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Nigel Harris

The killer from Manila

(December 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 82, December 1985, p. 8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

President Marcos of the Philippines has called an election to pre-empt opposition to himself. What is the background to this?

* * *

HOW LONG can the Philippines hold? All the reports suggest a relentless decay in the cities – unfinished buildings, pot holes in the roads, queues, waves of violence, assassinations, police shoot-outs. Inflation (at 25 percent) is pushing the unemployed into starvation.

Like South Africa, the mass of the population – including the business class – are pitched against their rulers in an apparently unending struggle. Unlike South Africa, the army is seriously divided, incompetent and corrupt.

The Philippines was one of the first less-developed countries to pursue export promotion vigorously from the mid-sixties, solidly backed by the World Bank. In 1972, President Marcos introduced martial law and ran the country as a dictatorship, which he still does (although martial law was ended in 1981) – no politics were allowed to get in the way of expanding exports. All the tricks were tried – generous concessions to foreign companies, liberalised imports, export processing zones, deliberate lowering of wages (wages fell between 20 and 30 percent in the late seventies). There was a ban on strikes, picketing and assembly.

Fall in growth

Export promotion included labour, the ‘export of warm bodies’ as the Filipinos call it. Some two million workers abroad now contribute about two billion dollars to the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Maids and cleaners in London, Cairo, Lagos and many more places contribute, as did the women discovered imprisoned in a textile mill in Rochdale (for two years) by the millowner a few years ago.

Imports always increased faster than exports. For a time, borrowing abroad covered the gap. But as the debt rose – to 26 billion in 1983 (with the highest servicing ratio in Asia) – Marcos was obliged to cut imports. Growth fell and finally went into reverse.

Consider the vivid index of the growth rate, running at 6 percent per year in the seventies: −2.5 percent (1981), −2.8 percent (1982) 1.4 percent (1983) (or 6.8 percent in dollar terms if you allow for the devaluation of that year); −5.5 percent (1984), −2.5 to −3.3 percent (estimated official for 1985; others estimate between −5 percent and −6 percent).

Marcos tried to protect himself politically by increasing public spending, but that only fuelled inflation. He also protected his friends, the ‘cronies’ as they are known (or ‘crony capitalism’) by taking

into the public sector their businesses when they were faced with bankruptcy – to the fury of the mass of businessmen outside the charmed circle. The big state banks freely financed the cronies. By 1984, 75 percent of the loans of the two leading banks were said to be dud.

What those bare figures mean for the poor emerge from time to time.

A 1984 survey showed that 29 million Filipinos (out of 54 million) suffer from malnutrition, and 70 percent were below the local poverty line.

On the island of Negros, the heart of the sugar industry, there has been a sharp rise in the infant mortality rate, with an estimated 7 percent of children suffering from third degree malnutrition. There are 300,000 cane cutters unemployed.

The British ambassador, Robin McLaren, recently delivered £30,000 aid to feed 140,000 children that were starving, remarking, ‘The crisis in the sugar industry has caused real problems of adjustment for the poor.’ He did not mention that one of the reasons for the low world price of sugar was because the world’s largest sugar exporter, the European Common Market, massively subsidises exports, dumping them on the markets for Filipino sugar exports. In July 1984, the cost of production of European sugar was, £346.50, and its export price £93.50 per tonne (the subsidy of £253, provided by the European consumers, is the source of the starving Negrenses).

The economic decline has gone with a rising scale of opposition. Most recently, officially the most destructive massacre has taken place – 27 demonstrators were killed and 24 injured in the Negros town of Escalante in September. Many more are murdered on the streets individually – some 700 in Davao City on Mindanao island this year (six of them in the general strike in September).

The deaths are part of the government’s attempts to retain power, particularly against what must be at the moment the largest guerilla movement in the world. The National People’s Army, according to the CIA, has 12-15,000 full time guerillas and 35,000 part-time, and controls about 13 percent of the 41,000 local government units in the country. The NPA, military, arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines (with, on American estimates, 30-60,000 members and one million supporters), has existed for ten years.

The more hysterical accounts argue that, at its present rate of growth, it will be able to confront directly the national army of 210,000 troops within the next five years.

The CPP’s politics are homegrown Maoism, a mixture of populism and nationalism.

Murdered by military

Simultaneously, the old parliamentary opposition has been revived and is racing to get power before the NPA. But despite much support – it won a third of the seats in last year’s election – it has little unity, and very little to say about the material problems facing most Filipinos. The most likely leader, Aquino; was murdered on his return from exile in the United States in 1983. A section of the military, including Marcos’ former chauffeur-bodyguard, Ver, were implicated. The third strand of opposition, the strike waves, has no independent political leadership. But it has made some striking advances. Examples include the assaults that shut down the Bataan export processing zone in 1982 (and revealed that since Marcos had promised foreign companies they need pay only 75 percent of the national minimum wage for the first six months of employment, the companies sacked their workforce every six months), to the wave of Manila strikes last June.

In Washington there is mild hysteria. This is no Central American mini-state, but a second Vietnam. It contains the two largest US bases outside the United States, employing 39,000 Filipinos. The Philippines, a former US colony, has been a satellite of Washington since it became independent. Successive emissaries from Reagan have failed to achieve reforms.

Senator Paul Laxalt, chairman of the Republican Party, brought a private letter from Reagan to Marcos in mid October to warn that, if Marcos reinstated Ver, Congress would cut off aid to the Philippines.

But what can be done? Marcos is corrupt and incompetent, surrounded by his cronies and his wife, Imelda (the power in the government and ‘Iron Butterfly’ as she is popularly called), with an army paralysed by incompetence and corruption.

Reagan could not tolerate the move to power of the NPA, and yet must know increasingly that Marcos is the main obstacle to the survival of the Filipino ruling class. Perhaps the deal – between the more conservative elements of the opposition and a segment of the army (under the new chief of staff, Ramos) – to murder Marcos and instate a reforming regime that will get rid of the cronies – is already in place. But surgery of this kind is very dangerous and has been known to kill the patient.

Watch out for world crises.

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