Was EDSA useless for the Filipino masses?

EVERY February, we commemorate the 1986 People Power Revolution, which has been portrayed by the victors as a morality tale of a martyr’s widow leading the people to overthrow the Dark Lord.

Indeed, the morality tale was so powerful that it inspired peoples elsewhere under the yoke of dictatorships to break their own shackles.

Just a year after the EDSA uprising, huge people’s rallies challenged South Korea’s strongman, Chun Doo-hwa, which eventually led to democratic reforms, among them the direct election of the President. Chile’ strongman Augusto Pinochet called for a referendum in 1988, triggering events that eventually led to his fall in 1989.

Poland’s “Solidarity” movement gained momentum after 1986, with Lech Walesa assuming power in 1989. In his visit to Manila in 1995, Walesa said: “Your peaceful People Power Revolution was an inspiration to us for our own revolution.”

From then on, it was a democratic domino effect: Poland’s people power revolution, the Singing Revolutions in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Baltic states in 1989, the East German democracy movement that eventually tore down the Berlin Wall; and Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” — which all contributed to the demise of a powerful totalitarian state. Even South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was inspired by our people power revolution.

But did it matter to us? Did it change the lives of tens of millions of Filipinos trapped in poverty? Or was it useless for most of the poor?

The chart accompanying this article says it all. The chart tracks the gross domestic product per capita (or per person)—a rough measure of the average income of the people in a particular country—at constant 2010 US dollars, in order to account for inflation in each country.

GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT PER CAPITA: People Power didn’t lift much our economy.

Twenty-eight years after EDSA, our major competitors in Asean—Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia—have overtaken us. Malaysia’s GDP per capita of $10.878 is a four times our $2,640; Thailand’s $5,775 is twice.

We have the lowest GDP per capita now, at $2,640. We used to have, in 1972, the second highest, after Malaysia

Our GDP per capita of $2,640 in 2015 was roughly that of South Korea in 1974 ($2,.692) and Malaysia in 1976 ($2,691). That means we’re behind South Korea and Malaysia by four decades. In 1972, we had the second biggest GDP per capita, after Korea.

It’s as depressing when we look at the poverty data (see table.) Malaysia and Thailand have nearly miraculously reduced their poverty incidences (measured as as the percentage of population living below $2 per day) to single rates since the 1980s, 2 percent for the former and 4 percent for the latter. No wonder that in the past several years Filipino domestic workers have been leaving our country to serve the Malaysian rich.

After nearly three decades, we’ve reduced our poverty incidence only by 15 percentage points and we seem to be stuck in the 40-percent levels.

These statistics however could never capture the tragedy and horror of poverty, of children living miserable lives and dying of diseases that have been wiped out it in developed countries, of men and women wasting away in some slum shack, just waiting for death.

So, what happened that we’re so left behind that pessimists even think that Vietnam, nearly destroyed by the world’s most powerful nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, could soon overtake us?

In a nutshell: Nothing much happened
The EDSA Revolution restored the power of our oligarchs, and the country’s oligarchic structure created by colonial powers, and of course, its ideological superstructure, Spanish Catholicism.

The religious spin given to the Revolution—the Virgin Mary was claimed to have willed it—even strengthened the backward, medieval version of Hispanic Catholicism that partly explains the backwardness of nearly all nations that that had been colonized by the Iberian colonialists. No wonder we have been unable to undertake even the weakest program for population control, making us the Asian country with the fastest-growing population—of mostly poor people.

The cronies and big-business supporters of the dictator, years after EDSA, regained their seats in politics, business and even media. Even such a prime architect of martial law’s economic structure—Marcos’ Finance Secretary Cesar Virata—was given recently no less by our premier state university, the University of the Philippines, the honor of having its business school named after him, oblivious of the fact that Philippine business collapsed from 1983 to 1985 when he was the dictator’s Prime Minister.

The heroine of EDSA basically restored the pre-martial law Constitution, and therefore the country’s political and economic structure, except for its provisions making one-man rule very difficult.

Weak state, strong elite
Our state since 1986 has been a weak one, standing not for the nation as a whole but only for the strong elites that control it. In crucial junctures—for instance the recapture of the Meralco monopoly by the oligarchic Lopez clan right after EDSA or the skirting of land reform through “corporatization” of the hacienda as Aquino’s clan did until the Supreme stopped it—the elites get what they want, at the expense of changing our social structures so our country would be more productive.

Some even say that it would have been probably better if EDSA were a violent bloody revolution.

In such a scenario, the oligarchs would have been wiped out, or the horror of a bloody revolution would have been such a catharsis that would force serious nation-building. This after all was the case in the French Revolution, America’s Civil War, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and its ethnic strife that led to the rise of Singapore and Malaysia, and Thailand’s bloody extermination of its communists.

Is that such a cruel thought? Maybe, but then how many millions of Filipinos have died or will die of hunger and diseases or lived or would live miserable lives because we haven’t forged a strong nation and a strong state?

The fact that strong states—based on a country’s strong sense of nationalism built practically on the blood of its people—results in faster economic growth is worrying. If that were the case, Vietnam, with its strong state and 3 million its people killed in the war, would soon be overtaking us. Take a look again at the chart, and it’s obvious something is so deeply wrong with us.

It’s the sad, sad reality of this moment in history we’ve celebrated as a glorious episode. EDSA just didn’t improve much the lives of most Filipinos. We have got to move on and change things, and in our lifetimes.