Sunday, February 13, 2011

A soldier’s tale

Once upon a time, there was a corrupt autocrat in a blighted land who swore in front of the monument of that blighted land’s national hero that come the next election, he will give up all political power and just live the life of a common citizen.
The reason for this unexpected, uncharacteristic surrender was the autocrat’s subjects’ widespread discontent over his suffocating, oppressive rule, resulting to his being pilloried left and right.

Everyday the media of that blighted land headlines news articles detailing stories of corruption and abuse in high and low places of government and carries scathing op-ed pieces critical of his misrule.

After that unexpected twist—in which the national hero was believed to have turned over in his grave because the declaration to give up political power was received with general unbelief (because it was a fib)—the despot sent his emissary to his top war general to relay to him the following message:

“Our boss is no longer running for re-election. He wants me to tell you that you are to be his successor. He will support you as the next ruler.”

The war general, who had also served the despot previous to the current, was caught flat-footed and, of course, flattered.

“But I have no bullets, no amulets, no soldier, and no silver.”

The emissary, who’s very young, but was as corrupt as his lord, said:

“He told me to tell you that you are to begin gathering your bullets, amulets, soldiers, and silver,” the emissary said, winking an eye.

The war general took the instruction to heart (he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the emissary or of the message). He begun to scheme and soon was filling up a war chest, using the clout and influence of his position.

In the next election, the people of the blighted land were dismayed when the autocrat, in a fit of amnesia, forgot his declaration and again ran for public office. He won with only a token opposition because the people were very afraid of his tantrums, and because he had the polls rigged in his favor.

No sooner than he had been sworn in that he continued to pillage the land, oppress his people anew, and ignored all laws and common sense to farther his fiefdom’s destruction. He lied a lot, too, ignoring all forms of criticisms. He even threatened to become ruler for life. He controlled all the levers of power, the police, the courts, and the bureaucracy and thought that he was free to do what he wished. Even his dogs enjoyed the free leash, amassing all wealth they could for themselves even as the subject-citizens were dying by the day, hungry and more oppressed than ever.

In the meantime, the war general was given new positions which gave him more opportunities to steal. He continued to fill up his war chest. He continued to gather hay while the sun was out. As he did this, he forgot that the ruler, mischievous as ever, was watching him and coveting all the riches he had stolen.

Many full moons thereafter, the citizens of that blighted land found the inner courage and elected a new ruler who was benign and democratic.

This ruler, though inexperienced and inefficient, has a sense of right and wrong. He tried to restitute the injustices done to his subjects by the previous ruler who was now being ignored as if he had leprosy.

The new ruler also kicked out from office the previous despot’s men. They are now roaming the streets, shedding tears of loneliness for their unlamented fate. Some of them, like the one who previously was in charge of intelligence security but was actually a kabuki actor, were plotting a comeback. But most were scattered like dust and face the prospect of retribution of the courts after their ill deeds were exposed.

Such sudden change of fortunes, irreversible as it is now, did not come unheralded by the new power holders. “Vengeance is ours, not the Lord’s”, they seem to say.

One day, the emissary of the deposed despot, who still can’t believe he is on the gutter of the political terrain, went to see the general and demanded that he turn over all the wealth he had amassed while in power.

“Our lord wants you to return all the bullets, amulets, soldiers, and silver that you have amassed—for him. He will use them to mount a coup so he—we—can come back to the castle. You see, the new ruler of this blighted land is after him—us—and he is concerned he—we—will be thrown into the dungeons in due time,” the emissary explained with a very worried face.

Upon hearing this, the general almost fell off in his seat. “He remembered. I thought he had forgotten,” he murmured under his breath.

“OK,” he said after recovering his wits.

“But you have to wait. It will take a long time before I can make a full accounting of them. Most of the wealth I had raised and gathered had been hidden and entrusted to some of our lieutenants, one of whom had mysteriously vanished. One had also died when he was ambushed at the airport. You know very well the new administration is all eyes and ears now. Spies are everywhere. Traitors are aplenty and I don’t know whom to trust. You have to wait,” he said. The emissary left.

Soon after, the new ruler’s allies in the legislature began an investigation on the wealth of another general. A spy had come out with testimony of how the generals of the previous administration bled dry the coffers of the security services.

Surprisingly, the spy had knowledge of how the chief war general of the previous despot allegedly gathered and raised bullets, amulets, soldiers, and silver. Another spy came out corroborating the tale of the principal spy. The crime, hidden for too long, seemed to be now leading to the previous despot’s doorstep.

The general was worried. He was tormented when a legislator, whom the disposed despot jailed when he was in power for talking back to him in one of their encounters in the castle (the solon was also previously the general’s subordinate in the security services), particularly fingered him as one of the main perpetrators of the dastardly crime of graft and corruption.

The investigation was not the only thing that worried the general. Unknown to the citizens and the investigators, the emissary of the deposed despot continued to hound him, asking questions about the riches he had amassed, pressing him to turn them over.

“This is it. This seemed to be the end of the road for me,” the general might have well thought. He felt that sooner or later, he will be called to testify in the investigation and asked what he knew and who he knew.

For a few days, he collected his thoughts. His conscience was bearing down on him. The investigation had devastated him and his family. His honor had been tarnished, and rightly or wrongly, he felt he needed to repair it and restore it to its previous luster. He was a man of honor, so he publicly confessed, and honor was the only thing that mattered to him, unlike his lord, the deposed despot, whose only concern, he felt, was recovering the wealth he stole. For him!

One fine morning, when the citizens of the blighted land was still asleep—when another new day threatened to continue to unravel the unbelievable saga of corruption and abuse in the past administration; when the new rulers and holders of power were comfortably seated in their living rooms and in the air-conditioned lobbies of hotels sipping their espressos; when the poor workers of the blighted land, together with their children, were preparing to go to work and to school; when the farmers and fishermen were contemplating the day ahead as another day of difficulty—the general ended his life.

Almost everyone wept, showing once more the hypocrisy that is the currency of the day.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Economics 101

First, the good news.
According to government data, the country’s economy, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), grew by 7.3 percent in 2010, the highest in 24 years.

This development has sent many, particularly those in the Aquino III administration, to convulse with excitement about the prospect of life in this Republic. To them, this means life might be getting better.

The bad news is that not everyone in the room understands what 7.3 percent GDP growth means. So, it is left to those who analyze the news to explain this specialist economic term in the language of the masses. I will try.

Gross domestic product, as my professor at the University of the East explained during the dreamy days shortly before the EDSA Revolution of 1986, means the total value of goods and services produced in the country in a certain period, say one year.

Measuring this value is a tricky, often complex, proposition. So, economists and financial specialists who devote their time to crunching numbers classified the economy into three major sectors, namely, (1) industry; (2) services; and (3) agriculture, fishery, and forestry (AFF).

The industry sector grew by 3.9 percent last year. This growth, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), was driven by increases in manufacturing, mining and quarrying, and water, gas, and electricity. We manufactured more goods, mined more gold and copper, quarried more gravel and sand, and generated more water, gas, and electricity. That’s what it meant.

For the services sector, the growth of 3.3 percent was pushed by increases in trade, private services, and finance. It means that last year, there were a lot of economic activities involving buying and selling of goods; building and repairs; manicure or pedicure; vulcanizing; business consulting; training; lending and pawnshop operations, etc. These are all samples of trade, private services, and finance activities.

The AFF sector in 2010 registered a growth record of only one percent. A little explanation is in order here.

Actually, the AFF, which is supposed to be the backbone of the economy because the Philippines is largely agricultural, declined by 2.9 percent in 2009. But a strong rebound of 5.4 percent in 2010 offset this decline because the country experienced fewer typhoons in the last year, so that we produced more rice, fish, corn, poultry, and livestock. The data showed that we produced less forest products, sugarcane, and coconut.

Going by the record, it would show that the economy is faring well. And when the economy is doing good, that means there are more jobs, thus more income; more food on the table, thus less hunger; more potable water, thus, less thirst; more medicines and health care services, thus healthier citizens. Is that it?

Wait. It isn’t that simple, according to my experience in the real world. This experience actually is the best barometer of life; better than the equations, number measurements, and scientific projections of armchair economists. This experience is what the people really encounter—see, hear, and smell—and feel while they are alive—living—in this archipelago.

Which means that to measure up whether life is getting better or getting worse, our economists and government leaders must also take into account the stories, feelings, and experiences of people who have no jobs, shelter, food, potable water, electricity, healthcare, and tuition money.

There are plenty of these stories and experiences all over. In Romblon, even without looking into official data, I can say that these stories and experiences of economic want—rather than economic success—are the norm rather than the exception.

Which plainly means Romblon is not growing economically, regardless of what Gov. Lolong Firmalo or Rep. Budoy Madrona, or other provincial politicians of lower positions, will say, or proclaim, in their speeches during fiestas or in colorful tarpaulins.

And now that I have conducted this mini-lecture on Economics 101, let me offer a few clues to buttress my claim.

When Firmalo or Madrona or a lesser potentate belies my claim and say that Romblon’s economy is growing, let me pose the challenge: explain the brownouts in Tablas, or show me the numbers that we are NOT importing rice from Mindoro, or that children of school age are in school this year, rather than out there in the fields helping their parents.

I would be eager to eat my words if I am shown that we had more doctors and nurses healing the sick in 2010 than in 2009, or more Romblomanons engaging in income-generating activities rather than falling in line outside some factories in Batangas or Laguna looking for wage-paid employment.

If I can be convinced that the provincial government has jailed—or dismissed from the service—some corrupt officials who lorded it over the province during the time of Natalio Beltran, Jr., or that the murderer of Armin Marin and the brains behind the dastardly act have been charged in court, or that the venalities at the Romblon State University and other government offices have abated, with the perpetrators called to account, then and only then I am willing to consider my view that Romblon, my one and only province, is not going to the dogs.

I will then concede the point that Romblon is poised to experience economic growth rather than economic decay; that the miners sponsored by some greedy politicians who lie through their teeth are going to give us jobs rather than poison us with mercury.

Were I too harsh discussing economic matters? No, actually. But wait when I discuss Politics 101.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Egyptians' uprising's other victims: OFWs

For 10 days now, Egypt--the country of Moses, the land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids, the motherland of the mummies, home of one of my favorite writers, Naguib Mahfouz, birthland of the statesman-hero Anwar Sadat, and the first nation-state in the Arab world to make peace with another ancient country, Israel--has been in turmoil.

Scorched by street protests from Cairo to Alexandria to Suez, Egypt is convulsing because its political leadership, entrenched in power for over three decades, refused to read and recognize the writings on the tea leaves calling for political reform and failed to acknowledge that the lack of bread and dignity--euphemistically subtitled 'unemployment and poverty, abuse of human rights, and graft and corruption' in the glossary of today's globalization and liberalization era--are as modern concerns as in the ancient days when the Israelis, escaping from the horrors of slavery, complained to God and rebelled against Moses for leading them out of Cairo to the wilderness only to suffer hunger.

One has only to read the account in the Old Testament to understand that this history seems to be repeating itself in Cairo today, the difference being that it's the Egyptians who are suffering from unemployment and feeling the sorrow inflicted by corruption, thus they want to kick Hosni Mubarak's teeth and get him out, not them escaping Egypt like the Israelis did millennium years ago.

Mubarak has only to read the account in the Old Testament to know that Moses, to satiate the hunger of the Israelis in the diaspora, begged the Lord to rain them down with manna, a miracle that might not be possible today because the protagonists are raining down stones, instead of biscuits, on the streets of Cairo. Mubarak needs to give the Egyptians more fita bread.

Moses had to decentralize his divine dictatorship by dividing the Israelis into 12 tribes, nominating leaders, and making them autonomous to quell their rebelliousness. Mubarak today needs to hold free and honest elections, not rump assemblies where his military deputies apportion the levers of power to the exclusion of the greater majority.

In the global arena, Egypt is an important geopolitical player. This is why the Egypt uprising commands attention and interest. Many pundits have opined that however the uprising plays out in the end, it will re-shape the political and economic map of the Middle East and recast the international security equation in the US, Asia, and Europe, as it had already in northern Africa with Tunisia as exemplar.

To many Filipinos, Egypt may not generate so much interest as it does, say, in the Americans, or in the Israelis, or in the Iranians. The only reason why the turmoil in Egypt is getting prominence in the six o'clock news in Manila is the presence in Cairo of some 6,000 souls, also called overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Caught in the crossfire of the uprising, OFWs in Egypt have become yet again the headline fodder, with the question, "What is the government doing to protect them from harm?" becoming standard fare in the news leads.

Indeed, what should the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III do ensure that the OFWs in Egypt are out of harm's way?

The hot-headed among us, including Migrante, not being familiar with the ways of bureaucracy, are quick to fix blame on the government for its seeming inaction. Critics say that the government should have sent in planes to Cairo and hauled off home those 6,000 OFWs at the first sign of trouble.

Wrong. Terribly wrong, and I'll explain why.

There is a listening post in Cairo called the Philippine Embassy which feeds the government in Manila with information on what's happening in Egypt. If we have faith in our diplomatic representatives, we can say that PE Cairo would have been giving Malacanang regular and correct updates on the Egyptian situation.

Every post in countries where we have OFWs has a contingency plan covering all sort of crisis, including emergencies involving OFWs. This plan is regularly updated and finetuned. This plan outlines the measures the Philippine government would take in the event there is a need to, say, evacuate our nationals from an area of conflict.

The government's policy today is to expand the provision of welfare and protection to all OFWs regardless of their status in a foreign counrty. This policy governs the conduct of all officials of government in foreign soils. It is this policy that underlines the contingency plan for OFWs in Egypt.

As a guest in a foreign country, one cannot just leave your host's premises without the niceties and courtesies due the hosts. The 6,000 OFWs are guests. One can only imagine how the government of Egypt would be offended if the Philippine government ordered all Filipino nationals to leave on Day One of the protests. Diplomatic courtesy as an element in international relations is the standard norm. A government can violate it only on its own peril, for the risks are incalculable. Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo knows this fully well.

But going back to the question, "What are we to do?", I think what the government lacked in the current situation is transparency.

It failed to communicate to the public, through the media, its plan, its action, and its activities in Egypt. The Department of Foreign Affairs, for example, should have come out with an all-out public communication campaign with the message that the 6,000 OFWs are safe where they are now; that most of them don't want to go home; that they have a place to go to when the conflict worsens; and that there is transportation, shelter, food, water, and medicines available in the safehouse (if it's a sfaehouse) where they are going to be temporarily. It should have assured the public that, yes, the DFA is in constant communication with the 6,000; that it knows their whereabouts and how to reach them when needed.

This is not to single out the DFA or to farm out blame. It just so happened that the DFA is there in Cairo. There is no Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Egypt, so at the moment the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) could only rely on the DFA for official information about what's happening in Egypt. In any case, following the one-country approach policy, the DOLE is fully cooperating with the foreign affairs department and, as Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz said, it will do what it can to the fullest of its ability to ensure that our OFWs in Egypt emerge from this crisis safe and secure.

On a personal note, I have yet to see PE Cairo's contingency plan for this crisis. But based on experience, I think our OFWs in Egypt are better informed than all government officials and critics combined about their situation there. For all we know, they could have plans of their own better than any contingency plan crafted by the post. What they do need at this time is guidance, assurance of a firm leadership, and quick foresight and action.

The guidance will take a lot of combined persuasive personal and modern day-methods of communication--meetings, the Internet, flyers, text, etc. The leadership part is non-prescriptive; it has to be supplied, while quick foresight and action can only be had through honest and sincere work--diligent work--which, alas, is very hard to find nowadays in many government functionaries. We might need a lot of Moses to fulfill this role.

In the meantime, hold the edge of your seats and watch "Egypt: The Movie".

Democracy in Egypt, mining in Romblon

Blame it to the Tunisians.
After coming out to the streets to protest and in the process toppling their government from power, the Tunisians inspired the Egyptians who, in droves, came out from their homes to the streets of Cairo to demand—and I say many oppressed peoples in the world also demand—what the Tunisians had just gotten through a peaceful revolution: democracy.

There are only two possible scenarios that might come out of the turmoil in Egypt.

One is the possible departure of President Hosni Mubarak which many hope would be peaceful and orderly. Mubarak may give in to the pressure of the people and give way to a democratic transition.

The other is Mubarak may just cling on to power and order the Egyptian army to crush the peaceful revolt. If he does, then the protests may turn bloody. This other scenario will have long-lasting implication not only to Egypt, but also to the Middle East, to the US which is a long-time patron of Mubarak, and to the rest of the world. It may spark a world-wide socio-economic, political, and security crisis.

Already, as I write this, 160 people have died from the protest; Egypt-linked stocks in various Middle East financial markets have taken a beating; anti-Mubarak protests in many world capitals are taking place; US President Barack Obama is stepping up pressure on Mubarak to take more reforms; and the Egyptian army has gone out from the barracks, replacing the police, in a show of force and support for the Egyptian leader. It’s a social convulsion unheard of in any Mideast capital for quite a long time.

A New York Times article recently posited that the ‘people power’ protests in Tunisia and now, Egypt, are not ideologically-motivated. The protests, the article said, are not fueled by any desire to promote, say, further Islamicization, or Western political culture. The protesters, the article said, are calling not just for political reforms but a stop to graft and corruption, for more jobs and economic rights, and respect for human rights and dignity. These are universal human values.

The same thing can be said for Romblon. Here, in this hapless province of ours, the people are demanding access to more economic opportunities, more jobs, affordable health care, efficient government, and responsible—not corrupt—politicians who, very unfortunately, there are very few.

Romblomanons are also calling for a stop to the senseless attempts to mine the province.

Of course, many of our politicians, including our representative to the House and his cohorts led by the resurrected Sam Romero, now a member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan, are miner lovers.

Many mayors, too, and a lot more barangay captains (may lightning hit them to depopulate Romblon of ignorant and unimaginative politicians) are salivating over the prospect of mining money. These guys, elected by the people for no reason at all except that they were so ‘promising’, want to empty the bowels of Romblon of its mineral wealth, using as guise economic progress to mask their insatiable thirst and greed for money and power.

So, why haven’t Romblomanons gone out to the streets to protest against these social and economic afflictions that our politicians are inflicting on them?

Why haven’t the Romblomanons who have no jobs; who die without seeing a doctor; who go to school with empty stomachs and therefore can’t continue to college, even to high school; who have no access to potable water and electricity; and who continue to be hoodwinked by the very leaders who bribed them to get elected, gone out like the Tunisians and the Egyptians to demand their leaders’ resignation, or even suicide, so that change and reform can finally take place?

I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.

If you have, e-mail me at or text me at 0917 623 8842 and let me see your thoughts. What you will say may solve the puzzle. Go.