kind of financial support that he was asking for from Mr. Cojuangco, thus the resignation. (A fantastic figure of 5 billion pesos was reported by one broadsheet unabashedly rooting for another presidential candidate.) This is supposedly the real reason for the senator’s junking of his party and his patron.

Even if we are to believe the imputed motive and alleged circumstances surrounding Sen. Escudero’s resignation, we do not necessarily come to the conclusion that his decision to go independent is an unprincipled one. In fact, it is an astute one. For why should the senator carry the onus of a Cojuangco anointment, by an unrepentant Marcos crony now reputedly the favored Arroyo crony who is helping to money launder the Arroyo family’s plundered billions, if it were not equivalent to a sizeable campaign kitty? He may as well not go by the rules as far as his presidential bid is concerned.

The possible return on this high-stakes gambit for Sen. Escudero is being able to take the moral and political high ground and possibly capturing the imagination of those among our people, the youth most especially, who are still looking for an alternative to the tiresome array of politicians cast in the same old, traditional (aka “trapo”) mold.

The many permutations of running mates or presidential and vice-presidential tandems made possible by Sen. Escudero’s exit from the NPC certainly indicates either (1) there is no fundamental difference in the different candidates’ stand on important issues; (2) they can easily compromise their stands (i.e. there is wide maneuver room for opportunism); or (3) both of the above. Witness how the Lakas-NUCD-Kampi lost no time in extending an invitation to Sen. Escudero to be the administration’s veep candidate. The Nationalista Party headed by its standard bearer Sen. Manny Villar has once more given him the moist eye despite an earlier rebuff.

Will Chiz Escudero squander this once-in-a-lifetime chance to wage an “out-of-the-box” candidacy over the better-oiled and media-hyped campaign of his rivals? Or will he take a stab at making history and achieve the biggest upset this country has seen in an electoral contest? #

*Published in Business World
30-31 October 09

October 15, 2009

Solutions or band-aid?

Who was it who said that the best way to ensure that nothing gets done is to create a committee? The Arroyo government’s announcement of the formation of the Special National Public-Private Sector Reconstruction Commission tasked “to study the causes, costs and actions needed to be taken in the wake of Ondoy, Pepeng and last year’s typhoon Frank” and “to seek fresh aid to fund the reconstruction (of damaged infrastructure)” appears to be headed precisely in that direction.

Going by the Arroyo regime’s track record in seeking the truth, upholding accountability and making money, this project is bound to turn into another whitewash, a fund-raising enterprise masquerading as an investigation and reconstruction commission.

Apart from attempting to deflect responsibility for the lack of disaster preparedness on all fronts, government is deliberately turning a blind eye to the real causes of the widespread destruction that took place and the lingering after-effects.

The favorite scapegoats are the so-called squatters living precariously on the banks of rivers and canals draining Metro Manila’s flood waters. The real culprits –the multinational logging and mining firms that denuded the forest cover critical to retaining the water brought by torrential rainfall and typhoons; the land grabbers disguised as real estate developers that build on esteros, riverbeds and other public spaces – are not targets for demolition. They have protection from officialdom, the bureaucrat capitalists from municipalities all the way up to Malacañang, who abuse their authority to amass immense wealth.

Landlessness and dire poverty are the main causes of migration to the cities; add to this, militarization of the countryside. People seek jobs and a way out of their stultifying and oftentimes perilous existence in the rural areas only to end up living in the urban fringes and wastelands, close to whatever livelihood they manage to scrape together to survive. Once they nestle in a place no matter how hazardous, they resist relocation especially when there are no job opportunities, no schools and other physical and social infrastructure in sites provided by government.

The very same desperate straits and lack of alternatives caused people to clamber to their rooftops when the floodwaters rose, even though doing so was fraught with discomfort, danger and uncertainty: it was the only remaining option to stay alive. It’s the same phenomenon on a macro level pushing Filipinos to do the dirtiest, most dangerous and cheapest-paid work overseas since government, instead of creating jobs at home, has made the export of labor its quick-fix to the chronic unemployment problem as well as the steady source of dollar earnings.

The rural poor eventually end up as urban poor. Most do not have regular-paying jobs but make a living hawking on the streets, driving pedicabs, washing other people’s laundry and doing all sorts of odd jobs – the millions of unemployed euphemistically described in government statistics as the informal sector. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and have absolutely no “safety nets”: social services are absent or inadequate and inaccessible. They are the ones most vulnerable to natural calamities because apart from being forced to live in high-risk areas they have little by way of fallback, economic and social.

Why are there no jobs? Why are there no social services such as housing? Why is the cost of living skyrocketing so that hunger and disease has become endemic?

The Philippines is so backward economically that there are no good jobs either in agriculture or in industry. Landlessness and abject poverty is still the basic condition of the people who work the soil. In the urban centers, an industrial sector that could process the country’s abundant natural resources has from the start been doomed to stunting and inevitable decline. The national patrimony, such as forest products, minerals, oil and gas deposits, are auctioned off to foreign companies whose main activity has been extraction and export.

Chronic shortfalls in foreign exchange to pay for imports from fuel to capital goods to consumer products are covered by incurring more foreign debt at usurious rates and laden with onerous terms. Government too has become hooked to borrowing in order to have spending money for bloated and wasteful expenditures, corrupt contracts and to wage costly counter-insurgency campaigns.

Denationalization and deindustrialization policies have been persistently pursued by post-colonial governments held captive by foreign monopoly capital interests. These peaked in the eighties with the liberalization, deregulation and privatization policies imposed by pro-“globalization” imperialist financial institutions, multinational corporations and big capitalist powers led by the United States of America.

Debt servicing and not social services has been the top priority of every government. The rationale for government’s privatization binge is to trim its budget deficit. The result is that hospitals, schools and housing projects have become fee-for-service arrangements where those who can’t afford to pay are simply left out. The same is true for public utilities such as water, power and transportation; these have been taken over by private, in particular foreign, interests. Government’s reason for being – public service - has been severely undermined in the name of “globalization”.

A glaring example of how privatization cum corruption has resulted in another gargantuan tragedy is the recent flooding in Pangasinan. The irresponsible and criminal release of millions of tons of water from the San Roque dam was beyond doubt the immediate cause of the flooding. But prosecuting the dam managers and instituting “protocols” to regulate the release of water are not enough to prevent another disaster from happening. As pointed out by experts, the dam itself, sitting as a catch basin to two other heavily silted dams and purportedly designed as flood control, power generation and irrigation mechanism all at the same time, is itself an invitation to disaster.

Before its construction, the prospective dam had already displaced thousands of farmers, mostly indigenous peoples, from their lands. With no benefit in return, the project was opposed from the start by the people most affected by it. The same goes true with those who had built their homes in hillsides and riversides made prone to landslides and flashfloods by the unabated denudation of forests and mining activities. Their opposition to these environmentally-degrading activities has invariably gone unheeded by both local and national governments.

Indeed, the wisest thing to do now is to sift through the debris of death and destruction in search for the "causes, costs and actions needed" to restore and rebuild the lives of the millions who have suffered from the calamities. But unless we unearth the real causes, unless we are prepared to pay the real costs of overhauling an iniquitous, exploitative and oppressive system, all courses of action will simply be a band-aid till the next disaster happens. #

*Published in Business World
16-17 October 2009

October 08, 2009

Disaster waiting to happen

We Filipinos, as a people, have yet to learn our lessons well in the wake of one of the most devastating floods to hit Metro Manila and outlying provinces brought by low-intensity typhoon Ondoy that most of us had simply taken for granted. It will not do to accept the lame excuses - from “climate change” to “overstrained government resources” and “unusually heavy rainfall”. Even more unacceptable and condemnable is the tack of blaming the victims, the people who built their houses on or beside riverbanks, creeks and floodways and who were washed away, for their current miserable plight.

For government to cite the record-level rainfall and other unusual weather disturbances presumably induced by climate change as the main reason for being caught flat-footed is a clear and pathetic attempt to escape responsibility and justify criminal neglect and inutility of those in charge.

Worse, it perpetuates the backward idea that we can do nothing but cope with what nature brings, including periodic calamities that are our lot because the Philippines is located in a typhoon belt or the oft-mentioned “inter-tropical convergence zone”. Consequently, the necessary and vital measures that need to be put in place to avert disasters or at least mitigate the destructive affects of natural hazards such as storms and earthquakes are left undone or only haphazardly done.

It is precisely because we are sitting smack on the intersection of a typhoon belt and an earthquake-and-volcano belt (the Pacific "rim-of-fire") that calamities are already second nature to us. We are not lacking, then, in technological and administrative know-how and expertise on the dangers of these calamities and how to deal with them. Rather, the roots of the disasters are both historical and social.

In truth there is no longer such a thing as a "natural calamity" anymore. Humankind has so interacted, in fact, interfered with nature, without fully comprehending its laws and the implications of his interference or even imagining that he controls nature and bends the laws of nature to conform to his will.

It is a harsh lesson that humankind has learned from the time man discovered how to use fire and water, then steam and much later, nuclear power. Man has come to understand that the forces of nature can be tamed to make life less brutish and more comfortable, but always according to its own laws. The lack of understanding of those laws, or failure to abide by them (usually in an arrogant attempt to ignore, if not foolishly defy these laws) invariably end up in disaster.

The laws of nature are hard, unbending and immutable. They only appear to change because man's understanding of those laws are unified, simplified and rendered more precise. With nature, the dictum "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is absolute and unforgiving.

Yet, the real transgressors get away literally with murder because nature has a much more dilated time line relative to ours; the forces of nature take time - even eons - to act. But when a certain threshold is reached, all hell literally breaks loose. Most often the real causes of the disaster can be concealed or forgotten, deliberately or not, buried along with the corpses or disposed of unceremoniously along with the debris and garbage.

Concretely and historically in the Philippines, those transgressors include the despoilers and plunderers of the country’s natural resources especially during the American colonial period, post-independence and up to the present time. These include the foreign corporate interests and their local partners in mining, logging, agribusiness and real estate development including their financiers and the series of supine governments that failed to protect and conserve the national patrimony.

Government policy is unchanged. The Arroyo regime has closed its eyes to the continuing wanton and over exploitation of our natural resources alongside the accelerating degradation of the environment. It has pushed for more and more liberalization of laws and regulations governing foreign investments in the country.

In fact, the kinds of disaster inflicted by government policies on our people cover not only physical disaster but economic backwardness and impoverishment as well. These are exactly the conditions that create our people’s vulnerability to the effects of so-called natural calamities.

It is no accident that the poor are the worst hit by these calamities. The iniquitous social system is such that those who have less in life become the most vulnerable. Notwithstanding all the hype that calamities are "great equalizers" and victimize rich and poor alike, the reality is that the rich are well-protected and insulated from disaster or have the wherewithal to quickly recover most losses, while the poor, already destitute and deprived, lose everything and are at a complete loss on how to pick things up and start all over again.

To make matters worse, the Arroyo administration had not put in place the plan and the resources to deal with even half of Ondoy's rainfall, just as it had failed, like other administrations before it, in enforcing the laws and undertaking the measures that would have mitigated, if not prevented much of the damage Ondoy could bring.

Seen in this light, the lavish spending on the de facto President Arroyo’s innumerable trips abroad, the still unaccounted for millions of dollars in Overseas Development Aid intended for disasters and calamities, the corrupt-ridden government projects and the wasteful expense on government’s failed counter-insurgency programs are certainly more plausible reasons for the kind of unprecedented disaster that befell our people rather than the 12-hr, 400+ millimeters of rainfall.

Disaster preparedness is a distinctly government function that necessitates a comprehensive, scientific study of disaster risks and coming up with a plan on how to deal with them in all respects. These include measures to remove aggravating conditions and effectively mobilizing not just the government machinery but the entire people for the gargantuan effort needed for preemptive action, rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

While past governments have their share of responsibility in failing to undertake the measures that would have mitigated, if not prevented, these disasters, the GMA regime has made the task even more difficult by destroying government credibility, which is required for any attempt to mobilize the people themselves for disaster preparedness.

The solution then is not “bayanihan”, “balikatan”, international humanitarian aid nor even private relief efforts ala ABS-CBN’s “Sagip Kapamilya”. The solution is to bring about a government that truly serves the people, a government that people can repose their faith and trust in and can mobilize both human and material resources to face natural calamities and prevent them from becoming man-made disasters.#

*Published in Business World
9-10 October 2009

October 01, 2009

Sweet victory for Joma

The International Committee to DEFEND Filipino progressives in Europe announced yesterday the second landmark decision of the European Court of First Instance (ECFI) on the terrorist listing of Prof. Jose Ma. Sison, publicly acknowledged leader of the revolutionary movement in the Philippines. The European Court annulled yesterday all decisions and a regulation of the Council of the European Union (EU) that had maintained Prof. Sison in its so-called terrorist blacklist.

It is nothing short of sweet, unadulterated victory for Joma and his family, the world-wide network that championed his rights against the persecutory terrorist listing by the Council of the EU, the governments of the US, the Netherlands and other countries, and all who fight for national freedom and social liberation who have been unjustly and maliciously labeled as “terrorist”.

The ECFI decision’s immediate effect is to unfreeze Mr. Sison’s small personal account that had been misrepresented by the Philippine and Dutch governments as a conduit for international support to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army that he had founded. It also restores his freedom to engage in financial transactions, something of vital importance living in a society where such dealings are an everyday fact of life. For starters, it will allow him to finally seek employment and earn a gainful living, a basic right denied him by the Dutch government since it refused to grant him asylum.

The Court decision also provides solid backing for Joma’s legal moves to claim back the social payments for living allowance, housing, health insurance and old age pension which have been withdrawn from him by the Dutch government, citing the EU Council’s blacklisting, since 2002.

According to Dutch lead lawyer Jan Fermon, the removal of the Mr. Sison’s name from the blacklist is the essence of the ECFI judgment. The Court found that the Council of the EU had unjustly maintained him in the so-called terrorist blacklist without any concrete evidence for any specific act of terrorism. The ECFI finding that there is no basis whatsoever for freezing Prof. Sison’s accounts on the grounds of terrorism means he can no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, be maintained in the EU’s blacklist either for punitive or preventive reasons.

Specifically, the ECFI rejected the claim of the prosecution that judicial proceedings in the Netherlands, where Mr. Sison had applied for political asylum and a residence permit, were sufficient ground for his terrorist listing. To wit: “The Court finds that the procedures before the Raad van State and the Rechtbank clearly do not involve any ‘conviction’ of Mr. Sison, nor do they amount to decisions to ‘instigat[e] … investigations or prosecut[e] for a terrorist act’. In fact, they were solely concerned with the review of the lawfulness of the decision of the Secretary of State for Justice refusing to grant him refugee status and a residence permit in the Netherlands. “

The latest favourable ruling by the EU Court reinforces, on the basis of facts and substantive issues, its 11 July 2007 annulment of the freezing of Prof. Sison’s funds “on the grounds that that decision had been taken in breach of the rights of defence, the obligation to state reasons and the right to effective judicial protection.” This first landmark ruling was however preempted and effectively circumvented by the Council of EU in June 2007 by giving him an official notification that he was being relisted merely to satisfy the Court’s findings that his right to due process had in fact been violated.

Moreover, the ECFI duly recognized during the oral arguments, the fact that the Dutch prosecution service, since March 2009, had already terminated its investigation into charges that Mr. Sison had ordered the killings of two former NPA commanders, due to lack of evidence. This decision was also in accord with earlier rulings by Dutch judicial authorities that found no probable cause against him and had ordered his release from detention while under investigation in September 2007.

According to DEFEND, “The aforesaid termination of prosecution is relevant to the case before the European court. It shows the lack of concrete evidence for the allegation that Prof. Sison … is culpable for any violent act of the New People's Army, despite the close collaboration of Dutch and Philippine political authorities for several years in trying to criminalize him.” It must be noted that the NPA is considered a “terrorist” organization by the Philippine government despite the lack of any law or court decision to this effect; consequently, in 2002, the EU adopted the same “terrorist’ categorization upon the instigation of US and Philippine authorities.

For seven long years, Joma has been vilified and unjustly punished by his being listed as a “terrorist”. He was prohibited from having legal residence, earning an income, receiving a living allowance, holding a house, having sufficient insurance coverage, receiving old age pension and travelling freely. He survived by virtue of the legal, political and humanitarian support extended by fellow Filipinos and human rights advocates and progressives from over the world who believe that his fight against the “terrorist” listing was a fight across national and ideological boundaries.

By this victory, Prof. Sison and his battery of brilliant, progressive lawyers have shown how it is possible to turn the tables on the seemingly formidable political clout and legal machinery of the EU and The Netherlands, with the instigation and backing of the US, that was deliberately ranged against a revolutionary leader they had singled out for persecution and neutralization.

Joma and his defenders have prevailed by invoking and upholding basic human rights as enshrined even in the liberal bourgeois constitutions and other statutes of the EU and individual countries. It must be pointed out that, historically, these rights were not handed over to the people on a silver platter by the feudal ruling classes but were paid for in blood by the exploited and oppressed. Thus they have become universal rights that the world’s peoples must assert, uphold and defend over and over again.

Joma’s legal victory must be celebrated by all freedom-loving peoples and at the same time be the occasion for renewed efforts to demand that the Dutch government and Council of the EU stop being a party to false charges against him and being complicit with the Philippine and US governments in his political persecution. #