Lessons for the Philippines from South America

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Mike Wootton

Mike Wootton

I GUESS not many people are too familiar with the name of Jose Mujica. He is the President of Uruguay, a small country in South America with a population of just over 3 million and a GDP per capita of about $15,000; it is an agriculturally rich country and is industrialized. The Philippines has [as of this last weekend]a 100 million population, and a GDP per capita of about $3,000. Both Uruguay and the Philippines were civilized by Spain on behalf of the Roman Catholic after which the Philippines was colonized by the USA.
Uruguay was a part of the Monroe Doctrine, which maintained Central and South American countries as subject exclusively to trade and cultural relations with the USA.

President Mujica earns a salary of $12,000 a month of which he donates 90 percent to charities concerned with improving the lives of poor people. He drives a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle and lives on a small farm growing chrysanthemums, which he and his wife sell to produce some domestic income.

Clearly his political views are of the left. For some years he was a guerrilla fighter engaged with actions against the government as a result of which he was shot several times and spent 14 years in jail. His expressed view of business is that it just exists to make profit thus he has established national redistributive policies including funding for healthcare and education. He has sanctioned gay marriage, he has sanctioned abortion and in order to combat the drug trade he has sanctioned the legalization of marijuana. Given that Uruguay achieves a GDP per capita which is one of the highest in South America then his policies must work – he has been president since 2010, before which he was a Senator and Minister of Agriculture.

There are clear historical similarities between Uruguay and the Philippines but a major political and economic mismatch.


Some would say that it is inappropriate for President Mujica to live and behave the way he does, eschewing the use of the Presidential Palace and the trappings of power and rather live simply on a farm.

But he does it and through doing so earns a certain level of respect not only within Uruguay but internationally and whilst viewed from the Philippines it would be readily assumed that his redistributive policies have a very negative effect on business investment Uruguay attracts the third most FDI of the South American nations.

Uruguay is ranked first in Latin America in terms of; democracy, peace, lack of corruption, quality of living, and equally first in South America when it comes to press freedom, size of the middle class, prosperity and security. It is regarded as one of the most socially developed countries, outstanding regionally and excelling globally on personal rights, tolerance and inclusion issues.
This column is not the place to attempt any sort of comparison between Uruguay and the Philippines, nor is it to claim that the success of Uruguay as a nation is solely to do with the fact that President Mujica lives an overtly austere lifestyle; he has after all only been President for four years. What I get from these few random highlights is that economic success and real national development can be very well achieved by a government which takes its responsibility to serve the people seriously even to the extent of pursuing its own redistributive policies so long as it behaves in a way which demonstrates to all that it is doing the job it is elected to do.

Governments have to govern, they have to decide what is best for the people and then do it. It is not to follow blindly crackpot policies such as trying to totally abrogate its responsibility to the ”private sector”. It has to think and it has to make things happen for the best by keeping control and it has to be seen to be doing what is right, not just passing endless laws that nobody pays any attention to and are generally not enforced anyway.

There is a great deal more to the practice of governing than seems to be understood or practiced in the Philippines of today. Uruguay is a socially developed nation, a democracy in which the government is in control and which works at the process of governing and because of this it can implement policies which whilst appearing to be anti-capitalist and progressive, i.e., socially responsible, do actually work to make the country a better place to live and at the same time produce a robust economy.

It would take impossibly wild flights of the imagination to envision the Philippines political class donating large proportions of their salaries to benefit poor people and enacting and enforcing socially conscious policies to benefit the population at large at the expense of local big business – the oligarchs would never allow it! The metrics used by bankers are the criteria for the measurement of success in the Philippines; GDP growth, returns on investment, stock market performance, capital ratios, money supply and the other sophisticated sounding terms, which are constantly bandied around. The Philippines is fixated with money as an end in itself rather than as a social and development facilitator. If the enormous amount of time and effort [I cannot say intellect because there is not much of that involved!] which is put into the accumulation of money were directed towards making the Philippines a better place then that in itself will improve the oh so important metrics that government currently relies upon to demonstrate what a wonderful job it is doing. Then all you’d have to do would be to trust that the numbers are honestly calculated!!

We don’t have to equip all the politicians with 1987 Volkswagen Beetles and get them growing chrysanthemums, albeit that may be fun to see. There is a pressing need to get the priorities the right way round and to do that means having an intelligent and honest government which works hard at the right things doing its job by focusing on what is best for the people of the Philippines . . . eradicate poverty, provide proper jobs at proper salary levels, implement redistributive policies, provide health services, schooling, electricity, housing, water and a meaningful social security system, and others. The people are, after all “the bosses.”

Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com

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