October 24, 2013

Pope Francis

A gust of fresh air is sweeping through the centuries-old, grandiose but encrusted and musty environs of the Vatican City with the arrival of a new Pope elected just seven months ago.  Pope Francis, or the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the new Bishop of Rome.  He establishes several firsts:  the first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas (he is an Argentinian of Italian descent), and the first from the Southern Hemisphere. 

His election highlights the ascendance to the papacy of someone who comes from the part of the globe where two-thirds of Catholics live, the church is still growing and also where the problems of the Third World – poverty and underdevelopment, social inequality and oppression, authoritarianism and social conflict – reign unabated, if not become much worse.

What most Catholics and the rest of the world found immediately refreshing is this pope’s simplicity, humility, openness and warmth as expressed in his refusal to take on the pompous trappings of his office – special vestments, the papal apartments, the papal limousine, strict protocols – that project aloofness and inaccessibility of the Pope to the faithful and even to the ordinary clergy and religious, the church’s foot soldiers.

Later, his interviews and candid statements revealed much more substantial differences from his predecessors.  Upon taking the name of Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi (who turned his back on a life of ease and worldly pleasures to embrace poverty and devotion to Christ’s teachings and good works) he exclaimed, “How I would like a poor Church, and (a Church) for the poor.”

I trace my own social activism to a Catholic upbringing that included all of 10 years studying in a convent school run by German Franciscan Missionaries of Mary nuns. This is where I first learned the meaning of the virtue of charity especially sharing one’s blessings with the poor; love for one’s fellow human beings; and compassion for the sick, downtrodden and those in need.  I imbibed the nuns’ missionary zeal and did catechism work among children living in the slums of the city as my small contribution to spreading Jesus Christ’s healing words of faith, hope and charity.

In the late sixties and seventies, the Theology of Liberation, congealed from the application of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the concrete conditions of widespread and dehumanizing poverty, social injustice and human rights violations in Latin America, drew adherents from religious and laity in other Third World countries including the Philippines, with an overwhelming majority of its population Roman Catholic. 

Thus to my political awakening as a university student in the seventies brought about by the explosion of the First Quarter Storm Movement was amalgamated liberation theology with its “preferential option for the poor”; the use of “structural analysis” to understand how society is built to ensure that the miniscule elite dominates the vast majority economically, politically and culturally; the truth of “structural violence” against the “poor, marginalized and oppressed” sectors in society; that the most repressive form of this systemic  violence is the use of state violence against those who would bring about fundamental changes in society; and that the church of God is not the hierarchical church as such but, like the early Christian church, is a movement of the “people of God” struggling to bring about the fruition of the promise of God’s “Kingdom on Earth”.

By the eighties, liberation theology drew official critiques from the Vatican, specifically through the writings of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 1981-2005 before becoming Pope Benedict XVI.  Cardinal Ratzinger expressed the Vatican’s disapproval of the mixing of the Marxist critique of capitalism with Catholic theology. Nonetheless, he affirmed liberation theology’s bias for the poor and oppressed and its call for the clergy and religious to be one with the people’s struggle for liberation against unjust socio-economic conditions. Still, several of the liberation theologians were sanctioned thus ushering in an era of frosty relations between the church’s hierarchy and the liberation theologians.

In the Philippines, liberation theology’s broad appeal among religious and laity was systematically countered by the anti-communist slur and intrigue emanating from reactionaries in the church hierarchy and encouraged by the elite classes who were threatened by its radical evangelization.  By the nineties, liberation theology would be shunned by the non-politicized even before its relevance to societies embroiled in social conflicts could be studied and understood.

The meeting last September between Pope Francis and Peruvian priest Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez (he coined the phrase “theology of liberation”) marks a historic thaw in the relations of liberation theologians with the Vatican.  It opens the door once more to a theology marked by its concern for the liberation of the world's people from unjust economic and social conditions as well as politically repressive states.

By his own pronouncements and actions, Pope Francis is clearly shaking up the world of conservative Catholicism, and much more, the world of unbridled finance capitalism and wars in the name of “humanitarian intervention”.

Pope Francis said, “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it … one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty…”

He commiserated with the thousands of Bangladesh workers who were receiving very low wages and died, victims of a fire in their factory, calling their employment “slave labor”. 

In his first pastoral visit outside Rome Pope Francis went to the Italian island of Lampedusa where many illegal Muslim immigrants, some refugees while others are economic migrants, land. He spoke against "global indifference" to their plight and called for a "reawakening of consciences" to counteract this.

In a wide-ranging interview, he criticized the Church for putting dogma above love, and doctrine before serving the poor. He said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception and had become a church of “small-minded rules”; he wanted an inclusive church which was a “home for all”.

Two months into his papacy, during an address to foreign ambassadors in the Vatican, the Pope said, “''The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.''  He attacked the ''dictatorship'' of the global financial system and warned that the ''cult of money'' is making life a misery for millions.

At the height of the Syrian crisis, when US President Obama was trying to rally the US Congress and US allies in Europe for a military strike against Syria over the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against armed rebels and civilian populations, Pope Francis called for a global day of fasting and praying for peace in Syria and to oppose any military intervention in the country.  Millions of people around the world responded and the Pope’s unprecedented action likely helped to stay the rampage of the US war machine.

One can only hope and pray that the Catholic Church in this country will be shaken to the very rafters by Pope Francis’ words and sterling example; more importantly, that the faithful be roused from its apathetic and mindless stupor to help build the Church of the poor and for the poor. #

Published in Business World
25-26 October 2013

October 17, 2013

People’s initiative vs “pork”

Former Chief Justice Renato Puno’s proposal to the Filipinos who participated in the August 26 Million People March to use “people’s initiative” -- the Constitutional provision by which the people can enact a law without the participation or intervention of Congress or the President -- in order to bring about an end to the pork barrel system has resonated far and wide.

At the start there were misgivings that a “people’s initiative” would be a tall order given the extensive logistical and organizational resources needed to meet the requirements of Republic Act No. 6735, "The Initiative and Referendum Act".  The petition for enactment of a law against the pork barrel must be signed by 10 per cent (or roughly 5.2 million) of all registered voters with at least 3 per cent from every legislative district. Then, assuming the numbers are reached, there is the long and tedious process of signature verification by the Commission on Elections before a national referendum is called wherein the people will vote for or against the measure.

What prevailed is the recognition of a tremendous political advantage already in existence.  Not only is public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of the abolition of the “pork” system, a vital social movement is fast building up and gaining momentum calling for an overhaul of the way Philippine traditional politics has hitherto functioned and been imposed on the people.

Now there is excitement and a sense of challenge, of daring and optimism, on how to harness this new element in the battle against “pork”, a battle that has transformed into a fight against the political and social status quo.

In a recent exchange of views with CJ Puno, church people and activist groups and individuals at the forefront of the #abolishporkmovement distilled several important principles and guideposts.

CJ Puno summarized the “evil” that is the pork barrel system.  What is immediately apparent is how it has lent itself to abuse by those in authority to plunder the people’s money.  More than this, how the republican system of separation of powers and the doctrine of checks and balances has been grievously undermined if not destroyed by “pork” and actual tyranny exists wherein the Executive branch can and does dictate the making of laws.  The two-party system that had provided the people a modicum of choice of political platforms and a mechanism for recall has disappeared, in its place a multiparty system without clear-cut political distinctions.
Consequently, the electoral system itself is undermined and rendered farcical with political dynasties fattened and entrenched on “pork” dominating ever-more expensive and ever-more-fraudulent electoral campaigns.  And once the dust settles and the victors emerge, the administration party draws almost all the members of Congress to its fold either through turncoatism or the convenience of loose inter-party alliances upon the promise of “pork” and more “porK”.

On “people’s initiative”, CJ Puno asserted that it is an expression of the people’s will or sovereignty.  It is in this transcendental sense that the “people’s initiative” can be a powerful tool in the struggle to rid the country of the pork barrel system.

Mr. Puno stressed that the doctrine "the people are the sovereign" means that the power to enact laws does not reside exclusively in Congress but can be wielded directly by the people.  In fact, this power is enshrined in the Philippine Constitution and a law already exists to define it. 

The people should use this power whenever their elected representatives default in the performance of their sacred duty to enact laws to promote the general interest, or worse, whenever they betray the public trust and act against the people’s interest.  CJ Puno's call implies that neither can the people expect the Executive branch to uphold the public trust and truly abolish “pork”.

The former Chief Justice affirmed the continuing need to build a strong social movement that would undergird, run parallel to and complement the legal process of crafting the petition for the abolition of “pork”, collecting the required number of signatures and discussing the petition during the campaign period for a national referendum.  He even reminded the body that in world history, it is in fact these social movements that bring about great changes for the betterment of society.

And it is precisely such a social movement that could overcome the seemingly daunting requisites dictated by law not to mention the anticipated countermoves of the pro-pork politicians of whatever stripe, most especially the Aquino regime itself that has emerged as key to defending, preserving and upholding the “pork” system. 

The educational and organizational process involved in building, expanding, strengthening and mobilizing such a social movement has incalculable and long term benefits, whether or not the people's initiative petition is actually passed into law.  

The greatest achievement of the people's initiative cum social movement campaign would be the empowerment of the people.  First, in galvanizing the consensus that there is a need to reform our entire socio-politico-economic system.  Corruption, electoral fraud, social injustice, puppetry and subservience to foreign interests cannot be eliminated, not even significantly minimized, with a mere periodic change of leaders.   Second, in making the people realize from their own direct experience that it is in their power to act, together and decisively, to effect that system change, towards one that will truly uphold the interest of the majority and not the few.

With this genuine empowerment of the people, real and manufactured fears that the struggle to abolish the “pork” system can be worn out and defeated by deception, intrigues, and over-all fatigue or used and manipulated by factional in-fighting among the ruling elite lose their fearsomeness and are rendered largely ineffectual.

The pro-pork and anti-pork divide has quickly developed into a pro-status quo and anti-status quo alignment of forces.  Who will prevail?  The people, without a doubt. #
Published in Business World
18-19 October 2013

October 12, 2013

Taking stock

Since the massive, largely spontaneous public expression of outrage last August 26 in light of the 10 billion-peso Napoles pork barrel scam, subsequent events and revelations have only validated and underscored the call for the abolition of all forms of “pork” or lump sum, discretionary funds including what is now called “presidential pork”. 

There is the uncovering of the highly questionable Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) which legal luminaries, economists and budgetary experts have singularly described as unconstitutional and illegal. Malacanang's feeble attempts to justify, evade and muddle the issues (i.e. DAP is not anomalous because it is being used for good, not being stolen and the result is economic growth and improved social services) only serve to fuel doubt and suspicion.

Malacanang has also chosen to dissimulate or ignored accusations of its brazen use to bribe legislators to impeach a sitting Supreme Court Chief Justice not so much because he is corrupt but because he was not to President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s liking, being a hindrance to the Aquino administration’s consolidation of power and a threat to the Cojuangco-Aquino interests in the Hacienda Luisita case.

Since the issue does not blow away, Mr. Aquino himself is made to argue for DAP using another worn out and transparent fallacy of admitting to a lesser offense to obscure the bigger ones.  Like Ms. Arroyo's belated "I am sorry!" act, he acknowledges on second thought the possibility that some DAP funds may have indeed been misused by corrupt government officials and their cohorts but absolves his men – and by inference himself - of any knowledge of and complicity in the crimes committed. Then, with characteristic arrogance and misplaced confidence, he challenges his detractors, "Try to impeach me!"

What a hollow boast!  With the constitutional safeguards of check-and-balance visibly and evidently undermined by pork, presidential and congressional, in too recent and too many occasions, the people realize it will take more than the courts and even the Senate impeachment tribunal to hold the guilty accountable.

Indeed  former Chief Justice Renato Puno’s call for the abolition of congressional pork and the DAP through the mechanism of a “people’s initiative” is precisely premised on the principle that the people are the real sovereign and state sovereignty only derives from people’s sovereignty.

There is also the unstated but clear premise that not only Congress but also the Office of the President cannot be relied upon to abolish congressional, much less the presidential, pork because this goes against their deeply ingrained, selfish interests.  It is akin to the biblical admonition that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Where is the anti-pork movement at this point, after five major mass protest actions against it in Metro Manila (the latest being a week ago at Ayala Avenue in the heart of Makati’s financial district) echoed by similar mass demonstrations in Cebu, Iloilo, Davao and other urban centers?

What is paramount is that the anti-pork movement is not losing steam or focus as some vocal commentators and opinion writers claim. Yes the numbers joining the protests have gone down after the initial outburst of anger, dismay and inchoate protest captured by the “Million People March” (MPM) in Luneta last August.  But the rallies have continued with sizeable numbers (don’t go by the grossly understated police estimates).  This despite orchestrated attempts to sow intrigue, fear and division in the anti-pork movement’s ranks and among the general public emanating from the Malacanang psywar machine, pseudo-abolish pork quarters, rabid Aquino regime defenders in the dominant and social media and still others with dubious intentions.

The basic demands for the complete abolition of all “pork” funds and their rechanneling to pro-people programs and projects as well as full accountability of those behind the pork scams and the return of the stolen monies remain front and center of the anti-pork movement.

At the same time, with further exposure of the rotting carcass of the pork barrel system and its major role in underpinning the feudal system of patronage politics and the even the much bigger reactionary system of bureaucrat capitalism,  there has certainly been a “leveling up” in terms of analysis and ergo the movement’s demands. For example, the line that it is “diversionary” to call the Aquino regime to account for defending and seeking to entrench the pork barrel system and for seeking to limit accountability to Napoles, Opposition legislators and the former president, Mrs. Arroyo and her officials, has not gained much ground.

The protests are, as already noted, nationwide.  A wider cross section of society is participating.  And relatively new forces such as anti-pork “netizens” are fast becoming politicized.  These forces have advanced from being amorphous, disorganized or unorganized, preferring to be leaderless and with general articulations of their positions to greater coherence, cohesion and purposeful action.

Observers note that August 26 saw many middle and upper class Filipinos going out of their comfort zones to express their disgust over the gross thievery of public funds.  The September 13 rally saw the student youth in their thousands responding to the call of the #abolishporkmovement and the Catholic Educators Association of the Philippines (CEAP); the religious sector in significant numbers brought forth by the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), the protestant churches and long-time social activist church people; and the multi-sectoral mobilization by militant mass organizations and various anti-corruption, anti-dynasty groups.

The September 21 demonstration was unmistakably more proletarian and lower middle class in composition with majority coming from nearby urban poor communities but there were also sizeable contingents from the middle forces such as those in the trucking business operating in Manila’s port area and those in the health, legal and teaching professions.

The October 4 Ayala rally initiated by the Scrap Pork Network and some individuals who issued the call for the MPM including those in the #abolishporkmovement had a core force of a few thousand from activist formations but more than two-thirds were Makati denizens who showed up to express their support for the anti-pork demands,  They intently listened to the speakers expound on the issues and enjoyed and were inspired by the cultural performances that gave vent to their aggrieved sentiments and fueled their readiness to take action on the pork issue.

In all the foregoing protest mass actions, the participation of artists - well-known folk singers to pop music chorales, rock bands to community “ati-atihan” drummers, various mass-based activist cultural groups as well as theater people and poets (a National Artist included) have been a staple feature.

Unity has been maintained amidst diversity.  Politically the spectrum spans those who already lay principal responsibility in terms of policy and misuse at Malacanang’s doorstep and are inclined or on the verge of calling for Aquino’s resignation, impeachment and even ouster to those who are critical in varying degrees of Mr. Aquino’s position and action or lack of it but who are not yet ready to call for his removal by any means.  But even the latter will call a spade a spade; e.g. the DAP and other presidential pork as categorically antithetical to Mr. Aquino’s “matuwid na daan” rhetoric.

On many people’s lips is the question, “Where do we go from here?” What to avoid, watch out for, and keep from happening? And what can we look forward to in terms of instituting real change in so far as substantial, fundamental reforms? (Next week:  Change is inevitable)#

Published in Business World
11-12 October 2013

October 03, 2013

The plot thickens

The Aquino regime’s gross abuse and misuse of public funds through the now discredited and derided pork barrel system is becoming fully unmasked what with the disclosure of how Malacanang has been illegally juggling and misappropriating more than a hundred billion pesos via the Department of Budget and Management-concocted Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP).  This monstrous anomaly is apart from and on top of utilizing to-the-hilt congressional pork funds as carrot-and-stick to bend a pliant Congress to its will.

But this time presidential pork is implicated in President Aquino’s single-minded campaign to oust via impeachment then sitting Supreme Court  Chief Justice Renato Corona who Mr. Aquino considers a stooge of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  Moreover, the Corona Court  had handed down decisions unfavorable to the Aquino administration and the Cojuancos, apart from being, unsurprisingly, corrupt.  More than two billion pesos from the DAP were allegedly used as a bribe (aka “incentive”) for the honorable gentlemen and ladies of Congress to find CJ Corona guilty of corruption casting a dark shadow on what the Aquino administration has been touting as a sterling example of its anti-corruption crusade.

The P10B Napoles fund scam that had outraged the public enough to spark the biggest protest action against the “pork” last August 26 and sustain mass protests thereafter on September 11, 13 and 21 has uncovered not just the PDAF-related can of worms. The entire stinking pork barrel system with the humongous Presidential lump sum, discretionary funds at the forefront has been revealed and its main objectives exposed: to shore up the feudal patronage politics system; to line the pockets of corrupt government officials and their private counterparts (a decidedly successful ”public-privatepartnership”); and to consolidate the hold of whichever elite faction of the ruling classes wields state power by controlling not only the executive department but both the legislature and the judiciary as well.

The scale, magnitude and pervasiveness of anomalous pork use reveal that political patronage - a mild and seemingly tolerable aspect of realpolitik - is not a mere aberration but a deceptive euphemism for deep, insidious and systemic graft, corruption and bribery at the loftiest levels of government.

The immaculate “yellow” image of Mr. Aquino as squeaky clean and incorruptible began its besmirching when he refused (inexplicably for many) to abolish PDAF outright and even defended it as necessary, benevolent and rational.  The stain grew larger when it became clear that not only did Mr. Aquino have his own stinky pork barrel funds, these had grown to phenomenal amounts even far exceeding those of his predecessor, Mrs. Arroyo.  And just like Mrs. Arroyo, the ultimately corrupt ruler in Mr. Aquino’s book, he cynically used his presidential pork to control Congress and tame the judiciary to conform to his liking.

Mr. Aquino’s attempts at damage control with the deceptive “abolition” of the PDAF in the 2014 national budget (Malacanang has assured its allies that they will continue to have their pork and eat it too albeit in a different form); the surrender of the fugitive Janet Lim-Napoles under suspicious circumstances; the filing of plunder charges against senators, congressmen and their alleged accomplices in the Napoles scam and former and current officials in the plunder of the Malampaya Funds; and even the announcement that presidential pork (aka Special Purpose Funds) would fund the rehabilitation of Zamboanga City after the all-out military offensive against the MNLF  have not kept the stench of the pork barrel system from enveloping his Teflon image.

Senator Jinggoy Estrada’s pitiful attempt at ratting on his fellow senator’s as a guilty man’s defense of the indefensible and a warning that he will not go down alone, has inadvertently opened the lid on another explosive issue:  President Aquino’s illegal impoundment  (or the President’s action of not spending all or part of a sum of money appropriated by Congress) and realignment of government funds upon the his sole discretion, without the authorization of Congress, for items not found in the GAA and, worse, to bribe and manipulate Congress into doing his bidding to advance his clique’s narrow political and economic ends.

(Let us not for a moment forget that the alleged bribery to attain Mr. Corona's impeachment together with the collusion between the Agrarian Reform Department and the management of the Presidential kin’s Hacienda Luisita has resulted in an even more contemptible swindle against the farmer-worker beneficiaries of HLI who now stand to come out empty-handed after the Corona Court’s favorable  decisions.)

According to ACT Party List Representative Antonio Tinio:
“It is a little-known fact that, since 2010, the Aquino administration has introduced numerous provisions in the General Appropriations Act that have further strengthened the President’s power to impound Congressional appropriations and realign funds at his discretion…

The so-called Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) is the smoking gun that illustrates how the President abuses the power to impound and realign the budget for purposes not even authorized by Congress in the GAA. DAP is nothing less than the President arrogating unto himself the power of the purse. It is Presidential discretion over public funds gone wild. It shows how Presidential pork is generated at the budget execution stage, by the President declaring savings in the middle of the fiscal year, so that he can then realign the funds as he sees fit.

Former President Gloria Arroyo was notorious in abusing reenacted budgets to give the Executive control over huge chunks of the budget. President Aquino has been grossly abusing the Presidential powers of impoundment and realignment to do the same. In both cases, the objective is to enable the President to dispense political patronage.”

But what is most enraging and preposterous is that the Aquino regime, like its predecessors, has been rejecting demands and denying appeals from the workers, teachers and other government employees for wage hikes and the release of pensions and benefits due them with smug and even arrogant explanations that government has no funds for these.

Meantime, aside from fattening the bureaucrat capitalists - government officials using their positions to enrich themselves - the Aquino regime has taken no effort to hide its fawning servility to foreign multinational corporations and their domestic business partners, granting them tax holidays, sovereign guarantees and other incentives, as well as removing tariffs and other restrictions on their imports.  In what can now be seen as the same mindset of putting the interests of the privileged few above the law, even the Constitution that he swore to uphold, Mr. Aquino had declared to foreign businessmen that his government would take the necessary measures to help them go around legal obstacles that hamper their operations and extraction of profits.

Such anomalies - nay grievous crimes against the people - have been going on for decades and are inherent in the ruling socio-political system. But it is only now, ironically under a regime that had hitherto been perceived as the least tainted by corruption and piously claims to lead the nation on a "righteous path", that the people are seeing graft and corruption at its ugliest, most rotten form, how it works, and how it keeps the vast majority of our people in deep poverty and misery.  #

Published in Business World
4-5 October 2013