The Philippines Revolution
What are the alternatives to neoliberalism?
by James Petras
Z magazine, March 1999
Nearly 100 years ago, U.S. Marines invaded
the newly independent Philippines and killed anywhere from a quarter
of a million (U.S. military estimates) to a half million Filipinos
in the course of colonizing the archipelago. The legacy of 50
years of U.S. colonial rule is palpable in the slums and streets
of Manila, the misery and poverty of the countryside, and the
three million Filipinos forged to migrate abroad in search of
During a visit to the Philippines to participate
in a conference on "Alternatives to Neoliberalism" I
talked with peasant and trade union activists and leaders, as
well as intellectuals, academics, and leaders of the major left-wing
movements. The picture that emerged was a far cry from a recent
headline in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), "Philippines Economy
is Bright Spot in Southeast Asia." The Philippines we are
told hasn't experienced the economic meltdown that has occurred
in neighboring Southeast Asian countries. It will supposedly experience
a 1 percent growth in 1998 (with a 2.5 percent population growth).
What the WSJ failed to mention is that,
unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, the Philippines has been in
crisis for several decades: the reason there isn't a boom to bust
cycle is that there never was a boom to begin with. In the Philippines
over 65 percent of the population was mired in poverty before
the so-called Asian Crisis took hold.
For a brief period in the early to mid
l990s the Philippine economy seemed (at least to Wall Street pundits)
to be on its way to becoming an Asian Tiger. Growth rates of 5
percent in 1994-1995 and substantial increases in exports accompanied
a large influx of foreign investment. The "boom" was
predictably short-lived, collapsing by 1997-1998. The reason was
quite simple; the bulk of the foreign investment capital (over
75 percent) was "portfolio investments," unproductive
investments in the stock market and short-term, high interest
T notes. With the collapse of Asian markets, the speculators fled.
Most exports were really re-exports of semi conductors, electronics
and garments with little value added-products assembled with cheap
Middle class consumerism was fueled by
cheap imports that led to huge balance deficits covered by foreign
loans that resulted in debt service payments that exceed $5 billion,
close to 40 percent of total export earnings. The Ramos and Estrada
Governments cover the deficits by slashing the social budget and
selling off valuable public mining, energy, and transportation
The Philippine economy is largely floating
on the $6 billion dollars that Filipino workers send home. If
it wasn't for overseas remittances, the Philippine economy would
crash into a major recession or worse and families living in poverty
would be starving.
The second major growth sector of what
the WSJ calls the "bright spot" is tourism-the bulk
of which is linked to sexploitation-with over 100,000 prostitutes
in Manila. With politicians, police officials, and local entrepreneurs
deeply implicated, Manila and adjoining towns have become a pedophile's
paradise: young boys and girls from 7 to 12 years old are a principle
source of foreign exchange earnings and sexual abuse. The promotion
of tourism, a pet project of newly elected President Estrada,
has other insidious effects: scarce farmlands cultivated by poor
peasant families are being seized and converted to golf courses.
The Philippine National Inquirer (November 14, 1998) reported,
"200 families have for decades tilled farms within a 500
hectare (zone in Central Luzon) that is being groomed as the next
Jet Ski and golf destination." I visited peasants working
plots averaging less than one acre. They were well organized and
engaged in highly intensive and productive farming raising a few
pigs, growing basic staples, while producing a small surplus of
pineapples and mangoes for sale to cover their everyday needs.
They are being threatened with expulsion to expand "export
production." Already a nearby country club had drawn off
water from an adjoining river eliminating fish from their diet
and making irrigation difficult. Organized by the KMP, the leftist
peasant union, they mobilized to defend their meager plots. The
military police assassinated one of their leaders, accusing him
of being a member of the guerrilla group the New Peoples Army.
The "reconversion of farmland"
and the massive displacement of peasants has led to violent confrontations
and the massive exodus of peasants into what are probably the
worst slums in Asia-and perhaps the world.
Over the past decades multinationals have
set up assembly plants and invested in mining and timber, while
local Philippine owned businesses and light consumer goods industries
have emerged. However, most industry is heavily dependent on machine
imports and semi finished goods. Most foreign investment is based
on extracting raw materials and exploiting cheap labor producing
semi finished goods. Most of the urban poor are employed in the
so-called informal sector: in construction, services, commerce
where they are paid far below the minimum wage and are subject
to the harshest exploitation by Filipino sweatshop owners. This
new "national bourgeoisie" is of
- ten subcontracted to U.S. and Japanese
garment and toy manufacturers. The ranks of the urban poor grow
daily as the Asian export markets collapse and thousands of factory
workers are laid off weekly. While some of the Southeast Asian
regimes are questioning some of the basic tenets of the free market
dogma, Philippine President Estrada has plunged ahead with ever
more comprehensive trade liberalization measures, bigger reductions
in social expenditures, and more lucrative privatizations. To
curry favor with the U.S. at the November APEC (Asian Pacific
Economic Conference) meeting, Estrada was the only head of state
that echoed Vice President Gore's attack on Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamed, ostensibly over the human rights issue but in
reality directed at the Malaysian regime's imposition of capital
controls on the movements of profits.
Despite the growth of urban sprawl, traffic
jams and giant malls, the Philippines still remains a largely
agricultural society, in the sense that over 60 percent of its
75 million people live in rural areas. It has been the agrarian
question which has been the center of political and social struggle
and military confrontation since the Spanish conquest, the U.S.
colonization, the Japanese occupation and the more recent counter
Despite presidential pronouncements from
McArthur to Marcos and from Aquino to Estrada, declaring the need
for agrarian reform, the great bulk of the rural labor force remains
without land or without adequate land to provide for their families.
Almost 70 percent of the rural labor force is landless. Among
rural cultivators, approximately 67 percent own three hectares
or less accounting for 20 percent of the total land. On the other
hand, .5 percent owns 50 hectares or more, accounting for 20
percent of the cultivatable land. The
problem for small holders is not only land ownership but also
land leasing. Most peasant cultivators are basically tenant sharecroppers
who are obliged to hand over from 60 to 80 percent of their crop
to the landowners. Since most tenant farmers cannot subsist between
sowing and harvesting because of low rates of return, they borrow
money from usurers at an average rate of 20 percent per month
and sell their crops in advance to merchant landowners for one-tenth
the price that the final consumer purchases it in the city.
While in the past century and into the
early part of this century, the large landed estates were run
by rent collecting landlords, that some analysts described as
"semi feudal," in recent years the land has been taken
over by real estate speculators, commercial plantation enterprises,
tourist and development operators, and merchant-usurer notables
with urban ties. The problem is not only exploitation, but also
eviction and destruction of livelihoods, families and communities,
and forced relocation to the festering slums of the city. This
new bourgeoisie is basically Filipino and while it may utilize
some of the earlier techniques of feudal exploitation it has diversified
investments into lucrative urban endeavors, particularly financial
speculation and real estate investment. They also engage as sub
contractors in assembly plant operations. The past distinctions
between a "comprador" or commercial bourgeoisie and
a national industrial bourgeoisie have by and large vanished.
Filipino capitalists convert rural rents into industrial capital
to exploit assembly plant labor or to buy urban property, evicting
urban squatters in order to build high rise office buildings to
collect urban rent.
The neoliberal arguments of "efficient"
use of land to justify evictions of peasants are not convincing.
Orlino Mercado, a regional Department of Agriculture research
division chief, pointed out that "economic reconversion"
means that Central Luzon farmers stand to lose a research laboratory
for upland farming technology and an inland fishpond, nurseries
for upgraded stocks of sheep, goats, and carabso and a source
of high-grade saplings for cashews, mangoes, and other fruit crops.
In the province of Tarlac San Vicente farming families would be
without land, their productive activities halted, their future
Increasingly, foreign multinational corporations
are becoming dominant, not only in the traditional mining and
plantation export sector, but also in the domestic market. U.S.
licensed soft drink consumption is one of the highest per capita
in the world. U.S. "cultural" media products saturate
the Philippine market. U.S. retail subsidiaries, from fast food
outlets to department stores, are ubiquitous, alongside overseas
Chinese and Japanese banking and assembly plant operations. In
1995 domestic capital accounted for only 41 percent of total equity
investments. Multinationals got 30 percent of total sales and
almost 20 percent of total profits among the top 2,000 corporations
in the country.
The story of modern foreign economic domination
of the Philippines has its origins in the gory chapters of military
occupation. In 1899 when the U.S. Iaunched its invasion of the
Philippines by sending 21,000 soldiers and officers, they expected
a quick and easy victory over their "dark skinned" adversaries.
Instead they found that the "rag tag" revolutionaries
had the support of the immense majority of the peasants and laborers
and that they could not be easily defeated. Early on General Shafter,
a field commander, declared, "It may be necessary to kill
half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the
population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than this
semi barbaric state of affairs."
After President Ferdinand Marcos declared
martial law in the early 1970s, the country gradually polarized
between the Communist-led anti-Marcos opposition and the supporters
of the dictatorship. Washington provided massive military and
economic aid to sustain its client dictator and the peasants provided
able recross for the NPA and local militias.
By 1985 the NPA and its political expression,
the National Democratic Front (NDF), had established parallel
governments in 10,000 of the 41,000 barrios on the country. The
NPA numbered 20,000 in arms and the Communist Party was growing
into the tens of thousands.
For the U.S. the fusion of the anti-dictatorial
and anti-imperialist movement under Communist leadership posed
a serious problem. Marcos had been a loyal client for almost 20
years, yet he was increasingly a liability as more and more sectors
of the moderate middle class was joining the leftist-led underground
organizations and semi legal movements. Washington pursued the
policy of dumping the dictator to save the state, a policy pursued
earlier in Latin America and subsequently throughout Asia. Essentially,
this involved driving a wedge between "radical" and
"moderate" opposition to the dictatorship by facilitating
negotiations for the restoration of elections and the departure
of the dictatorship on terms that preserved U.S. strategic military
and economic relations. Washington's strategy found the ideal
formula in Cory Aquino, anointed by conservative Cardinal Sim,
as the repository of democratic values. Widow of an assassinated
opponent of the Marcos dictatorship (Benigno Aquino), a novice
to politics, highly touted by Cardinal Sim and the U.S. Embassy,
Cory Aquino ran against Marcos in the Presidential elections of
1986. Marcos's fraudulent victory, however, provoked a massive
outpouring of dissent and civic opposition, later dubbed a "people's
power" movement, despite the fact that Aquino and her closest
economic advisors were tied to the old and new business landowner
elites. The massive popular protest caught the left off guard.
They expected the fraud, boycotted the election, and played a
marginal role in the subsequent protest, expecting the populace
to turn from electoral to revolutionary politics. They were wrong.
With the defection of several key Generals, the backing of the
U.S. Embassy and the Catholic hierarchy, civic protests successfully
ousted Marcos and Aquino was installed in power.
The anti-dictatorial movement organized
in BAYAN and the NDF splintered. Some sectors of the middle class
joined the Aquino administration; others retired from the radical
movements and became active in NGO's, working with the agrarian
reform agencies of the new government. At the other extreme, elements
of the NPA with visions of urban insurrections launched a series
of urban attacks on political and military targets. The Aquino
regime, after going through the motions of a cease-fire with the
NPA, set down conditions that effectively dismissed their socioeconomic
and nationalist program. Despite early promises of an agrarian
reform, very little land was actually expropriated, squatters'
titles were questioned and evictions increased. Where land was
distributed to small holders, the payments exceeded their ability
to pay, driving many into bankruptcy.
The most retrograde aspect of what the
U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (which bankrolled Aquino's
campaign) decried as the democratic transition, was the regime's
organization of dozens of paramilitary groups throughout the country.
The paramilitary groups, according to a detailed study at the
time by the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights,
included criminals, as well as fanatical religious sects, the
most notorious of which was the Tadtad (which means "chop-chop"),
a reference to their practice of slashing their victims to death
with bolo knives or machetes. Armed vigilante groups (over 200
between March and October 1987) sprang up throughout the country,
sponsored by the Aquino-backed Armed Forces and local landlords.
And the targets were guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers, but
also trade unionists, peasant activists, human rights workers,
and whoever questioned the democratic credentials of the regime.
While the first two years of the Aquino
regime actually surpassed the last years of the Marcos dictatorship
in human rights violations, the left went through a series of
splits over tactics. An "insurrectionist faction" launched
a series of violent assaults, including assassinations that undercut
middle class support and offered a pretext for the regime to further
clamp down on popular struggles. The end of the Aquino regime
in retreat and a new round of elections led to the election of
former Marcos crony General Ramos.
The main features of the three elected
presidents, Aquino, Ramos, and Estrada, are a profound commitment
to corruption, corporations, and collaboration with Washington.
Hundreds of millions of dollars annually leak overseas to the
bank accounts of overseas entrepreneurs and politicians, creating
an artificial lack of capital, an invitation to submit to the
IMF and World Bank. Liberalization of trade has turned the Philippines,
an agrarian country, into a net importer of what were previously
basic staples- rice and sugar, as cheap imports drive peasant
Despite Aquino's backsliding on the U.S.
military bases, the Pentagon's leases at Subic Bay and its air
bases were finally canceled. With the collapse of capitalism in
Asia and mounting popular protest in Indonesia, Washington is
angling for a new base of operation.
As expected, the current Philippine President
Joseph Estrada offered his services. Washington and Estrada are
in the process of signing a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which
in effect would be the functional equivalent of a U.S. military
base, giving Washington a strategic jumping off location to intervene
if and when the Asian economic crises turns into a social upheaval.
Estrada, in order to cover up his servility to U.S. strategic
interests argued that the VFA would align the U.S. with the Philippines
in its dispute with China over the Spratlys, uninhabited reefs
off the northern coast. The U.S. undercut Estrada by indicating
no disposition to enter into the dispute: lackeys take orders
they don't give them.
After almost a decade of decline and division,
the major left-wing movements appear to be regaining support.
The NPA has gone through a period of rectification and self-criticism
and while continuing to engage in sporadic military actions has
concentrated its efforts in reorganizing support in the villages.
Political and social organizing against the thousands of daily
abuses has once again brought it back into contact with villages
that were NPA strongholds. While most of their gains are in more
remote areas, distant from the major cities, and military installations,
their increasing support has led the military to discard the idea
that the NPA is simply a "police problem" to be handled
by the military police. Likewise the NDF seems to have regained
some of its public recognition through its various campaigns particularly
in the anti-VFA movement, as well as its efforts to form multi-sectoral
opposition to neoliberalism, IMF policy prescriptions, and to
work with a plurality of international groups that are not Maoists.
Probably the most significant emerging
forces are found in the KMU and the KMP, the urban trade union
and peasant movement. The KMU is a social political trade union,
which combines a struggle over day-to-day issues at the workplace
with a broader opposition to imperialism and capitalist exploitation.
I was impressed by the way in which all the workers pitched in
to prepare the meals during the convention, brought their own
sleeping bags, and engaged in informal discussion. It was an egalitarian
and comradely climate. With the exception of some construction
workers' unions in Japan and the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement,
the KMU did not seem to have significant international ties with
other militant confederations, as in South Korea, India, Italy,
etc. Whether this was mainly a problem in communication or a deeper
problem of its Maoist legacy, I cannot tell.
The KMP is probably the single most important
mass organization on the left in the Philippines. Led by a peasant
organizer, Rafael Mariano, the KMP through its regional affiliates
has been in the forefront of the struggles fighting land grabbers,
speculators, government agencies, and their military cohorts who
are forcibly evicting peasant producers. With close to 500,000
affiliates and sympathizers through regional or local organizations
the KMP represents the best hope that the Filipino peasants have
in resisting the growing encroachment of capitalist land speculators,
real estate developers, tourist operators, plantation owners,
The NDF like the NPA continues to recycle
a Maoist view of Philippine society as "semi feudal"
and "semi colonial" at a time when capitalist relations
have reconverted landed estates into international tourist havens
and landlord investors bankroll speculative ventures of every
sort. While rents and interests continue to be paid by indebted
tenants, the merchant landowners now channel these rents into
new exploitive business ventures or bank their earnings overseas
through international capital networks. The idea of fighting "semi
feudalism" has also served as a bridge for many ex-leftist
leaders, including NPA commanders, to join "modernizing"
capitalist enterprise or become part of the Aquino, Ramos, and
Estrada regimes, which have their own brand of " anti-feudalism,
turning landed estates into upscale country clubs.
Apart from the traditional left, the Catholic
Church is deeply divided. Cardinal Sin represents the Vatican
line of collaboration with the neoliberal regimes and rigid opposition
to birth control, nationalism, and social transformation. On the
other hand, the rank and file nuns and priests are active in the
barrios, schools, and in the countryside working with leftist
social movements. At a meeting at the University of the Philippines
over half of the 1,000 students attending (topic "Imperialist
Globalization and Alternatives") were from Catholic high
schools and private colleges, in many cases accompanied by their
teachers and principles.
There is today a vast array of active
movements fighting in barrios, plantations, factories, schools,
and campuses. The fundamental problem is their fragmented nature
and sporadic activity. With the breakdown of the radical umbrella
movements in the mid 1980s, no single organization has emerged
capable of bringing the groups together. While the struggles against
neoliberalism and globalization seem to brook consensus, there
is not the same level of emotional energy that linked forces against
the personal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The imperial dictates
of the market are omnipresent, the cruel consequences of land
foreclosures are visible in the ugly slums of Manila. What is
needed is a revitalized Philippine road to socialism free from
the baleful consequences of outdated dogmatic formulas.