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Who Can Redeem Mother Filipinas?

There is something patently false about Maharlika, like the sign in the lobby of the University of Life, which says: “The world is composed of takers and givers. The takers eat better. The givers sleep better.” Or the white walls erected around the slums in central Manila, so that nice people don’t have to see them. Maharlika is false because it is not merely based on greed. Like many Great Leaders—Sukarno, Kim II Sung, Mussolini—Marcos is concerned with his place in history. He is a nationalist of a kind. He has written a multivolume history, entitled Destiny, in which he links himself spiritually to the great national heroes. Myths have been promoted of Marcos having anting-anting, or spiritual power. “More power to you!” said a newspaper greeting to Marcos on his sixty-eighth birthday from the Le Pena Sawmill Co., Inc. The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes went one further and had a page-sized picture printed of Marcos as a young war hero. The text runs: “Heroic blood on sacred soil. When Ferdinand E. Marcos’ young blood first flowed freely on Bataan’s hallowed hills, a deathless covenant of service was forged…to all the people—but especially to the most deprived and underprivileged.”

The systematic falsity of Marcos’s claims, the way every promise turned into the opposite, is perhaps one of Maharlika’s worst legacies. Like the Spanish friars or the Japanese conquerors, who promised independence in the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, Marcos has become a false prophet. He has lost credibility—a much-used word in the Philippines. A Filipino letter-writer to the Far Eastern Economic Review put it this way: “In the Philippines of today, if President Ferdinand Marcos said that the crow is white, here is what would happen next. Hundreds of people from the provinces will testify that this is so after painting black crows with white paint and then photographing the birds. A court of law will decide on the question with hundreds of witnesses lined up to swear that the crow is white.” The problem is that it will no longer work.

Adrian Cristobal, Marcos’s adviser, looks a tired man these days. He has to uphold an ideology, which he helped to shape, but which hardly anyone believes anymore. Its most fatal flaw is not only that it has been contradicted by reality so often, but that it is associated entirely with one man. Cristobal tries to “tell people to look at the ideology without thinking of Marcos.” This is like thinking of the Philippines today without Marcos. One can’t and that is the country’s—not to mention Washington’s—biggest problem. And Marcos, the state of his kidneys permitting, might be sitting in his palace, brooding over his place in history, for a long time yet.


I am getting impatient waiting for the United States to liberate us from two decades of the Marcos regime,” wrote a reader to the editor of Malaya, one of the many opposition papers that emerged after the killing of Aquino. It is a widely shared sentiment. Many blame America for not stopping Marcos’s declaration of martial law in September 1972, forgetting how much support it had in the Philippines. Most think America, the Big White Chief, can get them out of the Marcos mess.

The thought is, of course, not without ambiguity. Lorenzo Tanada, at eighty-six the grand old man of the opposition, a nationalist former senator and lawyer of Ninoy Aquino, has always spoken out against US intervention in Philippine affairs. Throughout the martial law period his nationalist and anti-Marcos credentials remained impeccable. What should the US do, I asked him. He said: “It is not right for the US to interfere, but they can get rid of Marcos. I am not advocating it, but they can. It is their responsibility.”

The same paradox clouds much American thinking. Fred Poole, a New York novelist, and Max Vanzi, a newsman, use much of their book, Revolution in the Philippines, to attack America for interfering in the Philippines. It is a rather hysterical book, from the title to the constant use of the word “tyrant” for Marcos. The revolution is not yet at hand, nor is Marcos strictly speaking a tyrant. In sweeping historical strokes they manage to cobble together Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, the Vietnam war, and Marcos, as if they were all part of the same problem—American imperialism in Asia, or something of that sort. This leads to such baffling non sequiturs as “Marcos spoke of sweeping land reform but failed to carry it out. There was little he even pretended he would do for the nation’s rural and urban poor. He became the most vocal supporter in Asia for Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam war.” Are they suggesting that Johnson was against the rural and urban poor? Or that there is a connection between Marcos’s support of Johnson and Marcos’s failure to carry out land reform? What is clear is that both Johnson and Marcos are thoroughly bad guys.

Reagan is of course even worse, for he “had managed to convince large parts of Philippine society that America was not so much behind the Philippines in general as it was behind the leaders who had killed democracy and were operating a gulag, ruling by terror.” Apart from the hyperbolic language, which could have been lifted straight from some agitprop street demonstration pamphlet (vast street demonstrations in a gulag?), the authors do not pause to think how a US government can express its support of the Philippines in general and oppose the country’s leaders without intervention. And if intervention is indeed desirable, how then should Washington go about it? Poole and Vanzi do not get further than a vague reference to “working with the last Filipinos who believed it was still possible to avoid a cataclysm in the islands.”

Direct military intervention by the US would be both unwise and unthinkable. Unwise because it would turn a rural-based armed rebellion into a war of national liberation against a real foreign enemy. Unthinkable, because there would be insufficient support for it in America. That is not to say that many Filipinos would not welcome it. One high-powered Filipino businessman said with heartfelt regret that “since the Americans refused to cross the Yalu river, it’s been downhill all the way.”

I agree with Poole and Vanzi about one thing: America has already intervened more than enough in the Philippines this past hundred years, though the damage was done long before Reagan appeared on the scene. It might have been better for all concerned if General MacArthur had never returned to the Philippines. To be sure, if he had not returned, many Filipinos would have felt betrayed. Disappointment might have caused bitter anti-American feelings; but at least the Philippines would have been weaned away from that adolescent state of dependence known as the “Fil-American relationship.”

By returning as a long-awaited liberator, MacArthur confused an already highly confused nationalist tradition in the Philippines, which had long been split between reformists who accepted American “protection,” and revolutionaries who did not. The great liberator then confused things even more by moving on to Tokyo, where he proceeded to help the old enemy get back onto its feet. Worship for his return has alternated ever since with resentment about his abandonment.

Poole and Vanzi, as well as David Haward Bain, the author of Sitting in Darkness, another book on the Fil-American relationship, emphasize the harshness of early American colonial rule; the brutal killing of over 15,000 “gooks” (a term first coined during the Philippine-American war); the racism of Roosevelt and McKinley. The war was harsh, the killing was brutal—offering to Vanzi and Poole plenty of parallels to Vietnam—and Roosevelt was a nineteenth-century social Darwinist. But this is to miss the point. For the psychological dependency of Filipinos is not the result of brutal colonization, but of a relatively benign one. Uncle Sam was not an enemy but a “tutor” and a dispenser of wealth, more a rich uncle than a racist overlord. It is easier to attain psychological independence from a hated enemy like the Japanese than to escape from the clammy embrace of a benefactor.

The longing for the white messiah and the childish belief in American omnipotence—communism will never succeed, one is constantly told, “because the Americans won’t allow it”—show how thoroughly colonial Filipinos still are. It explains the irresponsibility of many politicians, both in the government and in the opposition, for deep down they do not feel responsible. Uncle Sam will help me, and if he doesn’t now, he’d better soon, or I’ll send my wife to Moscow, or collect a Soviet war medal, Marcos thinks, while opposition leaders knock on Senator Edward Kennedy’s door. This makes the Philippines fundamentally different from Iran or Vietnam, so often evoked these days in emotional newspaper headlines. Different, but not necessarily easier to deal with.

America is both the savior and the enemy, the promised land and the hated “imperialist.” Such influential proponents of Filipino nationalism as the historian Renato Constantino blame everything, from the proclamation of martial law in 1972 to the economic crisis, on US imperialism. Marcos is seen as a mere puppet. One would wish sometimes that he was right: two years ago, after Aquino’s murder, Constantino predicted that combined pressure from Washington, the IMF, and the World Bank would surely force Marcos to resign.

In Constantino’s view—echoed by the entire Filipino left, not to mention Poole and Vanzi—Washington, through the CIA and the multilateral lending agencies, has deliberately kept the Philippines in a state of colonial dependence, a mere supplier of natural resources. Industrialization did not fail because of incompetence, corruption, and protectionism, but because Washington prevented it. True nationalism is subverted by Washington by offering bright Filipinos scholarships to American universities. The IMF and the World Bank want to break up the crony monopolies so that US corporations can take over. And so forth.

This type of third-world nationalism—not at all unique to the Philippines—comes uncomfortably close to anti-Semitic nightmares of an international Jewish conspiracy of bankers and politicians to dominate the world. It is tinged with the paranoid envy of the backward provincial for the metropole, an envy especially acute in the Philippines where American products, values, and dreams have been held up as superior for almost a century. Mainly through the Philippine public school system America succeeded to an extraordinary degree in shaping the Philippine islands in its own image. One could almost say that the legacy of Spanish Catholicism and second-hand Americana are the two things most Filipinos have in common. Even NPA guerrillas wear UCLA T-shirts. America is like a birthmark on the Filipino identity—no matter how hard you rub, it won’t come off.

This is why the communist movement is presented as a war of national liberation. Its goal is cultural liberation as much as economic or political. The official program of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF), an illegal front organization led by the Communist party (CPP), begins with a reference to the history of Philippine armed rebellions. “This history,” it says, “is not dead and past: our tradition of armed struggle and resistance in defense of the Motherland and to regain our freedom and independence is still very much alive today. It is alive for one obvious reason: a foreign master—US imperialism—still dominates the Philippines.”

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