September 23, 2016

National industrialization - change we need

To any objective, impartial observer, there is no denying that mass poverty, chronic joblessness and socio-economic inequality constitute stark realities in the country today. Even the past Aquino government, while making extravagant claims about the “robust” state of the Philippine economy, has acknowledged the lack of “inclusive growth”.  Plainly speaking, this only means the rich are getting richer while the poor grow poorer.

The crux of the matter however lies on what socio-economic reforms - in government policies and programs and in the control of productive means such as land, capital and labor resources - need to be undertaken for the country to get out of the rut it has been in for centuries.

The answer of the neoliberal “globalization” mafia has not changed: more market-oriented reforms, i.e. more liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization policies.  Poles apart are the latter-day Filipino nationalists who say “Enough!” to the failed foreign-dictated “globalization” paradigm. Their battle cry remains to be genuine land reform and honest-to-goodness national industrialization.

In a recent forum held at the College of Engineering in the University of the Philippines entitled “Change We Need”, speakers zeroed in on the backward, pre-industrial character of the economy and the whys and wherefores of national industrialization as key to building what our people have long aspired for - an independent, self-reliant, prosperous and equitable nation. The case study of the dismal state of the country’s steel industry served to validate both the analysis as well as the proposed solution.

Mr. Sonny Africa, from the independent think-tank IBON Foundation, kicked off with the rationale for national industrialization.  Despite a population of more than a hundred million (a huge prospective market and source of productive labor) and immense natural resources (mineral, agriculture, forestry, aquatic and energy resources), the domestic economy is increasingly unable to produce the jobs and incomes or the basic goods and services needed by the people.

He traced this to a backward, rural economy mired in a feudal system of land ownership and an “insignificant” industrial sector.  According to Africa, “The agricultural sector has fallen to its smallest share of the national economy in history…(with)…manufacturing down to what it was in the 1950s.” Worse is the fact that foreign transnational corporations account for two thirds of manufacturing output effectively denationalizing the manufacturing sector. The end result, according to Africa, is a “shallow service and trading economy rather than a producing economy since the 1990s.”

Focusing on industrial backwardness as cause of underdevelopment, Africa pointed to the immense adverse consequences of industrial backwardness starting with massive unemployment and underemployment forcing more than 5000 Filipinos a day to seek decent jobs abroad. For those left behind, majority are forced to accept  contractual employment under insecure, underpaid and unsafe working conditions.

The absence of a sound, integrated and Filipino-owned industrial sector in turn keeps the country’s science and technology sector backward resulting in the inevitable brain drain of the country’s best and brightest; keeps us dependent on foreign goods and services and prevents us from benefiting from our natural resources.

The only real solution lies in the reversal of de-industrialization and de-Filipinization policies that accelerated with the neoliberal globalization onslaught of the eighties.  This means the reversal of the current unproductive, foreign investor-dependent, market-driven industrial roadmap and its replacement with a new, progressive and long-term economic policy to develop national industries.

IBON has proposed a national industrialization roadmap, including a 100-day set of “doables”, that has been submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte.  This demonstrates that the call for national industrialization is not just empty sloganeering but is based on a deep analysis of prevailing conditions coupled with the necessary and practicable reform program to bring it to fruition.

Dr. Giovanni Tapang, AGHAM chairperson, expounded further on the need for industrialization given “1) the lack of basic industries; 2) no program for rural industrialization and agricultural modernization; 3) no genuine infrastructure in energy, transportation, communications, information technology and basic services ; 4) no clear linkages between different production stages from raw materials to finished goods”.

Dr. Tapang talked about building technical capacity for industrialization. To make sense to the “millennials” in the audience, Dr. Tapang phrased AGHAM’s proposed formula as constituting “hardware” or building industrial capacity for capital goods, industrial machinery and agricultural equipment’; “software” or building development plans, industrial policy, means for coordination and control and “liveware” or building human resources and technical knowhow.

The compelling case study of the Philippine steel industry was presented by Mr. Rafael Hidalgo, vice president of Steel Asia, a Filipino steel manufacturing company employing 3,000 workers in 5 existing mills and generating 15,000 more jobs supporting mill operations. He underscored the potential of a robust steel industry in job-generation.

Mr. Hidalgo stated that the Philippine steel industry has stagnated over the last 60 years, overtaken by even its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. Being the “backbone industry” for national development, most governments have supported their steel industries especially in their early stages of development.  Sadly, this is not so for the Philippines with the government constituting part of the problem of the “under achieving” steel industry.

Mr. Hidalgo pointed to the irony of the country exporting its iron ore and even scrap iron when there is already a huge domestic demand for steel products that is in fact being met almost entirely by importation. The domestic market exists for a viable integrated steel mill capable of producing steel from iron ore (which we have in significant amounts) as well as steel mills producing midstream and downstream steel products linked to the construction industry, the manufacture of industrial steel structures, as well as the manufacture of cars, appliances and other everyday consumer products.  This potential is multiplied many times over should a policy of national industrialization be instituted.

He identified big comprador or big trading interests and their tentacles in government that have opposed the development of the domestic steel industry by arguing that it is cheaper to import steel products since there is a glut in the world market. Moreover, he pointed to free trade agreements that unfairly brought down trade barriers against imported steel to the detriment of local manufacturing and long-term self reliance.

Finally, Mr. Adel Silva, consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) Negotiating Panel in peace talks with the Duterte government, shared that the NDFP’s 10-point program contains a firm commitment to national industrialization. In further rounds of peace talks, it will be a major bone of contention between the two Parties.

Should President Duterte’s repeated avowals to being a socialist translate into the GRP’s openness to reviewing, if not reversing, the current neoliberal economic policies, common ground could be found for crafting a blueprint for national industrialization.

Hopefully, this would constitute, along with agrarian reform and an independent foreign policy, a solid basis for forging a bilateral agreement on socio-economic reforms that will undergird any agreement on political and constitutional reforms. The latter in turn will lead to the agreement on end of hostilities/disposition of forces and the achievement of a just peace. #

Published in Business World
19 September 2016

September 12, 2016

Out of a quagmire

After more than half a decade of impasse, the resumption of formal peace talks between the Philippine government (GRP) and the revolutionary National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) last August 22-26 in Oslo, Norway is without a doubt a major, major breakthrough.

This historically significant development has taken place in the first 60 days of the new Duterte Administration. The initial round of talks has covered so much ground that had hitherto seemed impossible to achieve, if the obstructionist officials of the preceding Aquino administration were to be believed.

Even the weather during the talks was propitious. The sunny warmth of the Viking summer combined with the cool, crisp air in the mornings and late afternoons provided just the right clime for a very productive first formal meeting between the two Parties.

Spontaneity, warmth and camaraderie were on display from start to finish of the five-day talks. After all, most of the members of the GRP panel and even the Presidential Peace Adviser Sec. Jesus Dureza are old hands in the peace negotiations, particularly during the Ramos administration that saw 10 agreements sealed. The composition of the NDFP panel has been maintained and Chief Political Consultant Prof. Jose Ma. Sison continues to provide incomparable strategic and tactical guidance.  On a personal level, they are old friends or friends of old friends.

But more significantly, the release of 21 political prisoners, 19 of them NDFP peace consultants, and the prior agreement in informal talks last June 14 to 15 to cover the following five-point agenda 1) reaffirmation of previous agreements; 2) reconstitution of the JASIG list; 3) acceleration of peace negotiations; 4) amnesty; and 5) ceasefire has served to qualitatively raise the level of trust and confidence between the two sides.

I can’t help comparing the atmosphere this time around with that during the resumption of the peace talks in the dead of winter in Oslo, Norway in February 2011, during the administration of Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III. Witnessing the seeming collegiality, the nonbelligerent tone and the declarations of commitment from both sides to forge ahead with the substantive agenda of the negotiations, I wrote a political commentary to mark the occasion and titled it “Thaw in the Winter Freeze”.

Alas, the thaw was fleeting. The upbeat sound bytes in the opening statements of GRP peace adviser Teresita Deles and Chief Negotiator Atty. Alex Padilla were followed by crass attempts to set aside previous bilateral agreements while pushing the NDFP to declare an indefinite ceasefire whilst no concrete results had yet resulted from the talks to warrant it.

The release of NDFP consultants covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) was conditioned by the GRP on the “verification” of a list submitted by the NDFP and kept in the safekeeping of a Third Party Depositary agreed upon by the Parties.  When this encrypted digital list could not be opened due to corrupted keys resulting from the raid by the Dutch government on the office and residences of NDFP officials in Utrecht, The Netherlands, the GRP refused to reconstitute the list and unilaterally declared the JASIG “inoperative”.

The agreed upon “acceleration” of the meetings of the Reciprocal Working Committees on Socio-Economic Reforms (RWCs-SER) and the Reciprocal Working Groups on Political and Constitutional Reforms (RWGs-PCR) as well as the RWGs on End of Hostilities/Disposition of Forces (EOF/DOF) ground to a halt.

The GRP also refused to have meetings of the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) to implement the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) signed in 1998 during the Estrada administration. GRP Negotiatior Padilla derisively called CARHRIHL a “propaganda document” of the NDFP.

While back channeling continued to try to revive the talks, with all sorts of creative formulas and even involving special presidential emissaries outside of the hardliners Deles and Padilla, nothing of significance happened.  Mr. Padilla even had the temerity to falsely claim to the Supreme Court that the peace negotiations had collapsed and therefore the conditional bail granted to NDFP consultants Satur Ocampo, Vic Ladlad, Randall Echaniz and Rafeal Baylosis should be cancelled forthwith meaning they should be sent back to jail.

The Aquino III regime raised the GRP's viciousness & treachery a notch higher when it caused the unprecedented conviction of three JASIG-protected consultants in succession. Eduardo Sarmiento, Emeterio Antalan & Leopoldo Caloza are now languishing in the New Bilibid Prison Maximum Security Compound, all on the basis of fabricated criminal offenses.

In light of the quickened pace in resuming the peace talks during the current Duterte administration and the substantial progress already made, it has become all the more clear that the seemingly insurmountable obstacles placed in the way of the negotiations originated from President Aquino himself.  Mr. Aquino was not interested in nor committed to - and by and large not even closely monitoring - the progress, or rather, non-progress of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations. It appears now that he couldn’t care less.

As the visiting Norwegian special envoy to the Columbian peace process insightfully put it, the GRP-NDFP negotiations would have to wait for a new GRP leadership willing to resume the talks. And the new GRP leadership, to be quite honest about it, is indeed the decisive element that has jumpstarted the peace talks.

Which is not to say everything will be smooth sailing from hereon.

The negotiations over socio-economic reforms covers the NDFP demand that land monopoly by the elite be decisively ended in light of the series of failed, bogus land reform programs since the fifties.  Land reform advocates have always asserted that this is not just a matter of social justice for generations of landless peasants mired in rural poverty and backwardness, but of bringing about a industrial and self-reliant domestic economy attuned to the needs of the burgeoning population.  We cannot build a modern economy on the back of a feudal system of land ownership.

The NDFP also calls for a stop to the denationalization of the economy, the ongoing plunder of remaining natural resources and the destruction of the already fragile Philippine ecosystem as a consequence of the unbridled operations of multinational corporations and their domestic business partners.  With regard to economic policies, the NDFP is staunchly against the neoliberal economic policy framework of liberalization, deregulation and privatization.  It regards these policies as having deepened and worsened the retrograde character and maldevelopment of the national economy. It has also relegated the majority of Filipinos to the sorry lot of having to seek decent jobs abroad only to face exploitation, abuse and uncertainty and the prospect of returning to an even bleaker future back home.

Considering that the core interests of very powerful forces within and outside the GRP (and even those of foreign imperialist powers) are going to be the subject of hard bargaining, the outlook for the negotiations, while bright is not automatically going to be rosy.

Nonetheless there is cause for celebration with the peace negotiations now out of a quagmire. With the support of our people, there is more than a glimmer of hope that the peace talks can be brought to a successful conclusion despite seemingly overwhelming odds and a still rocky road ahead. #

Published by Business World
12 September 2016

History in the making

The past weeks have been a roller coaster ride for many of us - human rights activists working hard for the release of political prisoners, the political prisoners themselves and their loved ones, peace advocates mobilizing public support for the resumption of peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philipines (NDFP) and no doubt even the two negotiating panels.

Will the first batch of political prisoners, 22 consultants of the NDFP peace panel, be released in time for the start of the formal peace talks this 22 August?  Or will the talks be postponed once more to give time for their release repeatedly hamstrung by legal requisites and bureaucratic delay?

Will the exchange of harsh words between President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and his erstwhile professor, founding chairperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines and now NDFP Chief Political Consultant, Jose Maria Sison, escalate further and jeopardize the peace talks? Or will their political maturity and commitment to a higher good rule the day?

A week ago, while monsoon rains lashed the country, the political storm clouds began lifting. President Duterte invited NDFP political and legal consultants to the Palace along with the GRP panel. What ensued was described by the NDFP consultants as light, cordial, humor-laden and a breakthrough for the political prisoners’ release with direct, unequivocal instructions from the president to speed things up. He also repeated his previously stated stand against the filing trumped-up criminal cases against Leftist leaders and members as the previous administrations of Arroyo and Aquino III were wont to do.

The grant of bail for the NDFP consultants and two others (for humanitarian reasons), the release orders, the passports and visas and the allow departure orders soon followed one after the other.  Not fast enough for those pining for their loved one’s release and the human rights activists who were burning both ends of the candle to fulfill all the legal paperwork and requirements.  And a bit too close to call for the Oslo talks just days away.

But in the end, it was well worth it. The beaming smiles, teary eyes, clenched fists, hearty handshakes, tight hugs and never-ending group photos attest to the outpouring of relief and joy at the first round of releases of political prisoners.  The NDFP perceives this to be in the spirit of what President Duterte promised to NDFP emissaries even before he was inaugurated; that he would declare a general amnesty for thus unjustly incarcerated for their political beliefs, subject to the concurrence of Congress, in order to lay the ground for successful talks and the final resolution of the four decades-long armed conflict between government and the revolutionary movement.

The releases augur well for the peace talks, a qualitative leap in confidence-building that was soon reciprocated with the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by the CPP-NPA-NDFP to take effect a day before and a day after the first round of formal peace talks in Oslo, Norway. As we write, Secretary Jesus Dureza, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, has announced that President Duterte has restored the GRP’s unilateral ceasefire as well starting midnight of August 21 “to last as long as necessary to bring peace to the land”.

In truth, we have not seen such a public display of happiness, optimism and determination to work towards the goal of a just and lasting peace as now.

Good will, hard work, imagination, cooperation and creative language engineering will be required from both sides as they keep their focus on the immediate objective of success in the first round of formal talks as well as the long-term goal of inking bilateral agreements on the remaining substantive agenda: economic and social reforms; political and constitutional reforms; and end of hostilities and disposition of forces.

From experience, there will be unavoidable and avoidable complications, intended and unintended distractions, compounded by miscommunications and missteps.  Each side will be faced with the huge challenge of forging ahead while avoiding pitfalls, especially coming at loggerheads on major and even minor issues that could develop into an extended impasse.

Each side will be constantly under pressure by public opinion and their respective constituencies to try to be as accommodating as possible on the negotiating table while being firm on principle, as each side sees it.   They must appreciate the objective constraints and even the subjective limitations of each side while working towards reaching agreements that will stand the test of the people’s judgement as well as the judgement of history.  And always, always they must keep in mind and take to heart what is good for the majority of the Filipino people, even as each Party will have its own interpretation of what exactly that means.

Many times we have been asked how far we think the peace negotiations can go, what really is possible under the Duterte administration that has vowed to be “inclusive” and the harbinger of “change” but is in fact dominated still by the political and economic elite as reflected in Cabinet appointments to key positions and his majority backing in the Senate and House of Representatives.

How far can progressive, pro-people and nationalist reforms pushed by the NDFP advance through the peace talks even as the local oligarchy and foreign monopoly capitalist firms inevitably start to mount stiff opposition, the US and other imperialist powers plot interventionist moves, and the military, police and other state security forces threaten a coup d’etat against President Duterte?

In the past, even peace advocates and other progressives could only reply with qualified optimism. This time, there is reason for more optimism.

In a few days, the entire NDFP negotiating panel which has been based in Europe for at least three decades will be able to confer directly with a dozen or so consultants who mostly have been in the field all these time before their arrest. The firsthand and face-to-face sharing of experiences, views, situationers and proposals will be unprecedented and will certainly enrich the information-and-knowledge stock of the NDFP panel and sharpen and fine-tune its own proposals and positioning in the negotiations, especially with respect to the substantive agenda on reforms. This could considerably facilitate the discussions on the negotiating table itself and raise the probability of arriving at mutually acceptable propositions.    

Indeed while it is still anyone’s guess, efforts to still the guns of war in exchange for a just and lasting peace based on addressing the underlying roots of armed conflict must be sustained, nurtured and even defended by all concerned, that means by each and every one of us.

For social reformers, political activists as well as peace and human rights advocates this translates to pressing on with the struggle for substantial and fundamental reforms in the socio-economic, political and cultural spheres so that the agreements on the substantive agenda are amplified, enriched and bolstered thereby increasing their chances of being upheld and implemented by both Parties. #

Published in Business World
22 August 2016