Jeepney phaseout could hurt commuters, too

“Fare increases would serve as an incentive to move forward to modernization” – LTFRB

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The Land Transportation Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) claims that its controversial jeepney modernization program only has the interest of commuters in mind. Phasing out the jeepneys and replacing them with vehicles that use modern engine (Euro 4) and designed to provide utmost safety (speed limiter, CCTV) and comfort (bigger space, wi-fi) will surely benefit the riding public, the said government body likes to stress.

To be sure, all these features and amenities that the LTFRB and Department of Transportation (DOTr) promise are welcome for commuters. What transport officials do not say is what or how much it would cost for the riding public to enjoy the supposedly modernized jeepneys under their plan.

At the hearing of the House of Representatives (HoR) on the modernization program, LTFRB chair Martin Delgra III said: “fare increases would encourage drivers and operators to take part in the modernization program, as these would cover losses, inflation or fuel price increases and serve as an incentive to move forward to modernization.”

DOTr Secretary Arthur Tugade also earlier said that the program is “designed to strengthen [and] to guarantee the profitability of the jeepney business”.

Clearly, the supposed modernization will not be cheap not only from the point of view of jeepney drivers and small operators but also of the commuters.

As fares are not subsidized by the state, commuters will have to shoulder the full cost of the pricey vehicles including interest payments owed to the banks, cost of maintaining and operating the units and their required terminals, taxes and fees owed to the government, income of drivers and operators, etc.

Taken with the unabashedly pro-big business policy direction being charted by the Duterte presidency, the threat of skyrocketing fares becomes even more imminent. Consider, for instance, the proposed Public Service Act amendment or House Bill (HB) 5828, one of the priority and urgent legislative measures of the administration. If passed by Congress, HB 5828 would allow public services like transportation to set rates (or fares) that would give its operators the maximum profit rates based on existing market condition. If that amount translates to a minimum fare of Php15, Php20 or even more, commuters will be left with no choice. Worse, deregulated rates or fares is also an option as stipulated in the Malacañang-backed HB 5828. Deregulated fares will actually be easier to implement with the planned beep cards. Now combine this with the long deregulated oil industry and the result would be catastrophic for commuters.

Do the small operators benefit from this lucrative jeepney business? Only if they could get a franchise under the demanding new guidelines of the LTFRB and meet the high capital requirement of managing a fleet of at least 10 vehicles (worth Php12 to 16 million), which is unlikely. Most of them would be certainly displaced by established business groups with access to capital (and political power). And these firms, under HB 5828, could be foreigners even. HB 5828 says transport is not a public utility and thus excluded from the constitutional restriction on foreign ownership.

Some commuters, of course, would be willing and able to pay a premium for better services. But most commuters of jeepneys are the lowest paid workers and are from the poorest households who struggle daily to make ends meet. They are the students from working class families. They are the self-employed and jobless. According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the average low income group households in the country have to spend at least 20% of their monthly household income for transportation. Soaring fares would push millions of Filipino commuters to greater poverty and marginalization.

What transport officials refuse to see is that modernization is not merely about replacing the old with the new. Modernization must above all be about long-term development that addresses the people’s basic needs and promotes their rights. When a society upgrades its ways of doing things, the primary objective should be to advance the interests of its people. If “modernization” comes at the expense of those who are already marginalized such as the poor jeepney drivers and commuters, then that is not development but regression. To ensure that genuine development comes with modernization, the state must play a central role.

But instead of addressing this question, the DOTr, LTFRB and President Duterte himself are creating an artificial contradiction between the interests of jeepney drivers/operators and the commuters. They absolve government of its duty to build a modern public transport system that protects both the welfare of the commuters and those who rely on it for livelihood. This as the apparent direction of the Duterte administration’s program is for big corporations to fully take over, push out the small drivers/operators and fleece the riding public with exorbitant fares.

The chronic state of disrepair of the country’s public transport system is the result of decades of government’s wrong policies, bureaucratic corruption and outright neglect.

Access to safe, efficient, reliable and affordable public transport system is a right that the state must guarantee for commuters and not a privilege for those who could afford it. What is the role of the government to ensure this? Is it simply to issue franchises and set standards? Why not start the discussion on jeepney modernization on these fundamental questions? #

 

Martial Law 45th anniversary: US imperialism and the Marcos dictatorship

Marcos, his family and cronies would not had been able to plunder and repress the country the way they did without the support of the US. Marcos lasted for as long he did because he was backed by an imperialist superpower.

(Ferdinand Marcos with US President Richard Nixon in a motorcade during the latter’s Philippine visit in 1969 | Photo from filipiknow.net)

We mark the 45th year of the Martial Law declaration by highlighting the numerous atrocities and massive corruption of Marcos. Amid the rising fascism of the Duterte regime and systematic bid to revise history, reminding the people of the crimes of Marcos and evils of tyranny is more relevant than ever.

But we should not forget as well the role of the US as the country’s foremost colonial patron in the Marcos dictatorship. This is important to better understand why in today’s global/regional context (e.g. China’s rise and weakened US hegemony) and Philippine context the US, to advance its agenda, would also support the Duterte regime in its consolidation of political power through tyranny and fascism.

Marcos, his family and cronies would not had been able to plunder and repress the country the way they did without the support of the US. Martial Law and the Marcos dictatorship were useful for American economic and military interests in the Philippines and the region. Marcos lasted for as long as he did because he was backed by an imperialist superpower. Until of course when the political and economic crisis and social unrest intensified to a point that it was no longer beneficial for US interests to sustain Marcos’s tyrannical and corrupt rule.

The years before Marcos declared Martial Law were characterized by a surge in people’s protests – the First Quarter Storm (FQS) – against the exploitative and oppressive social order represented by the corrupt Marcos regime amid a worsening global and national economic crisis (soaring prices, massive unemployment and landlessness, ballooning public debt, etc.). The political instability threatened not only Marcos’s survival but US political, military and economic interests in the Philippines. To restore “stability”, the Marcos regime imposed Martial Law.

What were the US interests that Marcos and his dictatorship served?

At that time, the US was embroiled in the costly Vietnam War, a Cold War-era proxy war between the US and the former USSR. The Philippines under Marcos served the American war by deploying thousands of Filipino troops to help the US forces. Note that before he became President, Marcos was opposed to the sending of our troops to Vietnam. But once in Malacañang, Marcos changed his stand due to US pressure and because he knew that he would need US patronage to remain in power.

But beyond the deployment of Filipino troops, far more strategic for the US were the Subic Naval Base that their naval forces (US Seventh Fleet) used for repair and replenishment throughout the Vietnam War as well as the Clark Air Base that served as their key logistics hub. After the US’s disastrous defeat in the Vietnam War, Subic and Clark became even more important for the US in order to maintain its military presence and operations in Asia.

The US backed the fascist regime in exchange for the dictator’s assurance that the Philippines will continue to allow the stay of US military bases. Days before he publicly announced Proclamation 1081 that placed the entire country under Martial Law, it was reported that Marcos phoned then US President Richard Nixon to get his commitment of support. When Marcos imposed Martial Law on September 21, 1972, the US reportedly stationed 40,000 troops at its Subic Naval Base to “meet any contingency” arising from the dictator’s declaration.

Aside from its military agenda, the US also used the Marcos dictatorship to retain its privileged position in the Philippine economy and the exploitation of our natural resources. The Laurel-Langley Agreement of 1955 which gave full parity rights to American citizens and businesses or equal access like Filipinos to domestic agriculture, timber, mineral, public utilities, and land expired in 1974. But with his Martial Law powers, Marcos issued decrees that effectively maintained the neocolonial economic privileges of the US such as reversing court decisions that disallowed American ownership of landholdings in the country.

Indeed, as a 1973 press report read: “The most encouraging aspect of President Marcos’s assertion of one‐man rule has been the disappearance of the anti‐foreign feeling that had been mounting in the press and the Constitutional Convention in the year preceding the proclamation of martial law.” Prior to Martial Law, the 1970 Constitutional Convention was formed to rewrite the then prevailing 1935 Constitution. The US was concerned that the new charter would affect its military bases and economic interests in the country. Under Martial Law, Marcos arrested some members of the Convention and reconvened it to write the 1973 Constitution that favored Marcos’s and the US’s agenda.

On top of ensuring that the policy environment under Martial Law remained favorable to US interests, American businesses and politicians were also actually in cahoots with Marcos and his cronies in plundering the economy and public coffers. American banks provided odious debts that funded Marcos’s projects riddled with corruption.

Perhaps nothing is more notorious than the hugely overpriced white elephant US$2.3-billion Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) that the US Export-Import Bank and American Express bankrolled together with the Bank of Tokyo. Through payoffs worth US$18 million to Marcos via his crony Herminio Disini, American firms Westinghouse and Burns and Roe bagged the lucrative contract to design and build the BNPP. Built on an earthquake zone, the BNPP was never operated for public health and safety while billions of dollars in payments went to American banks and firms at the great expense of the Filipino people.  

Finally, the US also undermined the Filipino people’s quest for justice to make the Marcoses accountable for their crimes. This as real justice would mean making the colonial masters of the Marcos regime liable as well. According to a May 2016 report by The Guardian, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew that Marcos stole US$10 billion but refused to tell the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) what they knew because apparently, American businesses such as those involved in the BNPP and political figures would be implicated as well.

Marcos also allegedly bribed high ranking US politicians and helped illegally fund the presidential bid of US presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, said the same Guardian report. The US systematically covered up its link with the corruption of and plunder by the dictator. For instance, the documents that the American authorities seized from Marcos when he fled to Hawaii in February 1986 have been allegedly redacted to hide transactions involving US organizations when they were turned over to the Philippines.

Today, the Duterte regime has been playing a leading role in revising the history of Martial Law and in the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. This serves his own fascist agenda of establishing a Duterte dictatorship. He has already imposed Martial Law in Mindanao in what could be a dress rehearsal for a nationwide Martial Law.

Would the US support Duterte and connive with his regime in plundering and repressing the people the way it propped up the Marcos dictatorship? For all the President’s anti-US rhetoric (or more precisely, anti-Obama rants) and moves to deepen ties with US rival China, the Duterte regime has continued to foster ties with the country’s neocolonial master.

US military presence and intervention is felt more than ever with American troops and attack and surveillance drones deployed in Mindanao as part of Duterte’s military campaigns. US military bases remain through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) while joint military trainings including urban warfare continue under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). For all its rhetoric about human rights, the US would work with any fascist dictatorship, even with someone as unpredictable as Duterte, to protect its interests and influence in the region especially amid a growing challenge from China as well as Russia.

Thus, when we protest against Martial Law, fascism and tyranny, we should protest not just for the violation of our human rights but also for the violation of our sovereignty as a people. ###

SONA 2017: Business interests with ties to Duterte to benefit from Martial Law extension

President Rodrigo Duterte with his Martial Law administrator Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and implementor Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Año (Photo from Al Jazeera)

As expected, the so-called supermajority in Congress granted the extension of Martial Law that President Rodrigo Duterte asked for. Martial Law would be in effect in Mindanao until the end of the year.

Malacañang said that with the extension, the country could now “get on with the job of nation-building and contribute in the attainment of the full promise of Mindanao.” The Duterte administration intends to “transform Mindanao into a land of fulfillment”.

How exactly Martial Law could contribute in “nation-building” is unclear. What is clear is that the 261 lawmakers who rubber-stamped the presidential request have further built up the nation’s fear of an authoritarian regime that Duterte wants to establish.

Martial Law in Mindanao and its extension could indeed be just a dress rehearsal and forebodes an of all-out fascist rule that Duterte and his Martial Law generals plan to unleash on the entire country.

Meanwhile, the “attainment of the full promise of Mindanao” pertains to the unrestrained exploitation of the region’s resources. Despite decades of corporate plunder, many areas in Mindanao are still not yet fully exploited.

Business interests with ties to the President appear to be among the beneficiaries of the extension of Martial Law in Mindanao.

Investment opportunities

The World Bank, for instance, in an August 2016 report said that: “Mindanao has 10 million hectares of land, of which 59.4% or 6.066 million hectares are classified as forestlands… if properly delineated, and rights are defined, can potentially increase the land inventory for large- scale investments.”

It noted that of the 6.07 million hectares of forestlands in Mindanao, only 700,000 hectares are covered by industrial forest management agreements, mainly by corporations. There are 700,000 hectares more that are still not covered by any form of tenure instrument. Another 400,000 hectares of public forests that are unclassified – all potential areas for big corporate investments.

In addition, of the remaining 4.14 million hectares of alienable and disposable (A&D) lands in Mindanao, a huge 2.24 million hectares have not been covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). These millions of hectares of forest and A&D lands offer enormous opportunities for investment and profits.

“If we push for massive agri investments in Mindanao, we need to start looking at the availability of these lands for consolidation to achieve economies of scale,” said the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), a government body created to among others promote and facilitate investments in the region.

Under the Duterte administration, MinDA and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) are also working to fast-track the Mindanao Ecozone Masterplan. The plan will develop existing and new economic zones around Mindanao to increase trading activities and attract more foreign investments.

There are 81 accredited ecozones in the region covering agro-industry, manufacturing, information technology and tourism. The Duterte administration is currently conducting an inventory of areas in Mindanao that can be developed as “ecozone cities”.

But many of these supposedly idle areas or available lands are actually occupied by lumad and peasant communities. Their firm resistance and the strong presence of the New People’s Army (NPA) are the biggest obstacles to the massive expansion in Mindanao of corporate plantations, big mining companies, and export-driven industrial enclaves – and the construction of hard infrastructure to support their operation.

The resistance is not against development but against the land and resource grabbing and massive displacement of local communities that often accompany big-ticket investment projects in Mindanao. That is why the NPA, and the lumad, farmers and farmworkers are the real targets of the extended Martial Law in Mindanao.

Big business interests

Indeed, Duterte’s Martial Law is apparently more about providing security to big investors who want to further exploit Mindanao. And it appears that the business sector feels encouraged by the strongman rule that Duterte is imposing. The organizers of the recently held Davao Investment Conference (ICON), for instance, reported record-breaking confirmed attendance, including about 100 foreign investors.

In an earlier report, the organizers said ICON participants include the country’s biggest conglomerates like San Miguel Corp. (SMC) as well as 30-40 “big Chinese investors”, among others.

SMC and the Chinese are among those most aggressive in expanding in Mindanao particularly in establishing vast plantations and constructing infrastructure. Chinese investors have been reportedly discussing with the Duterte administration the possibility of a 6,000-hectare tea plantation in a territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Duterte has been actively seeking Chinese patronage, mainly in the form of official development assistance (ODA) or loans as well as military assistance. Among those that the administration is pitching to China are multi-billion infrastructure projects in Mindanao including expressways, coastal roads, seaport and airport development, and the Mindanao railway system.

On the other hand, SMC (together with Malaysia’s Kuok Group) is developing about 18,495 hectares of forestlands covering four Davao del Norte municipalities for oil palm production. Just last August 2016, SMC also opened a 2,000-hectare industrial estate in Malita, Davao Occidental that also has a 20-meter deep seaport that can accommodate container vessels.

Earlier, the conglomerate was reported to be looking at a total of 800,000 hectares of lands for development as commercial farms in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Sarangani, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato and Agusan del Norte.

Of course, SMC’s top man Ramon S. Ang is known to be “close” to Duterte. The SMC president was among Duterte’s campaign contributors in 2016 giving an undisclosed amount and perhaps other forms of support as Ang wasn’t even listed in the official Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

Ang also offered to buy Duterte a private jet (worth as much as US$65 million) that he could use as President while donating Php1 billion to the Chief Executive’s pet campaign, the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s former campaign spokesperson and Irrigation chief Peter Laviña and his group Philippine Palm Oil Development Council Inc. has been reportedly lobbying the government since Aquino’s time to develop at least 300,000 hectares of Mindanao lands for palm oil production targeting MILF territories as well as CARP and lumad lands.

These are some of the big business interests in Mindanao that stand to benefit from the state repression of local communities opposed to their operations. Apparently, Martial Law is more than what President Duterte, his Generals and their allies in Congress are telling us. ###

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. ###

US aid and imperialism

usaid-humanitarian-relief
Photo from The Philippine Star

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)

arn-07-us-aid-and-imperialism-oct-2016-chart-1

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)

arn-07-us-aid-and-imperialism-oct-2016-chart-2

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. ###

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)

#BigasHindiBala: Beyond bureaucratic neglect and police brutality

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)
Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

Long before the drought and the Kidapawan bloodshed, hunger and poverty were already debilitating countless in the countryside.

Along with fishermen (39.2%), poverty incidence is the worst among farmers (38.3%). In Region XII, site of the violence, poverty incidence among farmers is 47.9%, the fifth highest in the country. All cited data are as of 2012, the latest available from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). For comparison, the 2012 national poverty incidence was pegged at 25.2 percent.

It is said that eight out of 10 of the poor in the Philippines are directly or indirectly dependent on farming. As compared to other countries, our rural poverty of nearly 40% is said to be the worst in ASEAN. (Data cited by Rolando T. Dy, 2015)

Farmers earn very little, even without a drought. Palay farmers, for instance, earn at most PHP 60,000 a year – way below the annual rural poverty threshold of PHP 80,000. (Data cited by Ernesto M. Ordoñez, 2014)

Underlying peasant poverty is landlessness. A recent IBON article noted that: “Even the official census could only claim at most 62% of farms under full ownership. The rest are under various forms of land tenure, including tenancy at 15 percent.” The latest Census of Agriculture is 2012.

Note that government’s poverty standards are ridiculously low and its data on land ownership questionable. Rural poverty and landlessness are thus much worse than what official data shows. Nonetheless, even distorted government data could not hide the dire situation that Filipino farmers face.

Aggravating landlessness and all the feudal exploitation it brings are government policies and programs that devastate rural livelihood perhaps in a magnitude much worse than droughts or typhoons. Neoliberal restructuring brought in a flood of cheap agricultural imports that drowned local produce while commercializing vital infrastructure such as irrigation.

So when calamities like drought strike, the already destitute farmers become even more despondent. Meanwhile, government negligence and inefficiency are further highlighted by its incapacity to respond as it has long abandoned its obligation to provide support services like irrigation and subsidies.

All these combine to stir unrest in the countryside that has been long raging. Farmers become fighters in the agrarian revolution being waged by the New People’s Army (NPA). Or they barricade highways to force the powers that be to listen. But for a government of landlords and its armed forces, it makes no difference if you hold an M16 or a placard.

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)
Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)

The brutal dispersal in Kidapawan reminded us of the repression that farmers face when asserting their most fundamental right to live with dignity. Farmers, in fact, are not only the poorest – they are also the most repressed.

According to human rights group Karapatan, more than 300 cases of extrajudicial killings have been recorded under the Aquino administration. More than 200 of these cases involve farmers.

Before Kidapawan, there was Hacienda Luisita. And before it were Mendiola and Escalante. None have been resolved and the powerful people behind them become presidents and senators, feeding the reign of impunity and terror in the countryside. Some note that President Aquino remains silent on Kidapawan. But what do we really expect a landlord president will say?

All these killings occurred in contexts of struggles and assertion of farmers’ rightful control over land and other resources for production against moneyed investors and landed families. They illustrate that cases of atrocities against farmers like Kidapawan are not isolated incidents but a systematic repression of the people’s dissent by those few who wield power and arms.

Already, the propaganda machine of the landlord regime is at full force in its disinformation and cover up. Propaganda and deception are part of its war against the farmers and the people.

Indeed, the Kidapawan bloodshed is more than bureaucratic neglect as farmers go hungry. It is more than the police violating their own rules of engagement.

It is about the ever-deepening contradiction between the impoverished and starved – the farmers who directly produce food but have nothing to eat, and the landlords and bureaucrats who profit from the people’s poverty and hunger. ###

Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)
Image from Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)