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THE
Philippines

Updated May 30, 2001

THE PHILIPPINES

 

There are over 7,000 Philippine Islands of which only some 4,600 are named, and they are located about 500 miles off the coast of Asia.  It is the world’s second-largest archipelago after Indonesia. Most of the islands that compose the chain are small, less than 1-mile square; and a good percentage of these are uninhabited, with the great majority not even having names.  The two largest of the Islands in the archipelago are Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south.  It is off Mindanao in a place called the Mariana’s Trench where the Pacific Ocean reaches its greatest depth, almost 40,000 feet.  It is also in this vicinity where there has been substantial unrest in recent years because guerilla groups desiring independence have made a series of hit and run attacks on government installations in the area.  Logistically, these groups are most difficult to control because they are able to blend into the jungle after a raid, and those who chase them into own territory are doing so at a big risk.  Thus, the Philippine Government has remained extremely frustrated by its futile efforts to put down this insurrection.

           

Filipinos love good food as well as all of the finer things in life. Because the country’s economy has been stagnant for some period of time, the people have not had a substantial amount of disposable income and luxuries have been held to a bare minimum. However, a meal is not a real meal in this country without Baalut. Baalut is more of a process than a food, it consists of taking a fertilized duck or chicken egg, and burying it in the ground, which provides an incubation type of warmth. By the time the eggs are dug up, they are half formed and close to hatching and when soft-boiled and consumed right out of the shell provides a scrumptious feast, but only  if you are drunk out of your gourd on prodigious amounts of high octane alcohol. ([1])

 

The first Westerner into the Philippines is believed to be Ferdinand Magellan, carrying the Spanish Flag, although a Portuguese citizen. He was determined to circumnavigate the globe, and therefore did not stay for tea.  However, when he had finished his world tour, he dutifully reported to the authorities in Spain as to where he had been and what he had seen.  In 1542, some 21 years after Magellan’s visit, Spain sent an exploration party to the area, took possession of the islands and named them in honor of Prince Philip, who not to long thereafter became Philip II, the chief honcho of Spain.  Spain hung out in the area for 350 years until the Americans suckered them into war in 1898.  After whooping the Spanish really good, the U.S.A. received title to the Archipelago.

 

Unknown to the Americans who thought that they had received some sort of a bargain, their was a civil war brewing with the Islamic Moros on Mindanao and it took substantial resources to finally subdue them.  The handwriting was on the wall that the Philippines really didn’t want to be owned by anyone, and the United States began making arrangements to turn the reigns of government over to the people that lived there.  They created a constitution, which established the country as a Democratic Commonwealth, and Manuel Quezon y Molina became the Philippines first president by proclamation.  At about the same time, the Tydings-McDurrie Act was passed by the U.S. Congress to allow the United States to gradually turn over control of the country to the people by 1946.  When the Japanese invaded the country on December 8, 1941, Molina established a government in exile and in that way continued to administrate through most of World War II until he died in October of 1944.

 

The Philippines received their independence as promised on July 4, 1946, and the first elected president, Manual A. Roxas y Acuna was sworn into office.  Things went along swimmingly until Ferdinand E. Marcos was elected in 1965, and he decided to stay in that job until 1986.  Marcos’ supreme achievement during those years was his uncanny ability to regularly clean out the Philippine Treasury no matter how well tax collections were going.  He was heard mumbling on these occasions something about momma needs a new pair of shoes.

 

The people weren’t exactly overjoyed with this state of affairs and started to raise objections. This turned out to be their first mistake, and these objections were met with strong logic.  On September 21, 1971, Marcos as benevolent leader declared Martial Law, and although some legal nuances occurred during the ensuing years, Marcos continued to rule with an iron hand during his term in office.  This was best exemplified by the fact that Benigno S. Aquino, an opposition leader who had earlier fled for his life, made the fatal mistake of returning to Manila against his advisors better advice.  He didn’t made it beyond the Airport, where he was shot to death while ringed by Government Police and Military.  This action crystallized resistance to the Marcos rule, and things started to change.

 

The Catholic Church endorsed Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, for the country’s presidency in 1986, but she was soundly beaten in a totally corrupt election where hundreds of thousands of votes cast in her name conveniently vanished.  The people were not pleased at all and went berserk; they rioted, and Marcos was forced to flee the country.

 

“The Marcos regime left several nasty economic problems for its successors; an overburdening foreign debt, a looted central bank, severe infrastructure deficiencies and government revenues at only 18 percent of gross national production - the lowest among the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines is a member.  Widespread tax cheating was a major reason for the low ratio….In 1992, an investigation of central bank books revealed that some $5.8 billion in loans had been granted over the Marcos years to at least 419 private firms and public bodies by government institutions, including the central bank.  These “behest loans” - granted at the behest of President Marcos - remained unpaid until 1992 at least; they accounted for a significant fraction of the country’s outstanding foreign debt of $31 billion.  These debts and others taken on by the central bank left it in a debilitated financial state; no longer could it accomplish such critical central bank tasks as controlling the money supply or restructuring the national debt.” [2]

 

The Philippine Government strongly felt that in spite of the problems addressed above, that their economic position was greatly enhanced by the fact that the cost of labor in the country was substantially below other countries in the region and that this would attract multinationals investment into the Philippines.  This was a hasty generalization, and the real facts were to prove otherwise:

 

“After taking note of the comparative labor advantage of the Philippines, virtually every potential corporate investor and analyst mentions a litany of problems in a single breath: infrastructure deficiencies, lawlessness and political instability - all of which are lingering relics of past misgovernment.

 

 …In addition to deficiencies in its energy infrastructure, inefficient telecommunications and transportation networks constrain economic activities and dampen the attractiveness of the country.  Highways, bridges, ports, airports, and water and sewage facilities are in desperate need of reconditioning and new investment…..Local traffic in Manila is so congested that Japanese businessmen complain they often avoid the Philippines because days can be wasted attending a simple meeting….The security problem has several dimensions: political instability, kidnap-for-ransom gangs, insurgencies, private armies and general lawlessness.”[3]

 

Aquino’s forces gradually solidified control as the country slowly returned to normalcy.  On the other hand, Government officials needing a cause to rally around picked the American presence in their nation as their cause celeb and requested the United States to pull up stakes.  At that time, America had as its biggest foreign base a combination of Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines.  This combination was an installation that literally went on for miles and had the latest equipment in every phase of warfare.  Moreover, these bases were found to have been absolutely crucial in executing “Operation Desert Storm.”

 

The reason that the United States had invested so heavily in the Philippines was logical, the base was strategically located near the Asian mainland, within a reasonable distance from Japan and China.  When the facilities had been constructed, relations between the United States and the Philippines were excellent.  More importantly, the Subic Bay facility was protected by mountain ranges, which surrounded the area, the deep natural harbor provided excellent and protected deep water anchorage and the naval base was protected from both typhoons and volcanic eruptions.  Subic Bay historically had served the Spanish as a port admirably as far back as 1868.

 

Philippine nationalism clouded the economic realities of the region, and a nickel and dime game of poker soon rose beyond one of table stakes.  The fact that tens of thousands of Philippine workers at these installations would lose their jobs if the port was closed, that the American servicemen stationed at these facilities spent hundreds of millions of dollars within the Philippine economy and that ships of all navies visited the Subic Bay facility to refuel and re-store, and were therefore also  major contributors to the Philippine economy seems to have been forgotten by what became known as the Philippine “Group of Twelve.”  The Group of Twelve were economically under-educated partisans who, when their tongues got in front of their eye teeth, couldn’t see what they were saying.

 

Overall, the United States Government was the second largest employer in the country.  Moreover, the Philippine Government also seemed to lose sight of the fact that the American presence also acted as a defense shield for them against potential aggression by the Japanese and/or the Chinese, both of whom realized the strategic position held by this island nation.  For example, there is an ongoing war of words between the Philippines and China over who should rightfully control the Spratly Islands ,and the United States had already made a commitment to come to the Philippines’ aid should there be a confrontation.  Can you picture the bidding war that would occur today if a major multi-national announced that it was going to move its resources and whatever country was chosen, that company would become the second largest employer in the nation, defend the country against aggressors and take care of its employees in a paternal fashion? 

 

As negotiations on the subject were becoming more and more heated, Mount Pinatubo, a highly unstable, active volcano in the region had a serious case of indigestion and belched out lava and fumes at a furious pace.  That action inundated Clark Air Force Base and covered everything on it with ash, lava, and soot.  The United States took a look at the damage and determined that economically the airbase could not be salvaged and pulled up stakes in July of 1991.  This move shook up the Philippine Government, but being macho folks they told their people that it was the negotiator’s force of wills that had driven out the Americans, not the wrath of the volcano god.  The United States by this time had enough of Philippine chest thumping, so when General Fidel Ramos won the Philippine presidency in 1992 with an astounding 23 percent of the vote, the United States determined the country had ceased to have a rationally functioning government and began closing down the Subic Bay facility and pulling out of the Philippines.

 

A report issued by the Japan Economic Institute, written by Arthur J. Alexander, put the situation into perspective:

 

“Until 1992, the United States maintained naval, air and ground forces in the Philippines at America’s biggest overseas bases.  Economically, U.S. businesses often dominated local industries - for example, plantation-style agriculture, oil refining, pharmaceuticals and soap production.  Many American businesses were able to establish protected monopoly potions through the suppression of domestic competition, legal protection from imports and a cronyism that characterized much of postwar Philippine politics.  American bases, which brought enormous demand and dollars to the Philippine economy, exercised additional direct and indirect economic influence.  Each year, U.S. forces spent more than $500 million, including estimated off-base expenditures by 15,000 service personnel and 20,000 American civilian workers and their families.  The bases, directly and indirectly, employed an estimated 80,000 Filipinos.”

 

The country is somewhat of a democracy in that an elected President rules the Philippines to a greater or lesser degree.  This is a country in which the people in charge have been historically given the right to clean out the treasury, and thus large amounts are spent to fix elections at every level of government.   The current holder of the rights to the national treasury is an ex “B” movie star by the name of Estrada who has proudly maintained a lineage of graft and corruption that has plagued the country since its independence.  However, all previous leaders have shown some discretion about putting their hands in the till.  Even President Marcos, one of the world’s all time greatest second story men, only robbed the government when no one was looking.  This ex-movie hack has the sophistication of a frog and has gone about exposing every illegal and unethical act that he commits to anyone that has an interest in taking a look.  Until recently, he felt that his mandate from the people was so powerful that these kinds of activities would not be an obstacle, but this logic is now proving to be very faulty indeed.

 

Estrada is now facing impeachment for graft, corruption and general mismanagement.  Interestingly enough, because of his show business credentials, Estrada became president in spite of substantial opposition within the Catholic Church, a major force in this country.  The Church didn’t say a great deal about the fact that Estrada was a thief and they did not come down heavily on the fact that his movie career didn’t prepare him to govern one of the most populated countries on earth, but the Church expressed extreme concern with his sexual immorality, his consistent state of drunkenness and his persistent slurring of words when he talked.  In a sophisticated appeal to public morality, the Church indicated that if the man was not able to keep his fly zipped while making films, what on earth was going to happen to the country if he became its leader.

 

Estrada’s graft is highly steeped in Philippines historic tradition, and the alchemist that created the greatest cache of the precious metal owned by one individual in world history was the Philippines’ own Ferdinand Marcos, a petty crook who ascended to power through a combination of payoffs and threats. Marcos could have taught the Mobutu’s and Suharto’s of the world a thing or two about real theft, especially if you were talking about gold.  Not trusting cash, especially the Philippine variety, Marcos accumulated inconceivable gigantic hoards of the metal.  The Marcos family was sanguine over the stash, which they thought was safely out of harms way by being ensconced Swiss vaults.  However, an energized global neighborhood made it a mission to return assets stolen from innocent victims back to the rightful owners, whether it be victims of the holocaust or a national treasury that has been wiped clean by greedy officials.

 

His stash had become so legendary that it spawned a $9 billion fraud involving phony gold certificates purportedly guaranteed by the Marcos gold sitting in Swiss Banks.  Apparently, a group of counterfeiters attempted to borrow $7 billion on the hoard and were captured by a combination of Scotland Yard and Australian police when the entire deal unraveled.[4]  This illegal transaction caused a clamor even beyond its enormous size as Philippine Officials, who had been searching for the gold since before Marcos’ death in 1989 without success, thought they had finally hit pay dirt, only to find it only led to another blind alley.  When authorities questioned Imelda Marcos about her husband’s wealth, she carefully explained that her industrious husband was an accomplished treasure hunter and in 1966 had stumbled across the trove of gold buried by General Tomoyuki Uamasita, who was the commander of the forces occupying the Philippines when World War II ended.

 

She was just getting into gear and went on to say that from this auspicious start he started trading the metal and made vast fortunes.  Many people are convinced that this story is absolutely true;  however these people can only be found holding down plush non-working jobs in the Philippine Government.  Even if the forgoing fairy tale turns out to be true, it seems that the Japanese General may have caused more problems for the Marcos family than the gold was worth.  There was another resident of the Philippines who claimed in Hawaii Courts that the former president had lifted a life size golden Buddha, stuffed with a variety of fabulous goodies such as gold, diamonds rubies and pearls from his property.  This hoard was part of a treasure that was supposedly found in 1971, and for whatever their reasons, the court in Hawaii awarded the estate of this now deceased property owner the staggering sum of $22 billion in a judgment against Marcos.

 

Mrs. Marcos did not address the fact that, even if the story she had woven was true, the gold her husband had dug up was undoubtedly the property of the Philippines, and in any event, the country would want it back,  Furthermore, if the Philippines for some reason that escapes us at this juncture determined not to lay claim the gold, it would escheat to the Hawaiian estate.  She was non plused.

 

Those in the know put what they call the real lowdown into a more logical contest.  The Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) is an organization that got its marching orders over 10 years ago and was commissioned to find out what had happened to the Marcos’ wealth and to act as the national ombudsman on the subject.  The PCGG has been fighting an uphill battle ever since, with very little to show for their efforts, having garnered no convictions in spite of countless court battles charging various people with aiding and abetting the plundering of the Philippine Treasury that Marcos stood accused of doing.  Some critics have speculated that the courts have been well paid to rule in favor of Marcos’s cronies, and this scenario seems to be born out by the fact that most sitting judges are able to retire with great wealth soon after hearing a Marcos matter and deciding in favor of the defendant.

 

However, some real estate has been found and liquidated with little or no return, and another $600 million has been returned to the Philippine Treasure, almost an insignificant amount when compared with what was estimated to have been taken.  The PCGG alleges that the reason that they have had a dearth of convictions in the Marcos matter is the fact that there is no major trail of evidence.  It seems to be an incontrovertible fact that Marcos would stroll down to the Philippine Central Bank, in close proximity to his home in Manila and take a bag of gold home nearly every day.  Each time he had garnered enough of the pretty yellow stuff to fill a large plane, he would instruct his personal pilot take the gold to Switzerland and deposit it in an enormous vault.   Thus, they say, by taking a small amount at a time, he left very little trace.  The pilot, as with many others associated with the matter, has long since vanished, and efforts to find him over the years have proven fruitless. 

 

In 1993, then 63 year old, Imelda Marcos was sentenced to two, 9-to-12 year terms in jail on various corruption and graft cases involving both the stolen gold and for taking just about everything else that wasn’t bolted to the ground.  She lodged an appeal, and while awaiting the results of this appeal, in 1995 she was elected to Congress by a huge majority, after having been defeated in a presidential run in 1991.  The Philippine Supreme Court on January 28, 1998, determined that she was guilty on most counts and remanded her to spend serious downtime in prison.  On the other hand, the matter is not quite that simple, since she is still in Congress and Philippine Law prevents a person holding office to be convicted of this type of crime (they must have learned this one from the Russians, who have similar rules).  In addition we have her word for the fact that it was not graft, “but more a case of imaginative accounting which was designed only to build a modest hospital and not to benefit her personally.”[5]

 

But Imelda, now 69 years old, had an ace in the hole in the person of the newly anointed Philippine President Estrada, who arranged for the Philippine Supreme Court to overturn the 1993 verdict against her, 8 to 5 with one abstention, on the grounds that her trial was marked by irregularities that had violated her civil rights.   Marcos chanted, "A miracle made in heaven; now I am free to love again, to serve again."  This doesn’t necessarily clear the decks for Imelda, as she still faces a $22 billion judgment in Hawaii, a $5 million U. S. Income tax underpayment for the years 1986 to 1991, a number of other criminal and civil cases stemming from her ex-husbands days as ruler of the Philippines and President Estrada's claims that he is still going after the money she took.

 

Not only is she still in Congress, but also her son Ferdinand Jr. is now the Governor of Illocos Norte and her daughter Imee won the congressional seat from the same district, which not illogically turns out to the region from which their father had his power base.  Imelda, herself, a presidential candidate, withdrew in favor of the ultimate winner, Mr. Estrada (for which he expressed a great deal gratitude and continues to repay her kindness in every possible way).  All this will not bode badly for her when it comes to the burying of the Marcos Family’s problem once and for all.

 

In one of the first indications of what lay ahead, as Estrada was walking down the aisle of the Philippine Congress to be installed as President, he stopped when he saw Imelda and planted a kiss on her face.  Naturally, in spite of this, both Marcos and Estrada where horrified when accused of a deal having been struck.  Not that it is a matter of any importance at this point, but Ferdinand Jr., known affectionately by his intimates as “Bongbong,” has been convicted of tax evasion and is awaiting sentencing while his appeal is being heard (which now that he is governor may be redundant). 

 

Estrada was put into office by a loving electorate that were led to believe the fact that the chubby hero that they saw at the movies was a real life person who would led them from poverty.  His showing at the poles was an edict from the people allowing him to do anything that he needed to do to accomplish his mission.  Sadly for the people, his mission turned out to be picking their pockets.  Thus, Estrada in a blatant show of his manhood was able to follow this episode with an edict moving Ferdinand Marcos’ chemically preserved body from a mausoleum near the town of his birth to the prestigious Heroes Cemetery, where former presidents and war heroes are buried.  With the entire nation behind him, he can probably do what he wishes in this and just about anything else. Even the Church[6] has come around.  In the cold light of the morning, it appears that the Church seems to view the alternatives on the left as even worse, and Oscar Cruz, Archbishop and President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines says when talking about Estrada’s agenda on pork barrel, “All of us pray for him.  He must succeed.” 

 

Following on the heels of the announced change in Marcos’ resting place, “the government said it had recommended the Supreme Court overturn a 12-year jail term for graft against the dictator’s widow - who has remained free on bail - on a lack of evidence.”[7]  Solicitor General Romeo de le Cruz was brilliant in his oratory asking the Supreme Court to strike the case.  Imelda, upon hearing all of the good news, immediately headed out to the Heroes Cemetery to pick a pleasing section of land with a stellar view for her departed husband.  Frank Chavez, who was the Solicitor General who had prosecuted the graft case against Imelda was asked his opinion on this strange turn of events, and in an interview with Reuters he made one of the great quotes of the years: “The only problem in this country is you are presumed guilty until you are proven influential.”

 

Notwithstanding the above, Estrada had not yet taken the oath of office and Ramos, who was still President, began to feel that everyone was getting a bit pushy and apparently didn’t want his watch mucked up with dredging around in Marcos arena.  Ramos promptly sacked the ambitious and somewhat peripatetic de le Cruz, who had only been with the Government in a senior legal position since 1974.  Ramos who was annoyed no end and stated; “It does serve to indicate that the political will of this administration is weakening — that’s why I fired him. “

 

You may wonder how someone accused and convicted of stealing the country’s crown jewels can be found not only holding one of the highest offices in the land, but until very recently, the lady was running again for the Philippines Presidency.  Holding office in the Philippines, the wild west of democracies, seems to be open to anyone with a couple of dollars in their pockets.  Local and national politicians could teach Chicago and New York’s Tammany Hall professionals a thing or two about getting candidates elected.  South of Manila there stands a small frame two bedroom home in which amazingly over 2,000 people are registered to vote.  One of the residents was also registered in 10 other precincts as well.  The old “take the name off the tombstone at the cemetery” gets major play in the Philippines.  Armed with a list of deceased people, “flying voters” are brought in that vote in as many locations as they can get to while the polls are open, either under their own names or ”given names,” which they are given as they enter the polling place.

 

Reuters in a story on voting in the Philippines on May 5th, 1998, pointed out a couple of extraordinary maneuvers: “A favorite trick is to snatch the ballot boxes and substitute them with boxes of manufactured ballots.  If all types of public transportation happen to disappear in your town on Election Day, chances are your opponent has cornered all the vehicles in order to prevent your supporters from voting for you.”   Additionally, Reuters pointed out how inflation has effected elections in the Philippines: in 1992, a vote cost 100 pesos to buy, but in the election just ahead, the rate has soared to between 300 and 500 pesos, and in subsequent elections a vote could run up to $10.  During the 1998 campaign, candidate Miriam Defensor-Santiago of the People’s Reform Party stated that the price of a single vote had escalated to between “1,000 and 2,000 pesos, and a entire family now brings 7,000 pesos at the polls.”  She has claimed that Estrada’s party has purchased votes using four to five billion pesos.  

 

But the story doesn’t stop there; coercion by murder is also very common.  There is nothing that is more convincing that murdering someone to get them to toe the line.  A gruesome, but intriguing, story is the one concerning the local mayor who was having breakfast and did not notice fifteen armed men surrounding his house.  They ultimately opened fire and killed him, but neighbors heard the noise and rushed out to see what had happened and they were also cut down by the thugs hired by the opposition party.  Reuters indicates that things might be getting a tad better, because there have only been 40 political murders in the most recent election, compared to 53 in 1995 and 60 in 1992.  Yet, at last count there were still a number of days left before the election to equal or better the ’92 record, and informed sources have indicated there will be substantial push in the outlying areas to attempt to overturn of the old mark. 

 

Joseph “Erap”[8] Estrada, who ultimately won the election by the biggest landslide in Philippine history for a free election,[9] drew lightening wherever he went.[10]   A college drop-out and then a movie star grown paunchy, who lacks even a modicum of his former charisma, and because of a serious slur gives the impression of being drunk even when he wakes up in the morning, is a true people’s candidate.  Bizarrely, he indicates that the slurring is more a function of doing imitations for so many years that he got stuck with the act.  However, many feel that his speech impediment is a result of taking too much sauce just before appearing in public.  He dropped out of college and dresses in jeans.  Moreover, he is a womanizer of Clinton-like proportions and is a man totally devoid of any of the requisite tools that normally accompany a personage running for the land’s highest office.

 

Taking all of his qualifications in context and analyzing the Catholic Archbishop “Sin’s” statement that Estrada was unfit to govern, one would think that would be enough to do in the poor man.   After all other than the southern Muslim-dominated islands, the country is over 100% Catholic and Sin is a powerful voice for the Church.   But no, the people spoke and told the Church to stay out of politics, and they would see that Estrada stayed out of Church.  Well Bunkie, he beat the second leading candidate by 58% and for a time became more popular every day as people began comparing him to his opposition, who were about as exciting as a tea party thrown by the abstinence committee


[1] Ray’s List of Weird and Disgusting Foods, with assistance from Dick Francis and Elizabeth Allyn Ramirez.

[2] Japan Economic Institute Report, October 8, 1993, Arthur J. Alexander.

[3] Japan Economic Institute Report, October 8, 1993, Arthur J. Alexander.

[4] Reuters, 12/22/97.

[5] Reuters, 2/18/97.

[6] Which had violently opposed his election

[7] Reuters, 6/3/98

[8] His nickname, which means pal in Philippine. Actually it is somewhat more complex, you must spell Erap backward to get the true interpretation.

[9] He had approximately 10.6 million votes, as opposed to his nearest competitor with 4.3 million.

[10] Marcos did better, but that was under marshal law.

 

 

 

 

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