Whitewashed walls, Aquino version

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

From clearing Metro Manila’s thoroughfares of street vendors, parked cars, and sidewalk stalls to prevent the horrendous traffic jams that everyday make moving from one place to another torture for motorists and commuters, to rounding up the street children that have become the fixtures of busy intersections in the capital, the Aquino administration is taking every step to make a good impression on the heads of state and their accompanying retinues of government and corporate VIPs who will be coming to the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit from Nov. 18 to 19.

To make sure that there will be no protests from students and workers against Philippine involvement in APEC, school and work holidays have also been declared from Nov. 17 to the 20th, and thousands of policemen and military personnel mobilized to provide security for the visitors during the event.

The renovation of Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport has also been completed. It includes — it was more likely driven by — the improvement of the presidential lounge for the heads of state who will be arriving for the summit.

Absent from the news out of the airport is anything substantial about what the administration is doing about the bullet-planting (tanim-bala) extortion racket, except asinine statements from the Department of Transportation and Communication and Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s anointed, Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II, who early this week said in so many words during an interview that it wasn’t the government’s problem and that the victims are to blame for “bringing” (sic; some of them were leaving the country) “contraband” (sic) into the Philippines.

But ridding the capital of the homeless, whether adults or children, is apparently even more of a government priority. Inevitable that those who’ve become used to seeing the homeless begging at practically every intersection, or shivering in their makeshift shelters under bridges and at the Roxas Boulevard breakwater during rainy days, would notice that most of them have disappeared.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) had earlier denied that it was hiding the homeless, but it turns out that 114 of them so far, says the Manila social welfare department, have been “rescued” from the city’s six districts a week before the APEC summit — in a reprise of what DSWD did during the Philippine visit of Pope Francis in January this year. The difference is that during the Pope’s visit, the homeless were taken to resorts for “seminars.” This time the adults and girls were taken to government shelters, while the boys were taken to Boys’ Town. Earlier, the DSWD also distributed P4,000 each to some homeless families to enable them to rent temporary homes during the APEC summit.

But it’s all a coincidence, says Manila’s social welfare department and Malacañang spokespersons. The “rescue” of the homeless is merely part of Manila Mayor Joseph E. Estrada’s campaign to “cleanse” (yes, that was the word a spokesperson for the city social welfare department used) Manila streets, and has nothing to do with APEC. Neither was the dole-out of cash for temporary housing due to the imminence of the APEC summit. The P4,000, said the usual Malacañang sources with a straight face, was part of the DSWD’s “modified conditional cash transfer program.”

Please. Every Philippine administration has tried to prettify Manila for international events; it’s more convenient than actually addressing the poverty that drives people to live in the streets and under bridges. Their problem has always been what to do with the beggars and the homeless and how to conceal from foreign eyes the slums that blight the capital.

If the Aquino administration expects the APEC heads of state and other visitors to be impressed, that’s as unlikely as its US overlords’ giving the Philippines junior partnership status like Japan. Every country whose leaders will be in attendance knows exactly what the state of the Philippines is, from the latest statistics on hunger and self-rated poverty to the biographies of its leading government officials.

The US and its junior partners Japan and Canada are after all in the business of exploiting, and in the process worsening, the underdevelopment of every third world country including the Philippines, and won’t be deceived by the absence of street children and other signs of the poverty that they’re at least partly responsible for through the unequal trade and other economic arrangements they’ve forged with their leading client states in Asia.

Making things seem better than they really are by dressing up the capital isn’t original to the Aquino administration. Ferdinand Marcos and his Human Settlements Minister (his wife Imelda) erected whitewashed walls to conceal Manila’s slums from foreign visitors during the Miss Universe pageant in 1974, the point being to make the city and the country appear to be orderly and prosperous under the martial law regime.

But in one respect Aquino’s bureaucrats have been creative: last January during the Pope’s visit, Father Shay Cullen of Preda (a nongovernment organization that describes itself as “a Philippine human rights social development organization” focused on enhancing and defending the rights of children, women, the poor and the marginalized) said that street children had been picked up, held in reception centers with bars on the windows and locks on their doors, and then released into the streets once the Pope had left, but only to be picked up again when the next international event comes around. This was in addition to homeless families’ being brought to resorts for “seminars.”

Some Filipinos see nothing wrong with this revolving-door policy of keeping the homeless out of the streets when there are foreign dignitaries around, and then releasing them into the same streets once the latter leave. They think that the country should try to impress foreign visitors, no matter what the cost. They claim that “every country” does it. But they’re only partly right: it is routinely done — in poor countries and in dictatorships.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel The Autumn of the Patriarch, the unnamed dictator of an unnamed Latin American country also erects whitewashed walls to hide his capital’s slums from foreign eyes. Marquez’ dictator and the country he ruled being representatives of every dictator and every Latin American country that has ever been under one-man rule, it’s more than likely that the same thing has happened across the countries of Latin America during international events.

Countries that claim to be democracies can’t do that without looking like dictatorships. Instead they do the next best thing: they physically hide the poor and homeless in resorts, government facilities or temporary homes rented for P4,000. Because they’re attempts to do the same — i.e., to hide poverty and give the impression of order and modernity — these are the Aquino bureaucracy’s own versions of the whitewashed walls Marcos erected in 1974.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.


Published in Business World
Nov. 12, 2015

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