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The Philippines

Sugar, Rice and a Great Deal of Vice

This year a World War II guerrilla fighter against the Japanese, Ferdinand E. Marcos, took office as the sixth President of the Philippines. So intense is Filipino political infighting that no President has yet been elected to a second four-year term. Some people say that Marcos, who was elected to Congress in 1949 and was a Senator from 1959, is the Philippines' last hope: after him the deluge, if he fails (as his once highly thought of predecessor in office, Diosdado Macapagal, conspicuously failed) to arrest the sad downward drift of his country's economy when the population, now 30 million, has the fastest rate of growth in the world.

Entering on his first and probably last term of office thus heavily burdened. President Marcos last month promptly acquired a further handicap, reported to have been laid upon him by President Johnson. The White House is said to have used every possible pressure, including sending Hubert Humphrey to the Philippines twice in a matter of weeks, to get a reluctant Marcos to “show the Philippines' flag” in South Vietnam, by dispatching a military engineering unit there and so becoming the first Asian member of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization to respond to the Saigon government's appeal to SEATO for military help. The Philippines already has doctors and nurses in South Vietnam, and about 3,000 construction laborers, but had not contemplated doing much more, except perhaps organizing donations by the general public of such items that might be useful to the South Vietnamese as dried fish, used clothing and rubber shoes, which was proposed by Marcos' new Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Narcisco Ramos.

The White House's request for more was a bitter pill for Marcos, in spite of sweetening suggestions of a big American stabilization loan, and American help (gunboats and radar equipment) in combating the pernicious smuggling that is currently costing the Philippines government about $350 million a year. First, it was bound to land him in trouble at the very outset of his term, not only in the House of Representatives but also in the Senate where his main strength lies; sure enough. Senator Lorenzo Sumulong, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the engineering battalion idea, as did the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman. Representative Emmanuel Pelaez. They argued that South Vietnam had “no pressing need” for Philippines assistance. Second, Marcos had previously declared himself against all unnecessary expenditure and for extreme fiscal prudence, and sending the engineers will cost $9 million, equivalent to an eighth of the Philippines' total defense budget.

Beseeched by the White House and besieged by members of his own Congress, Marcos announced that the men sent to South Vietnam would build roads “in secure areas”; moreover, all would be volunteers. Nevertheless criticisms of the United States filled the Manila air, and Marcos had to go along with a couple of vaguely anti-American investigations, to show he wasn't being Uncle Sam's stooge. Acting as his own Defense Secretary, he ordered his defense officials to “clarify” the dispatch to Vietnam from the Philippines of 1.6 million rounds of carbine ammunition and 20,000 artillery shells which the 25,500-man Philippines army had received under the military assistance pact with the US (and never used). And he retired back to the army Lt. Col. Jose Lukban, head of the National Bureau of Investigation, following allegations that the boss of the Philippines' FBI was secretly working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

A Company Town
Filipinos have reasons to be sensitive about their special relationship with the United States. Some Americans still behave as if the Philippines is nothing more than a company town, and they, the Americans, are the company. They find the labor docile on the whole, and cherish the illusion, dear to all tycoons, that the workers revere their bosses and are loyal to the company. It follows, of course, that any unrest that makes itself felt must be caused by agitators, probably Communists. Filipinos don't love Americans, or hate them either; they do resent them. After having been ruled first by Spaniards, then by Americans and also brutally overrun by Japanese, the only way many Filipinos seem able to express the nationalist fervor they genuinely feel is to resent the United States. Ever since World War II, they have been mad at the US for allegedly helping Japan, instead of the Philippines, regain economic strength in Asia. Yet US economic aid to the Philippines, in grants alone, amounts to $1 billion since 1946. (And about another $500 million in military aid.) In spite of it. Senate President Arturo M. Tolentino can ruefully, but accurately, describe the Philippines as “short of capital, talent and markets.” The US maintains enormous military bases in Clark Field and Subic Bay; and with the Vietnam war, increasing numbers of wounded Americans are brought here for treatment, and ships for repair. About 40,000 American servicemen are stationed in the Philippines; and there may be as many as 16,000 American sailors on shore leave here all at once, an awesome sight. But what Filipinos chiefly think about the bases is that in the past 12 years some threescore people “trespassing” have been shot at and killed by Americans. (Now at last the Philippines' own courts have jurisdiction over some cases.) Manila's lively, reckless newspapers (18 including Chinese) work off Filipino resentments by mercilessly flaying Americans most of the time.

Americans here mutter darkly about “Communists” when what actually happens is that Filipino nationalist sentiment is coolly inflamed by forces that are concerned with profits. A rising class of Filipino businessmen wants to elbow out foreign capital, especially American, in order to have the exclusive rights to exploit an abundant and intelligent labor force whose members are lucky if they earn as much as $50 a month. Filipino capitalists own the newspapers and magazines that feature loud “left-wing” criticisms of the United States. (The Manila Chronicle, loudest voice of all, is owned by Marcos' Vice President, Fernando Lopez, who also controls what are probably the biggest sugar properties in the Philippines.) It came as a shock to American businessmen to find that the Retail Trade Law, which came into effect in 1964 and was ostensibly aimed at Chinese businesses, is really aimed at them. The law says only Filipino or American citizens, or firms “owned wholly by them, can engage in retail trade. The reason for the Americans' apparent exemption is the special “parity” clause of the Philippines Constitution, which in conjunction with Philippine-US trade agreements gives Americans the same rights as Filipinos until 1974, when “parity” is to end. The exemption has turned out to be only apparent, because in order to qualify a firm must be wholly Filipino-owned or wholly American-owned. When it was pointed out to the staggered American business community here that having a single foreign shareholder would disqualify their companies, they took refuge in the argument that the big American companies, like oil companies, are not in retail trade. They did not find refuge for long. The Philippine courts ruled that “retail trade” means any commercial activity involving an end consumer. On this ruling, almost any enterprise can be classified as engaged in “retail trade.”

The other side of the “parity” coin is that, until 1974, Philippine products enjoy special tariff or quota privileges in the US market. It is hinted widely in Manila that the country's sugar barons are anxious to go on enjoying their special privileges after 1974, and that when the newspapers they control raise hell about the iniquity of “parity” for American business here, they are actually trying a little blackmail, in hope of doing a horse-trade. If this fails, their criticisms of the US may stand them in good stead when they come to sell their sugar to mainland China. Meanwhile, “parity” is a red rag to Filipinos. William P. Bundy, speaking for the State Department, said in Manila that the US had no intention of trying to have parity extended beyond 1974, and may have thought this was soothing, but soon discovered his error. Filipinos at once were up in arms at what they held to be the implication that the US has the right even to suggest extending parity after 1974. “Is Bundy hinting that the US will dare to try?” demanded the hot-tempered Manila newspapers. Filipino logic can be quite Bengali.

Americans, who imagine the Manila newspapers have been infiltrated by Communists who then dictate an anti-American line to the proprietors, naturally read the worst of meanings into a recent anti-Vietnam war demonstration by Filipino students at the American Embassy in Manila. Actually the demonstration was small, and conducted with a decorum more appropriate to an outing from a nunnery. “Sure, I went to the Embassy,” one pretty girl student told me, “but I only did it for the heck of it.” Filipinos love using American slang, even when protesting their Filipinoness. Young Filipinos are still encapsulated in Spanish Catholicism and culture as well as being wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. That is why they talk constantly about needing to find their true identity.

Communism has little appeal even to the most desperately poor or angrily nationalist Filipinos, if only because it makes them think of China and the country's 360,000 Chinese are scowled at as traditional enemies. The Communist Party has been banned in the Philippines (since 1957) and Filipinos must have special sanction, involving a security check, to visit any Communist country. When Foreign Secretary Ramos visited East Berlin from West Berlin recently without seeking official permission from Manila, he was technically breaking the law. The once-feared “Huks” {Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon, or People's Army to Fight the Japanese) consist of about 150 small-time bandits and hoodlums, who may count on about 5,000 people to give them shelter and a meal if in need. The police last month (February) claimed to have arrested Pedro A. Taruc, the top Huk leader, but it turned out that the man they nabbed was actually a plowmaker of the utmost respectability. Of the alleged Communists who suspicious Americans say put the party line into the press, a cooler British resident remarks: “They are somewhat to the left of the younger British Tories - but not much.”

“A Great Deal of Vice”
What then are the Philippines made of? Sugar, rice and a great deal of vice. Corruption is the despair of everyone, including President Marcos. The American cigarettes and other sought-after consumer items that are smuggled in from Hong Kong and North Borneo are only the tip of the racket; most smuggling takes place through the customs, with Buicks gaily waved ashore and officially entered as “books.” Crime is rife: the British Ambassador was stuck up in broad daylight, on Manila's main street in sight of a passerby who determinedly ignored his shouts.

Unemployment is staggering: almost 2 million, in a labor force of just over 10 million. Yet there is also inflation; in 18 months prices have risen 10 percent and wages only three percent. The official figure of population growth is 3.2 percent, but demographers studying the latest trends think it's more like 3.8 percent, a world record. Yet the economic growth rate has fallen from a low 4 percent to a more dismal 3 percent. 

With almost exactly the same amount of land under cultivation, Japan grows enough rice to feed nearly 100 million people; the Philippines does not grow nearly enough to feed 30 million. The country has the smallest yields per acre in all Asia. One consequence is that low as town incomes are, rural incomes are lower still and the gap between them is growing. Former President Macapagal regarded land reform as the key to eventual industrialization and economic “takeoff,” but three percent of the population still own 98 percent of the land, in spite of brave-sounding programs like EDCOR (Economic Development Corps) and SPREAD (Systematic Program for Economic Assistance and Development). Rice production has gone up a little, but only by opening up new areas to rice growing, not by improving yields per acre. Los Bafios, a college center of farm research and crop improvement, exists dreamlike in a vacuum, its modern-looking campus unconnected with the fanning areas. There are village improvement workers who are paid by the government ; but they all live in Manila.

Between 60 and 70 percent of the voters live in rural areas, and are almost totally without political awareness. The country's 24 senators run at large, in an area sprawled over 400 inhabited islands with almost no roads. The last elections cost about 100 million pesos, about eight percent of the nation's budget; in US terms this would be the equivalent of about $8 billion! Not surprisingly. Congress remains largely in the hands of big landlords and industrialists. There are two parties. Liberal and Nacionalista. In practice this means voters choosing between two rich candidates, sometimes even belonging to the same family. Votes are openly bought and paid for. When money raised by public subscription in Manila was handed over to a rural official for distribution to victims of last year's volcano disaster, he told them: “You're getting this because you voted right; don't vote wrong or, next time the volcano erupts, you'll get no help.”

Last year, Senator Raul Manglapus again tried to get a liberal third party going; it still didn't work. Now he talks of cajoling the new Filipino business class into aiding and abetting reform, modernizing the country, and incidentally providing jobs for the 150,000 graduates the colleges turn out each year to be unemployed. But Manila's 600 entrepreneurs who already produce 15 percent of the national income employ only about a quarter of a million people while the labor force increases by 1,000 every day. Besides, it's easier to make a fortune speculating in real estate in Manila than to start up a new enterprise or expand an old one. Some Filipino politicians, infected by Keynesian economists, talk of government planned investment; but the average politician asks: “The public sector? What's that?”

What President Marcos is up against is perhaps best illustrated by the way I finally got in to see him. He never received the letters I and others wrote, well ahead of my visit, requesting an appointment. Telephone calls to secretaries and other officials produced no results. Then, by accidental good fortune, I met a personal friend of his. Within an hour, we were inside Malacanang Palace, the White House of the Philippines. But so were dozens of other people, all waiting to see Marcos. We got to him after eight in the evening; he had been seeing people all day. While we talked, those still in the queue watched hungrily from the doorway, ready to grab their turn. The President's considerable charm didn't quite mask his fatigue.

Living with Their Neighbors
Marcos' predecessor, Macapagal, as almost his last presidential act appointed more than 1,700 supporters to government jobs. Marcos proposes to get rid of dead wood, including 19 army generals. But already it is being whispered that if he does, it will only be to fill the vacancies with supporters of his own, who need jobs. Some people who supported him are saying already that “it is too soon to know if Marcos will be a success.” Filipino politics are fluid and fickle, as Marcos well knows; he himself brazenly switched parties to become a Nacionalista president. Since his swearing in he has been busy cleaning the Augean stables that confront all new Philippine presidents - in his case, use of official stamps on smuggled cigarettes, and a racket that supplied prison convicts with pardons forged inside the prison. He has ordered increased rice production, set up an “operations room” to which all cabinet ministers must report the progress of their departments, and promises to get the economic growth rate back up to four percent by the end of his first year in office, and to five percent in 1967.

Marcos has declared war to the death on the smugglers, most of whom he says are Chinese. They may well be, but Filipinos tend to make the Chinese - and the Americans — scapegoats. Though the median Philippine family income is only $250 a year, many Chinese making $2,000 a year are refused citizenship on the ground that their incomes are too low. Marcos has decided to recognize Malaysia - Macapagal wouldn't because of the Philippines' claim to North Borneo, now part of Malaysia - but Malaysians entering the Philippines who in the judgment of Filipino officials have “Chinese physical characteristics” will still be fingerprinted. Malaysians who object to this genuinely surprise Filipinos, who say: “But we are not discriminating against you Malaysians! These people are only Chinese!” It so happens that 40 percent of Malaysia's population, not counting Singapore, are of Chinese descent and most of the other 60 percent have some Chinese blood - as many Filipinos do.

Marcos aims at an economic linkup of the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, in ASA, Association of Southeast Asia. He has temporarily lost interest in Maphilindo, a projected hookup of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. Ostensibly this is because the Indonesians failed to practice musjawarah (brotherly consultation); actually it's because Malaysia voted for Manila to be the headquarters of the new Asia Development Bank, which has $1 billion in capital funds. Besides, Indonesia is broke.

On Vietnam, Marcos says he is glad the US is fighting there, for this shows the West realizes that “Asia is the real battlefield of today and tomorrow.” In amplification. Foreign Secretary Ramos explains the US involvement in Vietnam relieves Filipinos who feared that in a pinch the US might withdraw from Asia and adopt once again a “Europe first” foreign policy. But the majority of Filipinos obviously have no urgent desire to get involved in Vietnam themselves. Some even prefer to think a little further ahead than tomorrow, and point out that they have to live with their Asian neighbors, including mainland China, as well as with the US. This is still a tentative as well as a minority view. In spite of their depressing economic situation and appalling politics, Filipinos are cheerful, warmhearted, impulsively generous and essentially optimistic people who tend to believe that they will always manage to muddle through somehow. They are neither pro-Communist nor pro-Chinese. Chances are they will tolerate the American bases for as long as they are supposed to - the agreed date is now 1985 -and may tolerate American business beyond 1974. But in terms of international relations, neither date is really far off, and before either is reached, more Filipinos will be thinking seriously about their place in Asia and their relations with China. US policy ought to be receptive to that. If it isn't, the next demonstrations at the US Embassy in Manila may be neither small nor decorous.