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From the Coffee Shop

In response to:

Cory Lives! from the July 16, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

In the election in May for the Philippine president, billions of pesos were thrown away by politicians in their campaign and by the government which had to supervise that election. With seven candidates for the presidency, Ramos would have to win on a plurality, and this is what he did, with 27 percent of the votes. I said then that under such circumstances, a military coup would be preferable.

James Fenton in a recent article in the Review (“Cory Lives,” NYR, July 16) calls my preference radical and absurd. Radical maybe, but absurd? He then concludes that Cory Aquino handed over a “working democracy” to her successor. Now, that is not only absurd but pathetic, considering that James Fenton had lived in the Philippines for three years. For him to have come to this conclusion can only be ascribed to his failure to perceive what Filipino society truly is, insulated as he was by his comfortable position and given the ability to leave my unhappy country at will.

Yes, we have a free press, rambunctious even, which the Singaporeans and Indonesians envy. We had a comparatively free and orderly elections. And why not? We established Asia’s first Republic in 1898 with the Malolos Constitution and have been electing officials ever since. Even Marcos went through managed plebiscites and elections to legitimize his regime.

Working Democracy? Foreigners should leave their ethnocentric definitions once they set foot in Manila. For a hundred years, the Philippines has never really achieved a working democracy. The forms are there—not the essence. Then and now, this nation is ruled by an oligarchy which has blatantly used these forms of democracy to perpetuate itself.

Today, millions of Filipinos do not even have safe drinking water. Only 20 percent of Philippine households have electricity and, the most damning evidence of the Cory government’s inefficiency are the massive blackouts that have hit the entire country—some of them lasting more than 12 hours—during the last three months. The justice system is in shambles; there are no rich people in jail—the poor cannot afford expensive lawyers or bribe judges. When the poor get sick, they die for, again, they cannot afford expensive medicines and hospitals. Unlike in the US, the Manila taxi driver cannot eat what the President eats. Surely, Jim Fenton must have seen that cliché “Smokey Mountain”—a garbage dump where thousands of Filipinos salvage empty bottles and plastic scraps to make a living. Anarchy pervades Manila’s streets—and here, I am not referring to the traffic or the garbage. Thousands of our women are in Singapore and Hong Kong and in Europe working as housemaids, and in Tokyo as prostitutes. As the late Jose W. Diokno said, “what good is freedom if there are no jobs?”

My generation, of course, had seen better times, when the Philippines was far ahead of all its Southeast Asian neighbors, when President Magsaysay ran an honest and efficient government, and Mayor Arsenio Lacson, likewise, kept Manila solvent and clean. Where were Taiwan, and South Korea then in the fifties and the sixties but behind us? Both had military governments, strong, decisive, and both had extensive land reform programs.

Fenton glosses over this single most important impetus to development in a country like the Philippines which is ruled by landlords. As for those peasant demonstrators massacred in Mendiola—Cory has blood on her hands; she did not want to meet with the peasant leaders, while on the other hand, she had willingly flown south to meet with the Muslim rebel Misuari and in the north, the renegade priest, Conrado Balweg.

There is no evidence that farmland when divided into smaller parcels for redistribution to peasants has not been productive; on the contrary, production had always increased. If under the land reform program under Cory, lands transferred were often sold by the tenants, it was always for profit. Land reform is not just re-distribution of land—this should be made clear; under Marcos, there were services to make the farmer efficient and independent as well. The Marcos program, as a matter of fact, was much better than the Cory program which was mangled by landlords in Congress.

If Cory did not pay attention to the program, it is not because she was disinterested; it is primarily because her family owns thousands of hectares of agricultural land (Fenton did not mention this), and that, in essence, she is a cacique housewife. Under her term, the vast landholdings of her family remained intact because the tenants “opted” for shares in the corporation that the landholdings became. This is one of the biggest jokes in her land reform program.

It is not true that the military taxes the poor as Fenton states; it is the government that does it indirectly when the poor buy their daily needs at prices they can’t afford since more than 60 percent of all Filipino people live below the poverty line. It is also the New People’s Army which levies taxes in the areas under their control.

There is no doubt that there are many crooks in uniform because the entire bureaucracy, even the judiciary, has been corrupted. The Cory government had a chance to clean everything up—it did not.

Jim Fenton says the Philippine Military Academy is becoming openly “seditious.” Thank God that it is—those young officers are not going to die for the wealthy politicians who run this country.

About the EDSA “revolution” in February 1986, it is true as Fenton says, that the radical left was not there. But Cory was not there either. It was perhaps the only time in this nation’s history when there was democracy as it is understood in the West; the poor, the middle class and the elite were there as equals. In a sense, it was a truly democratic “revolution” but Cory made it into a restoration of the oligarchy.

That revolt was led by Juan Ponce Enrile and his followers in the Armed Forces; he inveigled Ramos to join which he did—no one would deny him his role. It was one branch of the military—supported by the people—that stood up to Marcos.

This military is capable of great patriotism. This is in the tradition of our armed forces, from the days of the revolution against Spain, to the Philippine-American War. If the Americans did not have historical amnesia, with their 4,000 killed, and thousands more injured on Philippine soil they would never have gone into Vietnam knowing as they do that they were not simply fighting communism, but Asian nationalism.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has been in continuous warfare from the days of World War II to the present, embroiled as it was in the Korean War, in the Huk uprising in 1949–53, and in the Muslim and New People’s Army rebellions.

Its officer corps comes from the lower and middle classes, most of them graduates from the Philippine Military Academy, a public school which accepts students from all levels if they pass its rigid examinations.

I hope that Jim Fenton is dead wrong in stating that the Ramos government is the extension of the Cory regime. If this is true, then it means the perpetuation of corruption by relatives of the people close to those in power, the incapacity of government to collect taxes, and the deeper into poverty will the lower classes sink.

It is not true that Ramos got many votes because he was Cory’s choice. That helped, no doubt, but he and Miriam Santiago got so many votes because people are sick and tired of the traditional politicians. Then, too, there is that perception that Ramos being a general would be able to give the Filipinos a strong government. Finally, people also feel that he does not belong to the oligarchy—his father may have been a foreign affairs secretary, but he comes from a small Pangasinan town and was not known to have so much wealth as the Aquino or Cojuangco families.

It is too early to tell whether Ramos can “empower the people” as he had publicly avowed. But this early, he has already shown the strength which alas, Cory had never shown.

F. Sionil José
Manila, Philippines

James Fenton replies:

This is typical of the talk of the faction of former defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. Although José concedes Fidel Ramos’s part in the revolution of 1986, he has not yet written him off as president. Still, José’s message is (as I wrote before) that it would be better to trust the patriotism and nationalism and sense of class background of the graduates of the Philippine Military Academy, rather than the empty “forms” of democracy, which lack “essence.” This is the same old sentimental, coffee-shop fascism which supported all those coups against Cory and which still, here, openly supports sedition. Down with the sham democracy. Just trust the officer corps.

I note, incidentally, that these admirable Asian nationalists are said to have been fighting continuously since the Second World War, either against their own countrymen or against other fellow Asians. Perhaps it’s time for Asian nationalism to enjoy a well-earned rest.

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