February 29, 2016

Letter to a grandson on “people power” and revolutionary change

Dear Grandson,

I thought I would write to you and try to explain what EDSA I was all about.  The idea came up with all the recent talk about how your parents’ generation does not understand, much less appreciate, what happened thirty years ago, at the “people power” uprising that brought down the brutal and rapacious Marcos dictatorship.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with that sweeping statement, there is some truth to it. Your parents were too young then to really know what was going on.  Then they grew up seeing that while the dictator himself was gone, not much else seems to have changed.  This experience can be very frustrating and conducive to cynicism and even apathy.

So I thought at the very least, I owe it to you, to do some explaining why our country seems stuck in a rut; economic opportunties are limited; social problems continue to pile up; politicians are a hopeless lot; and many of your uncles and aunts and their friends have decided the only solution is to go abroad to find a decent living and a safer place to raise their families.

At the outset, I must tell you not to take the basic freedoms you enjoy today for granted — freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom to rally and petition the government for redress of grievances.

While there are still many unwarranted restrictions on these freedoms today, the point is we absolutely didn’t enjoy them under martial rule. (At least not until many years later, when people had become angrier, more courageous, and better organized such that they began to assert these freedoms regardless of the consequences.)

Most organizations of the people were banned. Student councils and publications were especially targetted; the dictatorship knew that universities are the hotbeds of radical ideas and dissension.  Only the Marcos-controlled political party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) was allowed to exist and rule the stamp-pad parliament.

Defiance of Marcos’ iron rule could mean getting abducted and “salvaged” (outrightly killed without any legal due process); or getting arrested, tortured and spending years in detention without any charges or trial.  There were no courts to turn to; no independent newspapers or tv stations where you could expose wrongdoing.  No, you couldn’t use social media either; it didn’t exist then as you know it now.

The lower classes bore the brunt of the repression such as peasants fighting landgrabbers and demanding that land be given to those who work on it and not to absentee landlords; workers striking over starvation wages, poor working conditions and the right to form unions; indigenous peoples defending their ancestral land from mining companies and plantations; and urban poor fighting demolition of their shanty towns to give way to shopping malls and so-called development projects.

What is being hailed as the “people power revolution” brought down this repressive rule thirty years ago.  All over the country, but most dramatically at the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), the highway between two large military camps where former Marcos henchmen and mutinous military men had holed up, the people rose.  They filled EDSA, Mendiola and other thoroughfares in urban centers with their warm bodies for four days until the Marcos family abandoned the presidential palace using helicopters provided by the US government.

It was a heroic undertaking.  It took fourteen years - and tens of thousands of lives sacrificed in fighting the dictatorship - to get to that point.

Don’t believe it when they tell you that EDSA was only about Cory Aquino, Cardinal Sin, Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, General Fidel Ramos and the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) rebels and their avid followers.

Don’t believe it either when they tell you the Left or the activists from the nationalist and democratic movement were absent at the four-day “people power” uprising.  The Left formed the core of the aboveground and underground opposition, consistently carrying the anti-dictatorship movement forward all throughout the dark years. Your grandparents were part of that movement.

Getting rid of the dictatorship was certanly a big improvement but it was not enough.  It wasn’t enough to just change leaders, to shift from the old rulers, the Marcoses and favored oligarchs, to the new ones, the Aquinos and their coterie.

Poverty, hunger and ill health are still rampant and widespread, the everyday condition of majority of Filipino families. They are the landless peasants and displaced indigenous peoples; lowly-paid workers and employees with no security of tenure; and the rest of the people who can’t find work or decent sources of livelihood, who are increasingly going abroad as OFWs, becoming odd-jobbers or turning to criminality to survive.

Society’s resources are still monopolized by the landed and big business elite in partnership with multinational corporations and banks.  Political power remains in the hands of the oligarchy whose objective is to maintain the status quo utilizing deception and coercion.  Periodic undemocratic elections allow their political dynasties to take turns getting richer from graft and corruption. Government officials are subservient to foreign interests, principally the Philippines’ former colonizer, the US of A, that impose anti-people and anti-national policies and programs.

The educational system, mass media outlets and culture as a whole keep the majority of the poor submissive and resigned to their “fate”.

Philippine society — its economy, political and cultural systems — has been in the throes of crisis for a very long time, needing nothing less than a complete, revolutionary overhaul.  But EDSA I was not a social revolution in the true sense of the word. The national situation did not change post EDSA I because the promised reforms were never undertaken. The elite who benefitted from EDSA were also the principal defenders of this unjust and decadent system.

That much has become clearer as the years have passed, with six presidencies, several coup attempts, two long-running armed conflicts and another “people power” uprising taking place.

So, dear “apo”, the fight for fundamental reforms in society and government continues long after EDSA I.  It is now your parents’ generation - and soon enough - your own generation that will have to take on this historic mission of achieving our people’s great aspirations for prosperity, equality and genuine freedom and democracy.

I sincerely hope, that in due time, you will awaken to this challenge and embrace it. A life of meaning and fulfillment awaits you.


Published in Business World
29 February 2016

February 21, 2016

Legacy of EDSA “People Power”

The reputation of the EDSA “People Power” uprising has been getting a beating these past thirty years, especially with an EDSA Dos and even a so-called EDSA Tres following the original phenomenon.

Criticisms range from valid to outlandish. That it merely installed another corrupt, elitist regime and brought back, or even worsened, the ills of the old society premartial law.  That it was manipulated by vested interests and shadowy forces.  That it was basically mob rule, the anti-thesis to democratic elections that oversee the orderly transition from one regime to another.

Worse, a significant number of young people have been hoodwinked into believing that the US-backed Marcos dictatorship was a a kind of benevolent strongman rule that the present crisis-ridden Philippine society sorely needs to set things aright.

It has been said that Marcos’ imposition of martial law signified the inability of the ruling elite to rule in the old way.  Philippine society then was in the grip of another intense socio-economic and political crisis that was but an exacerbation of the long-running crisis of the backward, poverty-stricken, unjust and inequitous social system.

The factional conflicts among the elite could no longer be settled through periodic electoral contests.  President Ferdinand Marcos was ending his second term in office and was barred from running again.  The infamous Plaza Miranda bombing of the Liberal Party’s leaders was blamed on Marcos. Marcos in turn blamed the communists and his nemesis Senator Benigno Aquino.

Two nascent armed revolutionary movements, one led by the Communist Party of the Philippines and the other by the Moro National Liberation Front, were fast gaining adherents in the countryside.  In the urban centers, strikes and demonstrations by workers, students and the urban poor were growing in frequency and militance, mobilizing tens of thousands.  They called for and end to the “basic problems” of imperialsm, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism and the overthrow of the “puppet fascist” Marcos regime.

Marcos’ brutal authoritarian regime lasted fourteen years laying waste the best and brightest of a generation of youth who joined the resistance movement and hundreds of thousands of other human rights victims — from such prominent martyrs as Ninoy Aquino, Edgar Jopson, Dr. Johnny Escandor and Macliing Dulag — to ordinary people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It brought the economy to ruin by plundering the public coffers in cahoots with its business cronies and favored multinational corporations and by entering into onerous loans and contracts that would take decades for our people to pay off.

It transmogrified the already fascist military and police forces into the dictator’s private army and into even more abusive and corrupt institutions.  It treated the First Family akin to royalty and instituted one of the most entrenched political dynasties this country has had the misfortune of having.

To ensure continued backing from the US government, international financial institutions and the foreign chambers of commerce, it did their bidding in terms of anti-national and anti-people economic policies and programs.  The linchpin was Marcos’ maintenance of the US military bases and subordination of Phillipine foreign policy to US dictates.

The EDSA  “People Power” uprising signified the end of the Marcos dictatorship because of the magnitude and depth of its crimes against the Filipino people.

Exploitation, oppression and repression breed resistance. This resistance had been building up from the moment martial law was declared — armed and unarmed, in the cities and the countryside, among the people and the disaffected elite, and across the political spectrum from Left to Right as Marcos became increasingy isolated.

Ninoy Aquino’s assasination sparked public outrage that led to mammoth demonstrations.  The political crisis pushed Marcos’ erstwhile backer US President Ronald Reagan to pressure Marcos to call for snap elections.  Corazon “Cory” Aquino was declared the winner by the people but Marcos had himself inaugurated as president.  Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino called for civil disobedience. The situation threatened to develop into an uncontrollable political confrontation between the US-Marcos dictatorship and the broad anti-dictatorship united front.

The Enrile-RAM aborted coup d’etat triggered the EDSA uprising when people from all walks of life spontaneously poured out into the highway fronting the two military camps to act as a buffer against Marcos loyalist troops and the Enrile/Ramos-led mutinous forces.  They were there not for the love of Enrile or Ramos but for their burning desire to oust Marcos and write finis to the dictatorship.

Cory Aquino was physically not at EDSA during the four-day uprising.  Corystas conveniently forget this fact when they gleefully point to the inability of Left forces to position themselves prominently at EDSA because of their preceding error of boycotting the snap elections.

But it would be the height of dishonesty and political naivete to say the Left did not play a role in the uprising — before, during and after.  As a matter of fact, national democratic activists of workers and students were already at Malacanang’s gates as the Marcos family prepared to evacuate courtesy of the US military.

Moreover, a cursory perusal of the names of the martyrs at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani and the martial law victims who won a landmark class suit against the Marcos estate would show indisputably that the vast majority belong to the Left, under and aboveground.

For the Left, EDSA “People Power” has left a worthwile legacy of a united and militated Filipino people rising up against the dictatorship and overthrowing it.   Unfortunately its powerful democratic impetus was hijacked and coopted by the anti-Marcos reactionaries this time led by the US-backed Corazon Aquino regime.

The promise of meaningful reform was reneged upon.  Militant mass mobilizations were suppressed once more.  Peace negotiations with revolutionary movements were sabotaged and jettisoned. “People Power” rhetoric was invoked to rally support for the reactionary government and to entrench the reactionary status quo.  Is it any wonder that “People Power” has gained such an unsavory reputation among the people, especially the youth, leading to confusion, alienation and even cynicism?

We need to strive harder for our people to learn the hard lessons of the EDSA people’s uprising — the need for fundamental and not just cosmetic change and the indispensable requirement of continuously expanding and consolidating genuine people’s organizations to accomplish this.

In due time, the awesome power of a united people can once more be ranged against the feckless power of the ruling elite in the ultimate showdown. #

Published by Business World
22 February 2016

February 15, 2016

Remembering EDSA “People Power”

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George  Santayana

From February 22 to 25, the nation will be marking the thirtieth year of the people’s uprising that toppled the US-backed Marcos dictatorship dubbed EDSA “People Power”.   Ironically, this event will take place even as Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of the fascist dictator, attempts a spectacular return to Malacañang should he win as vice president in the coming May elections. 

Indeed the Marcos dynasty is back with a vengeance. 

The Marcoses have been able to hide and launder a substantial part of the billions that they plundered. They have leveraged the political patronage ladled by the dictator on the Ilocos region to reestablish their political bailiwick in the North. (Former First Lady Imelda and daughter Imee have managed to win congressional seats; the dictator’s namesake became governor and now senator giving up the gubernatorial post to his eldest sister.) 

They have also cleverly reinvented themselves from social pariahs after their patriarch’s disgraceful fall from power to celebrities once more in high society’s exclusive circles.

How the political heirs of the dictator have achieved this comeback has also much to do with the way the historical judgement rendered by the “people power” uprising has been mangled beyond recognition over the past thirty years. 

The ruling elite in Philippine society have presided over the continuing distortion of what EDSA People Power was all about, what were the forces that acted and for whose interests, and what was the eventual outcome.  With succeeding regimes having failed to deliver on the promise of deep-going economic, social and political reforms, historical revisionism has become the order of the day.

The over-arching myth of EDSA “People Power” is its supposed restoration of democracy with the ouster of an authoritarian order.  In truth only the trappings of elite or bourgeoise democracy were restored:  a Congress in the grip of political dynasties; periodic elite-dominated electoral exercises; a judiciary captured by entrenched vested interests; and the mass media owned and controlled by the elite as well.

The ruling classes of big landlords, the comprador bourgeoisie and bureaucrat capitalists remain firmly in power.  What took place was a mere changing of the guards with a different faction of the ruling classes taking power by riding on the wave of the anti-dictatorship movement. 

There has been no genuine land reform. The Cory Aquino and all post-EDSA regimes have persisted in their blind submission to IMF-World Bank economic policy impositions such as honoring all debts of the Marcos regime; an export-oriented, import-dependent economic model antagonistic to national industrialization; trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation; wage freeze and other neoliberal economic policies that further entrench poverty, backwardness and inequality.

Subservience to US dictates with regard to US military bases and continuing US military presence in the country has defined all the US-backed regimes after Marcos.  

US-designed and directed counterinsurgency (COIN) programs were serially implemented resulting in bloody human rights records for every regime that came to power. Peace negotiations with armed revolutionary movements were dovetailed and subsumed to the objectives of COIN programs.

Graft and corruption continued unabated with a different faction of the ruling classes controlling and benefitting from the loot-taking as they took turns occupying Malacañang Palace.

The restoration-of-democracy myth was coupled with the myth that EDSA People Power was a “peaceful revolution”.  In truth, there was no revolution as there was no fundamental change of the political and social system to the satisfaction of the people.  

What was EDSA “People Power” in actuality?  First and foremost, it was an unarmed people’s uprising that brought down the hated Marcos dictatorship.  It was marked by the spontaneous outpouring of the people into the streets demanding the ouster of Marcos.

But “people power” was passed off as merely the massing-up of people spontaneously responding to the call of Cardinal Sin to support the Enrile-Ramos mutinous forces.  They had  been galvanized by the experience of the fraud-ridden snap presidential elections that stole victory from Corazon Aquino.

The objective of the emphasis on the unorganized mass of people is to play down the role of people’s organizations that had initiated and sustained anti-dictatorship struggles throughout the dark years.  The purpose, then and now, is to airbrush progressive and revolutionary forces from the historical account of the uprising itself.

EDSA “People Power” was even mystified as a “miracle of prayers“.  This attempt at obscurantism was propagated by the same leaders of the Catholic Church who had given their imprimatur to martial rule and only belatedly espoused “critical collaboration” when the people’s resistance to its brutality and criminality grew and intensified.

Second, EDSA “People Power” was a stand-off between two armed camps, that of Marcos-Ver and Enrile-Ramos. The US and the anti-Marcos reactionaries as well as the organized progressive forces and the spontaneous masses occupied the gap between the two armed camps. 

Violent confrontation between the two could break out any moment so it is misleading to describe it as a “peaceful” phenomenon.   Only US intervention and the growing numbers of people on the EDSA highway fronting Camp Crame prevented the Marcos-Ver camp from aggressively attacking the Enrile-Ramos camp.

The role of the Enrile-RAM-engineered coup d’etat has also been overplayed. It actually failed but it triggered an open split in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine Constabulary (the precursor of the Philippine National Police). Subsequently, the myth of a “reformed AFP” was peddled to cover up the AFP’s fascist character and the grave human rights violations by the leading personalities in RAM such as then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and his aide, then Col. Greg “Gringo” Honasan.

In sum, EDSA “People Power” was the confluence of diametrically opposed forces — progressive and anti-progressive — against Marcos.  Nonetheless the balance of power overwhelmingly favored the latter. 

The US and the reactionary classes would determine the final outcome, the take-over by Corazon Aquino, a member of the ruling elite and a US marionette, as the chief executive officer of a political system dedicated to preserving and strengthening the status quo. #

Next week:  The true legacy of EDSA People Power 

Published in Business World
15 February 2016

February 08, 2016

Digging deeper into the SSS pension hike

Speaker Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr. justified the abrupt adjournment of Congress last Wednesday by saying he didn't want to embarrass President Benigno S. C. Aquino III with the prospect of a move to override the presidential veto on the SSS pension hike. Not that Rep. Neri J. Colmenares, who was leading the effort to get two thirds of the House of Representatives to sign his override resolution, already had the numbers. But Mr. Belmonte apparently was not confident he could muster the vote to defeat the resolution either.

The hurried adjournment in order to prevent even a debate and much more a vote was totally unjustified. There was a quorum, there was time. Not a few of the affected citizens were present to witness their representatives' action in their behalf. But the house leadership went to the extent of turning off the microphone while Rep. Colmenares was in the middle of arguing for a discussion and vote.

These “people’s representatives” were caught in a dilemma.

To vote to override Aquino’s veto would likely mean reduced access to Malacanang's largesse for the coming 2016 elections.  To vote against the override, in effect to vote against the pension increase, would expose them as uncaring for the plight of SSS pensioners, spineless in the face of Malacanang pressure, and  as the unprincipled, opportunist, and elitist bunch of bureaucrat capitalists they really were.

That is the rotten politics of it.

But what of the economics?

Is it true that the SSS pension bill was not well thought out, that the bill sponsors and the entire Congress merely wanted to pander to what is popular in the season of elections, that they took little regard of its supposed dire effect on the SSS fund life?

For the record, Colmenares filed the bill in 2011 and it passed through the gauntlet of the congressional mill until approved in 2015. SSS top brass had all the time and the opportunity to argue their opposition to the pension increase but they failed to convince Congress.  Malacanang had the time, opportunity and clout over its congressional allies to kill the bill but it didn't.

A 4-billion deficit per year was projected with a 56-billion peso additional cost to the fund. Fund life would be reduced to 13 years from 2015 if —  a big if — nothing was done to improve collections, plug leaks, raise income on idle assets, and improve the performance of investible funds.

Worse comes to worst, the national government could appropriate the necessary funds to subsidize SSS expenses in accordance with the SSS Act of 1997.  Even increasing member contributions could be considered once it has been demonstrated that SSS significantly improved its services and benefits.

The long and short of it is that the SSS can actually afford the pension hike.  It is a matter of priorities; a matter of political will. Clearly the Aquino administration does not consider throwing a lifeline to 2.2 million elderly SSS members a priority.  Neither does it have the political will to cut corruption, bureaucratic wastage and inefficiency in the SSS itself.

Talk about inclusive growth under the Aquino administration is a lot of hot air when SSS executives are given “performance” bonuses but its members cannot partake of the gains in its investment portfolio.

The good thing about the heated debate on the P2000-peso SSS pension hike is that many people, not just senior citizens, have begun to ask questions about what ails the country’s social security system, not just the SSS but also the GSIS, and what deep-going reforms are in order.

Progressive think-tank IBON Foundation has come up with very strong arguments backed by hard data to convince us that “social insecurity”  actually hounds majority of Filipinos up until their twilight years.

For one, out of 7.8 million senior citizens, IBON estimates that at least two-thirds or over 5.1 million are poor. (IBON uses a poverty threshold of Php125 per day or Php3,800 monthly whereas the Philippine Statistics Authority officially uses an unrealistic poverty threshold of just Php52 per day or some Php1,582 monthly.)

Moreover, six out of ten (57%) elderly Filipinos, or some 4.5 million, don't receive any pension at all.

If we include those who receive pensions below a reasonable poverty threshold, this would mean almost 97% of elderly Filipinos, or around 7.5 million, cannot afford to live decently much less be able to buy costly maintenance medicines for their various illnesses.

According to IBON, “Coverage is poor because the country's main pension schemes are designed as an individualistic mechanism more than real social security. The SSS and GSIS are contributory schemes that only cover their members, whose membership depends on member contributions, and whose level of benefit depends on the level of member contributions…But the problems of basing pensions on regular work-based contributions in the Philippine context of so much joblessness and pervasive irregular and low-paying employment are clear.”

The unemployed will certainly not be able to make any significant contributions.  But not even those employed are assured of becoming active and qualified SSS members.  IBON estimates six out of ten of total employed (58%) are non-regular workers, agency-hired workers, or in the informal sector with at best erratic ability to pay contributions. The problem gets worse with the rising practice of contractualization wherein workers have no security of tenure and are simply hired and rehired every six months.

IBON concludes that the only way forward is for government “to confront Philippine underdevelopment realities head-on and aim for a non-contributory tax-financed universal social security system…(S)ociety, through the government, should be assuming primary responsibility for the security of its most vulnerable citizens including the elderly. Contributory member-financed schemes such as SSS and GSIS should just be complementary measures to a central scheme designed to reach the majority of Filipinos.”

Unfortunately, so long as the neoliberal economic doctrine has a stranglehold over the mindset of our country’s political leaders, government economic policies will continue to eschew this approach to overhauling the social security system.

The so-called “free market” means every man for himself; government intervention to promote social equity and social justice are anathema; even social safety nets for the most vulnerable in society are considered burdensome and unsustainable.

The struggles of senior citizens and their families for a meaningful increase in SSS pensions are giving them valuable lessons in life.  Who are with them and who are against them and why.  The nature of reactionary politics in an elite-dominated society such as Philippine society.  And most important of all, that meaningful changes can only take place when the exploited and oppressed unite and take matters into their own hands.

Senior citizen power is also “people power"; once unleashed, it will find its mark.  #

Published in Business World
8 February 2016