With only three weeks to go before the national elections, it’s worth reflecting on the catastrophic record of four recent Presidents and the consequences of allowing their depredations to go unchecked. Just a cursory cycle through the performance of four Presidents in the post-authoritarian era – Corazon Aquino (1986-1992), Fidel V. Ramos (1992-98), Joseph Ejercito Estrada (1998-2001), and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) – recalls nightmarish scenarios of corruption, murder, and kidnappings. Even after the toppling of Marcos, the vast majority of the Filipino poor ended up being very badly short-changed.
The Aquino administration inherited a bankrupt state, a discontented military, and was beleaguered by multiple coup attempts. Cory did, however, enjoy broad support and promised to address inequality and poverty, principally through a long overdue comprehensive agrarian reform program. But implementation was slow and partial, and she ensured that her own extended family’s vast holdings remained untouched. Mass protest demonstrations ended in the bloody massacre of 13 peasant farmers on Manila’s Mendiola Bridge in 1987. Resources were poured into her armed forces whose counter-insurgency campaign amounted to “total war” on communist rebels and Moro secessionists. General Fidel V. Ramos, a cousin of Marcos who headed the much-feared Philippine Constabulary during martial rule, was her chief security adviser. Anti-communist vigilante and militia groups flourished. Two of the most notorious were the Alsa Masa, composed of rebel defectors who terrified Davao’s citizenry, and the Tadtad, a pseudo-Christian cult that relished beheadings and hackings, and operated in Mindanao and Cebu.
By the end of Aquino’s term, 2,696 salvaging and disappearance cases had been recorded, many more per annum than during the Martial Law period. A staggering 46 percent of Filipinos lived in grinding poverty. Aquino’s greatest achievement was the restoration of elite democracy, which really boiled down to the retrenchment of the pre-martial law oligarchic elite.
Aquino’s successor was Ramos who, unlike many of his predecessors, had a clear national economic development plan which included export-oriented industrialization, trade liberalization, privatization, and breaking up cartels and monopolies. By 1998, the Ramos administration posted GDP growth of 5.8 percent. However, social welfare was given minimal attention with only 16 percent of expenditure allocated to poverty alleviation and little investment made in vital infrastructure, as opposed to shopping malls and golf courses. Moreover, Ramos was slow to prosecute income tax evaders, most prominently Marcos’ old crony capitalists, such as Lucio Tan, the tobacco and beer magnate who took advantage of Ramos’ privatization policy and bought Philippine Airlines.
Under Ramos’ watch, drugs, bank robberies and kidnappings were rife. Between 1993 and 1997, kidnappings of mainly wealthy Chinese Filipinos stood at an alarming 286 per year with annual ransom demands of between $2 million and $10 million. His appointment of Vice-President Joseph Estrada as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission resulted in the revival of martial rule-style torture squads with links to the criminal underworld.
Estrada’s turn at the presidential helm after Ramos quickly degenerated into a grotesque carnival of violence, racketeering, corruption, and sexual shenanigans. He took a hard line stance against communists and declared an “all-out war” on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao that left scores of people killed and thousands displaced. He and his cronies crafted government policy during late-night drinking sessions, which the press named Estrada’s “midnight cabinet.” He freely boasted about the number of mistresses and children he was actively supporting, in some instances gifting with houses. His downfall came when his involvement in the multimillion-peso illegal numbers game, jueteng, was exposed. Estrada had campaigned on a pro-poor platform. But less than three years in office, he had amassed almost $80 million through corruption. Impeached and finally ousted in 2001 in a popular uprising, EDSA 2, he was jailed but only served 43 days, pardoned by his politically accommodating successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Macapagal-Arroyo had promised to rid the country of patronage-style politics and raise moral standards in government. Her tenure is now considered to have been one of the most rapacious. True, economic growth peaked at 7.3 percent in 2007, but, it was revealed, this was largely attributable to migrant workers’ remittances buoying the economy. Under her administration, buying political support and favors became standard practice. She was known to hand out envelopes containing money to anyone who would help further her ends. For instance, it was reported that at a dinner with Catholic bishops, cash-filled envelopes were given out as gifts ostensibly for pro-poor projects.
She and members of her family were said to have directly benefited from hundreds of millions of pesos and dollars’ worth of kickbacks. One deal alone, the Philippine national broadband network, or the NBN-ZTE project, reportedly netted Arroyo $130 million in kickbacks; her husband, son, and brother-in-law were allegedly involved in jueteng racketeering, and she has been implicated in a host of money laundering scams, one of which was connected to funding her electoral campaign against the action movie star Fernando Poe, Jr., who ran for the presidency in 2004. That election was distinguished by vote rigging, fraud, and political violence — 189 people were killed and 249 wounded. Additionally, under her watch, 900 cases of extra-judicial killings of mainly leftist activists were filed, 180 disappearances recorded, and 56 journalists were murdered.
Historians are trained to look for patterns. The recurring currents here are patronage, plunder, and violence. There was economic growth and some expansion of the middle-class but the poor barely benefited. None of these Presidents did enough to help the poor. None curtailed elite cronyism. The present Aquino administration has, to a degree, perpetuated this appalling national saga.
The current crop of populist personalities who peddle the false hope of messianic deliverance are appealing to voters on everything but reason.
We deserve better and must vote better. Otherwise our history of bad governance will be stuck on repeat and replay.