Sometime in the late 1950s, the American scholar, John Provinse, made me an unusual offer. He had read my articles on agrarian reform and my short stories. He offered me a fellowship to live in Tondo for a year, after which I would then write about my experiences there. He gave me a copy of the book, "The Children of Sanchez" by Oscar Lewis, about the author’s life in a Mexican slum. It was at the time the most insightful exposition on poverty.
Today, poverty is a global phenomenon afflicting millions, including many Filipinos who eat only once a day. Our foremost sociologists, Mary Racelis, F. Landa Jocano, and Aprodicio Laquian, have studied this condition assiduously, analyzing its causes and why it persists.
Many Philippine scholars with PhDs from foreign universities are almost always middle class. They bring with them their social bias in their analysis of lower-class conditions. Most of the time, however, they are correct in their assessments of Filipino poverty, how it is often bred culturally.
Those who were born or grew up in the slums have firsthand knowledge of poverty. How do the very poor think about themselves? What is their world view? What is the plebian mind? To paraphrase Marx, the scholars have defined poverty, the problem is how to banish it.
I was unable to accept Provinse’s offer. I had to leave Manila to work with the Colombo Plan in Sri Lanka. But when I returned two years later, I was able to go to Tondo and I got to know the people in Barrio Magsaysay.
I started Sakap, an NGO, whose major purpose was to help Manila’s out-of-school youth. It was composed of Fr. Angel Senden, Justice Jose Feria, Dr. Angelita Guanson, Jose Apostol, Tony Enchausti, and myself.
I SELECTED BARRIO MAGSAYSAY primarily because I had been introduced to the place earlier by Walter Turner, a Peace Corps volunteer. Barrio Magsaysay is part of the foreshore land that was reclaimed for port development after the war. That never happened. Almost immediately, refugees from impoverished rural areas flocked to it.
The place was dismal and foul-smelling, without sewage or running water. The barong barongs were made of construction debris and cheap flammable materials. It was in one of these sorry constructions that I set up a book binding shop. I obtained obsolescent binding equipment from printer friends like the late Alberto Benipayo, UNESCO sent an Italian book binding expert, and I persuaded librarians in Manila to patronize Sakap. At its time, Sakap was able to train 20 Tondo youths and give them jobs.
I really paid attention to the project. I often took the young binders to see the world outside Barrio Magsaysay and Manila. One time, I brought them to a Makati supermarket. They were very surprised that the goods there were much cheaper than those sold in Tondo sari sari stores. I also told them I was born very poor, that I worked my way through college.
After a year or so with Sakap, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the Solidaridad complex that I had set up, and was also writing less. I decided to withdraw from the shop and turned it over to the workers to manage. This was when its deterioration started. In a couple of years, it was closed.
Inefficiency, nepotism, corruption, and ethnicity destroyed it. I asked the experts why it collapsed. Their answer — the workers had no stake in it. But was it really necessary? Didn’t they know that it was the source of their livelihood?
Years afterwards, I asked the youths who had worked in the shop what happened. I knew they knew. They said they felt no sense of belonging, of community. A couple of them had thought I was going to run for public office, for councilor perhaps, and the reason I was good to them.
But my Barrio Magsaysay experience was not totally wasted. Much of “Mass," the last of the five novels in my Rosales Saga, is set in the Barrio.
I HAD SLOWLY REALIZED that the people of Barrio Magsaysay were no different from the residents of Barrio Cabugawan, the Ilokano farming village where I was born and where I grew up. In both and, in fact, all over the country, the very poor are not concerned with high and ghostly matters. Their most important priority is the search for food. Their values are conditioned by this primal need. Pragmatism, pakikisama, ingratiation dictate their actions, condition their thinking. Religion is a mix of piety and superstition. Freedom as most of us know it means little to them.
Shortly after Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I visited Barrio Magsaysay. They were all very happy. The gangsters who preyed on them were gone. They had peace and security to pursue their old miserable lives.
Corruption in high places -- they knew it was there but the candidates were popular and some had even done them personal favors. In any case, their poverty was not permanent because God always provides. Bahala na -- so they get in debt to celebrate lavishly on baptisms and weddings.
Slum dwellers vary. For many the slum is just a way station. The greener grass abroad attracts, so they leave. When they become politicians, they take pride in their plebian past. Do they ever blame anyone for their poverty? Some do although it is difficult for them to condemn the rich whom they elevated to power with their votes.
There is no real consciousness of class among them. Only those who have left the slums intellectually can do that. And those who do also know that the greater injustice in this unhappy country is not theirs. Our greatest problem is not the physical poverty of the poor but the poverty of the spirit among the very rich who, in the end, by their greed and callousness, are the real perpetrators of poverty itself.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 16, 2019
I mentioned in one of my columns recently what the Singaporean historian Wong Linken said, that Southeast Asia was better ruled by colonialists because their governments were far more efficient. Indeed, this is perhaps one legacy of the colonial powers. There was a time when Indians were very proud of their British-created bureaucracy. Yet British colonial legacy also included land mines, which remain the source of so much tension today. Kashmir, for instance, and Palestine, and for us Sabah.
One can look at colonialism from the perspective of the lowest sector of our economy. I remember Aling Nene, our laundrywoman. She overheard many discussions on colonialism between myself and our guests at home. At one time, after they had left, she told me that under the Spaniards they were poor, under the Japanese they were still poor, and under the Americans they were even poorer. And so she concluded, if the Chinese colonize us, we might have a better life.
I think that is about to happen if it has not already, with 70 percent of our economy in the hands of ethnic Chinese. China has a professed policy of using overseas Chinese to support their hegemony. Today, a flood of Chinese “workers” are now in the country.
Colonialism is certainly not a new phenomenon. It has existed through history, when tribes became nations and once they became powerful they enslaved the weak. The laws the old imperial countries formulated were, however, not shaped by them. They were first shaped by religion, by beliefs in the supernatural, which were institutionalized in the rituals, taboos, and codes of conduct that were later codified by leaders like Cicero for the Romans, Solon for the Greeks, and much, much earlier, in the Christian tradition, God’s ten commandments were given to Moses to pass on to the Jewish people.
It is, therefore, not unusual that imperial nations in the past, like Spain, advanced their frontiers to encompass half of the world with the avowed purpose of spreading Christianity, never mind the atrocities of the conquistadores in Latin America, never mind the slave trade that the Europeans and the United States pursued. When the Moros pillaged the Christian regions of the country during the Spanish regime, they did it not to spread Islam but to make slaves of the people they kidnapped.
MODERN SLAVERY TODAY has taken on new and different forms. No longer are the slaves today in chains or sold at will. In many instances, they even love their enslavement because they are freed from hunger and, most of all, from making those personal decisions that require thinking. In some instances, they even have the freedom to elect their leaders the way slaves in ancient Greece and ancient Rome could not. Modern imperialism continues to spread all over the world, in which slaves are mesmerized by the many pleasures of commercialism, unaware that they have lost their capacity to think independently and to be free.
The trafficking of people across porous borders and open waters is global, and so is the legal movement of slaves otherwise known as overseas workers. But the most onerous form of colonialism today is domestic in nature, when a nation’s elite colonizes its own people and that nation ceases to be a home because it has been willfully transformed into a prison. Many Filipinos are sorry victims of both phenomena.
The compulsion to excel and to conquer is only too human, and it must be ennobled with deceptive gilding when it simply means, in its crudest terms, the search for slaves, for raw materials, for markets. Its logic through the centuries has never changed — the immoral exploitation of the weak by the strong
By whatever color or creed, sometimes the colonizer succeeds. Maybe, they had come to believe their own slogans or had gloved their claws with velvet. The colonizer gets the colonized to love them, to defend them even to the death. Alas, this is the abject description of some Filipinos.
CHINA TODAY in its ascendancy, is utilizing the latest developments in technology to watch its millions, to condition their thinking. Those in the west who think that China’s economic development will bring liberalization and democracy to its people are engaged in wishful thinking.
China today is very harsh with its Muslim minorities and with those intellectuals who stray from the Communist Party line. Western China scholars should not be surprised; China has never really been democratic. It has always been ruled by warlords and despots.
For all its great advances in the arts and sciences, China’s civilization was never “Western,” for which reason Mao stands out as China’s foremost modernizer. For sure, he made many mistakes, among them the cultural revolution and the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s that killed millions. But Mao unified China and created a Communist Party that has become the bureaucratic bedrock of China today. The Communist Party holds China together and is also the motive power that propels China’s imperial ambition. The mandate of heaven has morphed into the mandate of Marx.
A bestselling book, When China Rules the World, recounts Chinese history, how the country grew powerful from the puny divided nation that it once was. It traces China’s imperial reach to today, when the United States, the only country that can obstruct this ascent, is in decline.
We have seen in recent times the demise of the Soviet Union primarily because of internal contradictions. Mao himself and China today are full of contradictions. But it is precisely these contradictions and their pragmatism that have enabled the Chinese to progress. As one Chinese scholar said, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was like fire that tempered steel; it had taught them so much and, instead of crippling their society, it has made them stronger, more purposeful, to be what they are today.
We may look at Chinese imperialism as a challenge. How we will face it and how we relate to China will determine our destiny.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 9, 2019
I was asked to speak at a gathering of Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, “Spirit Lives On,” to celebrate President Magsaysay’s birth anniversary. This is my recollection of the man and his times.
Ramon Magsaysay was born on August 31, 1907, and I was born 17 years later. I knew personally both President Magsaysay and President Quirino, who appointed him National Defense Secretary in 1950.
I think there was a special bond between the two because they were both Ilokanos. I spoke with them in Ilokano. I remember Magsaysay’s aides very well -- Lt. Joe Guerrero, Major Pat Garcia, Major Jose Crisol, and Colonel Angeles. I was very interested in Magsaysay because he championed agrarian reform, which was my basic interest.
Many in my generation were leftists in the sense that we were pro-communist. I never became a communist although I read Das Kapital in college to find out what communism was all about. Don’t try to do the same because it is difficult reading. I cannot remember much of it except for some of Marx’s conclusions. He believed in a classless society, that the state will wither away.
Before him, of course, the anarchists (the political philosophy) aspired for almost the same goals. If you read Rizal carefully, you will find that he was an anarchist.
Magsaysay came to power at the start of the Cold War. The Soviets held Europe hostage and Mao had united China. In this global turmoil, the United States was perceived as the free world’s savior. Magsaysay was ours.
He knew firsthand the harshness of peasant life, when he was a guerilla leader during the Japanese Occupation. I suspect he had at this time already met the Huks for he sympathized with their aspirations for social justice.
In 1949, the Huks had gathered enough strength to overthrow the government. To counter this, Magsaysay revitalized not just the army but also the government itself. I am almost positive that when the Huk leader, Luis Taruc, surrendered, Magsaysay would not have imprisoned him had the Americans, fearing the growing communist threat, not pressured him.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW the political structure of our country, the wielders of power. From the 1940s until 1972, when Marcos declared Martial Law, the most powerful economic bloc in the country was the sugar bloc. Its largesse came from the United States, with the Most Favored Nation sugar quota given to the bloc every year. For those who don’t know about this largesse, let me explain it briefly.
The United States has commodity agreements with favored countries. If the world price of sugar is ten pesos per kilo the United States adds another ten pesos which is, of course, paid by American consumers. The sugar lobby made the sugar quota a national interest and every Philippine ambassador to the United States, selected by the sugar bloc, had one major job: to keep the quota and enlarge it.
It is the United States that created the sugar oligarchy, which was then destroyed by Marcos. This oligarchy determined who would be President. Ramon Magsaysay was not a creation of the oligarchy. He was a genuine creation of the Filipino people, with some assistance from the United States. It goes without saying therefore that he owed us and also the Americans a debt of gratitude.
In a sense, Magsaysay changed our political culture. The earlier politicians who ran for the presidency or other high offices usually depended on their political leaders in the provinces to campaign for them. Magsaysay changed that by going to the people himself.
He was a brilliant speaker and people listened raptly to him. His delivery was conversational and he always couched the most pithy matters in a language the people understood. Unless it was an important announcement that he had to make, almost always his speeches were extemporaneous.
Magsaysay was a populist in the noblest sense of the term. He believed that social justice for the poor was doable with a clean government. When riled by doubts and challenges that required unusual solutions, he always asked what the people in Plaza Miranda would say. Plaza Miranda in Quiapo was at the time the venue for the largest political rallies in the country.
Magsaysay had no intellectual pretensions. He surrounded himself with the best brains at the time, Manny Pelaez, Raul Manglapus, Rafael Salas, and Manny Manahan.
He had enemies. I had a feeling that if he had not died in that plane crash, he would have started a new political party.
HE WAS ABSOLUTELY HONEST Manny Manahan told me how Magsaysay gathered all his relatives including his aged parents in Castellejos, and in front of them told Manahan that if anyone of them broke the law he should imprison them. Manny recounted how he was so embarrassed.
When Magsaysay died, his family did not have a house to go to. Francisco Ortigas donated a lot in Mandaluyong to his family, and the stevedores at the piers donated the tiles for its roof.
The people loved Magsaysay. Crowds wept openly during his funeral procession. Unfortunately, almost immediately after he died corruption was back. I’ve always wondered why President Garcia was not able to continue Magsaysay’s legacy – perhaps it was because his loyalty was to the sugar bloc.
Today we have a different oligarchy. It is now no longer dominated by Filipino mestizos but by Filipino Chinese who, unlike the sugar oligarchy, seem to be interested only in making money and shun partisan politics. But whatever its nature and composition, the oligarchy continues to be the biggest threat to the freedom and prosperity of the common tao.
We were 30 million in Magsaysay’s time, we are 105 million now. Magsaysay’s populist appeal has been likened to Duterte’s. But I have lived long enough to experience several regimes, starting with Quezon. I can say with all conviction that Magsaysay remains to be the best President this unhappy country has ever had.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 2, 2019