March 27, 2014

Honoring agreements, a prerequisite to peace

The signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) by the Philippine Government (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday, is being hailed as “historic” and ushering in the dawn of peace in Muslim Mindanao.  In this light, there is understandable questioning and speculation about the implications of the arrest last weekend of spouses Benito Tiamzon and Wilma Austria-Tiamzon, alleged by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as the “No. 1” and “No. 2” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), to “the other peace” (PDI editorial, 27 March 2014); that is, the peace negotiations between the GPH and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), the umbrella alliance that represents the CPP-NPA and several other national democratic underground mass organizations in the peace talks.

So far, the preponderant voices from both sides are pessimistic.

The Aquino government asserts that the arrests are quite legal and regular, proof positive of the proficiency of state security forces in running after the “enemies of the state”. GPH claims that the couple is not covered by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) under the GPH-NDFP peace talks because of the following: Wilma Austria-Tiamzon jumped bail during her arrest in 1994; both are facing several criminal charges; and Benito Tiamzon used an alias in his safe conduct pass.  The GPH has unilaterally declared that the JASIG is inoperative for all those who used aliases because of the failure of the process attempted in 2011 to verify if the persons claimed by the NDFP to be JASIG-protected were really so.

More important, the GPH views the arrests as a major, if not fatal, blow to the viability of an armed movement that government claims is continually dwindling in terms of adherents and whose ideological and political moorings have been undercut by a “daang matuwid” government and hefty economic growth figures.

And while the GPH says it continues to keep its door open to the peace talks, it insists that the intransigence and insincerity of the NDFP is what is dooming any hope for the resumption of the peace negotiations which, while not yet officially or technically terminated, has been at an impasse since mid-2011, soon after the reopening of the formal talks under the BS Aquino administration.

The NDFP for its part stands pat on its position that the Tiamzon couple’s arrest is illegal and violates the JASIG signed by the two parties in 1995.  The two are bona fide NDFP consultants holding documents of identification duly acknowledged by previous GPH Peace Panel heads, Howard Dee and Sylvestre Bello, which act as safe conduct passes giving them immunity from surveillance, arrest and prosecution while they perform their tasks in the ongoing peace talks.

Wilma Austria-Tiamzon is publicly known since the Fidel V. Ramos administration as a key participant in the peace process (in fact she was released on recognizance as a confidence-building measure for the peace negotiations).  She holds a safe conduct pass and is listed under her real name in the list of JASIG-protected persons, a copy of which is held by the GPH.  Therefore no other verification process is necessary.

Benito Tiamzon was in possession of his safe conduct pass under the name Crising Banaag but this was disregarded and even confiscated by the arresting team.  This same name with the corresponding specific identification number appears in the list of GPH-acknowledged JASIG-protected holders of documents of identification.

As to the criminal charges facing the two, JASIG provides that such charges are held in abeyance while the peace negotiations are ongoing, an arrangement legally recognized by the GPH courts in the cases of other well-known NDFP consultants who are currently out on bail.  In many other instances, the mechanism set up by the two Parties to facilitate resolution of the cases had resulted in the withdrawal of charges and dismissal of the cases inasmuch as the arrests and detention were usually illegal, charges were trumped-up and evidences fabricated or weak. However this mechanism was unilaterally dissolved by the GPH in June 2012.

The JASIG is a solemn and binding agreement that the GPH cannot just set aside unilaterally and on the basis of its own determination.  There are provisions as to how this bilateral agreement shall be terminated.  Without the JASIG, the GPH-NDFP peace negotiations could not have taken off and continued despite numerous suspensions and a couple of GPH-initiated terminations.

In the first place, JASIG was set up by the GPH and NDFP precisely “to facilitate the peace negotiations, create a favorable atmosphere conducive to free discussion and free movement during the negotiations, and avert any incident that may jeopardize the peace negotiations” learning from the 1986-87 peace negotiations which collapsed when the safety of the negotiators as well as the process itself was put in great peril.

At the same time, the integrity and security of the agreement itself was safeguarded with the explicit provision that the JASIG can only be terminated by either Party issuing a written notice of termination to the other Party, and which will only take effect 30 days after receipt of the notice by the other Party. Since no such written notice of termination has so far been issued by either Party, the JASIG remains in full force and effect, binding on the GPH and the NDFP to this moment.

Furthermore, in the event that the JASIG is terminated, the agreement provides that “All immunities acquired by virtue of this Joint Agreement shall remain in full force and effect even after the termination of this Joint Agreement, provided said immunities shall not cover acts which are contrary to the purposes of the peace negotiations and outside and beyond involvement or participation in the peace negotiations.”

Clearly, recent statements by some high government officials that the Tiamzon couple cannot be covered by JASIG protection because the JASIG is no longer in effect because there are no talks are false and have no basis in the agreement itself.

But is the NDFP setting as a precondition to the resumption of the stalled formal peace talks, the release of the Tiamzon couple?  No, the NDFP is demanding the release of the Tiamzons as a matter of obligation on the part of the GPH, in compliance with the JASIG and other solemn bilateral agreements it has entered into with the NDFP.

In any kind of negotiation, be it a business contract, a labor-management agreement, or a peace treaty, there is nothing more natural, plainly obvious, logical, and commonsensical than for one party to demand of the other party compliance with whatever agreements are entered into.  In peace negotiations where smaller agreements form the building blocks toward a final and comprehensive peace agreement, the integrity of the former are essential to the solidity and efficacy of the final agreement. Simply put, how can any party expect the other party to honor its obligations in a final comprehensive agreement when the latter cannot or does not comply with previous smaller agreements?

In the final analysis, what really matters in the peace negotiations is how serious both Parties really are in finding common grounds of cooperation in effecting fundamental reforms needed to eradicate the social,  economic and political roots of the armed conflict.

Unfortunately, what we are hearing and seeing in the GPH pronouncement and actions, regarding the arrest, continuing detention and prosecution of the Tiamzons, is a complete lack of interest if not intent in resuming peace talks with the NDFP.  #

Published in Business World
28-29 March 2014

March 20, 2014

US bases – Aquino gift to Obama

This April, during the much-awaited visit of US President Barack Obama, Philippine President BS Aquino will be serving nothing less than our national sovereignty and dignity on a silver platter via the new “access agreement” negotiated in secret by the two governments. 

All that remains to be worked out according to the Philippine negotiator is the “language”, meaning the legal formulations that will shield the agreement from any Supreme Court challenge that it violates the foreign-troops and bases-free as well as nuclear-free provisions of the Philippine Constitution.  The Executive Department meanwhile is busy rehashing and honing the arguments to bolster its insistence that the “access agreement” is not a treaty but a mere “executive agreement” that does not require Senate ratification.

Because neither the public, nor the treaty-making body, the Philippine Senate, is privy to the discussions and official drafts being exchanged and presumably being quibbled over by the negotiating panels, all we can go by for now are the press releases of the Philippine side.  The trickle of information is at the least disturbing, if not alarming, and leads us to suspect that “a de facto basing agreement disguised as an access pact” is in the works.

Not content with the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and 2001 Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA), the US, with the willful compliance of the BS Aquino regime, aims to attain the following through the new “access agreement”: (1) increase the number  of troops forward-stationed or deployed in the Philippines  (now at a minimum of 600 at any given time); (2) allow US troops access to all Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) facilities; and (3) increase the pre-stationing or storage of US war materiel or munitions (weapons, ammunition, aircraft, sea craft, land transport and all sorts of  logistical supplies).

According to reports, the US will gain not only access but also the ability to set up their own facilities within AFP facilities. To counter criticisms that there will be US-controlled areas that will be hands-off to Philippine authorities, negotiators say that while the agreement allows US facilities to be set up, Philippine authorities will nonetheless be given “access” to them albeit subject to “operational safety and security considerations” imposed by the US.

Now if this is not tantamount to extraterritorial rights attendant to basing rights we welcome further illumination from the Aquino government.

It is crystal clear that the last 12 years of the VFA have served to fine-tune a system wherein US troops and war materiel are actually stationed on Philippine territory, purportedly on a temporary basis, but in reality on a long-term, essentially permanent basis.

But it also evident that the US is not satisfied with the present set up and is aiming to station a far greater number of its military forces and equipment in an ever expanding area of Philippine territory and thus gaining greater flexibility and wider room for maneuver than ever before.  Such requirements are concomitant to its military “pivot” to the Asia Pacific region.

In the past the trick has been to pass off this boot presence as “rotating” and to limit visibility by relegating the US troops to far off Zamboanga and to lesser known and more low-key facilities in Cebu, Camp Aguinaldo and even reported secret facilities in Clark Field, Pampanga.

Under the current set up, the US must also continue to put up the façade of “joint military training exercises” as the occasion for the influx of hundreds, if not thousands more, US soldiers than usual.  Even their soldiers’ requirements for periodic R & R have to be dovetailed to purported training exercises.

As to their war armada - including nuclear-powered and likely nuclear-armed carriers, destroyers, submarines, manned and unmanned aircraft (the latter including armed drones used to carry out assassination missions in Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan and the like) - these have been arriving, berthing and undergoing repairs and resupply in Philippine ports and airfields in greater number and with increasing frequency in the last couple of years.  But it is obvious the US wants to maximize Subic Bay and is looking to a new facility that the will be built in Oyster Bay, Palawan for stationing its warships.  In fact, in an archipelagic country such as the Philippines, the vast coastline’s potential for providing safe harbor for US warships is immeasurable.

In effect, the “expanded access” to be granted to the US armed forces under the new “access agreement” will be a convenient and effective legal cover for unlimited, unqualified, and virtually uncontrolled (by Philippine authorities, that is) presence and on and off-duty activities of US military personnel in the country along with their pre-positioned military equipment.

The US and Philippine governments expect public approval of the new agreement by riding on one big myth:  that US military forces are in the Philippines to protect it from both external and internal enemies, while providing humanitarian aid such as disaster relief and rescue. Corollary to this is that the US makes sure, through the VFA, MLSA and now the so-called “Enhanced Defense Capabilities Agreement”, that its presence and activities are all consistent with the Philippine Constitution and its legal processes.

Unfortunately this myth has been recently bolstered – no thanks to China’s inordinate big-nation posturing and bullying  --  by Philippine fears that it cannot on its own protect its backyard, especially its western coastline and territorial waters and can survive only behind the protective cover of the US.

What is not being mentioned or recalled is the grim truth, the bitter lesson we had learned firsthand from our history but perhaps are wont to quickly forget:  the presence of a foreign military power can serve not as a protective cover, but more a magnet of a military attack from that foreign power’s enemies, not necessarily ours.  Spain attacked by the US at the turn of the 20th century; the US attacked by Japan in World War II.  Neither the Americans nor the Japanese were enemies of the Filipino people when they invaded and occupied the Philippines in 1898 and 1941, wreaking death, destruction, havoc and untold suffering.

Although the US is admittedly and incontestibly the current sole Superpower, it is also evidently in decline, its economy, political and cultural fiber afflicted by profound malaise. This is why it is scrambling to control global strategic resources and prevent the rise of a potential “peer competitor” (i.e. China), banking on its might and trampling on other nations and peoples’ rights in the process.

But as history shows, no empire is too mighty that does not inevitably create, by its very might (read: oppressiveness) the same forces that contribute to and all together bring about its decline and fall. #

Published in Business World
21-22 March 2014

March 13, 2014

Counterrevolution in Venezuela

“Make trouble, fail, make trouble again, fail again . . . till their doom; that is the logic of the imperialists and all reactionaries the world over in dealing with the people's cause, and they will never go against this logic… Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again . . . till their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic.” – Mao ZeDong

Counterrevolution is deadly serious business.  The elite ruling classes in Venezuela have held exclusive control over productive resources, particularly the world’s richest oil fields; appropriated the social wealth created to the detriment of the vast majority of the people; monopolized state power and used it to brutally quell all dissent and resistance; and dominated the ideological and cultural institutions including in more modern times, the mass media, to impose social control for generations. 

Thus they will not stop making trouble until they overthrow the Maduro government; exterminate the Chavista leaders and organizations; reverse the pro-poor and pro-people socio-economic policies and democratic political reforms of the last 15 years; and ensure that the radically transformative yet peacefully carried-out Bolivarian Revolution will be decisively defeated, never to threaten their privileged positions again nor be a beacon of a “better world” to the rest of the Latin American region.

Like Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro comes from a working class background.  He is a former bus driver who became a trade union leader before being elected to the National Assembly in 2000. After serving in the Venezuelan Government under Chávez in several capacities, he was appointed Foreign Minister in 2006. Described as the "most capable administrator and politician of Chávez's inner circle", he served as Vice President from 2012 to 2013.  Before Chavez died, he endorsed Maduro as his party’s presidential candidate.  Maduro was elected President in special elections held in April 2013 over the Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, a lawyer and former governor of Venezuela’s second most populous state.

US-backed Opposition leaders have plainly made known their aim of overthrowing the democratically elected government they portray as a repressive dictatorship cracking down on peaceful protest by unarmed students and other disgruntled members of society.  They hope to demonize the Maduro presidency using Western corporate media so that the US and other imperialist countries’ military aka “humanitarian” intervention can be justified.

If this sounds familiar, it should, because it is the strategy for "regime change" that the US-led pack of imperialist governments have used to blacken the erstwhile governments of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya prior to the US-led invasion and occupation of these sovereign countries in order to topple the ruling governments and replace them with their puppets.

It is in this context that we can sieve through the information and analysis that we get mainly from global corporate media in order to determine what the protests sparked in February 2014 are about; who are involved and who are leading them; what the protests have led to; how the Maduro government has acted to deal with these protests; how the US is involved; what position have the governments in other Latin American countries taken on these protests and their aftermath.

All accounts trace the beginning of the wave of protests to students in the Western city of Tachira near the Columbian border demanding greater security against crimes in the wake of a reported attempted rape on another student that escalated to an attack on the house of the governor of the state. This resulted in four arrests, two of them students. The arrests, and charges that the government was suppressing the protests, apparently became the issue in student demonstrations that then spread to Caracas, the capital.  In Caracas, complaints about inflation and scarcity of food and other products became highlighted, issues that had been raised by the Opposition since the start of the Maduro presidency. 

In a matter of days the Opposition had openly amalgamated to what then had seemed to be spontaneous, nonviolent protests and the situation in the streets turned ugly when several deaths took place. According to Mark Weisbrot writing in The Guardian, “The latest official numbers have eight confirmed deaths of opposition protesters, but no evidence that these were a result of efforts by the government to crush dissent. At least two pro-government people have also been killed, and two people on motorcycles were killed (one beheaded) by wires allegedly set up by protesters. Eleven of the 55 people currently detained for alleged crimes during protests are security officers.”

The situation deteriorated further in the Eastern part of Caracas, an anti-government stronghold, where protestors set up barricades of burning trash and debris from where they attack government police forces who are trying to clear up the streets to allow the flow of traffic and to staunch the fumes that were affecting nearby residences.  Sporadic protests continue well into the night and the local government officials who are in the Opposition do nothing to bring peace to the streets or at least prevent lawless violence but instead join the chorus of denunciations against the central government for allegedly failing to heed the protestors but also for dealing with them with a mailed fist.

It has become starkly clear that the protests are part of an orchestrated scheme to discredit and destabilize the Maduro regime. Barely a week after these began, the Venezuelan government expelled three US embassy officials, for using their diplomatic cover to meet with the students and organize the protest actions along with the Opposition.

Despite this highly volatile political situation, the government and its supporters from different sectors of Venezuelan society were able to mark the first year death anniversary of Chavez with civic parades and a rally attended by hundreds of thousands and foreign dignitaries in early March.  The fractured student movement with its pro- and anti-government sections have been holding their separate demonstrations; so also pro- and anti-medical professionals. 

By end of February, the Maduro government had held a National Peace Conference backed by social movements, community, business and religious groups but boycotted by the country’s main political opposition.  Nonetheless, it was reported that “the event brought together governors, mayors, legislators, religious figures, trade unionists, the country's largest business group Fedecamaras, pro-government student groups and others.”  (Pablo Vivanco, Basics News, 1 March 2014).

While all denounced the violence taking place (of course with their own views about which side is primarily responsible) a “truth commission of the economy” was announced by Maduro within the framework of the conference.  This constitutes an acknowledgement of the dire situation of the economy with “shortages” and “inflation” but opens the way for an objective determination of the causes. On the side of government, charges of economic sabotage, i.e. “a deliberate campaign by producers, transporters and vendors to hoard and withhold goods, in collusion with speculators, price gougers and others shipping things to sell for dollars across the Colombian border”  (Vivanco) For the Opposition:  the “scarcity” and ballooning prices are an offshoot of the “socialist” policies of government.

The majority of Latin American leaders have supported President Maduro. Only the most staunchly pro-US leaders of Panama, Colombia and Chile have voiced strident criticism of the government’s handling of the protests.  But the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Union of South American Nations and Mercosur, the regional trade bloc, uphold Maduro as the legitimate, democratically-elected president of Venezuela. Over the objections of the US, Canada and Panama, the OAS passed a resolution affirming “respect for the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states and its commitment to the defense of democratic institutionalism of the state of law  in agreement with the OAS Charter and international law.”

Strong international solidarity and diplomatic support for the Maduro government is helping to foil US-led attempts to undermine and subvert it.  But in the final analysis, it will be the Venezuelan people who shall decide the fate of the Bolivarian Revolution. #

Published in Business World
14-15 March 2014

March 06, 2014

The Chavez legacy lives on

Venezuela marks the first death anniversary of its charismatic, outspoken and hugely popular President, Hugo Chavez, in the midst of relatively small but persistent street protests that have turned violent and even deadly, originating from well-to-do municipalities, and led by Opposition figures that unabashedly want to bring down the government of Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ successor.

Most international media coverage of the unrest in Caracas, the capital, highlights the death toll of 18 including a former beauty contestant, the purportedly large number of students participating, and the issues being raised centering around criminality, inflation, product shortages and alleged state repression of the protests.  Maduro’s accusation that the demonstrations are US-instigated and led by “fascists” is also invariably mentioned.  This is corroborated by Venezuela’s expulsion of high-ranking US embassy officials that was quickly followed by the US’ expulsion of Venezuelan diplomats. 

Nonetheless, there is grudging acknowledgement that while the Maduro government appears “weakened” by the protests, the Opposition is not strong enough to bring about “regime change”, the US government’s buzz word for the overthrow of what it deems to be an “illegitimate” government.  What it really means is the taking down of a government unfriendly or hostile to US interests in a coup d’etat by disgruntled, foreign-backed military officials, sparked by orchestrated anti-government demonstrations and fueled by the creeping demonization even of democratically-elected governments like Chavez’ and now Maduro’s.

For Venezuelans, both supporters of the Maduro government that is continuing the essentially pro-poor, pro-people and anti-neoliberal globalization policies of the 14-year Chavez presidency, and those who oppose it, led by the socio-economic elite that engineered crippling strikes, a coup and several failed attempts to oust Chavez through recall referenda, the scenarios unfolding would be familiar by now given the events of the last fifteen years.  Since 1999, Chavez had counted mainly on active grassroots support and it is this strong backing that the Opposition is now hoping it could break with Chavez gone.

But the struggle of either side to prevail also counts a lot on international public opinion that unfortunately is subject to manipulation and distortion by the global media.  The Maduro government is at a disadvantage in this regard since global media is largely dominated by ideological and political views hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution (as Chavez’ wide-ranging socio-economic and political reforms have been named) given its control by Western corporate interests.

That is why any objective appraisal of the Chavez legacy, and the efforts of the Maduro government to defend and entrench it in the face of unrelenting attacks by its enemies, requires a familiarity and understanding of the phenomenon of Hugo Chavez, the impact of his radical reform movement on Venezuelan society, and what fuels the continuing political conflicts that have managed to grab international media attention in the first quarter of the year.

Hugo Chavez began inauspiciously as the son of primary school teachers who lived in a dirt-floor adobe house in a cattle state in Western Venezuela.  As a young military officer he saw action against the Maoist rebel group called Red Flag and objected to the military’s brutal war against the guerillas even as he saw the validity of their struggle against the inequities of Venezuelan society.

Chavez launched a coup in 1992 together with young military officers he had organized secretly but it failed and Chavez was sent to prison.  Released after two years, he set up a political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, quickly gaining nationwide grassroots support that eventually catapulted him to the presidency in the 1998 elections with 56% of the votes.

Chavez was reelected to office three times, each with majority votes. First,  in 2000, after he introduced a new constitution which increased rights for marginalized groups and major political reforms including the right of the people to recall its elected officials from the highest to the lowest positions through a referendum.  Chavez’ second term would be  hallmarked by democratic initiatives, i.e. a system of Bolivarian Missions, Communal Councils and worker-managed cooperatives, as well as a program of land reform and the nationalization of  various key industries. 

In 2006, Chavez won a third term after he survived a 2002 coup that saw him returned to power in 48 hours.   Finally in 2012, he was elected to another six-year term which he was unable to serve because of a worsening cancer that led to his demise on March 5, 2013.

The strong support of the Venezuelan masses to the Chavez government (and which the Maduro government continues to enjoy) is a testament to how the lives of the ordinary people had improved under the Chavez's Bolivarian Revolutionary Government. Another measure which might be seen as more objective, being independent and more quantifiable, is the UN Human Development Index for Venezuela.

From 2000 to 2012, the GNI (Gross National Income) per capita income increased by 24% from USD 9,446 to 11,745.  Life expectancy at birth increased 3% from 72.4 to 74.6 years.  Expected years of schooling went up by 37% from 10.5 to 14.4years; mean years of schooling by 29% from 5.9 years to 7.6.  All in all, the HDI of Venezuela rose by 13% from 0.662 to 0.748, placing it in the "high human development" category, ranking 71 out of 187 countries and territories.

Venezuela’s HDI values are generally higher than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean.  Just for comparison, the Philippines is in medium human development category, ranking 114 out of 187 countries.  Its HDI is 0.654 where average life expectancy is 69 years; mean years of schooling is 8.9 years; expected years of schooling is 11.7 years; and GNI per capita is USD3,752.)

The Chavez presidency is derided by the Western press as “polarizing” or “divisive” even as they make mention of how Chavez had definitely uplifted the lot of two-thirds of the Venezuelan people who had been mired in poverty and backwardness with redistributive programs funded by the oil wealth of the country hitherto enjoyed only by the economic and political elite of the old order.

In a society with a yawning chasm of income disparity and the social inequalities that accompany it, together with the political exclusion and repression that have been part and parcel of the Venezuelan political landscape, social unrest, turmoil and armed resistance are a fact of life.  Chavez did not bring  about such a state of affairs.  In fact 1989 saw the Caracazo or "the big one in Caracas", a wave of protests, riots, looting, shootings and massacres by state security forces of hundreds of people protesting the effects of IMF-World Bank neoliberal policy prescriptions on the people’s standard of living.

The qualitative difference is that the Chavez government then, and now the Maduro government, champions the right of the people to what the UN calls the three basic dimensions of human development -- a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living -- against the wishes and machinations of the retrogressive US-sponsored elite who are hurting from the Venezuelan government’s democratizing reforms. 

In short, the elite (and those among the middle class who, wittingly or unwittingly, have been lured into thinking like the elite) simply want a return to the benighted pre-Chavez era wherein generations of the poor and exploited masses of Venezuelans have no rights, no hope and no future.

In an ironic twist, the same elite, utilizing its high-profile media advantage and, of course, moral, political and funding support from the US, are currently mounting street demonstrations and violent attacks on Chavistas and government officials, in a bid to pass themselves off as anti-authoritarian, peaceful protesters with “legitimate” grievances.  Part 2 of this column will focus on the current destabilization moves by the US and local oppositionists versus the Maduro government.  #

Published in Business World
7-8 March 2014