Every year in September, a fairy tale is told: A Dark Lord imposed his will upon a hapless people, but then a messiah sacrificed his life to embolden Filipinos to topple the evil regime in 1986.
It’s an old storyline reinforced over recent years by movies such as the Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars series. But reality is always, and in all ways, complex. And after all, you never read in fairy tales things like class structures and exploited peasants.
And reality very seldom ends with that fairy tale line, “And they lived happily ever after. “
To artificially create a revolutionary flow, and provoke the ruling class to internecine strife, the fledgling Communist Party bombed the Liberal Party’s miting de avance in August 1971— quite amazingly just before its superstar Ninoy Aquino arrived. The communists blamed it on Ferdinand Marcos.
Talk of the law of unintended consequences. The bombing only gave Marcos the justification to impose martial law, after a year of meticulous preparation.
The communists had not foreseen, though, that a surging economy would allow Marcos to crush his enemies, and rule for so many years.
Most Filipinos acquiesced to martial law since the economy surged from 1972 to 1980 at an average annual growth rate of 6 percent. The growth rate for 1973, the first full year of martial law, as well as for 1976, was 9 percent, an astounding pace never since posted. We, those jailed for fighting to overthrow the dictator by force of arms, and those who were killed or tortured for that, became unpersons.
Ethnic Chinese businessmen loved Marcos, among other things because he decreed their mass naturalization, allowing the rise of a new generation of Filipino taipans such as William Gatchalian and Andrew Tan. So did the Spanish elite, with the Ayalas and Sorianos happy with what then was their beer-monopoly San Miguel Corp.
The South Luzon Expressway transformed rice fields, like Alabang near the metropolis, into prime properties. It was during martial law that the Ayalas’ Makati became the country’s premier business district. A shoe merchant, Henry Sy, built his first department stores in the 1970s, the prototype for his huge malls, the first of which, SM North was opened in 1985. Even the Araneta Center, owned by the Roxas family that was supposed to be a Marcos enemy, was given a boost in 1975 when it staged the world famous Ali-Frazier fight dubbed “Thrilla In Manila.”
Whether it was because of Marcos’ “Green Revolution” or simply because the International Rice Research Institute was luckily located in the country, production of the high-yielding Masagana 99 rice boomed during martial law that prices of the staple fell, the most important factor for an acquiescent populace.
Marcos’ regime unraveled because of a conjuncture of factors, the economy being the most important.
After the Arabs took back the oil fields from the Western “imperialists” in the early 1970s, they found themselves awash in what would be dubbed “petrodollars.” Western bankers recycled these as loans lent quickly and cheaply to Third World countries. For the first time, poor countries such as those in Latin America and in Asia (us) were deluged with cheap loans purportedly needed to finance their development.
But then, the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. These triggered an oil crisis that pushed up global interest rates. The local enterprises that were funded by the petrodollar loans were white elephants, or were cronies’ milking cows. Marcos’ Swiss accounts were probably mostly payoffs from members of the elite who got the state-guaranteed foreign loans. Countries including ours had to take out new loans just to pay interest on their old loans, thus falling deeper and deeper into debt. In 1982, Mexico and several other Latin American countries defaulted on their loans, creating the global debt crisis.
Aquino’s return in August 1983 to the Philippines couldn’t have been made at a worse time. Interest rates were going through the roof, eating at our dollar reserves so fast that the central bank falsified data on its level.
The political instability in the wake of Aquino’s assassination accelerated the economy’s collapse. In October 1983 the country ran out of dollars to service its loans, and defaulted on its debts, financially isolating it from the world. The GDP collapsed by an unprecedented 7 percent in 1984, and in 1985, the peso’s value crumbled from P9 to P20 to the dollar, and inflation surged by a riot-in-the-streets rate of 50 percent in 1984. No president could have survived such an economic catastrophe.
The elite suddenly became freedom-lovers, donning yellow Armani shirts and joining street protests, to demand that Marcos step down. People power was based on a bad economy’s power to make people want to overthrow their government.
The unhappy reality
After 42 years, the drama of dictatorship and democratization, told again and again this time of the year, does not excite people anymore. We are even often depressed at an unhappy reality we face:
We see the same oligarchs, or their children or grandchildren, ruling the land, even as a fourth of the nation’s citizens live in utter poverty and abject misery, while those just above their station in life are killed in broad daylight or in their homes in a country run by incompetent buffoons.
They have even become more powerful. Few among the youth would know that their favorite hangout, Starbucks, is part of a conglomerate owned by an alleged Imelda crony, the Tantocos of Rustan’s. Why, her nephews are in mining, media and politics. For all their political protestations against Marcos the Aranetas never lost their friar lands in Quezon Ciy, which have become booming business districts. The Lopezes’ are more powerful now than before martial law with their dominant ABS-CBN media empire. Marcos corny Eduardo Cojuangco’s San Miguel empire has become so diversified and powerful beyond his wildest dreams.
Just take a look at the latest Forbes’ list of Filipino billionaires. They are the same tycoons you would read in the business pages of newspapers during the Marcos era:
Henry Sy, Lucio Tan, Enrique Razon (at least his father), John Gokongwei, the Consunjis, George Ty, the Aboitizes, the Ayalas and Zobels, Robert Coyiuto, Andrew Gotianun, Vivian Que (Mercury Drug), the Jose Yao Campos clan, the Lopezes, Roberto Ongpin, Manuel Zamora, the Concepcion Family, Alfredo Ramos, the Uytengus.
Yes, there are entirely new faces, even dwarfing in power these pre-martial law tycoons, the most prominent of which is Manuel V. Pangilinan, who controls the country’s strategic utility firms in power, communications, water, and infrastructure.
But the core capital of what many admire as the ”MVP” group was accumulated not in the era of our strongman Marcos — and not even here. Brilliant as he may be, Pangilinan is not a brown taipan, but an executive of the regional conglomerate built by Indonesian strongman Suharto’s crony Liem and his son Anthoni Salim when they had to flee their country as it was going through its own version of people power in 1997.
Before martial law, we had the oligarch clan, the Lopezes, controlling Meralco. During martial law it was Marcos who controlled it. The People Power Revolution handed it back to the Lopezes, who gave it up to a group controlled by the Indonesian Salim, who has had no qualms remitting its huge profits first to Hong Kong and then probably to his British Virgin Islands and Liberia holding companies.
This is the glory of People Power?
The story gets more depressing.
While percentages show a rosy picture of poverty incidence declining since 1985, population growth—thanks to the power of that body ruling our minds since the 17th century, the Catholic Church—meant that the number of dirt-poor Filipinos (those living on $1.25 or P55 per day) presently stands at 17 million, or about the Netherlands’ population, with only 2 million pulled out of abject poverty since 1985—and most probably just a notch higher.
In this tale of Dictatorship and People Power, they certainly have had no chance to live happily ever after.