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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

You gave us 50 years of Hollywood

For Americans, the Philippines and its place in our past and present floats in our ocean of ignorance.

Special to St. Petersburg Times

The answer is the same in Florida as everywhere else. Ask about the Philippines and the depth of knowledge stops at the shallows of Imelda Marcos and her shoes.

Which is too bad, because the United States and the Philippines have a long, shared history - one that can teach us a great deal about geopolitics in the times we now live.

But first, an update on Imelda. Her husband is no longer president of the Philippines, as one St. Petersburg resident thought, and hasn't been for more than 20 years. In fact, he's very dead.

With Imelda singing New York, New York, the two of them were airlifted to Hawaii by American troops at the height of a people power revolution in 1986 that was backed by the Reagan White House at the last minute, after over a decade of U.S. support for the dictatorial Marcos regime. Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in Honolulu and Imelda is back in Manila, still singing and enjoying her enormous wealth. Not even Rudy Giuliani, when he was U.S. attorney in Manhattan, could secure her conviction for anything.

A few years back Imelda won a seat in our House of Representatives, where she was the poorest member of Congress, at least judging by her officially declared assets. She has launched a line of costume jewelry and is an informal spokeswoman for the Philippine shoe industry.

Most Americans know none of this. Their short attention span has long since moved on. Beyond world-class shoe fetishes, it's hard to hold the interest of the typical American for very long.

The Philippines was once central to U.S. aspirations in the Pacific, so it is quite ironic that we, your former colony, have fallen so far behind Japan, with whom our countries fought a world war.

Digging up unpleasant memories is hard for Americans. Back in 1898 your naval fleet sank the entire Spanish flotilla in Manila Bay. Months later Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for the princely sum of $20-million, ending four centuries of Spain's oppressive colonial rule. What followed was a guerrilla war. Your colonizing troops called it an insurrection. We here in the actual archipelago called it the Philippine-American War.

Our ragtag army used poisoned stakes buried in pits concealed with leaves. We beheaded your soldiers. We buried them alive up to their necks with their heads sticking out for the ants to finish off. Your troops responded with equal viciousness, with one officer ordering his men to turn an insurrecto-infested province into a howling wilderness.

In those blood-drenched fields public support turned against the colonizers. You failed to understand that winning hearts, not battles, was what mattered most, a lesson that would have come in handy in Vietnam a half century later. But none of this is taught in your history classes. In February 1899, British poet Rudyard Kipling, observing the events in Manila, published The White Man's Burden, his paean to the birth of American imperialism. Take up the White Man's burden, he wrote, and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard ...

Pitifully outgunned, the Philippine insurgency soon collapsed. But guns did not turn the tide in favor of the new colonizers. It was your culture. And here you did win hearts, minds and souls. Uncle Sam smothered us with kindness and pop culture. After you gave us Hollywood movies and our dance halls were filled with the sound of jazz, we were hooked. A shipload of teachers docked in Manila, spreading English and baseball across the archipelago.

So began America's experiment with empire in the Philippines. We call it our 50 years of Hollywood. It warrants a mere footnote, if anything, in your history books.

Howard Taft, sweating and enervated by the tropical heat, used Japanese workers to build a road to the peak of a mountain range north of Manila. A resort city, called Baguio, grew out of that effort to keep the American governor-general comfortably cool. We know it as the City of Pines.

Baguio is still there, together with the camp built for your troops' R&R. You also built in the Philippines your largest military bases outside the continental United States. The moat around the walled city of Manila was drained, depriving malaria-causing mosquitoes and other vermin of their breeding ground. Public health care and sanitation were priorities of the new colonizers.

The Philippines became an Asian center for scientific research and agricultural development. Filipino women, whose options as adults were generally limited to motherhood or the nunnery, saw American women living alone, teaching mathematics, engaging in sports as they taught physical education in their bloomers. The fashion statement alone was liberating for Filipino women. Long before Operation Enduring Freedom was conceived, you were already spreading democracy across the Pacific.

The leaders of our revolution against Spain were inspired by the French ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite. But the democracy that took shape in the Philippines was distinctively American. Our system of government, our constitution and laws are patterned after yours. You placed us under your security umbrella, freeing up a lot of Filipino taxpayers' money that would have otherwise gone to defense spending. By the time World War II broke out in the Pacific, our people were close allies.

In the jungles and rice paddies of my country, our soldiers fought a common enemy. When Douglas MacArthur promised, "I shall return," his intended destination was the Philippines. A hundred thousand Filipinos died in MacArthur's liberation of Manila. It was the second most devastated city after Dresden during the war, excepting the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the Fourth of July, 1946, you finally let go of your colony. We still mark the date as Philippine-American Friendship Day. Our country rose from the ashes.

In the two decades after World War II, the Philippines was the envy of Asia. We were prosperous, our literacy rate was the highest in the region, and we spoke the emerging lingua franca of a world that was on an irreversible path to globalization. Also, we knew how to relax and have fun.

Our neighbors went to the Philippines to see what we were doing right, from English proficiency to agriculture. In the years after the war, Asians were busy with movements for independence from European colonizers, and confronting a new threat called communism. In many places the process was bloody.

Authoritarian rulers took control, restored order and focused on economic liberation at the expense of civil liberties. Those rulers cast around for models in building a modern Asian nation. Japan rose rapidly from the humiliation of defeat, applying its unique ancient codes of honor and rigorous discipline to turn the country into an economic powerhouse. Asia's autocrats also believed in national discipline.

But the democracy that Japan was forced to embrace after the war, with regular changes in national leadership, was seen as a destabilizing factor by Asia's autocrats, who believed economic prosperity was better achieved through continuity in leadership. They also believed civil liberties could take a back seat to a more basic right: freedom from want.

Freedom-loving Filipinos could have proved them wrong. We could have done democracy proud. But while our neighbors were busy fortifying institutions that are indispensable in building strong postcolonial nations, we wallowed in complacency, allowing our institutions to be weakened by the excesses of democracy. One of the strengths of democracy - a healthy respect for individual rights - became one of our weaknesses, translating into a failure to transcend selfish interests for the common good. This was where Ferdinand Marcos came in. A brilliant lawyer with a stunning wife by his side, Marcos promised his compatriots, "This nation will be great again!"

Maybe it was the culture. Maybe it was sheer bad luck. Filipinos like to say that in the era of Asian strongmen, we got the wrong one.

While Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia's Mahathir Mohammad, South Korea's Chun Doo Hwan and even Indonesia's Suharto brought prosperity to the nations that they ruled with an iron hand, our homegrown despot simply corrupted everything that he touched. And guess what - he got help from Uncle Sam. America at the time was embroiled in the Cold War, and it needed allies against communism wherever they could be found. Marcos played the communist card well in his dealings with Washington.

Ironically, his dictatorial regime became the biggest recruiter for the local communist movement. Human rights abuses, social injustice, bad governance and poverty drove thousands of Filipinos into the arms of the insurgency. Filipinos eventually drove Ferdinand and Imelda out of power, but the corrupting influence of their regime persists, undermining efforts to bring transparency and the rule of law to the Philippines. From dictatorship, we swung to the other side of the pendulum as democracy was regained, enjoying freedom without responsibility, unwilling to bring accountability to the exercise of basic rights.

Corruption and weak democratic institutions have affected everything, from the quality of education to the investment climate. We hold free elections regularly, but they are always tainted by fraud and what we call the Three G's: guns, goons and gold. Lacking decent livelihood opportunities, our people started leaving in droves for other countries. Our teachers preferred to work as maids in Singapore and Hong Kong. Our industries lost mechanics and other skilled workers.

A tenth of our 87-million population is now overseas, and the exodus continues, with many of our private hospitals being forced to shut down for lack of health professionals. We have nurses working throughout the United States, including Florida; there are Filipinos at the military base - MacDill - in Tampa. Our educators are teaching in your inner city schools.
Leaving the Philippines has become the Filipino dream. In our southern islands, poverty, illiteracy and official neglect have driven Islamic minorities to embrace extremism. About a thousand American soldiers are stationed in Mindanao, assisting Philippine troops in fighting terrorists loosely linked with al-Qaida.

In contrast, our neighbors flourished under authoritarian rule, attracting foreign investments and achieving tiger status during the Asian boom years. In the past years they have consistently rated high in international surveys on transparency and competitiveness. Years after the 1986 people power revolution, which inspired similar movements for freedom around the world, the Philippines has become the best argument for why American-style democracy cannot work in Asia. We have become the bogeyman for scaring creepy liberals: See what happens when there is too much freedom? In places such as Dubai and China, the model for economic prosperity and national development is not America but Singapore.

We have not even managed to punish the Marcoses for the sins of the dictatorship. Imelda Marcos is still singing and flashing her dazzling jewelry, unfazed by the possibility of a Giuliani presidency. There's a lesson to be learned here somewhere, but you won't know from looking at Imelda.

* Ana Marie Pamintuan is executive editor of the Philippine Star in Manila. She recently spent several weeks in the United States under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, including time in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom.

This article can also be read at us_50_years_ .shtml


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