Meralco rate hikes, prepaid electricity and neoliberal “users pay”

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Photo from GMA News Online

First published as IBON Features

The February rate hike of Php0.92 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) that the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced is actually just the initial strike. In March, the unfortunate public should expect an even stronger blow from the utility giant as another rate hike of as much as Php1.44 per kWh looms.

Meralco has a simple solution for consumers who find it hard to cope with their ever-increasing monthly electricity bills. Go prepaid and supposedly save up to 20% in consumption. About 40,000 customers are already using Meralco’s prepaid system called Kuryente Load (KLoad). By yearend, Meralco expects to add 100,000 more.

But the basic question is – how can customers save amid the staggering rate increases? The answer is – they can’t. But with prepaid electricity, as the Energy Department once said, consumers will “not unnecessarily spend for what they cannot afford”. Put another way – If you can’t afford electricity, then don’t use it.

Indeed, looking past Meralco’s dodgy claim, KLoad is nothing more than the worst form of the neoliberal tenet “users pay”. It merely passes on the burden of high power rates further to the consumers. It also deepens the exclusion of the poor from access to electricity as a basic service and their right to decent living.

How it works

KLoad was pilot tested in 2013 and commercially rolled out in 2015. To use it, a customer must have Meralco’s “intelligent” meter installed first and register a mobile number for the account. Through SMS (‘text’) using the registered mobile number, the user can load KLoad cards worth as low as Php100 and as high as Php1,000.

The user will receive a text message confirming that the amount has been loaded successfully to his or her account. KLoad also lets users receive text notifications on the account’s remaining balance, low load reminder, and rate adjustments. Like prepaid cards for mobile, KLoad cards can be bought even at retail stores.

For Filipinos who have long been accustomed to prepaid mobile service, KLoad is pretty easy to grasp. In fact, it is this familiarity with and preference for prepaid mobile that Meralco banks on for its KLoad. Saddled with tight budget, most Filipinos use prepaid mobile to control spending.

Lack of a steady income, in fact, forces many to buy in tingi not just mobile credits but most of their daily needs – from shampoo to 3-in-1 coffee. The same concept supposedly applies to prepaid electricity.

The problem is it’s not quite the case.

Rising power rates

Under the KLoad system, retail rates will be the same as the effective postpaid rate at the particular month the load was consumed. Unconsumed credits in a given month will be charged with prevailing rates in the following month.

Unlike in prepaid mobile and other consumer goods where charges are more or less predictable, electricity rates vary monthly (often upwards). The reason is deregulation under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (Epira), which allows automatic adjustments in the generation charge and other periodic adjustments.

The fluctuating rates make it difficult for a household to effectively monitor and regulate their consumption, and accordingly plan their use of electricity based on prepaid credits.

But far more crucially, the ever-increasing power rates will offset efforts by a household to cut their electricity bill even when they shift to KLoad. No matter how much kilowatt-hour that a household tries to reduce in their consumption, the end result is still an exorbitant electricity bill.

Meralco’s own commissioned survey in 2016 shows that its rates are the third highest in Asia. An average Meralco customer is also paying 4.5% of their disposable income for electricity, higher than the global average of 3.9 percent.

Aside from deregulating rates, Epira also privatized the country’s power plants. In Luzon where Meralco operates, just three groups (i.e., San Miguel, Lopez, and Aboitiz) control 70% of power generation. Such tremendous control makes alleged collusion and price rigging easier like during power plant shutdowns that lead to rate spikes.

The whopping rate hike of up to Php1.44 per kWh that Meralco advised its customers to expect in March, for instance, is due to Malampaya maintenance shutdown from 28 January to 16 February. Other power plants will also be on maintenance shutdown on 13-17 February, placing more pressure on power supply and rates.

Anti-consumer, anti-poor

Instead of addressing these policy issues, the onus of coping with rising electricity costs is further passed on to hapless consumers under the prepaid system. With KLoad, no prepaid credits, no electricity. Disconnection is automatic, done remotely by Meralco. It’s that straightforward and heartless.

Through remote and automatic disconnection when credits run out, KLoad violates the rights of Meralco customers as outlined in the Magna Carta for Residential Electricity Consumers. These rights include the right to due process and notice prior to disconnection and suspension of disconnection.

Prepaid customers are supposed to be notified via text three days before the remaining load is estimated to run out. The warning shall be based on the average consumption of the household. But what if the household used more electricity than their average consumption and depleted the load in two days instead of three?

KLoad primarily targets poor communities where collection of monthly bill is problematic and illegal connection is prevalent. A prepaid system for these households ensures that bills are paid to and collected by Meralco. As explained by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), prepaid electricity reduces pilferage and improves collection efficiency and cash flow for distribution utilities.

Meralco has an existing partnership with the National Housing Authority (NHA) to provide KLoad service to urban poor families resettled from waterways and danger areas in Metro Manila. Recently, in a Tondo slum, Meralco installed KLoad for former Smokey Mountain residents.

Notably, prepaid system is among the supposed best approaches to slum electrification that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) endorsed in its 2004 study that also included Meralco as one of the cases.

Affront to decent living

KLoad is part of the long-term plan of Meralco to install the so-called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – an integrated system of intelligent meters – in its franchise area. The AMI will allow Meralco to, among others, remotely switch on and off the supply of electricity not only to prepaid customers but also those with regular connection.

Access to electricity is needed to achieve the minimum standard of decent living. Thus, it should not be contingent upon the ability of people to pay and must be a basic right guaranteed by the state. KLoad and Meralco’s remote and automatic disconnection system is a blatant affront to this right.

KLoad will set a worrisome precedent if not questioned and opposed. It is prepaid electricity today. Prepaid water soon? ###

Also read “Prepaid electricity, anyone?” and other articles on the Philippine power industry

Duterte’s Defense chief, US imperialism’s reliable point man

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Photo from Rappler

It is fitting that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made the first public declaration of the Duterte regime’s all-out war against the New People’s Army (NPA).

Duterte’s termination of the peace talks, after all, is the culmination of the military and security establishment’s relentless campaign to undermine the peace efforts by the NPA, Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Amid the peace negotiations and indefinite unilateral ceasefire separately declared by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the NPA, the AFP under the executive supervision of the Defense Secretary, occupied some 500 barrios nationwide and pursued combat operations against the NPA.

Apparently meant to provoke the NPA, Lorenzana has actively spread the propaganda that these combat operations are anti-criminality initiatives of the police, assisted by the AFP, against supposed lawless elements.

In addition, it can also be assumed that it was the defense and military establishment headed by Lorenzana that convinced Duterte to renege on his earlier commitments to release the political prisoners.

The increasingly untenable unilateral ceasefire and issue of political prisoners proved to be the really thorny issues in the peace talks from the onset until its eventual termination by Duterte.

The role and agenda of Lorenzana in sabotaging the peace talks – which based on the last joint statement of the NDFP and government panels were moving positively overall and faster than expected despite the contentious issues – is better understood by exposing what is at stake for US imperialism and the latter’s ties with Duterte’s Defense chief.

For all the scathing remarks of Duterte against former US President Barack Obama and the independent foreign policy rhetoric, the volatile President isn’t the biggest foe of US imperialism in the Philippines. It is still the CPP-NPA-NDFP, and its revolution for national democracy and sovereignty that the US and its string of trusty puppet regimes have failed to defeat in the past 48 years.

A successful peace agreement with the revolutionary groups would seriously impair US imperialism’s strategic political, military and economic interests in the country and region. At a time of prolonged global monopoly capitalist crisis, rise of China and its strengthening alliance with Russia, and America’s own uncertainties under a Trump regime, it is crucial for US imperialism to protect its dominant position in its neo-colonies like the Philippines.

And here comes Lorenzana, a retired Philippine Army General, as US imperialism’s reliable point man.

For most part of the past two decades, Lorenzana was based in Washington DC. He was the Philippines’ defense and armed forces attaché from 2002 to 2004 and special representative for veterans’ affairs from 2004 to 2015. (Read Lorenzana’s profile on the Defense department’s website)

Among his tasks was to supervise and monitor the bilateral military relations between the Philippines and the US. It covers the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), military exercises, military aid, training, and foreign military sales.

Lorenzana was among those who developed the terms of reference (TOR) for the Balikatan exercises in 2002. That TOR was the first in Balikatan history that allowed US involvement in domestic combat operations.

The US State Department trained Lorenzana on crisis management. The US Armed Forces bestowed on him the Legion of Merit, a military honor for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements”.

It’s not only in the peace talks with the CPP-NPA-NDFP that Lorenzana capably played his role as US imperialism’s point man. Remember how he tempered Duterte’s tirades against the US and threats of rescinding the VFA and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and stopping the military exercises with the US?

Now, we ended up with the US building military facilities inside agreed locations under the EDCA as announced recently by Lorenzana, of course, as well as 258 joint exercises with the US military this year under the VFA.

But it is important to stress that Lorenzana’s key role in promoting the interests of US imperialism does not absolve President Duterte of accountability in the scuttled peace talks and the continuing US military presence and intervention. As President, the ultimate and biggest accountability still rests on him.

By Lorenzana’s own account, he and the President first became close when he was assigned in Davao in the late 1980s to lead counterinsurgency operations against the NPA. A product of that stint of Lorenzana in Davao was State sponsorship of the anti-communist vigilante group Alsa Masa, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU).

That all-out war obviously did not result in the decisive downfall of the NPA, only in the breakdown of human rights and rule of law. ###

CPP founding anniversary: Peace talks is Duterte’s best option against 48-year old insurgency

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Photo by Southern Tagalog Exposure

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) warned the Duterte administration that it may be forced to soon withdraw its declared unilateral ceasefire amid the continuing armed operations of the military and unfulfilled commitment of the President to release all political prisoners. The CPP made the statement as it marks the 48th anniversary of its establishment today, December 26. (Read here)

About half a million Filipinos in more than 500 barrios nationwide are affected by military presence and alleged human rights atrocities and repression after units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) occupied their areas, in violation of the military’s own unilateral truce and apparently taking advantage of the rebel-declared ceasefire. Meanwhile, some 400 political prisoners remain in detention in various jails around the country.

One week after becoming the clear winner of the 2016 presidential polls, President Rodrigo Duterte said he would seek general amnesty for all political prisoners. The move was seen as a confidence-building measure in pursuing peace talks with the CPP, its political arm the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and its armed unit New People’s Army (NPA). (Watch here)

Before Duterte’s official inauguration last June, his then incoming Labor chief and peace panel chair also said that the new government would release political prisoners covered by the Joint Agreement on Security and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) even before a general amnesty is granted. Also to be released early supposedly are the elderly and sick on humanitarian reasons. (Read here) The JASIG is a 1995 agreement produced by the peace talks between the NDFP and the then Ramos administration. It prohibits the state from arresting or persecuting rebels who are participating in the negotiations as NDFP consultants. (Read here) Just early this month, Duterte reportedly again committed the release of 165 elderly and sick political prisoners during a meeting in Davao City with top NDFP officials. (Read here)

But now six months into his presidency, only one political prisoner has been released through presidential pardon under Duterte. No detainee has been freed because of JASIG or for humanitarian grounds, much less through general amnesty, with one elderly and sick political prisoner already succumbing to poor health. The 19 NDFP peace talks consultants were temporarily released on bail while another 21 political prisoners won their cases in courts or availed of legal remedies. Further, 15 new political prisoners were illegally arrested and detained since Duterte became President. (Read here)

Meanwhile, despite its own declaration of ceasefire, the AFP continues to militarize the rural areas and to conduct armed and intelligence operations, the CPP claims. The notorious Oplan Bayanihan, according to reports, will not be discontinued by the Duterte administration but will even intensify albeit with “minor additions” in the light of the ongoing peace talks. (Read here) Duterte’s appointment of the controversial and alleged human rights violator General Eduardo Año as the new AFP chief also signals that the anti-communist counterinsurgency campaign targeting the civil and political rights of civilians, including through extrajudicial killings of activists, will remain. (Read here)

It seems that instead of creating a more conducive environment for the peace talks, the Duterte administration is making it even more difficult for the already complicated negotiation on social and economic reforms – the agenda in the upcoming round of talks – to succeed. Coupled with its repressive and bloody drug war that targets the poor and powerless, avowed commitment to continue the neoliberal economic policies that impoverish the people, and role in completing the political comeback of the despised Marcoses, the Duterte administration is in fact creating conditions for greater social conflict and unrest.

The NPA ceasefire, which at more than 100 days is now the longest in its almost five-decade existence, shows the eagerness of the revolutionary groups to negotiate a peace agreement with Duterte that will address the roots of what is essentially a civil war being waged by landless peasants and other oppressed and exploited classes in Philippine society. Despite flip-flopping on his earlier commitments on a general amnesty for all political detainees and the release of those who are elderly and sick, the NDFP still expressed willingness to discuss Duterte’s call for a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

Duterte should not throw away this opportunity. For almost five decades, six regimes with support from the world’s richest economy and most powerful military, the US, have used brutal dictatorship and all-out war, ruthless extrajudicial methods as well as treacherous propaganda to end the civil war, but to no avail.

Despite being up against the formidable machinery and resources of the state and its imperialist backers, the NPA today, under CPP leadership, is said to operate in more than 70 provinces covering hundreds of municipalities and thousands of barangays nationwide and can supposedly move freely in 80% of Philippine territory – a claim bolstered by its string of successful tactical offensives in recent years. (Read here) Indeed, it appears that the negotiating table is the Duterte administration’s best option against the longest running and most resilient insurgency in the region. ###

Paano linisin ang dinungisang dingding ng Embahada ng Kano?

Una, palambutin ng usok ang pinturang nanigas
Maghagis ng tear gas.

Pangalawa, banlawan ng water cannon
Hanggang kumupas ang pula.

Para sa natitirang mantsa,
Manghablot ng mga katutubo
Kahit sino, kahit ilan
Pero tandaang mas marami, mas mainam.

Pagkatapos ay hambalusin
Kahit saan tamaan
Basta tandaang mas marahas, mas mainam.

Pagkatapos ay sagasaan
Tulad ng kung paanong patagin ng dambuhalang gulong
Ng mga minahan at plantasyon
Ang kanilang mga gubat at lupain,
Kultura at tradisyon.

Panghuli,
Kunin ang dugong nanikit sa truncheon at gulong
Ikuskos nang mabuti at mariin
Sa nadumihang dingding
Ng himpilan ng among dayuhan.

Huwag kalilimutang
Maghugas ng kamay.

US aid and imperialism

For daring the US and others to withdraw their aid, President Rodrigo Duterte has been called a “psychopath”. For those whose way of thinking has been systematically warped by colonialism and neocolonialism/imperialism, it is plain madness. As a poor country, why would we shun the “altruism” of rich countries like the US?

On the contrary, the US would rather not stop its aid program here. Since our nominal independence from the US’s colonial rule 70 years ago, patronage through economic and military aid has been a key component of enduring US imperialist domination and plunder of the Philippines.

Beyond altruism

Data from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) show that from 2001 to 2014, total economic aid to the Philippines reached more than US$1.94 billion (in current prices). Total military aid during the same period reached almost US$566.11 million. That’s a combined US$2.51 billion in 14 years. Annually, the US disbursed US$138.95 million in economic aid and US$40.44 million in military aid or a combined $179.39 million every year from 2001 to 2014.

For 2015, preliminary USAID data show that the US disbursed $180.62 million in economic aid. There’s no 2015 data yet on military aid from the USAID online database. Reports, however, say that US military assistance for the Philippines was about US$50 million last year that will reportedly rise to US$79 million in 2016, on top of another US$42 million from the new US-Southeast Asia Maritime Initiative.

Further, note that US assistance to the Philippines has grown quite substantially under President Barack Obama and his declared US pivot to Asia. From 2010 to 2014, US economic aid increased by almost 15% in real terms annually. Military aid grew by almost 8% a year during the same period.

(US economic and military aid data since 1946 can be generated from USAID’s reports & data)

And we’re counting just the bilateral aid from the US. The US is also a major contributor to multilateral bodies like the World Bank and agencies of the United Nations (UN), which provide development aid to the Philippines as well.

That’s a lot of aid money that Duterte would be foregoing if the he will really spurn American patronage.

But as mentioned, there’s more to foreign aid than the simple altruism of donors. Aid, especially US aid, is used not for development cooperation but to advance the interests and agenda of the donor and deepen their patron-client relationship with the aid recipient. It is an effective neocolonial tool to foster continued dependence and subservience, and steer domestic policy making in directions that the donor wants. Lastly, aid is also a means for the US to directly create profit-making opportunities for their transnational corporations (TNCs).

Education, health, disaster relief

Remember how the US used the public education system as an integral part of their colonization campaign in the Philippines? It was far more successful in making Filipinos subservient to the colonizers than using purely military might. Colonial education was so effective that many Filipinos could not imagine life without the US. Just look at the reaction to Duterte’s stance on independent foreign policy.

It continues to this day through, among others, the use of foreign assistance. Classified by purpose, the largest bilateral US aid disbursed to the Philippines in 2015 was in Primary Education at US$25.33 million. Almost half of this amount, US$12.49 million, went to the Basa Pilipinas project of the USAID. Through this project, the US develops and distributes teaching and learning materials, English books and reading materials, etc. for local teachers to use for their Grades 1-3 pupils. Another US$5.35 million in US aid was also disbursed for Higher Education in 2015. (See Chart 1)

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The second biggest chunk of US aid disbursement last year went to Material Relief Assistance and Services with US$20.37 million. They also disbursed US$3.84 million for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness; US$1.92 million for Emergency Food Aid; and more than US$1 million for Relief Coordination, Protection and Support Services.

The US has been using disaster relief to justify and expand their military presence in disaster-prone countries like the Philippines. The controversial Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), for instance, was justified using the pretext of humanitarian aid and disaster relief. American troops can base in military facilities here so they can preposition not just their weapons and war machines but also “humanitarian relief supplies”. (Read for instance, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement on EDCA made last July 2016)

Family Planning also traditionally gets a big portion of US aid with disbursement reaching US$17.08 million in 2015. Related sectors also got significant amounts such as Reproductive Health Care (US$3.94 million) and Population Policy and Administrative Management (US$0.43 million).

Population control has long been a strategy of US imperialism in the Philippines. In 1974, the USAID and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), among others, produced the “Kissinger Report”. It said that population growth threatens US access to the natural resources of poor countries. A large population of youth must also be controlled because they are most likely to challenge US imperialism. The Philippines is one of 13 countries identified in the Kissinger Report as primary targets of US-led population control efforts.

Public health is another major sector that the US has been long supporting in the country. In 2015, the US disbursed US$16.04 million in aid for Tuberculosis Control and more than US$0.90 million for STD Control including HIV/AIDS. A productive and efficient (and, of course, cheap) labor force is one of the primary resources that US imperialism exploits for super profits. Control of infectious diseases like TB and AIDS helps ensure an efficient workforce, which poor countries with weak public health systems due to imperialist plunder and underdevelopment could not afford

Plus, big US pharmaceutical companies that have monopoly over patented drugs used in these health programs are assured of markets. In the Philippines, for instance, the anti-TB campaign is a partnership between USAID and Johnson & Johnson, an American pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant.

Aid and policymaking

But the biggest impact of US aid in the Philippines is on how national economic policies and priorities are determined. Obama, for instance, introduced the Partnership for Growth (PFG) initiative. It is an aid program participated in and coordinated by the USAID, State Department, Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) and other US agencies as well as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and various UN bodies.

Through the PFG, the US deepens its role in national policy making such as through the five-year Joint Country Action Plan (JCAP), which identified priority areas for policy reforms in the Philippines. These include trade and investment liberalization, deregulation, effective enforcement of contracts with private business (such as those engaging in public-private partnership or PPP), as well as fiscal and judicial reforms.

An example of how US steers internal policy-making is the PFG’s centerpiece program in the Philippines, which is the $433.91-million grant from the MCC. The MCC is a highly conditional aid and requires the Philippines to, among others, maintain so-called “economic freedom” to continue receiving the grant.

One of the indicators of economic freedom, as designed by the MCC, is the Trade Policy Indicator. It measures the country’s openness to international trade based on average tariff rates and non-tariff barriers (e.g. trade quotas, production subsidies, government procurement procedures, anti-dumping, local content requirements, etc.) to trade. The “Compact” or agreement between the Philippine government (as represented then by the Aquino administration) and MCC is that the latter may suspend or terminate the grant if the country fails to reverse its policies that are inconsistent with the Trade Policy Indicator and other indicators designed by the MCC.

Also part of the implementation of the PFG is The Arangkada Philippines Project (TAPP) of the USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). Through the USAID-funded TAPP, AmCham is pushing for 471 specific recommendations that promote the interest of foreign corporations in the country through greater liberalization, deregulation, privatization and denationalization. These are contained in the comprehensive advocacy paper “Arangkada Philippines 2010: A business perspective” prepared by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines (JFC), of which AmCham is a key member.

Under the TAPP, the JFC has been producing Legislation Policy Briefs that identify broad recommendations for Congress and the Executive. Among the many proposals of the JFC is the lifting of constitutional restrictions on foreign investments through Charter change (Cha-cha).

All these are in preparation for the country’s future membership in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The TPP is an ambitious free trade deal and the latest campaign of US imperialism to further deepen and consolidate its economic domination in Asia Pacific in the face of a rising China. Just last March 2016, the US Chamber of Commerce, with funding from USAID under the PFG’s five-year US$12.84-million Trade-Related Assistance for Development (TRADE) project, released its “readiness assessment” of Philippine membership in the TPP.

The said report examined the “consistency of the country’s existing policy framework with the agreement’s requirements, and the implied changes that may be necessary if the Philippines is to meet these requirements”. As expected, one of the “implied changes” is liberalization through Cha-cha. (The full report may be downloaded here)

Military patronage

Lastly, the US employs military aid not to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) but to maintain its influence and control over our military. US military aid mostly comes in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Under the FMF, the US provides grants and loans to help the Philippines buy US-made weapons and defense equipment as well as acquiring defense services and military training.

In 2014, US$50 million in FMF was disbursed by the US to the Philippines out of the total US$57 million in military aid that year. The Philippines is traditionally one of the largest recipients of FMF among all US allies. It ranked fifth in 2014 in terms of FMF behind Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and Jordan. The country also accounted for 64% of US FMF in East Asia and the Pacific. (Data here)

However, military items that the country gets under the FMF and other US military aid programs are either surplus or second-hand and antiquated military articles. They are also not actually given for free but are sold at a discount (with a portion of the amount shouldered or waived by the US through the FMF).

Examples include the five-decade old US Coast Guard vessels (“Hamilton-class cutters”) that the US Navy has retired and sold to the Philippines. Since 2012, the Philippines has already bought two of these decommissioned ships for about US$25 million – and a third one is expected soon – through the FMF, Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Excess Defense Article (EDA) programs.

The weapons systems of the ships have also been removed by the US prior to their turnover to the Philippine Navy. The country had to separately purchase from the US the vessels’ weapons and guns as well as additional technology including radar system, anti-ship missile system, etc. US military aid thus also means more business for the US military industrial complex.

Aside from FMF, other US military aid programs in the Philippines include counter-narcotics, military education and training, cooperative threat reduction, and counter-terrorism fellowship program. (See Chart 2)

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Along with annual military exercises under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), military aid fosters complete dependence of the AFP on US military technology, hardware and expertise. It also helps justify the continued presence of American troops in the country. But despite decades of US military patronage, the AFP remains one of the weakest and least modernized in the region. The Abu Sayyaf that the US has long been using to legitimize their military presence in the country persists and continues to terrorize the people.

Mutual respect, sovereignty

Foreign aid is not necessarily bad. It is, in fact, an important element of cooperation among countries to promote development. But as the case of US aid in the Philippines illustrates, aid could also be used to perpetuate the skewed relationship between the donor and recipient, between the colonial master and colony.

Such unequal, oppressive and exploitative relation between the US and the Philippines is the real reason why the country is underdeveloped and Filipinos are starving. If the Duterte administration rejects US aid to pursue a truly independent foreign policy and nurture development cooperation with other countries based on mutual respect and sovereignty, then we are already taking the initial steps to address the underlying causes of our poverty and hunger. ###

Neri Colmenares for Senator: A vote of protest and hope

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From the Neri for Senator Movement Facebook page

The Filipino family is under attack – from profit-seeking corporations bent on squeezing them dry for every kilowatt of electricity they use, for every cubic meter of water they consume, for every kilometer that they travel, for every unwanted trip to the hospital. Add to these the onerous taxes that put added pressure on already tight family budgets even as state support and services are lacking. Trapos running in the elections vow to address the people’s poverty as they always do every three years. But the people already know that the government of trapos has long abandoned them and that they are left to fend for themselves.

The good news, however, is that there are candidates like Neri Colmenares, who is seeking a Senate seat, that Filipino families continually oppressed by rising cost of living can truly rely on.

Government policies are always biased against ordinary income earners. Public utilities like power, water, and mass transport (LRT/MRT), as well as basic social services like education, health, and housing are being turned over to big business through privatization or public-private partnerships (PPP) resulting in exorbitant fees. This has been the case for more than three decades now under what is called the neoliberal framework in managing the economy and running the government. Neoliberalism basically means that corporate profits are more important than the people’s welfare. Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid” was all about this anti-people, pro-business neoliberal agenda, while appeasing the poorest with dole outs through conditional cash transfers (CCT).

If people want to stop the ever-rising costs of public utilities and push for sufficient basic services from government, the neoliberal onslaught has to end. Protests and other direct mass actions have always been an effective way to challenge and reverse the oppressive neoliberal policies that the Aquino and previous administrations have imposed on the people. But having progressive and non-trapo voices in Congress could also help advance the call for policy reforms to stem the neoliberal attack against the welfare of common Filipino households.

Neri Colmenares, the congressman of Bayan Muna and now a senatorial candidate, is one of the few voices that unfailingly articulated the people’s issues and demands in a House of Representatives ruled by political dynasties and the elite. The trapos simply do not have the interest to change the neoliberal policies that benefit them (including through kickbacks) and/or their billionaire patrons from big business that get richer via lucrative PPP contracts or from high electricity rates. In contrast, Colmenares has always been an activist – from his student days when he joined the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship that detained and tortured him up to the time when he became a human rights lawyer and then a representative of Bayan Muna in Congress starting in 2009. As an activist, he has always sided with people and opposed the abuses and unjust policies of those in power and the profit-seeking interests that they represent.

His track record as a legislator shows why he is the “Fighter ng Bayan”. He exposed and opposed, for instance, the unjust and massive hikes in electricity rates due to manipulation and collusion by big corporations under a privatized and deregulated power industry. Remember when the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) – with the approval of government regulators – once tried to implement a staggering P4.15 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) increase in electricity rates more than two years ago? If not for the prompt intervention in Congress and the Supreme Court (SC) by Colmenares and his fellow progressive partylist lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc along with militant people’s protests, Meralco and other power companies would have gotten away with murder again.

Among the more recent legislative proposals that Colmenares strongly pushed for is the reform in the country’s regressive income tax system wherein currently those who have a monthly pay of P50,000 are charged with the same personal income tax rate as the big bosses and owners of the country’s largest corporations. He also worked hard to legislate – and almost succeeded – the P2,000-increase in the monthly pension of members of the Social Security System (SSS). Alas, the neoliberal Daang Matuwid of the Aquino regime thwarted these efforts to provide much needed relief to the people amid rising cost of living with the President even vetoing the already passed law on SSS pension hike. (Read “Colmenares on Senate agenda”)

Before Congress took a break for the May 2016 elections, Aquino’s people in the House tried to railroad the PPP Act, which, consistent with the neoliberal agenda, would have given greater perks, profit guarantees and investment protection for the local oligarchs and their foreign backers and partners that participate in the PPP program – all at the expense of the taxpayers and the general public. But Colmenares, raising constitutional issues, successfully blocked the PPP Act and the House leadership was forced to delay its passage.

Electricity bills and other regular household expenses will continue to rise even as government systematically abandons its duty to ensure that basic social services are delivered to the people. After the elections, LRT fares and water rates are scheduled to rise as guaranteed by government’s PPP contracts with big business even as there’s no guarantee that wages will increase. The neoliberal onslaught will march on while ordinary families struggle to keep up with the ever-rising cost of living amid lack of state support and protection.

Among those running for the Senate, only Neri Colmenares has the proven track record in fighting neoliberalism and the hardships that it inflicts on the people. With him, the people are assured that they have a reliable Senator who will always stand up for and never compromise their rights, interests and welfare.

A vote for Colmenares is a vote of protest and hope – protest against the system that has oppressed and abandoned the people in favor of corporations and hope that the people can fight back and actually win. ###

Profit-driven, foreign interests made Aquino President; is Mar Roxas next?

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Photo from arabnews.com

Recent pre-election surveys show that administration and Liberal Party (LP) bet Mar Roxas supposedly gaining ground after consistently lagging behind in previous surveys. One dubious research firm even claims that Roxas is the new man to beat. There is apparently a campaign to condition the public mind that a Roxas victory is not far-fetched after all. Roxas himself declared that “It’s my time to top the surveys.”

LP desperately intends to stay in power and Mar Roxas wants to be the next Philippine President at all costs, and an election controlled by profit-driven, foreign interests could help ensure that they do.

Former Commission on Election (Comelec) chair Sixto Brillantes recently admitted that it was the UK-based, private company Smartmatic Inc. that practically ran the 2010 national and local elections and not the poll body.

“If we were to review what happened in the 2010 first automated elections, one will realize that the Comelec then was most dependent on Smartmatic such that it was Smartmatic that practically ran the entire elections, not Comelec,” Brillantes was quoted as saying.

The ex-poll chief’s admission affirms what critics of the automated election system (AES) being implemented by the Comelec have been saying all along. An unaccountable foreign business has monopoly control over our elections, which is supposedly an expression of our democracy and sovereignty as a people.

Smartmatic was also in command of the 2013 midterm elections and will continue to play such role for the upcoming polls on May 9. It maintained its monopoly control over Philippine elections through its automation technology, the contracts it bagged with the Comelec as well as the support and other services that it will provide.

Various factions of the ruling elite aggressively vie for state power during elections not to the serve the people and develop the nation. Traditional politicians and their backers from big business and foreign interests compete for control over the state machinery out of the need to protect and advance their own political and economic interests. It is this intense and never-ending struggle for power and wealth and contradiction within the ruling elite that explain the massive spending (including of public resources) and perennial violence and fraud characterizing Philippine elections.

Put in this context and reality, a private and foreign company like Smartmatic taking over the conduct of the elections takes the subversion of the people’s sovereignty to a whole new level and makes it much easier for contending factions with vested interests to cheat. Whoever has ties – or has the resources to bid the highest – with Smartmatic can buy electoral victory.

Among the groups of the political and economic elite competing for power in the elections next week, it is the LP clique and its candidates led by presidential bet Roxas that have not only the biggest motivation (stay in power, avoid prosecution) and deepest electoral war chest (people’s money), but also the closest links with Smartmatic (through the Aquino family’s ties with Smarmatic chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown). Smartmatic installed Aquino as the country’s first AES President in 2010; it certainly has the capacity to do it again for Roxas.

Smartmatic-Comelec contracts

For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is once again supplying the Comelec with VCM as it continues its profitable partnership with the poll body that started with the PCOS deals in 2010 and 2013. The Comelec is leasing a total of 97,517 VCMs from Smartmatic for about Php8.03 billion. In 2010, Smartmatic leased to the poll body 84,000 PCOS machines for Php7.2 billion. In 2013, Comelec purchased from Smartmatic some 82,000 PCOS machines for Php1.8 billion. Thus, Smartmatic has already bagged more than Php17 billion from its PCOS/VCM transactions with the Comelec for the past three elections, including the one on May 9.

Aside from the poll machines, Smartmatic also cornered contracts with the Comelec for other services. For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is providing as well the Php558-million election results transmission services (ERTS). Smartmatic was able to corner the same contract in 2013 then worth Php405.4 million. Other contracts Smartmatic bagged in 2013 are the P154.5-million transmission modems; the P46.5-million compact flash (CF) cards main; and the P46.5-million CF cards worm. Comelec also purchased the canvassing and consolidation system (CCS) from Smartmatic in 2013 for Php36.6 million.

The privatization of Philippine elections covers not only the hardware and software for the automated polls; technical support to troubleshoot and address glitches is also controlled by Smartmatic. For the 2016 elections, Smartmatic bagged the Php122-million contract to set up a National Technical Support Center (NTSC) as a call center and troubleshooter for the elections. It was also Smartmatic that cornered the NTSC contract for the 2013 polls worth Php111.56 million.

All in all, the Smartmatic-Comelec contracts are worth well above Php18 billion as summarized in the table below. Note that the table is just a partial, incomplete list as it merely relied on data from various news reports.

Partial list of contracts bagged by Smartmatic in PH elections (in Php million)
Item 2010 2013 2016 Total
PCOS/VCM 7,200 1,800 8,030 17,030
Election Results Transmission Services 405.4 558 963.4
Transmission modems 154.5 154.5
Compact flash cards 93 93
National Technical Support Center 111.56 122 233.56
Total 7,200 2,564.46 8,710 18,474.46
Culled from various media reports

Why Smartmatic keeps on winning Comelec contracts boggles the mind especially considering the numerous and major malfunctions by the machines and services that Smartmatic provided in the past two elections. To illustrate, while the AES law mandates a 99.995% accuracy rate, Smartmatic’s PCOS machines registered a 99.6% rate in 2010 and 99.98% in 2013. These translate to hundreds of thousands of miscounted ballots and undermine the credibility of the election results. Further, Smartmatic’s ERTS is supposed to reach 100% transmission rate within 24 hours. But in 2013, it was able to achieve a mere 76% transmission rate when Comelec started declaring winners.

There have been allegations of rigged bidding to favor Smartmatic such as designing contracts where only Smartmatic can qualify or omitting requirements that will otherwise disqualify Smartmatic, a company tainted with various controversies even before it started its lucrative business here in the Philippines. For the upcoming elections’ bidding for PCOS/VCM, for instance, Comelec required that only those that can supply both the election management system and the machines could bid (which only fits Smartmatic) and that ongoing legal cases (which Smartmatic has arising from past electoral protests) should not prohibit bidders to participate. There were also similar complaints during the 2013 elections such as in the supply of CF cards. A competitor lost because its CF cards don’t work with Smartmatic’s PCOS machines as the latter refused to declare the machines’ technical requirements, which Smartmatic claimed is proprietary information.

But why does the Comelec so heavily favor Smartmatic, allowing it to monopolize the entire automated election system? One possible explanation is the political connections of Smartmatic with groups that have an interest in securing electoral victory. Smartmatic’s chairman, British Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, was the late President Cory Aquino’s campaign strategist during the 1986 snap elections (some accounts claim that Malloch-Brown’s group then – the Sawyer-Miller consultancy firm – was assigned by the US Central Intelligence Agency or CIA to Cory’s camp). In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer during his visit here in June last year, Malloch-Brown claimed that his “final outstanding accomplishment during the Cory campaign was to produce an exit poll that indicated that she had won”. Malloch-Brown has supposedly developed a close relationship with the Aquino family and there were reports that he met with Cory’s son President Benigno Aquino III and other politicians during his visit in the Philippines last year. Malloch-Brown, however denied this, apparently mindful of repercussions in public perception.

Nonetheless, the presence of Malloch-Brown, a foreigner who made a career out of influencing elections in supposedly sovereign countries and strategizing for client political elites, in a private company that runs our elections is a big red flag. It further underscores the dangers of privatizing elections that have been perpetually marred by massive fraud even before automation.

The failure of the current AES technology to reach minimum standards set by the law means that election results could not be relied upon. At best, they could just be the result of glitches caused by machine/software and human errors. At worst, they point to the planned manipulation of poll results by those who have access to the election technology or have ties with the private and foreign interests that control the technology. Both in 2010 and 2013, allegations of electronic fraud were widespread ranging from supposedly altered results being transmitted by the PCOS machines to pre-programming of results such as the so-called “60-30-10” pattern (60% of votes for administration bets; 30% for opposition; and 10% for other candidates) during the midterm senatorial election.

It doesn’t help that another seemingly favored private, foreign company is also controlling the conduct of the source code review, a supposed safeguard under the AES law that scrutinizes the software to be used by the voting machines and by the canvassing and consolidation system. For the May 2016 elections, US-based SLI Global Solutions Inc. (formerly Systest Labs Inc.) is carrying out the source code review for Php35 million as it did in 2010 and 2013.

Undermining democracy and sovereignty

To be sure, the flaws of the country’s electoral system go beyond the issue of conducting it manually or electronically. Whether manual or electronic, elections will remain undemocratic as long as the people are left to choose among the same contending factions of the political and economic elite. And these groups and families vying for control of state power in order to advance the economic and political interests they represent will continue to find ways to subvert the elections through direct cheating, political patronage and/or violence and terrorism.

But these fundamental problems of the electoral system are further worsened by allowing private and foreign companies through the technology they own to control the entire electoral process – from reading and recording of ballots to the canvassing of results. Even for the technical support, troubleshooting, installation of system, training of staff, etc., the Comelec is completely dependent on a private, foreign company.

While modernizing the way the country conducts its elections with the use of appropriate technology founded on the principles of transparency and credibility is the right step to take, the AES that the Comelec has been implementing since 2010 is further undermining election as a democratic exercise and an expression of the people’s sovereignty. ###

(Portions of this article were lifted from an article I wrote for IBON Features)