“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Jan 6, 2014
The following article is taken from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the Trotskyist organization active in France.
Two months after super Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines) struck, the death toll has climbed far higher than what President Benigno Aquino first announced in his feeble attempt to underestimate the extent of the disaster. There are between 7,500 and 10,000 deaths, not counting an unknown number carried away by the tides. Out of the 100 million people who live in the Philippines, 10 to 15 million were affected by the catastrophe of November 8th, 2013 in one way or another. Four million people were displaced and one million more made homeless. Everyone has seen the images of the disaster that were shown nonstop on television: the typhoon cutting a 300-mile-wide swath through the central part of the islands from east to west; the Visayas Islands ravaged, Tacloban and other cities destroyed. Only rare buildings with firm foundations (such as the numerous churches or the less numerous hospitals or schools) remained standing; survivors were shown among the ruins with their signs reading, “Help,” or “We Need Food.” Decomposing corpses were scattered across the ground or lined up by the dozens in body bags. From the islands of Samar, Leyte, Cebu, and Iloilo, journalists reported visions “worse than hell.”
At the very same time that Haiyan descended on the Philippines, an international summit on climate change was being held in Warsaw. The representative from the Philippines immediately placed the blame for the catastrophe on the “climate crisis” and on global warming, a claim that the entire media hurried to embrace. However, although it has been proven that the climate has been warming for several decades, the basis of current scientific knowledge does not allow us to claim this as the direct cause for the increase in numbers or heightened intensity of natural disasters. In the case of the Philippines, the second half of the 19th century saw more frequent and more violent cyclones than the second half of the 20th century. This hasty response of the Philippine delegate may well have been a way of denying his government’s incapacity to deal with the situation.
Besides focusing on global warming, the French media also drew attention to the relief aid delivered to hurricane victims by the wealthy countries, particularly by the United States. Between the benefit concerts and the immediate deployment of a half-dozen warships near the Visayas to facilitate humanitarian relief, the U.S. government played the part of Good Samaritan. And yet, the presence of U.S. Navy cruisers in this corner of the world is no accident. Since President Aquino’s election in 2010, he has obtained both financial support (12 million dollars per year for the Philippine Army) and technical support (military exercises regularly held in common) from the Pentagon, in exchange for his acceptance of a permanent presence of U.S. naval vessels in the waters surrounding the islands. So the deployment of aircraft carriers around Tacloban had nothing to do with humanitarian action. Not only was the aid that the U.S. promised to the Philippines insignificant when compared to what it regularly spends to occupy Afghanistan, but the action was above all a show of force against Southeast Asia.
The media coverage of the typhoon and of its consequences (which tapered off to almost nothing after two weeks) certainly revealed the extraordinary power of Haiyan. With winds of almost 200 miles per hour and waves more than 15 feet tall, this was a meteorological phenomenon of a level not seen in the Philippines for a very long time. But to present the catastrophe exclusively from this point of view hides how the country’s poverty is the cause of the magnitude of the damage. As one observer put it, “All countries are not equal in the face of natural disasters.” If Japan were struck by a hurricane of comparable force, it would not have suffered in the same way, since its economic development has allowed it for over a century to construct buildings strong enough to resist hurricanes. In the Philippines, Haiyan alone is not responsible for the tens of thousands of lives lost or shattered. The abrupt and scattered geography of the country, made up of 7,000 islands so inhospitable that only 150 are inhabited, is not the only reason for the delay and inadequacy of the aid. In the Philippines, it is also underdevelopment that killed, an underdevelopment inherited from the Philippines’ longterm subjection to imperialism – more specifically, to U.S. imperialism.
It took fifty years for the Spanish Empire to solidify its control over this string of islands situated at the meeting point of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They were home to a disparate population, including aboriginal hunters, fishers, and farmers, Malaysian artisans, and Muslim and Chinese merchants. Although the Portuguese explorer Magellan claimed the Philippines for the Spanish Crown in 1521, the islands were not unified under a single administrative division until 1571, with the new city of Manila as their capital. Because the Spanish conquered the Philippines as part of their larger quest for spices, they did not seek to develop the islands during the first two centuries of their domination. Not until the second half of the 1700s would the Spanish systematically undertake to exploit the riches of the Philippines (gold, tin, copper, coconut oil) and to transform agriculture, which had previously produced food for the population into crops for export to European markets: indigo, cotton, tobacco, coffee, hemp, and sugarcane.
The Spanish rulers carried out major infrastructure projects and exploited the land on the backs of the native populations, through their blood and sweat. The Spanish enslaved the natives, banned them from speaking their own languages, and in addition extorted their wealth through heavy taxes. In the space of only a few decades, the Spanish had shattered the old social structures and imposed the Christian religion on all of the “Indios,” as they named the people, with the notable exception of the island of Mindanao, which remained Muslim. The Philippines is the only Asian country to this day where 85% of the population identifies as Catholic.
The ferocity of this colonial exploitation provoked a huge number of revolts. A new insurrection broke out in 1896 that finally ended Spanish domination for good. Although this insurrection was built on the grassroots support of the peasants, it was led by petty-bourgeois nationalists, including separatists and supporters of independence, some of whom were descendants of the Spanish colonists. These nationalists hoped to trade freely with the British and French empires while retaining a more substantial portion of the Philippines’ wealth for themselves, instead of seeing the Spanish siphon off most of the pesos into their own coffers.
The war for independence certainly forced the Spanish to leave, but it did not end in the emancipation of the Philippine people. Rather, it led to their subjugation by a new master – the United States. The Philippines fell under the domination of the United States at the moment when the major powers were dividing up the world. Instead of contesting with England and France for Africa, the U.S. moved to take over the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. When the 1898 uprising of the Philippine population broke out, worrying even the native bourgeoisie, the U.S. won over the nationalist leaders by assuring them of their support for the cause of independence from Spain. On June 12, 1898, independence was certainly declared. However, on August 13, the Spanish handed the keys to Manila to the U.S. Army by arranging a sham naval battle to avoid surrendering to the Philippine guerrillas behind the scene. Spanish and U.S. diplomats had already come to an agreement on the transfer of power and even on the price: Spain agreed to cede the Philippines to the United States for 20 million dollars. In February 1899, the United States claimed the Philippines as a U.S. protectorate. It would take the U.S. navy four years of war – using 100,000 U.S. soldiers and causing hundreds of thousands of Philippine deaths – to make this conquest a reality.
On the economic level, the U.S. occupation continued the same policy that the Spanish had started, only on a greater scale and with more modern technical means. The U.S. made Filipino workers produce as many goods as the U.S., and even European and Chinese markets could absorb. The list of resources that could be commercialized was long: gold, coal, lumber, rice, sugar, coconuts, hemp, tobacco, etc. It mattered little to the imperialist masters that this commercialization eliminated the production of food. This business forced Filipinos to buy products imported from the United States in order to eat and to clothe themselves, a change which also proved profitable for the United States. The “free trade” between the two countries was anything but equal. U.S. companies had the freedom to inundate the Philippine markets with their goods while keeping out any goods from their European competitors. The Philippines also had the freedom to export their agricultural products to the United States, as long as they didn’t create “unfair competition” for Southern or Midwestern farmers! In 1934, a date was finally set for the territory’s independence – 10 years into the future. The condition was that U.S. companies would keep all their economic advantages in the Philippines and that the United States could keep as many military bases there as it wanted. The islands were essentially a cash cow for the U.S. economy.
On December 7, 1941, just a few hours after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Army advanced on the Philippines. The Japanese government presented itself to the people as a liberator – just as the U.S. government had done in 1898. It courted the nationalists who were willing to play along (one of whom was Benigno Aquino, the current president’s grandfather). The capture of Manila in January 1942 was supposed to inaugurate the Philippines’ entry into the “CoProsperity Sphere.” However, in place of this panAsian solidarity, the Japanese subjected the Philippines to three years of occupation no less brutal than the Spanish and U.S. occupations. Japan, like the other powers involved in World War II, was in it to expand its economic empire, an empire where the roles were laid out in advance, with industrial production left to Japan and the production of cheap raw materials left to the colonies – Korea, Manchuria and the Philippines. Cotton cultivation replaced rice growing, which was an important part of the Philippine diet, driving the population into unprecedented poverty. In the midst of this suffering, a wheeling and dealing bourgeoisie, which at this point was Japanese as well as Chinese, knew how to benefit even after General MacArthur made his big return on October 20, 1944.
Two years later than they had promised in 1934, the United States granted the Philippines independence on July 4th, 1946, which, in a perverse way, they chose in order to coincide with Independence Day in the U.S. In order to minimize the insult, the Philippine government has since changed the date of its independence day, but July 4th is still known as “FilipinoAmerican Friendship Day.” In line with what was agreed to before the war, independence was granted only in exchange for exorbitant economic and military privileges.
The treaty was based on two laws passed in Washington (the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Bell Trade Act). It stipulated that 50% of all capital investment in the major sectors of the economy (agriculture, logging, mining, and oil) must be reserved for U.S. capital. It also legalized the oneway “free trade” relations that allowed U.S. companies to protect their home market, to invade the Philippine market, and to monopolize all Philippine natural resources for next to nothing. With close to 75% of their domestic and international trade under U.S. control, the Philippines remained the victim of economic plundering. At the military level, the United States obtained the right to install 23 bases (with the largest of these, Clark and Subic Bay, situated right next to Manila) for a duration of 99 years. At the diplomatic level, the U.S. obtained the right to represent the Philippines in every country in which the Philippines had no embassy.
U.S. figurehead (and Philippine president) Manuel Roxas proclaimed that prices would be frozen on essential products, but this order was never applied, leaving black market profiteers free to charge whatever they could. However, Roxas held fast to his promise to hunt down the Huks (nationalist peasants opposed to the large agricultural plantations), wreaking havoc on the countryside with the blessing and technical support of U.S. military experts, who showed government forces how to use napalm. This campaign of state-sanctioned violence emptied entire areas of the countryside of their inhabitants, forcing them to cluster around the cities, mainly Manila. Despite their formal independence, the Philippines began to play a more and more obvious role as an appendage of U.S. imperialism as the Cold War intensified. The territory served as a launching pad for U.S. operations in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1965-1975), as well as a recruitment center, since the Philippines furnished military battalions in both wars. In 1969, the Communist Party of the Philippines, which had moved from Stalinism to Maoism, formed a guerrilla organization, the NPA (New People’s Army). For Washington, this provided all the more reason to consolidate its ties with the Philippine military apparatus. In addition, by evicting peasants from the mountains in which they lived, there was the added bonus of freeing up precious space for the logging and mining industries.
The following period (1972-1986), under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, continued the country’s subordination to the interests of U.S. capitalism. First elected president in 1965, then reelected in 1969, Marcos established martial law in 1972 with the Pentagon’s approval. His attacks on so-called internal enemies resulted in 100,000 deaths. The U.S. cartels had no reason to reproach Marcos since the proportion of U.S. foreign holdings grew to 80%, even greater than under the protectorate. But Marcos favored the social advancement of those close to him at the expense of the established Philippine ruling class, expanding the ethic of “help yourself” to levels that even a section of the bourgeoisie refused to tolerate. It was said that Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda accumulated nearly 100 billion dollars over the 15 years that he ruled, plunging the Philippine government into debt. This provided a bonanza for Wall Street, but it threatened to provoke reactions from the population that would be difficult to control.
In the 1970s, the Philippines tried to form ties with surrounding countries in order to loosen the grip of the U.S. After making not very successful alliances with Thailand and Malaysia in 1961, and then with Malaysia and Indonesia in 1963, it became part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), created in 1967. However, since the countries in the ASEAN shared no common market or governing body, it became nothing but an unequal forum in which Singapore lorded it over the others with its $3,000 per capita income, while the Philippines straggled far behind on the bottom rung, with its $400 per capita income (using 1978 figures). The only significant change brought by the creation of ASEAN was to open the country to speculators from Australia, New Zealand, and above all Japan. But this did not make the Philippine economy any more independent or balanced. In 1979, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed its first structural adjustment plan on the Philippines, meaning an end to gas subsidies for the population and major cuts to already-drained public services.
For U.S. imperialism, the growing weakness of Marcos became clear in 1984, when opposition parties began to make headway in the parliamentary elections and a strike wave broke out. The problem confronting the U.S. government was to prevent this mobilization from threatening the interests of multinational corporations in the Philippines. To solve this problem, the U.S. decided to change horses, choosing to back Corazón “Cory” Aquino, the wife of an opposition leader who had been assassinated by Marcos’ gunmen in 1983, and the daughter of Benigno Aquino who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation during World War II. After Aquino’s election as president in 1986, she thwarted six coup attempts over the course of six years. She succeeded in holding on to her post, primarily due to the support of the leaders of U.S. imperialism. They preferred to tolerate her speeches about the “People Power Revolution” than to visibly support one of their obvious former flunkies, such as one of the generals from the Marcos years with whom they enjoyed such close connections. The U.S. allowed Marcos to come live in Hawaii, while continuing to support Aquino in hunting down the Maoist guerrillas in the Philippines. This operation eliminated the NPA’s leadership in the following year, and destroyed the organization. On the social level, “Cory” sent in the police to break a strike of 22,000 civilian workers employed on U.S. military bases; she made no efforts to introduce agrarian reform. As one joke from the time put it, “Ali Baba has departed, but the Forty Thieves still remain.”
During the 1990s, new institutions guaranteeing “free” and multiparty elections succeeded Marcos’ overtly authoritarian regime. However, as in many underdeveloped countries at this moment, all that changed was the facade of power. The “free” elections brought two generals to the presidency (Ramos in 1992, Estrada in 1998), both formed under Marcos and with ties to the Pentagon. The Philippines continued to export their natural resources (copper, precious wood) cheaply to Japanese and U.S. markets and to import prohibitively expensive finished products from these countries. The privatization of water and electricity, although a bargain for the traders whom Marcos had previously cut off from this jackpot, was just one more blow to the standard of living of the poor. However, Marcos’ departure did have certain consequences from an economic point of view. The establishment of a more stable regime attracted foreign capital in search of safe investments, notably in industry (naval construction, electronics, textiles), which grew from one third of all exports to one half within 10 years. Like neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, the Philippines offered undeniable advantages for foreign investors: abundant raw materials, an inexpensive workforce, and very low taxes for foreign investors. The relative growth of the Philippine economy during these years earned it the designation of a new “tiger,” or even a “dragon,” in the global media of the bosses.
Nevertheless, the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit the Philippines with full force and pushed the country backward. The peso collapsed, factories closed one after the other, credit to businesses and individuals dried up, and the IMF demanded new “adjustments” under the pretext of restarting the economy. At the end of the 1990s, half the workers in the “Philippine dragon” were partially or entirely unemployed. The politicians and bosses worked together to take back from the workers anything they had conceded under the pressure of the demonstrations in 1986. During the presidency of Gloria Arroyo (elected in 2001, then reelected in 2004), they launched a major anti-worker offensive. Union activists (such as Diosdado Fortuna, the leader of the KMU at Nestlé) were assassinated by the dozens, probably by the hundreds if the numerous “disappearances” are included.
For workers, it was worse than under Marcos, whose main target had been the NPA, not the labor movement. Neither did Arroyo spare leftwing priests, student protestors, nor committed journalists. This intensification of violence went hand in hand with the accelerated growth of the free zones established to attract capital from all over the world through the absence of tariffs or any workplace rights. At Chong Won, a Walmart subcontractor with ver y low wages coupled with incredibly long hours, the management carried out a relentless campaign against unionization. During a prolonged strike in 2006, not content with the government’s guarantee of constant military surveillance, they used first the municipal police and then private thugs to attack workers. When the chairman of the board of the Workers Assistance Center (WAC) was shot, neither Chong Won nor Walmart were even questioned and they got away with it.
Arroyo lavished attention on U.S. corporations and was ready to accommodate U.S. geopolitical interests. She continued the joint military exercises that were the standard practice of her more military predecessors and extended the “temporary” agreement authorizing the presence of U.S. soldiers and officers to train the Philippine Army, which remains in effect to this day. Just as Marcos supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Arroyo wished to be George W. Bush’s favorite regional ally in his “War on Terror” after September 11th. She gave the green light to a Marine Corps operation on the island of Mindanao in 2002, granting them free rein to wipe out the Islamist guerrillas there, one branch of whom, Abu Sayyaf, identified with AlQaeda. In 2006, a Philippine version of the Patriot Act allowed government authorities to place a group of U.S. feminists in Manila under house arrest for their supposed links with the Taliban! In 2007 Arroyo granted a Texas company the right to build a 14 million dollar military base in the Philippines. In so doing, she confirmed her submission not only to U.S. generals, but also to U.S. businessmen.
Several weeks before Haiyan struck the Philippines, The Economist had described the country as a “new giant,” and the credit ratings firm Moody’s celebrated it as “Asia’s Rising Star.” Why such flattering terms? Because in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the combination of squeezing workers and offering gifts to foreign capitalists allowed the country to report a growth rate of more than 5% each year. Under Arroyo and then under Benigno Aquino III, elected in 2010, (the son of Cory Aquino), U.S. and Japanese capital, as well as capital from Singapore and Hong Kong, has poured investments into sectors like agribusiness (fish or seaweed processing), textiles, leather, chemicals, or call centers, in which young Filipinos, rarely unionized but all English-speaking, are exploited wholesale.
However, only those looking through the bosses’ glasses would dare to speak of any “Philippine miracle.” In the past 15 years, the number of Filipino workers forced to look for work abroad has grown dramatically. In Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, Filipino women are hired as maids and servants, men as laborers, both making enormous sacrifices to be able to send their families what they can out of their low wages. The cases of actual enslavement are numerous, in the construction industry as well as the domestic sector. Today, 10% of Filipinos live outside of the Philippines, and the 20 billion dollars they remit to the Philippine economy every year makes up 10% of the country’s GDP. The scale of this transfer is not a sign of prosperity. One especially tragic irony is that many of the Filipinos forced to leave their country end up being employed by the U.S. Navy.
With Aquino installed in the presidential palace, it hardly makes sense to talk of any “new era.” True, he owes his electoral victory to an anti-corruption campaign. Ironically mass demonstrations against his corruption broke out in August 2012. The next summer, the worst scandal of his presidency smeared his already tarnished reputation. It came out that deputies from his party had diverted 50% of the 600 million dollars funneled through their hands as part of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), instead of spending it on infrastructure improvements in their districts. As if that weren’t enough, Aquino had directed 25 million dollars into the accounts of 18 senators in order to ensure their votes against one of his main rivals. Incidents like these made it obvious that Aquino’s campaign fight against corruption was a sham. It was nothing but a means to weaken his competitors, like former president Gloria Arroyo. He was certainly not about to stop the nepotistic practices that have earned the Philippines a prominent rank on Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Aquino’s promise to rein in the army and the police after the abuses of the Arroyo years (2001-2010) has remained purely verbal. Those responsible for the “disappearances” remain unpunished, while torture remains commonplace in police stations and prisons. Besides the official forces of repression, who often employ teenagers and do not hesitate to requisition schools to use as barracks, there are numerous private paramilitary organizations at the service of various politicians and businessmen. No self-respecting large landowner would even think of doing without one of these. The government is willing to furnish this kind of militia to any mining company that asks for one. In many cities, the police are assisted by “death squads” hired by the local capitalists to “clear” the streets of stray children and juvenile delinquents. In Davao City, on the southern coast of Mindanao, one adventurer nicknamed “Dirty Harry” maintained order so that exploitation could continue in the 1990s, assassinating not only drug dealers, but also Islamist guerrillas and Maoists. He was known to use back-alley executions or throw some of his victims into the sea from helicopters. He became the darling of the local bourgeoisie, winning first the mayoral and then the congressional elections, all with the central government’s blessing.
Parliamentary democracy in Philippine society today is a smokescreen covering the dictatorship of the peso and the dollar. Imperialist domination has concentrated fantastic opulence at one end of the society (the richest 10% of the society possess 33% of its wealth) and abject poverty at the other (the poorest 10% don’t even possess 3% of the total wealth). There are not one but dozens of minimum wage rates, some respected more than others, diminishing in amount the farther one gets from Manila. In the capital, the minimum wage is $10 per day, while this falls to $5 per day going further south. Although minimum wages are higher in the service industry and manufacturing (at 250 pesos, or $6.00 per day) than in agriculture, and still higher on the plantations (around 230 pesos per day) than in the rest of the agricultural sector (200 pesos, or less than $5.00 a day), few workers make more than $150 a month.
Manila, with its 10 million inhabitants, illustrates many of the country’s contradictions. In the middle of exhaust fume clouds surrounding its semipermanent traffic jams, the air-conditioned ATVs of the privileged minority cut in front of overfilled buses and collective taxis. Manila’s social segregation is disgusting – wealthy neighborhoods under heavy surveillance on the one hand, vile slums on the other. Manila is also the global capital of child labor, including children who congregate on the landfills every morning in search of objects to resell and others who fall prey to pimps and sex tourists. And child labor extends beyond the boundaries of Manila – five million are exploited across the entire island chain. One of the most shocking cases is that of the pearl divers employed by Japanese capitalists in the Sulu Archipelago, as their eyes and eardrums gradually deteriorate, turning the youngsters blind and deaf.
During the reign of both Aquinos, mother and son, as well as that of Arroyo, Philippine agriculture has remained under the control of multinational corporations. Landed property has become even more concentrated, since companies exporting rice, bananas, sugar cane, and other commodities have bought up the holdings of small peasants. As a result, one third of the peasants no longer own any land – while the price of rice, a staple that most Filipinos were able to produce and consume – has skyrocketed. Reduced to the status of sharecroppers, small farmers are often forced by their landlords to pay rents equivalent to between half and three-quarters of their harvest. This intolerable burden often forces them to flee toward the only land left available: the high-risk territory on the slopes of volcanoes and the coastal areas prone to flooding. In these regions, which are the most hostile in the whole island chain, no public housing awaits the migrants, who are forced to fend for themselves. Since they lack electricity or gas, those who live on the mountainside are forced to chop down and burn the trees on their property in order to stay warm. This contributes to the erosion of their soil and the increasing incidence of mudslides.
In the slums around Manila, the city does not even collect trash. It piles up so dramatically that it blocks the flow of water channels. In these conditions, the rich have the nerve to accuse the poor of responsibility for their own misery, despite the degree to which the main culprits for the destruction of the environment are the bosses. Deforestation is due far less to the migrants and the small farmers illegally pushing into the forests than to the well-established logging companies. Protected by government concessions, or even in direct control of the local or regional political structure, these companies cut down forests in industrial quantities in order to sell to foreign markets, not giving a damn about the consequences. The flooding on the coastal plains is primarily a byproduct of the big planters’ unlimited pumping from the groundwater tables in order to water their crops, which accelerates the sedimentation of the river deltas.
The mining industry’s record is no less nightmarish in terms of the human and environmental destruction that it causes. In this sector too, anything that can be exported (nickel, chromium, zinc, cobalt, etc.) is worth mining, but the multinational corporations prefer to carry out in their own country the processing of the minerals themselves, which is less dirty and more profitable. One documentary filmed in 2012, “Diwalwal: The Cursed Gold of the Philippines,” about gold mining in Diwalwal, on the island of Mindanao, is particularly revealing. According to the film maker, this boomtown of 50,000 inhabitants is not even marked on maps yet. It exists in a completely lawless zone, where three big companies, including one based in the U.S., divide up the pie. For a long time, these companies granted concessions on certain veins to small independent miners who acted as subcontractors, obviously allowing the companies to avoid having to provide them with safety equipment. Nobody knows just how many miners have died from tunnel collapses or mercury poisoning. Recently, the three big companies decided that these subcontractors were not productive enough, so they convinced many to renounce their concessions and used gas to force out those refusing to leave the mines. The central government has closed its eyes to this social warfare, all the more willingly because the district governor is himself one of the three mining barons. In the jungle of Diwalwal, order is enforced by a former head of one of the bosses’ militias, who would like to move up from the position of sheriff to that of mayor.
The example of Diwalwal illustrates another characteristic of the imperialist order: in the underdeveloped countries much more than elsewhere, the state is reduced purely to its function of repression. The state’s lack of a large social base and its role as a transmission belt for imperialism render it extremely fragile, even when the regime adopts authoritarian methods. In the Philippines, it is an open secret that the Army is the foundation of the government and functions semiautonomously from the elected bodies. From this point of view, the election of Generals Ramos (in power from 1992 to 1998) and Estrada (in power from 1998 to 2001) was not much of a surprise. In fact, the election of civilian politicians is little more than a fig leaf over the true power. For all that, the Army is not powerful enough for the big corporations to entrust it with keeping order. The underdevelopment that accompanies the domination of these corporations is synonymous with poverty and therefore necessarily with corruption at every level of the state apparatus. The lowest officer who has even a little bit of power uses it to benefit his relatives. This ultimately leaves the Philippine Army and the state as little more than a collection of feudal cliques, despite their pretensions of centralization.
In this “feudal” structure, each little lord has no qualms about exercising his own right to use repression, even using mafia-inspired methods. This can further the interests of foreign investors but can sometimes derail these interests. Wall Street certainly looks favorably on government support for the expulsion of peasants from their land, but each of these peasants becomes a potential recruit for the Maoist New People’s Army or for the armed Islamist groups. The Pentagon certainly supports the repression of these groups, but it is not so easy to carry on the business of making money in a country affected by guerrilla warfare. In fact, Aquino III hoped to fix things by negotiating more or less longterm cease-fires with both the NPA and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. However, the Philippines remains a fragmented state, incapable of controlling all of the territories that lie within its boundaries. Consequently, the 500 islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the country’s southwest can be a relatively autonomous hideout for pirates and smugglers.
The Philippine state is in this sense only a collection of “special bodies of armed men” (to use Engels’ phrase), obedient to the central government to a greater or lesser degree. Payment of the state debt absorbs 10% of the GDP every year. The condition of women is poor. There is no right to an abortion. The Catholic Church uses its weight to halt the progress of sexual education and contraception.
Another price of the general decay of the state is the total neglect of public infrastructure. Each state bureaucrat hands parts of the government contracts over which he or she has control to personal friends and supporters. Such practices guarantee that these friends make off with handsome payments, but not that they will carry out satisfactory work. As a result, the Philippines has far fewer telephone lines, electric cables, and paved roads than the other members of the ASEAN. In the Sulu Archipelago, where there are virtually no roads, people get from place to place as they did before Magellan: by canoe.
Although many commentators have focused on the misfortune of the population hit by the super-typhoon, misfortune does not provide an explanation for the extent of the disaster. In many respects, the devastation is a logical reflection of the state of Philippine society, shaped as it has been by centuries of oppression and exploitation. A comparison between the effects of Haiyan in the Philippines and in Vietnam says a lot about this history. In Vietnam, a country of a similar size and also underdeveloped, the typhoon caused less than 20 deaths – not just because the winds were less violent there. In fact, the Vietnamese population has benefitted from what remains of a certain level of state centralization put in place by Ho Chi Minh, the radical nationalist leader who sought to pull his country out of the grip of imperialism. In the days just before Haiyan struck, the Vietnamese government competently took charge of the evacuation of people from the coastal zones into better-protected areas. Nothing of the sort happened in the Philippines, where the evacuation took place far too late and far too incompletely, and where President Aquino dared to appear on national television just 24 hours before the catastrophe and affirm that “everything [was] under control.” It certainly should have been, considering that the island chain is in the heart of “tornado alley,” the natural corridor where half of all the world’s cyclones originate each year. Yet neither the enfeebled Philippine state nor the countries that have gotten rich off the Philippines provided the means to prevent the worst outcome.
The city of Tacloban paid the heaviest price for Haiyan’s destruction in large part because the typhoon struck its location on the island of Leyte with full force. But the extreme negligence of the authorities also contributed a great deal to the extent of the damage. Over the course of the past half-century, the city’s population has grown from 50,000 to more than 200,000 inhabitants, attracted by the jobs created on the surrounding plantations and by the development of the city’s commerce. But nothing has been done to house them decently. The population is packed into slums, in dwellings with wooden walls and grass roofs, while the government has found nothing better to do than to bulldoze their homes. Such an eradication is shortlived, as new houses are thrown up almost as quickly as they are taken down. Clearly, in Tacloban, the lack of solid and durable housing is what placed the poor and working-class residents at the mercy of the typhoon. Incidentally, in the days that followed Haiyan, dozens of women and children went to seek refuge in the biggest jail in Leyte where their husbands and fathers were held and had carefully remained in spite of the fact that the gates were wide open.
Sadly, the slowness of the response is also not a surprise. Help arrived more quickly in the tourist areas, which already have better infrastructure, than in the more remote villages that were relatively cut off from the world even before the typhoon hit. The Tacloban airport became the only place to receive the aid workers coming to Leyte and to send off the survivors, so it became congested very quickly. Vehicles carrying water, supplies, and medication were often attacked, sometimes by gangs, and most often by typhoon victims at the end of their wits from waiting so long for help. The U.S. and European media for the most part placed the blame on the poor, evoking “violence and looting,” claiming “the basest instincts” had taken over. As if the victims’ very survival was not at stake!
In any case, the government’s priorities in this critical moment became blindingly obvious. Aquino had guaranteed that bulldozers and backhoes would be lined up to begin the cleanup process after Haiyan passed, but although these machines survived the typhoon essentially intact, there was a shortage of personnel qualified to operate them! On the other hand, there was certainly no shortage of personnel to lock down the Gaisano shopping mall and forcibly prevent the victims from taking food and drink. As always, private property is sacred!
When the calamitous nature of the typhoon relief effort became apparent, Aquino tried to place the blame on the mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez (the nephew and former political ally of Imelda Marcos), while profiting from the mayor’s setback to sing the praises of one of his local protégés, the liberal Mar Roxas. This clear political manipulation of the situation was shocking to many, as was the president’s act of political theater when he pretended to personally take command of the aid operations. Instead of bringing direct aid, his government organized a “discount caravan” offering supplies at less onerous prices but still costing money. Neither was the medical support given for free. In some emergencies, the authorities offered loans to the victims. It isn’t clear whether these small measures were enough to prevent the spread of malaria and typhoid fever in the most devastated regions. All in all, the operations most critical to the victims’ survival, such as clearing the ruins and starting the rebuilding process, were primarily undertaken by the population itself. They knew they could not count on the government. During a demonstration in Manila called by the union KMU on November 22, the parents of victims quite rightly expressed their anger at the “disaster president.” They refused to stand for the bullshit espoused by the bishops, who see the typhoons as divine punishment, surfing on Haiyan’s wave to reinforce their brand of fatalism and superstition. Neither do Filipinos accept that Aquino use the catastrophe to justify reinforcing the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
The total cost of the material destruction the typhoon caused, calculated at 14 billion dollars, reveals both the underdevelopment that the United States has imposed on the Philippines over the past century and the unequal development that the U.S. has created within the country itself. The figures are ten times less than the equivalent damage calculated for Hurricane Katrina in the United States (150 billion dollars), even though Haiyan caused three times as many deaths. This is proof that in Visayas, there was very few solid structures to destroy.
According to the director of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in the Philippines, more than five million workers lost their means of making a living as a result of the typhoon. Half of these worked in the “service sector” (which refers less to the white collar occupations than to smalltime street vendors and collective taxi drivers), slightly more than one quarter worked in agriculture (farming and fishing), and slightly under a quarter worked in industry. According to the ILO, half of these workers were already in a situation of extreme vulnerability before the typhoon, “doing whatever work they could find to survive and provide for their families. These people have lost the little they had to begin with. They have no home, no income, no savings and no one to turn to for help.” The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank each plan to contribute one billion dollars, but in the form of loans, not direct aid. This probably means staggeringly large contracts for the giant construction firms but will never reach the suffering population, given the usual practices of embezzlement at every level of the state apparatus.
Aquino brags about setting up “emergency employment programs” aimed at combining the fight against unemployment and the reconstruction of the country. However, the work contracts offered only last for 15 days and pay very low wages. The second type of relief policy is the “cash-for-work” program run by the United Nations. Hoping to put 10,000 people to work in cleanup and recycling efforts before the end of 2013, this program only employed 345 people as of the end of November. A UN official said these programs should allow the Philippines to “return to normalcy” and to begin “reopening hospitals and restarting provision of public services.” But “normalcy” in the Philippines means a wage of $200 a month and no public services.
A delegation of U.S. congressional representatives made a public appearance in the Philippines just after the typhoon passed. They claimed they were worried about the risk of letting the thousands of women and children displaced from the Visayas to Manila fall into the clutches of human traffickers. They feared that the most desperate among them would be pressured into prostitution or into one of the many forms of forced labor. The USAID expressed the same worries. But there wasn’t a word about the U.S. responsibility for the underdevelopment of the Philippines.
The minimum measure of justice for this population – plundered by the United States and by imperialism more generally for decades– would be to place all of the financial, material, and human means necessary for its recovery at its disposal. However, when those in power in this world announce as inevitable that “the reconstruction will take years,” it is clear that the emergencies of the working class and the emergencies of the capitalist class are never treated equally.