The view from the small church in Calamba, a village about fifty miles south of Manila, is spectacular: on one side is a large lake called Laguna de Bay, on the other is Makiling, a sacred mountain with many caves which peasants believe to be the portals of paradise. Between the mountain and the lake lie the rice fields of Luzon, a relatively prosperous region, traditionally hospitable to rebels and bandits, including some now fighting against the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.
The church itself is unremarkable—it is more like a ramshackle town hall. The walls inside are covered with murals depicting scenes from the Passion, the usual thing in Philippine churches. But there is one peculiar twist: “Christ” is a dapper little man with a mustache, wearing a dark suit, cut in the nineteenth-century European style. And instead of being nailed to the cross on Golgotha, this Christ is executed by a Spanish firing squad in Manila in 1896. He is Dr. José Rizal, a medical doctor and nationalist writer, worshiped by many as a Filipino messiah.
His twelve apostles, all depicted on the church wall, are fellow nationalists and revolutionaries who fought against Spanish rule at the end of the nineteenth century. There are the Fathers Burgos, Gómez, and Zamora, native priests who challenged the power of the Spanish friars. They were publicly garroted for their alleged leadership of an anti-Spanish mutiny. There is Andres Bonifacio, a warehouse clerk from the city of Tondo (now part of Manila and one of the worst slums in Southeast Asia), who founded the Katipunan, a secret society dedicated to violent revolution. (Imelda Marcos would later use the society’s initials, KKK, to lend an aura to one of her “people’s development” projects.) There are Marcelo H. Del Pilar, the brilliant propagandist for reforms, and Apolinario Mabini, the main political thinker behind the Philippine revolution. (Their names now grace the two streets in Manila collectively known as the “strip,” the center of go-go bars, massage parlors, child prostitution, and VD clinics.) And there is also Ferdinand Blumentritt, an obscure Austrian schoolmaster, who never set foot in the Philippines, but who owes his holy eminence to his lifelong position as Dr. Rizal’s intellectual pen pal.
This particular church dedicated to the worship of Rizal—there are many others like it—is called the Iglesia Watawat ng Nahi, Inc., or Banner of the Race, Inc. It was founded in 1936, when American colonizers required all organizations to be incorporated. The founder, Arsenio de Guzman, claimed to be a new Rizal with the power to lead his followers to the land of promise. A church pamphlet explains that the sect was “purposely organized for the Filipinos to have a Christian religious sect of their own, independent of foreign domination.” Rizal, the same pamphlet informs us, was sent to earth as a “Malayan Avatar who was appointed by Divine Power and ordained to earth in this new cycle to redeem His people from slavery.”
In more prosaic versions of history Rizal was the highly educated son of upper-class Filipino parents, who, like all members of the elite, were a racial mixture of Spanish, Indio, Chinese, Malay, even Japanese. He lived much of his life abroad, mostly in Spain, where, like many ilustrados (enlightened ones), he picked up novel European ideas such as nationalism. Through his writings, the most famous of which are two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, both compulsory reading at Philippine schools, he propagated these ideas. He was opposed to the power of Spanish friars in the colony, and wanted the Philippines to be represented in Madrid’s legislature, not as a colony but as a province. More than anything else, he wanted Filipinos to be treated as equals by the Spanish.
Rizal’s holy stature lies in the manner of his death. As the church pamphlet puts it (referring both to Christ and Rizal), with slight historical license: “Both their martyrdom marked the beginning of the end of two once powerful and ruthless empires in the world—the Roman Empire in the case of Christ and the Spanish empire in the case of Rizal.” Or in the words of a more conventional though no less reverent historian, Gregorio Zaide: “Rizal’s home-coming in 1869, the last in his life, was his saddest return to his beloved native land…. Gladly, he desired to meet his enemies and to offer himself as a sacrificial victim to their sadistic lust and unholy designs for he knew that his blood would water the seeds of Filipino freedom.”
There is a pattern in this kind of language which has been little studied. It disturbs middle-class Filipino notions of modernity. But like a primary color which endless paint jobs cannot quite hide, it has a way of shining through even the many layers of American-style education. Catholic imagery of death and redemption, the main legacy of three hundred years of Spanish rule, merged with Malay beliefs in spiritual power, or anting-anting. Great leaders have such powers because they are the spiritual incarnations of former leaders. The cult of Rizal is, as it were, a Christian form of national ancestor worship. The dominance of Christian forms shows to what extent native forms were wiped out.
One of the few historians to have taken these nationalist beliefs seriously is Reynaldo Ileto. He traces the forms of peasant rebellion back to folk versions of the Passion, in which the Spanish conquest of the Philippines is likened to the fall from Paradise, and Mother Filipinas must be redeemed by faith and sacrifice, by death and resurrection. Such acts of redemption have been led by a succession of messiahs, not usually from the upper class as was Rizal, but peasant rebels promising paradise and freedom. New Filipinized Christian faiths have come up, rejecting the false colonial prophets. Rizal himself is said to be waiting in his cave in Mount Makiling for the right moment to emerge and redeem the motherland. Filipinos are still waiting. In the meantime many messiahs have come and gone.
General Douglas MacArthur came in October 1944. He was nothing if not a good PR man, and knew more than most Americans about the Philippines. “I shall return,” promised matchboxes and leaf-lets dropped from American planes. After wading through the surf at Leyte, corncob pipe clenched in his determined jaw—a scene made eternal throughout the country by hideous sculptures—he made a remarkable radio speech to the waiting Filipinos: “I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil—soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples…. The hour of your redemption is here.” This year a newspaper columnist commemorated the event by stating that the landing “finally brought about a completion of the Fil-American cycle of setback and triumph, of Calvary and Resurrection.” There is something extraordinary about a colonized country receiving the general of the colonial power back as a savior. And indeed the spirit of MacArthur hovers around the Philippines as much as Rizal’s. But more about this later.
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino returned to redeem his country from Marcos in 1983. He was perhaps the most Rizalesque of modern messiahs. The ilustrado son of a wealthy family of landowners, he was hardly a revolutionary, more a pro-American reformer. At the beginning of his career, he was a typical macho politician, tough enough for Marcos to respect him more than any other politician. Part of being typical was to be a womanizer (so, incidentally, was Rizal; the church pamphlet gets around this by stating that women were attracted by “his virtues”). Only during his seven years in jail during the martial law period did Ninoy become more introspective, spending much time reading the Bible, and Rizal. In a letter from jail he wrote: “I now realize why Rizal reserved a little book by Thomas à Kempis, ‘The Imitation of Christ,’ for his beloved Josephine…. It was from this little book that he drew the strength of his spirituality.” He then went on to say that if Rizal had been alive today he, too, like Aquino, would have been arrested, and “maybe, reenact his martyrdom…. If I, however, understand the truth of our tragedy and have been wanting in my denunciation of the tyrant who dragged back Mother Filipinas to her dungeon in chains, I hope God will forgive me for failing to rise up to the occasion.”
He did of course rise to the occasion. And whoever had him killed at Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983, made the same mistake as the Spaniards who ordered Rizal’s execution. His death released an extraordinary wave of popular energy. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Manila for months. It was one of the rare times in Philippine history that the many disparate forces of society came together in a kind of nationwide fiesta. “Ninoy you are not alone” was one of the most popular slogans on T-shirts, key rings, bumper stickers, and banners. “A Filipino is worth dying for” was another. It was as if only a martyr’s death could unite this divided, fractious society; as if Ninoy’s death proved to Filipinos their worth as a people; as if this image of suffering briefly gave the nation a sense of identity.
Opposition papers made much of this image. One of the more imaginative ones, called Mr. and Ms., had Ninoy’s death mask on the cover. In one issue in late 1983 was the following passage: “Gazing at his blood-soaked chest and his wounded face still bearing its bullet-marks, …a grief stricken people were actually gazing not only at Ninoy Aquino but at themselves, bloodied and wounded by a long history of colonial domination, still suffering from foreign and native suppression.”
It is a typically Filipino kind of hyperbole. The empathy with suffering and death, sometimes bordering on a morbid fascination, is part of everyday life. The visitor stumbles across it in the most unexpected places. Not long ago a bar girl in Manila, after about ten minutes of desultory conversation, said she wanted to show me something and proceeded to fish a photograph from her bag. It showed an open coffin, elaborately decorated with flowers. “My mum,” she said matter-of-factly, pointing at the waxen face peeking out of the flowers.
In Escalante, a village on the island of Negros, where twenty-seven people were recently shot dead, during a street demonstration, by paramilitary troops sponsored by a local landlord, a group of nuns passed around a sheaf of color photos of the “martyrs,” taken at the local clinic. People casually leafed through the pictures, commenting on the more gory wounds. One person arrived with a little bottle, which elicited much interest. It contained what looked like a raw meatball: it was the eye of one of the victims.
Suffering and violent death are a constant theme in Filipino movies. The typical hero is a simple man, who gets abused and humiliated, often sexually, all through the film. The audience feels sorry for him, and identifies with him. This is the point of these films. There appears to be little identification with macho killers. The attention is always on the victim. The tension is built up further and further, until the hero cannot stand it any longer and erupts in a climactic scene of extraordinary violence, a kind of frenzy in which brains are blown out, blood splashes over the screen, eyes are gorged. Sometimes, as in a recent popular movie called Boatman, the hero is the victim in this final bloodbath. The boatman is a young provincial who goes to the city to be a film star. He ends up as a live sex show performer, becomes the paid lover of the American mistress of a Filipino gang boss, who, in a jealous rage, has the boy tortured to death. We are shown in great detail how his penis is cut off. Filipino critics seriously suggested that the hero be seen as a metaphor for the Philippine people.
The Aquino movement did not last. Like the climactic scene of violence in the movies, a fiesta of grief is cathartic: it erupts and then blows over. By the beginning of 1984, the opposition was as fractious as ever. Within two months of the killing the flight of capital from the Philippines had reached horrendous proportions, estimated at one billion dollars. Businessmen have returned to their offices but do not dare to invest. When the especially appointed Agrava Board came out with an apparently fair report which pointed the finger at high-ranking military officers for their complicity in the Aquino assassination, much of the sting went out of the street demonstrations. Moral outrage seemed to be somewhat appeased. There was hope that justice could still be done. But the recent acquittal of twenty-six military men, including General Ver, Marcos’s loyal Armed Forces Chief of Staff, left the population largely apathetic. Hope for justice clearly has been lost. The church is as divided as the rest of the nation. Some priests have taken to the hills to join the communist guerrillas. The prelate, Cardinal Jaime Sin, is a decent man, but he is terrified of disorder which could challenge the institutional power of the Church. He speaks out against Marcos on some occasions, but then blesses and embraces the president on his birthday, amid choruses from Handel’s Messiah.
This year Filipinos celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s birth. “Happy Birthday, Mama Mary!” it says underneath a huge effigy of the Virgin, richly decorated in jewels, marking the entrance to a section of Metro Manila. The yearly processions of Virgin images are spectacular contests in gaudiness; each one richer, more gorgeous, more glittery than the other. The most lavish procession in Manila is said to be sponsored by a group of wealthy society matrons, who form the regular entourage of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady. They are collectively known as “the Blue Ladies.”
According to this year’s Pastoral Exhortation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, “our Filipino people have always turned to Our Blessed Mother in times of difficulty, of crisis, even of seeming hopelessness. Always we have asked her, groaning and weeping in this valley of tears, to turn her eyes of mercy upon us.” The Mindanao Daily Mirror, filled with stories of the latest killings in Davao by “unidentified armed men,” explained to its readers the “right posture in praying.”
There is something curious and disturbing about the way Filipinos of all classes turn to cults and fads in times of crisis, looking for otherworldly mercy. Businessmen—not to mention their wives—seek solace in born-again Christianity; students and artists indulge in Zen. One American Zen master has set up a successful business by convincing Filipinos that they, as a people, are especially gifted for spiritual quests. This year’s latest middle-class fad is to share with one’s friends “as a mark of love” a disgusting brew called Kargasok tea. It is brewed from yeast supposed to come from Russia. Among its many benefits are extreme longevity, robust health, weight loss, and sexual vigor. “I hope it works,” said a Filipino friend, who also happens to be a Zen meditator and a seeker after that other eternal Philippine panacea, an emigrant visa to the United States.
“What we need in the Philippines is a macho leader,” said a government official who is now disenchanted with President Marcos. He spoke in an emotional, exasperated tone, banging on the table. “In the early years of martial law, people were so cooperative. The streets were so clean.” Few people are as ready these days to admit how popular martial rule was when it was declared in 1972.
Ferdinand Marcos was a macho leader, with macho ideas. One of the goals of his New Society was to challenge the power of the “oligarchy”—the old landowning families who had effectively run the country for centuries as power brokers for friends, relatives, and dependents. They managed the country, as dispensers of gifts and privileges, without having the responsibility of actual sovereignty, which lay with the colonial powers. The old quasi-American system of democracy was not based on democratic principles but on a huge network of patronage, some of which seeped down to the lowliest hacienda worker. The main check on any family’s power getting out of control was an election, held every four years, so that different patrons could have their turn at the trough. The Philippines that Marcos took over in 1965 was not so much a nation as a collection of regional, family, and class loyalties. It was a country effectively without a national language: Tagalog, the “official” language, is a language of central Luzon that many Filipinos do not speak. Marcos’s success proved that national strongmen or communist revolutions arise not from poverty but from a lack of national cohesion, an absence of common purpose.
Marcos argued that the old democracy, imposed by a Western power on an Asian country, was holding up vital reforms, necessary to make the Philippines a great nation. What was needed was a “revolution from the center.” He aimed to break the power of “the few who would promote their selfish interests through the indirect or irresponsible exercise of public and private power.” He aimed to wipe out the communist threat, then embodied by about three hundred soldiers in one area of southern Luzon. (There are now up to 20,000 New People’s Army guerrillas throughout the Philippines.) He needed a new ideology, “a unifying force, an organizing principle for the pursuit of collective ends.”
To do all this he hired talented technocrats and thinkers, who could create the New Society and an ideology to match. The ideas were not all bad. Land reforms, industrialization, foreign investment incentives, government-guided economic development—all this looked fine on paper. It has worked elsewhere. Other Asian rulers, such as South Korea’s Park Chung Hee, or Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, though by no stretch of the imagination democrats, delivered the goods: strong economies and rising living standards.
Unfortunately, what Marcos and the First Lady wanted more than anything else was to be king and queen. They wished to shape the kingdom in their own image; like the Sun King, Louis XIV, Marcos wanted to be able to say “L’état c’est moi.” According to Adrian Cristobal, a former left-wing writer, and one of Marcos’s chief ideological advisers, “Marcos sees the Philippines as a society of tribes.” And he sees himself as the great tribal chief, the Datu of pre-Spanish times. He destroyed much of the old network of family and regional loyalties to become the one and only patron, the king of Maharlika.
“Maharlika,” a pre-Hispanic term meaning “chief” or literally, “big phallus,” was Marcos’s nom de guerre as a guerrilla soldier against the Japanese. A highway was renamed the Maharlika Highway. There is a Maharlika broadcasting station, government owned, of course. The main reception room of the Malacañang Palace is called Maharlika Hall, where the chief likes to receive his guests sitting on a golden throne. There was even a move at one time officially to rename the Philippines Maharlika. “Our people are used to being ruled by royalty,” observed the First Lady and former beauty queen some years ago. She likes to show herself off in extravagant finery “because my little people expect it of me.”
The Big Phallus never gave his technocrats much chance. The economy, like the army, became a tool of political patronage to enhance the power of the chief. A new oligarchy of loyal courtiers controlled such vital sectors of the economy as sugar and coconuts. Trusted generals from Ilocos, Marcos’s native region, were put in charge of the ever-expanding armed forces. An estimated ten billion dollars, or more than one third of the country’s foreign debt, is said to have been secretly invested abroad by Marcos and his friends, no small part of it in New York real estate.
The political scientist Francisco Nemenzo, in The Philippines After Marcos, one of the most useful books to have come out on the Philippine crisis, compares the Marcos state to
what Marx called “Bonapartism.” It achieved “relative autonomy” from the ruling class with the support of the army and a pliable mass organization. The circumstances which allowed Marcos to assume total power were remarkably similar to what created the opportunity for Louis Bonaparte to pose as the saviour of France: intense contradictions in the ruling class and a mighty challenge from below, resulting in the paralysis of the old state machine.
The First Lady spent fortunes on gigantic projects in Manila: convention centers with murals depicting the glorious achievements of Marcos and Imelda; a University of Life, where students do not learn regular subjects, but “humanist development values” and the “Filipino ideology,” as taught by Marcos and Imelda; a Cultural Center, where their youngest daughter Irene Marcos conducts the orchestra and a Film Center where pornographic films are shown uncensored, to recoup some of the money that has been taken out of the government’s coffers. They are monuments to a grotesque sense of inferiority, as if to prove that the Philippines is not just a poor country of “little brown brothers.”
A “trainer-facilitator” (teacher) at the University of Life tried to explain the school’s aims by drawing diagrams on a blackboard, using terms like “experiential development” and “interactive studies.” It sounded like a parody of science. The same trainer-facilitator, who would look more at home in a body-building gym than in a classroom, showed me a book entitled The New Human Order, written by Mme. Imelda Marcos. It is an extraordinary work, full of doodles, cartoons, and thoughts like: “The body seeks good, the mind seeks truth, the spirit seeks beauty.” There were also triangular shapes that showed how the new human order had to be led by one chief. It is a sad parody of philosophy, the deep thoughts of a fiesta queen.
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.”
This program was presented to me by an upper-class, American-educated businesswoman in her plush Manila office. “I believe in the NDF and its programs,” she said. “If we look at it from the nationalist point of view and make political programs for the people, I think there is hope.” She thought China might be a good model to follow, “though we could take some shortcuts.” An equally well-educated lawyer explained to me that the “NPA and NDF are true nationalists. It’s not just lip service. They have the best interests of the country at heart and they have always fought US imperialism.”
There is a remarkable naiveté among leftist intellectuals about the “total victory through armed struggle” promised in the NDF program. “I believe the NDF will tell its cohorts to drop their arms if the military will behave themselves,” said the businesswoman. A lawyer in Davao even denied that the NDF advocates armed struggle at all. Most fellow travelers give it little thought. Let us first get rid of the Marcos-US dictatorship and then see what happens, is the most common sentiment.
The anti-Western bias (“throw the multinationals out and start from scratch”) of a national front movement directed by a Maoist party appeals to many in the middle class—teachers, lawyers, students, in short, readers of Renato Constantino’s history books. It also matches a Filipino variety of liberation theology, harking back perhaps to the old millenarian struggle against the Spanish church. One priest active in the NDF explained to me how he resolved his problem of reconciling Christianity and Marxism: “As a Filipino and a religious I can only survive by involvement in the struggle.”
Rural people are not particularly concerned with American imperialism; they turn to the NPA for protection against marauding soldiers, often sponsored by local landlords. This shows an interesting, and perhaps significant, historical shift, for the bitter root of anti-Americanism goes back to the Great Sell-Out; or, as Constantino would have it, the betrayal by the Filipino elite of the popular struggle against American imperialism at the beginning of the century.
The nationalist revolution against Spain between 1896 and 1899 was one of the few times in Philippine history that the various classes came together in a common cause. The coalition that was formed during those years was made up of ilustrado reformers like Rizal, native priests against the Spanish church establishment, and the revolutionary brotherhood—the Katipunan—led by Andres Bonifacio, the clerk from Tondo whose portrait remains an icon throughout the Philippines. In the words of the country’s most celebrated modern writer, Nick Joaquin, the coalition showed “a glimpse of nation, as though lightning had revealed another side of a face.” It was not to last long. The deep divisions that still plague Philippine society came to the surface even before the first Philippine Republic was inaugurated in 1899. Bonifacio’s ideals of armed revolution made him as dangerous to the Filipino elite as to the Spanish, and he was executed for treason by General Aguinaldo, the man who was to become the first president of the new republic.
Aguinaldo is one of the subjects of Sitting in Darkness. Bain describes well how he was finally hunted down in 1901 by an American expedition led by the diminutive adventurer, Frederick Funston. He rightly lays to rest the nationalist canard that Aguinaldo was simply a cowardly “class traitor.” The rest of Bain’s book, mostly about his backpacking trek up the same route Funston took, is doubtless interesting to backpacking trekkers, but throws little further light on the Fil-American relationship. There are, incidentally, some unfortunate factual errors, the worst of which is the remark that Ninoy Aquino’s father, Benigno Sr., “fought the Japanese in the Second World War.” In fact he was an active collaborator, serving as vice-president in the wartime government—some say out of anti-American nationalism. Ninoy often hinted that one of his prime motivations for public service was to wipe out the shame of his father’s past.
Aguinaldo had little choice but to surrender. In 1901, after he was captured, he issued his last wartime proclamation, recognizing American sovereignty over the Philippines and recommending that the Filipinos make the best of US rule. Perhaps because of this, perhaps because he lived to a contented old age, Aguinaldo never became a national hero of the same rank as Bonifacio or Rizal. It has often been said that Rizal became a greater hero than Bonifacio because of American propaganda aimed at fostering peaceful reforms instead of violent revolution. Rizal’s legacy is certainly safer to deal with for a colonial power than Bonifacio’s, but the truth is more complicated. Rizal’s image was more congenial to the Filipino elite, which benefited most from American rule. This is where the Big Sell-Out comes in.
By sailing into Manila Bay in 1898, ostensibly to help the Filipino struggle against Spain, America effectively aborted the revolution, turning the first steps toward nationhood into a false start. Although Aguinaldo fought on for a few years, much of the Philippine elite did what they had done for centuries to survive, and as they have done ever since, even, until recently, under Marcos; they made deals with the new power, acting as power brokers for their dependents. And by and large they have prospered by doing so. It was they who became the best disciples of American ways, from party politics to Lions clubs.
It is still they, the Kalaws, the Laurels, the Aquinos, who stand for traditional, moderate politics. But it was rural groups which, from the Sakdalistas in the 1930s to the Huks in the 1940s, kept on erupting in revolts, usually inspired by the nationalist beliefs in martyrdom and redemption. The communist movement is now trying to convince people that they are the true heirs to the first revolution, taking up the thread of history where it was so rudely cut off by the Americans.
José Maria Sison, founder of the CCP, made a speech in 1964, on the 101st anniversary of Bonifacio’s birth. He stated that
after the death of Bonifacio, the revolutionary initiative of the peasants and the workers of the Katipunan and the anticolonialist struggle in general was undermined and debilitated by the liberal compromises made by the ilustrado leadership…. US imperialism was not only superior in industrial might but also well-versed in a liberal jargon which could easily deceive the newly emerged Filipino bourgeoisie.
Deception through the sweet talk of foreigners—that is precisely what the earlier revolutionaries said about the Spanish friars: Mother Filipinas must be delivered from alien lies. Marcos himself used a similar argument when he declared martial law. Struggle against the false foreign prophets is what lends legitimacy to every Filipino nationalist movement. It is a potent message at a time when “credibility” is the most precious commodity. The credibility most at stake in the Philippines today is not that of Marcos and his cronies—they have already lost theirs. It is the traditional opposition, the political remnants of the old democracy who are most vulnerable.
This puts the US government in a highly delicate position, for being America’s girl or boy could become a liability as easily as an asset. No matter how duplicitous or irrational it may be, Philippine nationalism is now on the side of the left. Once that is said, there is a backlog of more than 450,000 Filipino applicants for emigration to the United States.
So, who in the end can redeem Mother Filipinas? It cannot or should not be the US, for the US is part of the problem. The communists are seductive, acting like Filipino Robin Hoods in the villages and talking like reasonable nationalists in the cities. But the closer they get to actual power the less seductive they become. In Davao City there is a slum of wooden huts on stilts called Agdao, also known as Nicaragdao, one of the few urban areas in the country where the NPA has some control. No soldier or policeman would ever go there alone. Occasionally the military will enter in groups for “dragnet” operations, trying to hunt down NPAs. In the process, houses often get looted. Young men are arrested for questioning. In some cases their hog-tied, mutilated bodies are found a week later, thrown out of a truck on some country road.
“What about the NPA?” I asked some people at a corner store called “Baby’s Place.” “We are more afraid of the military,” they answered. “Do the NPAs give you orders?” I asked. There was some nervous shifting. “Yes, they do,” said a cheerful-looking housewife. “What happens if you disobey?” She put her hand to her head and pulled an imaginary trigger. “We want to be left alone, but now we are like a boat navigating in two rivers.”
In a country used to following leaders, the communists have a problem: they have no recognizable leaders. It is a movement without a face. Instead there are many faces, often without names: the smiling young man in jeans who says “we support the struggle of the Khmer Rouge, although they made some regrettable errors”; the priest in the mountains who points at his armalite rifle saying, “This gun is an instrument for a higher value. The value of justice. The value of dignity of man”; the imprisoned poet who writes that “the death of every revolutionary hero is always many times avenged. He always lives in the hearts and thoughts of the masses and of his ever increasing comrades.” Someone has to pull these voices together into a cohesive political movement which can jump from the villages into the political jungle of Manila. That someone is not yet there.
Some commentators have predicted that this faceless insurgency could turn into a Filipino version of the “killing fields.” Punishing class enemies and repaying blood-debts are indeed part of the communist program. But the Philippines is not Cambodia. It is an archipelago, with a population of 55 million people spread over thousands of islands, hard to coordinate under central command. There are no foreign sanctuaries. People have not been traumatized by B-52 bombings. Class hatred lacks the intensity it had in parts of Indochina. There is no evidence yet of the Filipino communists receiving material and financial support from Chinese, Vietnamese, or Soviet comrades. That said, however, the messianic fervor traditionally so much a part of Philippine rebellion could lead to an unhappy combination of extreme idealism and running amok—a violent Filipino movie come to life.
Meanwhile, Marcos has called an election for February 7, 1986. Will the traditional opposition leaders be able to surprise everyone and resolve their differences? Will Salvador Laurel, or Corazon “Cory” Aquino, or Jovito Salonga, or Eva Kalaw be able to redeem Mother Filipinas after all? So far the moderates have looked like a microcosm of the old, squabbling democratic days. “Irrelevant” is a word often used for them. Though this is perhaps too strong a term in a country where most people would still favor a middle-of-the-road government, their chances do not look good. One could perhaps compare them to a splintered group of German politicians trying to revive the Weimar republic, had Hitler suddenly called an election in 1939.
Still, now that “Doy” Laurel has finally agreed to run as vice-president with Cory Aquino, Ninoy’s politically inexperienced but popular wife, running for president, there is at last some hope of a unified challenge to Marcos. Laurel’s decision came after a bewildering run of flip-flops. At one point he promised to support Aquino’s candidacy. Then he decided to run for president himself, only to change his mind one hour before the filing deadline. The two former Liberal party candidates, Eva Kalaw and Jovito Salonga have pledged their support to the ticket.
Laurel is a typical Filipino politician of the old school: ambitious, opportunistic, and pro-American. This combination—with the promise of a substantial dip in the old pork barrel—would have been fine in the pre-Marcos period of free-wheeling family politics. Now it could be a liability. “He’ll be just like Marcos” is an often-heard opinion. Son of the wartime Philippine president under the Japanese, Laurel is known for his strong Japanese connections, which may be a financial asset, but is a weakness in nationalist eyes.
Laurel is leader of one wing of the old Nacionalista party and president of the United Democratic Nationalist Organization (UNIDO), which was formed as an umbrella group for opposition leaders. This well-organized party machine is Laurel’s major contribution to the “Cory-Doy” ticket. Cory’s main strength is her husband’s legacy and her long-held determination to remain above the political fray. Many feel that her position as the guardian angel of the Aquino myth will be damaged as soon as she becomes another politician. One left-wing activist shrewdly said that “she is more useful to us as a unifying symbol than as a candidate.” How useful leftists will find Laurel, a vociferous anticommunist, is one of the more interesting questions for the coming elections.
All traditional opposition leaders talk much about “credibility” and “restoring the faith of the people.” And all express great confidence that once faith has been restored the country’s problems will be resolved in due course. Indeed, it is often said that Marcos is the Communist party’s best ally. But the communist movement will not disappear with Marcos. One spokesman for the party said that a moderate post-Marcos government “will hasten conditions for the overthrow of the US puppet regime. We will have more room for political work with the masses.”
Even if one of the opposition candidates were elected, they would still have to deal with the NPA, who will not lay down their arms before “total victory” has been achieved. They may not have much of a chance.
“They’re all communists,” said the governor of Davao Oriental, as a young girl whisked away a fly hovering over his plate of roast pork. We were having lunch with the general in charge of counterinsurgency in Davao. “No way the military will back some weak opposition leader. The communists will win.” I asked the governor how he thought the military would prevent the communists from winning. He laughed and shouted “coup d’état. The military never had it so good as under Marcos and they’re sure as hell not going to let go.” The general smiled indulgently at his friend and made no comment.
Perhaps the country is beyond redemption. Former President Manuel Quezon, who returned with MacArthur in 1944, once said: “I would rather have a government run like hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans.” Maybe the country will have to pass through several more circles of hell before it can see the light of redemption. That will only happen once Filipinos recognize the best piece of advice that Rizal ever gave them: “Spain, must we some day tell Filipinas that thou hast no ear for woes and that if she wishes to be saved, she must redeem herself.”
—December 19, 1985
January 16, 1986