A woman reader, who sends comments on my columns when the spirit moves her, has written to say that, given the current spiral of problems to traumatic proportions, it may be time for us to seriously examine/debate whether the Philippines under President Benigno BS Aquino 3rd has regressed to the status of a banana republic.
She directed my attention to Lee Kuan Yew’s proud boast and legacy before he rode off to the sunset. He laid claim to leading the transformation of Singapore from a third-world country into first-world status. And he had the gumption to write it all down in valedictory volume: From Third World to First.
She then suggests that as President Aquino winds down his presidency in June next year, he could be leaving us this bizarre legacy: the regression of the Philippines from Third-World to banana republic.
Overmatched in APEC summit
I promised to examine her intriguing proposition, in all seriousness, because as President Aquino prepares to host this November 21 Asia-Pacific heads of state for their annual APEC leaders summit, it looks like he and his government are in over their heads. It is going to be a nightmare; and we are simply not prepared, and we cannot afford its financial, psychological, and political costs. And it appears that it is we, the residents of Metro Manila, who must endure considerable inconvenience and deprivation during the four-day summit.
I told my friend that she sounds too much like Cassandra. Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, who was endowed with the gift of prophecy but fated never to be believed.
But here’s the alarming thing. Many of my colleagues in the press (notably Kit Tatad in this paper and Boo Chanco in the Star) have written to say that our government‘s fantasy that the summit will be its coming-out party is a delusion. This thing will cost us more than we can bear. The returns for hosting are illusory. It’s like the Olympics, which bankrupted Greece and is plunging Brazil into crisis this year.
What Third World means
I will desist for now from undertaking a full discussion of what Third Worldism or being a Third World country means; the literature and definitions are quite profuse.
For the purpose of this column, I will only highlight the key features and conditions on which there is some consensus.
The term Third World arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned with either NATO, or the Communist Bloc. The United States, Western European nations and their allies represented the First World, while the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and their allies represented the Second World.
This terminology provided a way of broadly categorizing the nations of the Earth into three groups based on social, political, cultural and economic divisions. The Third World was normally seen to include many countries with colonial pasts in Africa, Latin America, Oceania and Asia.
In the so-called dependency theory of some thinkers, the Third World has also been connected to the world economic division between “periphery” countries in the world system and “core” countries. Third-world countries are on the periphery.
Because many Third World countries were extremely poor, and non-industrialized, it became a stereotype to refer to poor countries as “third world countries,” yet the “Third World” term is also often taken to include newly industrialized countries like Brazil, China and India.
Over the last few decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the term Third World has been used interchangeably with “the least developed countries” and “developing countries” to describe poorer countries that have struggled to attain steady economic development.
Lee Kuan Yew’s use of “Third World” to describe the starting point of Singapore as a free nation appears to fit this early definition of a Third World country.
The same would apply to the Philippines at the recovery of national independence in 1946.
Many will definitely reject the idea that President Aquino was bequeathed a Third World country when he came to power in June 2010. Former presidents like Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Arroyo will contend that the country acquired newly-industrializing status, or “tiger cub,” status during their watch.
Features of a banana republic
There is ample discussion of the term “banana republic” in Wikipedia that succinctly summarizes the origins and broad definition of the term.
But it is too unsophisticated and simple to encompass the full implications of my friend’s warning and analysis.
More useful is the writer Christopher Hitchens’s engaging discussion of the main features of “bananaism” in his collection of essays, Arguably.
“The chief principle of bananism is that of keptocracy, whereby those in positions of influence use their time in office to maximize their own gains, always ensuring that any shortfall is made up by those unfortunates whose daily life involves earning money rather than making it.
“At all costs therefore, the one princple that must not operate is the principle of accountability.”
This describes the situation under Aquino during the last five years.
Another aspect of banana republicdom, says Hitchens, is: “In a banana republic, the members of the national legislature will be (a) largely for sale and (b) consulted only for ceremonial and rubber-stamp purposes sometime after all the truly important decisions have already been made elsewhere.”
The two congresses during Aquino’s rule, the 15th and 16th Congresses, fit this criterion to a T.
Finally, Hitchens says, there is one more feature of a banana republic that should not be overlooked:
“A president who is a figurehead one day and a despot the next, and who goes all wide-eyed and calls on witch-doctors when the portents don’t seem altogether reassuring.”
Wide-eyed? This looks like our BS president.
The final feature of a banana republic that is definitive is the rampant inequality among its people. Some banana republics are nothing but plutocracies, where the richest 1 percent of the population gobbles up 20 percent of the national pie, while some 80 percent of the people live on so little.
This is our country today.
It is no accident that the Philippines has over ten Filipinos who are dollar billionaires. Some 150 families according to Reader Hector own or control most of the national wealth, and get the lion’s share of the corruption.
Inequality has risen exponentially during the term of president Aquino.
A banana republic with high credit ratings
To be fair to Aquino, even Americans have lately worried that their country was becoming a banana republic.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel economics laureate, wrote in The New York Times, that the Unites States was now reduced to the status of “a banana republic with nuclear weapons.”
In reply, I suggest to President Aquino and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima that they tell foreign officials and journalists visiting the country for the summit that “the Philippines is a banana republic with high credit ratings.”