The nature of the beast

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Before US President Barack Obama canceled his visit to the Philippines and Malaysia, and eventually to Brunei and Indonesia because of the US Federal government shutdown, a group of US Congressmen urged him to include in his meetings with President Benigno Aquino III expressions of US concern over corruption in his (Aquino’s) administration.

“Corruption in the Philippines has long hampered economic growth,” said the Congressmen in a letter to Obama. They went on to say that “President Aquino’s focus on curbing corruption and bolstering the rule of law at the federal level (sic) marks a significant shift for the Philippines,” but claimed that corruption continues to be a serious problem “at the local level.”

With some reason did the congressmen focus on landgrabbing. “Powerful developers force landowners to surrender their rightfully owned property by colluding with government officials,” said their letter. Landgrabbing occurs in many countries because, they continued, “governments fail to enforce the rule of law and lack the political will to tackle this deeply rooted form of corruption.” They asked Obama to intervene given the amount of economic and military aid the US is providing the Philippines.

Landgrabbing does happen in the Philippines, and not only in the remote areas of the country. It happens in the capital itself as well as in other urban areas. But not only local developers — the most visible to the public are developers of gated communities — are involved.

A Qatar-based transnational has leased, said reports in 2012, some 100,000 hectares of prime agricultural lands from the Philippine government. Chinese agri-business corporations, under an agreement with the past Arroyo administration, will use 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land to augment Chinese food production. Vast amounts of land are also being primed for exploitation by foreign corporations for the production of biofuels.

Like the presence of US troops despite the Constitution, none of these could happen without government collusion and corruption, foreign acquisition of land being limited by the Constitution. Although the government and its officials have found ways to circumvent that limitation, there are nevertheless plans afoot in Congress to amend the Constitution to legally allow foreign ownership of land.

Apparently thinking of those instances in which landlords have complained about being undercompensated, the US congressmen were concerned with the defense of property rights. But more than landlord property rights are involved. The welfare and livelihood of the farmers who will be dispossessed, or who have already been dispossessed, is also at stake.

The US congressmen were also mistaken in assuming that these transactions occur only with the collusion of local officials, whom they may have thought have the same powers as US state officials, thus their mistaken reference to the “federal level” in the Philippines.

No transaction involving foreign governments and corporations can occur in the Philippines without the collusion of the agencies and officials of the national government. The vast corruption about which Filipinos are being made aware in the current scandal over the pork barrel system involves national offices and officials including senators and even Presidents. The pork barrel scam after all goes back at least a decade (2003-2013).

During that very same decade, other instances of corruption involving hundreds of millions, even billions in public funds were regularly being exposed, to the distress and outrage of those Filipinos who have long been saying that the amounts lost to corruption, if they had been put to the uses for which they were intended, would have long pushed the Philippines into first world status.

To the distress and outrage of those and many other Filipinos must be added their puzzlement over how such a vast system of corruption could have developed. What’s even worse is how it could have persisted for decades, and even metastasized throughout government and spilled into the private sector, where it has infected corporations and tainted even non-government organizations. Is it indicative of a fatal flaw, the consequence of declining moral standards among a people in the only predominantly Christian country in Asia thanks to 300 years of Spanish colonization?

Christianity has little or nothing to do with it. But the character of Spanish colonization has. The seeds of corruption were planted deeply into the forerunner of the hacienda system, the encomienda, in which the encomenderos — Spaniards who had helped in the conquest of these islands — were given authority over vast tracts of land and the “Indios” who lived there.

They were public officials charged with protecting the natives, helping missionaries convert the latter to Christianity, and promoting education. Instead, the encomenderos began the now common practice of using one’s office to enrich one’s self by collecting more tribute than allowed by law, forcing the natives to work for them, and appropriating animals and crops without compensation.

But the US congressmen should also look into the history of their own country’s occupation of the Philippines.

The descendants of the pre-Hispanic datus, the principalia during Spanish colonization, were essentially the same class US colonial rule trained for “self government.” Their trainees in the fine arts of US politics, with its own traditions of corrupt practice, included former advocates of Philippine independence who saw in the US occupation opportunities for the advancement of their individual, familial and class interests. That same class, with its history of enriching itself at the expense of the people, has since morphed into the political dynasties that have had a monopoly over political power since 1946.

It is that class and the civilian and military bureaucracy that helps sustain it which, with the use of public office, has enriched and continues to enrich itself through the plunder of the public treasury. As the main beneficiary of a political system in which, as the US congressmen noted, corruption has “long hampered economic growth,” the political dynasties in control of the very same system can hardly be expected to reform it.

On the contrary. Not only have they frustrated every attempt at the littlest reform by using the law against it; they have also used the coercive powers of the State to attack the very institutions of that same State, as in 1972 when its then leading representative declared martial law and abolished Congress and the Bill of Rights, undermined the judiciary, and transformed the military into his private army.

That is why there is merit in the widespread cynicism over the claims of reforming the system by the very beneficiaries of the corrupt system themselves. The system is as vast as it is self-sustaining. To expect it to change under the direction of those who benefit from it is akin to the hope that tyrants will willingly give up their power, the evil will find the path to righteousness, or that the leopard will change its spots.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
October 10, 2013

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