October 17, 2017

“Modernization” for whom?

When once Philippine jeepneys were iconic testaments to Filipino ingenuity, resourcefulness and folk art, the erstwhile “King of the Road” is now derided by government as a backward and inefficient mode of mass transport, polluting and unsafe, their drivers an undisciplined lot commonly viewed as perennial violators of traffic rules and regulations.

Thus the need for a modernization program to phase-out old, smoke-belching, unroadworthy jeeps to make way for new versions with safer design and up-to-standard engines that emit less air pollutants. In tandem with the replacement of the old public utility vehicles (PUVs) will be a “fleet management system” wherein a minimum of 10 PUV units and operators will be consolidated under a single franchise to make operations more efficient.

Sounds rational and laudable.  Why then the stiff opposition from a majority of jeepney drivers and operators?

For one, the threat of economic dislocation is real for hundreds of thousands of jeepney drivers and operators nationwide who have depended on this mode of transport for decades to earn their livelihood and support their families. 

Very few operators will be able to raise the PHP 1.2 to PHP 1.6 million-peso investment in the new PUV units required under the modernization program. With the added requirement of 10 units per new franchise, all the more the cost will be prohibitive for existing small-time operators, many of whom are driver-operators of single units. On top of all this, the new PUVs are required to use beep cards and install a Global Positioning System or GPS, CCTV, Wi-Fi, dashboard camera and speed limiter – gadgets that many private vehicles do not have.

Jeepneys are actually a legacy of the post-WWII recovery period when mechanics like Leonardo Sarao thought of retrofitting US Army jeeps into passenger jeepneys. They are a vestige of the backward preindustrial economy that exists to the present. 

While private cars have always been for the use of the well-off, jeepneys and tricycles are not primarily for personal use but as an income-generating venture. Diesel engines can be maintained indefinitely so long as properly done. The jeepney is a hardy vehicle that can withstand the rigors of unpaved or potholed roads, extremely hot weather or typhoons, perennial flooding and overloading.

In an economy that cannot generate sufficient jobs with decent earnings that can support a family, driving a jeepney has become an attractive and viable option for many of the unemployed or underemployed.  For those with some savings such as overseas Filipino workers, operating one or two jeepneys as PUVs, has been an affordable micro enterprise.
If the LTFRB could sympathize with the plight of driver-operators of Uber when it imposed an order on the company to temporarily cease operations because of violations of government regulations, why can’t it sympathize with the plight of hundreds of thousands of driver-operators of jeepneys who have it even worse since most live hand-to-mouth.

Any attempt to improve and upgrade the jeepney as a mode of transport can not be premised on destroying the livelihood of drivers and operators then leaving them and their families to somehow fend for themselves.  But there’s the rub. The modernization progam is actually a plan to junk jeepneys and to render their drivers and operators extinct. 

The program is matched to government’s Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (CARS) Program started during the last months of Benigno Aquino and continued by  Duterte. CARS aims to revitalize local car manufacturing by giving PHP 27 billion in tax credits to 3 selected foreign car manufacturers who will invest in assembly plants in the country. The tax incentives will be indexed on how much of the car components are sourced locally and on the volume of cars to be produced. Two Japanese multinational firms have already been chosen, Toyota and Mitsubishi. The CARS program is expected to roll out 600,000 cars over a six-year period. 

So it appears that government is actually creating a market in the public transport sector for multinational corporations and their domestic partners engaged in the local assembly of foreign-branded cars and the marketing of assorted electronic gadgets.

At the same time the “fleet management system” lends itself to the take over by companies with big capitalization of what used to be a viable enterprise for small entrepreneurs such as driver-operators.  Of course, cooperatives can also be formed by the latter but it appears that government is not making this option attractive nor easy for them.

Thus the oft-repeated complaint that mass transport in the Philippines is rapidly being “corporatized”, i.e. gobbled up by private corporations and run for profit, in line with government policy of privatizing what should be state-run and subsidized public services. The thing is, our experience with the badly-run train systems in Metro Manila – the MRT and LRT – gives the lie to unwarranted claims that the privatization cum corporatization thrust will give the commuting public a safe, reliable, affordable and comfortable ride. 

If the forced displacement of transport workers is not a socially just solution to the problem of mass transport, what is?  We opine that the answer is a public transport system set up and run by government to provide an essential social service and not as a profit-making venture of private companies. 

The transition to this system should absorb those adversely affected by reforms in the transport sector such as jeepney drivers and operators.  It will create a market for locally manufactured vehicles, particularly those intended for mass transport, as part of a genuine national industrialization program that envisions forward and backward integration, not just the assembly or reassembly of knocked down vehicle parts imported from abroad. And last but not the least, it includes the rationalization, if not regulation, of the sale of private motor vehicles that are increasingly clogging the streets of Metro Manila and other major urban centers.

The traffic congestion and anarchy in our streets can not be blamed solely on jeepneys. Car sales have been boosted by easy financing for use in Uber and Grab and private car owners trying to get around the color coding system. Meanwhile there is still no well-thought out and efficiently-run public transport system using modern and affordable technology what with the current short-sightedness, corruption and for-profit orientation of government.

The 2-day jeepney strike being led by PISTON and its affiliates nationwide this Monday and Tuesday is a legitimate form of protest for a legitimate grievance. It may be disruptive and a bane to commuters but it can also serve as wake-up call for policy makers and managers of the transport sector, traffic management, and even economic managers to come up with socially just solutions to real problems. #

Published in Business World
18 October 2017

October 03, 2017

Authoritarian creep (pun intended)*

When President Rodrigo Duterte says something really outrageous then it backfires or he is proven to be lying or at least dissembling, he uses several tricks to get away with it.

He or his apologists say he was just joking and because we are so gullible, we are asking for it.  Or they say he just loves to use hyperbole to stress a point and his listeners should learn to discern when to take his word for it and when not to.

His damage-control crew says he was merely misunderstood and taken out of context. So Duterte modifies his previous statements with qualifiers to make what was patently unacceptable, even illegal and morally reprehensible, pass for a justifiable position or policy pronouncement.

He or his alter egos may simply say the exact opposite of what he previously said, without batting an eye, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for the highest official of the land to make contradictory statements.  At one point, Duterte was forced to admit that he manufactured supposed foreign bank accounts of Senator Trillanes, an unmitigated lie that he lamely excused as a “bait” to catch his tormentor.

When all else fails, he and his henchmen resort to bullying, Duterte style.

The president and his copycat officials use abusive and insulting language and character assassination to brutalize their targets into fear and submission. This also works to distract people’s attention and muddle the issues.

He and his subalterns accuse those who point out his inconsistencies, factual errors and even outright falsehoods as being biased or just plain stupid.

Those who criticize Duterte’s “war on drugs” because of wanton human rights violations are either harebrained coddlers of illicit drug users and traffickers or perpetrators of such unsavory activities themselves deserving of the same deadly treatment.

Those wary of the Duterte regime’s use of strong-arm tactics to solve pockets of armed rebellion in Muslim Mindanao and the long-running communist-led armed struggle nationwide, as well as his open admiration for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and complicity in the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses, are labelled either “reds” or “yellows” out to destabilize his regime and ultimately oust him from Malacañang.

Duterte taunted organizers of the huge protest demonstration held last September 21, on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Marcos’ declaration of martial law, as either “yellows riding on reds” or “reds riding on yellows”.  He then ended up declaring a “National Day of Protest” where he ludicrously claimed he was one with the protesters (against himself?).
Not only did Duterte cancel classes and close government offices to prevent any massing up of students and employees that could be mobilized for the protests that day, local government officials were told to hold a counter rally at Mendiola near Malacañang while rabid pro-Duterte groups held another one at Plaza Miranda. The government-organized rallies were small and anemic compared to the tens of thousands of impassioned demonstrators gathered at Luneta Park and many other cities all over the country.

Duterte’s creeping authoritarianism consisted first and foremost in ensuring the military’s canine loyalty by plying them with funds, perks and privileges, awards and personal visits. He keeps a tight rein on the police forces by a system of rewards and promotions and promised impunity for extrajudicial killings committed in the course of the “war on drugs”.

The overwhelming dominance of Duterte’s henchmen and lapdogs in Congress and in local government units was only a matter of Malacañang paying each opportunist politician’s price for their blind obedience and cooperation.

Duterte has also packed the civilian bureaucracy with retired generals and lower ranking former military men to the extent that he wryly quipped there was actually no need to declare martial law because the military was already very much in control of his government.

Now Duterte is after the remaining pillars of the remaining liberal democratic façade.  His business cronies are extending their tentacles onto the mass media even as he threatens with closure those outlets he considers anti-Duterte. His supermajority in the Lower House attempted to emasculate the Commission on Human Rights (chaired by a known ally of former President B.S. Aquino and vocal critic of the “war on drugs”) by giving it a measly budget of 1000 pesos. This craven move was only defeated by a strong public outcry.

Two Supreme Court justices have been the objects of Duterte’s ire. One is Justice Carpio for his sharp criticism of Duterte’s policy of appeasing China by reneging on the assertion of Philippine sovereignty over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea. Another is Chief Justice Sereno over her being perceived as another “yellow” loyalist what with her speeches critical of the Duterte regime’s lack of adherence to the rule of law.  The latter is the subject of an impeachment move and Duterte is slyly utilizing contradictions within the Court to further pressure Sereno.

Most recently, Duterte renewed his verbal attacks against the Office of the Ombudsman, not only because Ombudsman Morales is another “yellow” appointee but her office has acted on the complaint of Senator Trillanes regarding the alleged ill-gotten wealth amassed by Duterte and his two children, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte and Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte.
Duterte has gone ballistic, threatening to set up a so-called “independent commission” that will investigate alleged corruption in the Ombudsman’s Office.

It now appears that Duterte is not just “onion-skinned” as some critics say, but highly vulnerable to charges of graft and corruption himself.  He was able to skirt this issue during the presidential campaign. Now his carefully crafted image as a longtime mayor who was incorruptible and maintained his modest means may be blown apart if he is unable to stop the Ombudsman’s investigations. Even though Duterte may not be charged while in office, the political damage caused by these investigations could impact on the stability of his regime.

Such an outcome could be anybody’s guess but it will take more than Duterte’s bluster this time around to save his fast ebbing credibility. #

*Thanks to Sonny Africa who first used the term in his blog post.
Published in Business World
3 October 2017

Clearing the air

On the eve of the September 21 protests against the Duterte regime, it has become necessary to clear the air of certain misconceptions as well as false judgments against the Left that stand in the way of forging a broad unity across the political spectrum.

To those who denigrate the Left, or more specifically, the national democratic movement, for having given Duterte the benefit of the doubt in his claim to being a Leftist and a socialist despite a checkered record as Davao City mayor, allow me to say this.

There was good reason to do so: Duterte’s solemn promise to release all political prisoners through amnesty; the resumption of peace talks; the appointment of four progressive, competent and upright individuals to the Cabinet; his stance on ending contractualization, upping SSS pension for seniors, land to the tiller, prioritizing public spending on education, health care, and other social services; his openness to dialogue with the Left on various issues; and his pronouncements to pursue an independent foreign policy.

On the other hand, there was also Duterte’s mailed-fist policy on crime and drugs; his sexism; the preponderance of crooks, militarists, neoliberals and pro-US imperialists in his Cabinet; more-of-the-same neoliberal economic policy frame, policies and programs; and not least of all, his alliance with the Marcoses and former President Gloria Arroyo.

The Left decided to gamble on Duterte, to give him time to deliver on his promises and to prove his Leftist leanings. But the leeway that the Left gave to Duterte did not preclude sharply criticizing and vigorously opposing his administration’s anti-people, anti-national policies and programs.

The open democratic mass movement was unrelenting in doing so in several venues -- the parliament of the streets, the mass media, the courts and even in the Lower House of Congress where the Left has a miniscule number.

Restraint was shown only by distinguishing between Duterte and the ultrareactionaries in his Cabinet especially his economic managers and the triad of Lorenzana- Año-Esperon. For more than a year no effigies of Duterte were burned at demonstrations. Instead the Left met with him on several occasions to bring up the grievances of urban poor, the lumad of Mindanao, striking workers and land reform beneficiaries.

The armed revolutionaries under the CPP-NPA-NDFP continued to wage people’s war – armed struggle, agrarian revolution, and a shadow people’s government operating in the countryside.  While initially expressing willingness to contribute to Duterte’s campaign against drug trafficking by interdicting drug lords, the CPP-NPA declared early on that they would not be a party to the kind of brutal war being waged against hapless drug addicts and small-time drug pushers.

In a short period of time, the true character of Duterte begun to reveal itself.

Duterte veered more and more to the Right: EJKs galore combined with impunity for the police and military perpetrators; all-out war against the CPP-NPA with bombardments and displacement of thousands of peasants and indigenous peoples; a militarist response to the Marawi crisis leading to the city’s destruction, civilian casualties, the exodus of the populace; the extension of martial law in Mindanao; political persecution of critics and oppositionists; attempts to neutralize government institutions that can act as a check to his tyrannical rule; the scuttling of peace talks; kowtowing to China and maintaining a modus vivendi with the US; a humongous budget going to the failed “war on drugs”, counterinsurgency, the president’s intelligence fund and building a grassroots spy network while gutting the budget of the Human Rights Commission; looming mind-boggling corrupt infrastructure deals with the “build,build,build” frenzy; coddling of pork barrel-hungry legislators; cover up of billions worth of smuggling of shabu involving his son and son-in-law; and the list goes on.

Things finally came to a head leading to the NPA’s intensification of armed tactical offensives against the military and police upon the declaration of martial law in Mindanao.  This year’s State-of-the-Nation protests denounced the US-backed Duterte fascist regime. Duterte’s effigies are being burned without remorse in demonstration after demonstration.

The brazen summary execution by the police of several youths in urban poor communities sparked public outrage.  Progressive church organizations and other national democratic mass organizations mounted mass protests, gave succor and sanctuary to victims, their families and witnesses.

The rejection of Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo and Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano by the Commission on Appointments (CA) manifested Duterte’s utter lack of support for them.  He just let the CA do the dirty job of kicking them out.

This was the last straw that led to the decision of the Makabayan Coalition of progressive political parties to bolt from the Supermajority of Duterte allies in the House of Representatives. Nonetheless, even before this move, the Makabayan congresspersons had consistently stood their ground on contentious issues such as martial law, the death penalty, lowering the age of criminal accountability of minors, oppressive tax reform measures, and many, many more.

There are those who want to place the onus of a fully evolved corrupt, puppet and fascist Duterte on the Left. In doing so, they wish to put the Left on the defensive. The charge or innuendo that the Left “enabled” the Duterte regime is patently wrong even if it appears to be a backhanded compliment to the capability of the Left to shape a reactionary ruling regime.

There are those who honestly disagreed with giving Duterte the benefit of the doubt that he could or would go in a progressive direction. Yet they acknowledge the reasons for the Left doing so; recognize the Left’s sustained, principled position on issues; and their never giving up the fight for genuine change. They are not making puerile demands that the Left apologize for having been duped by Duterte and they welcome the Left’s earnest efforts to build a strong and broad opposition against the Duterte regime’s EJKS and rising tyranny.

To the former, we say good luck to your demolition job. To the latter, see you in Luneta on September 21, 4pm. Please wear black, bring an umbrella and your own scathing placards. #

Published in Business World
19 September 2017