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Today's commentary, sent to Sustainers last night, is from regular ZNet
Commentator, Stephen Shalom...
The Philippine Model
By Stephen R. Shalom
Addressing a joint session of the Philippine Congress on Saturday,
President Bush said to skeptical critics of his Iraq policy, "Some say
the culture of the Middle East will not sustain the institutions of
democracy. The same doubts were once expressed about the culture of
Asia. These doubts were proven wrong nearly six decades ago, when the
Republic of the Philippines became the first democratic nation in Asia."
Much in Bush's speech was utter nonsense -- such as his claim that the
war in Iraq had resulted in the closing down of a terrorist sanctuary,
when in fact the U.S. "has taken a country that was not a terrorist
threat and turned it into one," in the words of terrorism expert Jessica
Stern. But Bush was right when he suggested that looking at the U.S.
record in the Philippines can help to illuminate what is in store for
What does the historical record tell us about the U.S. commitment to
A hundred years ago, the United States defeated the Spanish colonizers
of the Philippines only to take over the islands for itself. (In Bush's
speech on Saturday this was summarized as "Together our soldiers
liberated the Philippines from colonial rule." And in the words of
presidential press secretary Scott McClellan, national hero Jose Rizal's
martyrdom in 1896 inspired the Philippines: "And later, revolution broke
out and Asia soon had its first independent republic." Well, yes, but
that independent republic was promptly conquered by the United States.)
When critics of the U.S. annexation of the Philippines charged that
Washington had not obtained the consent of the inhabitants, Senator
Henry Cabot Ledge replied that if consent of the inhabitants were
necessary "then our whole past record of expansion is a crime."
What did Filipinos want back in 1898? What was their democratic wish?
According to a U.S. general testifying before the U.S. Senate, Filipinos
had so little notion of what independence meant that they probably
thought it was something to eat. "They have no more idea of what it
means than a shepherd dog," he explained. But shortly afterwards in his
testimony, the general stated that the Filipinos "want to get rid of the
Americans." "They do?" asked a confused Senator. "Yes, sir," replied the
general. "They want us driven out, so that they can have this
independence, but they do not know what it is."
This U.S. inability to understand the real meaning of self-determination
was not just a turn-of-the-century myopia. Consider the following scene
from the 1945 motion picture "Back to Bataan." In a 1941 Philippine
schoolhouse, an American teacher asks the students what the United
States gave to the Philippines. "Soda pop!" "Hot dogs!" "Movies!"
"Radio!" "Baseball!" scream the pupils. But, the teacher and the
principal correct the erring youngsters by explaining that the real
American contribution was teaching the Filipinos freedom. At first,
however, says the teacher with a straight face, the Filipinos did not
appreciate freedom for they "resisted the American occupation."
Indeed they did. And many thousands of Filipinos -- combatants and
non-combatants -- were slaughtered by U.S. military forces to teach
Filipinos the U.S. meaning of freedom.
In 1946, after nearly half a century, U.S. colonial rule in the
Philippines came to an end. But U.S. domination continued and Philippine
democracy remained thwarted. This was not the first instance where a
colony was given independence and colonialism was replaced with
neocolonialism. To take one example at random, Britain gave Iraq
independence in 1932, but not before it had signed a 25-year treaty
granting London access to Iraqi military bases and western oil companies
had attained a lock on Iraqi oil.
The pattern in the Philippines was similar: Washington retained two huge
military bases and many smaller ones on a 99-year, rent-free lease. The
Philippine city of Olongapo became, in the words of a 1959 account in
Time magazine, "the only foreign city run lock, stock and barrel by the
U.S. Navy." The terms of the bases agreement were revised several times
over the next few decades, but as U.S. officials acknowledged even in
the 1970s nowhere did the United States have more extensive and more
unhindered base rights than in the Philippines. These bases served for
years as the logistic hub for U.S. interventions from Vietnam to the
Persian Gulf; Washington, not Manila, decided how these bases would be
used and against whom, and the Philippine people were not informed of
the presence of nuclear weapons on their soil.
The independent Philippines was also subordinated to the United States
economically. The Philippine government was prohibited from changing the
value of its currency without the approval of the U.S. president and
U.S. investors were given special investment rights in the Philippines.
U.S. officials insisted that Filipinos democratically accepted the
special investment rights, but in fact, the enabling legislation passed
the Philippine Congress only after dissenting legislators were
improperly suspended, and Filipinos ratified the investment rights in a
referendum only because Washington made rehabilitation aid to the
war-ravaged Philippines dependent upon Filipinos voting yes.
>From 1946 to 1972, the Philippines was a formal democracy in the sense
of having contested elections. But it was a political system in which
two coalitions of the wealthy elite, indistinguishable by ideology or
program, competed for power, with a major determinant of success being
the overt or covert backing of the U.S. government. It is true that
there was an issue separating the candidates in 1965 when Ferdinand
Marcos ran on a pledge not to send Philippine civic action troops to
Vietnam, but since Marcos violated his campaign promise as soon as he
won the election, this is hardly a meaningful exception. This may have
been another instance of U.S. political tutelage of the Filipinos --
recall that during the 1964 U.S. presidential campaign Lyndon Johnson
had pledged "No Wider War" and then promptly escalated U.S. military
involvement -- but more likely Marcos's reversal was swayed by the U.S.
funds secretly sent his way.
By 1972, despite the best efforts of the Philippine elite and their U.S.
allies, Philippine democracy was finally beginning to express itself.
Politicians were finding that their usual vote-buying no longer worked
("They take money but vote for the man they think is qualified,"
complained one politician.) Peasants, students, and workers were
increasingly challenging the status quo. Reacting to the popular
pressures, the Congress and even the Supreme Court were moving in a more
and more nationalistic direction, threatening U.S. interests. And so
when Marcos, approaching the end of his second and final term as
president, declared martial law, there were no denunciations emanating
from Washington. On the contrary, as Marcos closed down Congress and the
press and arrested his political opponents, Washington stepped up its
military and economic aid. As a U.S. Senate staff report summarized the
U.S. reaction, "military bases and a familiar government in the
Philippines are more important than the preservation of democratic
institutions which were imperfect at best."
For the more than decade-long dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, he
was backed by the United States government. When he cosmetically lifted
martial law in 1981, but retained all his martial law powers intact, the
U.S. vice president George H. W. Bush visited Manila and raised a toast
to Marcos: "We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the
In 1986, the Philippine people, showing that they, unlike their leaders
or those in Washington, really understood democracy, ousted Marcos,
while the Reagan administration hung on to him until the last possible
Corazon Aquino replaced Marcos and initially she had several
progressives in her government and announced a program of social reform
as the way to deal with the country's long-running insurgency problem.
But under pressure from the United States and the Philippine armed
forces, the progressives were removed and Aquino's agenda became one of
military action instead of social reform.
Despite Aquino's best efforts, the new post-Marcos constitution stated
that "foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed
in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the
Senate." Nationalist sentiment was strong enough in the country that in
1991 the Philippine Senate voted against extending the U.S.-Philippines
Military Bases Agreement. But almost as soon as the vote was taken, the
U.S. tried with the help of cooperative Philippine officials to get
around the constitution.
In 1999, an agreement was concluded giving the U.S. "access" to
Philippine bases and in 2002 hundreds of U.S. troops were sent to the
Philippines to help fight the Abu Sayyef guerrillas. Today, according to
an Agence France Presse report, "the Pentagon is working to maintain on
the islands what US Pacific Command head Admiral Thomas Fargo called
'critical tactical mobility platforms,' including UH-1H helicopters,
C-130 transport aircraft, heavy trucks and patrol boats that could be
used in case of major U.S. military operations in the region."
Of course, these U.S. troops and equipment need not violate the
Philippine constitution if only President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would
submit the appropriate treaty to the Senate. But suspecting that such a
treaty would be voted down, the Arroyo administration and its U.S.
counterpart have chosen to simply ignore the constitution. This is the
hallmark not of democracy but of neocolonialism.
In Iraq today, there is plainly no democracy: the U.S. runs the show. As
an adviser to one of the members of the U.S. appointed Iraq Governing
Council put it, "The population of Iraq perceives correctly that it is
the occupiers who are running things. Everybody else is there in some
secondary or subservient role." But even if and when elections are held,
and an Iraqi government formally takes over, one can expect a
neocolonial relationship, one where the U.S. helps make sure that the
Iraqis in charge support U.S. interests.
Already we see indications of U.S. goals. The New York Times reported on
April 29, 2003, "The United States is planning a long-term military
relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant
the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence
into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration
officials say." One senior administration official stated that "There
will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq,
similar to Afghanistan. The scope of that has yet to be defined --
whether it will be full-up operational bases, smaller forward operating
bases or just plain access." Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld denied the
story, but five months later (9/21/03) another Times story indicated
that Bush administration officials "say the future Iraqi government will
decide . . . whether to allow the United States to establish permanent
bases here, should the Pentagon seek them."
In terms of economic policy, the Independent commented (9/22/03), "Iraq
was in effect put up for sale yesterday when the American-appointed
administration announced it was opening up all sectors of the economy to
foreign investors. . . . The initiative bore all the hallmarks of
Washington's ascendant neoconservative lobby, complete with tax cuts and
trade tariff rollbacks. It will apply to everything from industry to
health and water, although not oil." And as for oil, the U.S.-appointed
chair of the U.S.-established "advisory" committee for the Iraqi oil
industry, Philip J. Carroll, former head of Shell Oil, has said that the
one near-certainty is that the future expansion of Iraq's oil industry
will be driven in part by foreign capital.
In his speech to the Philippine Congress, George W. Bush thanked "the
citizens of Manila who lined the streets today for their warm and
gracious welcome." He may not have seen the thousands of Filipinos
protesting his visit. Bush's motorcade was delayed for an hour while the
Secret Service worried about his security and U.S. and Philippine
authorities (there's that democratic tutelage again) kept the
demonstrators -- and real democracy -- penned behind traffic barriers
and blockades of military vehicles.
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