U.S.-Philippines ‘special relations’ again? : A pre-election view from Washington DC

By E. San Juan, Jr.,
Professorial Lecturer, Polytechnic University of the Philippines

As the 2016 electoral game here ratchets up to nasty polemics, the US media has mainly focused on the carnival atmosphere of the Republican Party candidates. The Democratic Party in-fighting is just beginning to boil over. Meanwhile, the Obama regime continues its drone warfare in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The refugee crisis in Europe reverberates only as some horrible Muslim terrorist threat, made more imminent by the carnage in Paris and Brussels. Except for Cuba which Obama visited recently, and the ongoing Syrian turmoil, other peripheries of the Empire have been overshadowed or forgotten.

The Philippines may be one of those, despite media snippets of election shenanigans. The only former Asian colony of the US, the Philippines is synonymous only with Paquiao the Boxer, Miss Universe, or some terrifying volcano or typhoon such as Yolanda/Haiyan. And despite nearly three million Pinays and Pinoys in the US, potential votes for the coming May elections—now the largest Asian-American migrant group from one Asian country (the Chinese come from all over the world, not just China), Filipinos tend to trail other Asian in their civic interventions, unless wealthy Filipino doctors or businessmen trumpet their tithe to local candidates. We are really neglible, though many persist in claiming to be 200% American.

During the years of the brutal Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986), Filipinos were mobilized to join political rallies. Younger Filipino Americans were radicalized by the last upheavals of the anti-Vietnam War and Central America Solildarity movements. But with the neoconservative resurgence in the eighties up to the 9/11 disasters. Filipinos returned to the deeply ingrained colonial mentality acquired in over a half-century “miseducation,” called by genteel academics as “American tutelage.” The result: endemic underdevelopment, flagrant social inequality, deep impoverishment of over 75% of over 100 million Filipino peasants and workers, chronic corruption, and the ruling oligarchy’s inveterate subservience to Washington dating back to the Cold War.

The Philippines is by consensus an operational U.S. neocolony. While military bases were removed by strong nationalist protest in 1992, several hundred US Special Forces remain in the islands owing to mendacious executive agreements. Most notorious is the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) approved last January by the Philippine Supreme Court. This sanctions the return of additional forward-deployed US forces to Philippine bases (including Marine fighter planes and US Navy fighter-bomber squadrons), claimed to be a strategic deterrent force against Chinese incursions in the disputed Spratley islands. In effect, with this “Asia pivot” of the Obama administration, the Philippines has returned to the pre-1992 situation when Clark Field and Subic military bases served as springboards for US military intervention in Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, etc.) and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, ever since the U.S. granted formal independence to the colony in 1946, Philippine sovereignty has never been actualized. Aside from parity business agreements, territorial concessions, etc., the country never exercised self-determination of its economy, bureaucracy, and security agencies. For example, the local military and police forces remain dependent on US aid and supervision, as well as foreign policy toward US enemies (China, North Korea, Russia). FBI and CIA agents assist grilling insurgent suspects and intervene in local conflicts (as in the bloody Mamasapano ambush by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front last year). Peace talks between the government atand the communist-led insurgency have been stalemated (the US classified the communist New People’s Army as “terrorists”) while the various Muslim guerilla forces (often stigmatized as “Abu Sayyaf” bandits by the foreign press) are paralyzed by reformist schemes offered by the US-supported elite.

About 4-5 thousand Filipinos leave the country every day. Subsisting on less than $2 a day, the majority are victimized by rapacious para-military groups and warlord gangs protecting multinational companies which plunder the land for minerals, lumber, and other resources. Local compradors and semifeudal landlords act as accomplices. The March 30 bloody dispersal of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the starved rural corner of Kidapawan, southern Philippines by governemt troops follow a familiar pattern of violent repression dating back to the US campaign against the Huk peasant rebellion in the fifties up to the Mendiola massacre of unarmed farmers by the Corazon Aquino regime in 1987 and by Benigno Aquino’s kin in the Hacienda Luisita murders in 2014.

Perennially judged criminal by Amnesty International and international agencies, the US-backed oligarchy in the Philippines enjoys scandalous impunity. They live luxuriously amid ongoing incidents of torture, detention and killing of citizens who demand employment, food relief in times of disaster, lack of decent housing, medical care, etc. Hundreds of political prisoners languish in jail. Politicians habitually raid the public treasury, earning the rubric of “bureaucrat-capitalists. The courts are inutile, chiefly serving the rich families of landlords and compradors whose wealth is hidden in offshore havens (see the recent revelation in the “Panama Dossier” listing the Marcos dynasty, Henry Sy and other billionaires as clients). No single official of the Marcos dictatorship has been tried and punished for ruthless human-rights violations; impunity applies to his equally vicious successors. This culture of impunity has been exacerbated by the absolute dependence on human-labor export that earns billions of dollars to keep the economy afloat. Currency remittances from abroad intensify mindless consumerism and a proud slavishness to foreign lifestyles and mentalities. No wonder over 11 million Filipinos have desperately fled to find work abroad, escape the murderous status quo, and disavow the accursed land of their birth.

Here in Washington DC, where political lobbies and embassies dominate, most Filipinos we meet in public spaces work as caregivers, domestic help, and professionals in the service industries (nurses, clerks, etc.). We met Pinays enjoying special visas to take care of diplomatic families. Local issues such as tenants’ rights, unemployment, voter registration imbroglios, drugs and police abuse function as symptoms of the historically rooted racial conflict hiding permanent class warfare. The legacy of the sixties survive in the militancy of BlackLivesMatter. Note that DC is less than an hour away from the still smoking Baltimore battleground. The prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration policy still regulate state mechanisms geared to control organized rebellion.

Discontent seethes everywhere, visible in urban riots and demonstrations against police abuse. Inequality and blasted dreams of success drive most ordinary people to the arms of neofascist calls for white-supremacist authoritarianism, hence the populist appeal of Trump and Cruz. Bernie Sanders has offered American voters an alternative to the Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton. But the Establishment machinery of both parties amid social decadence maintains hegemonic control—unless the phenomenal voter approval for Sanders’ program betokens a glimmer of hope for radical systemic change. No one listens to Noam Chomsky or Edward Snowden; film clips of OccupyWallStreet only exude nostalgic aura.

What do we make of this conjuncture of events? Perhaps a comment from an experienced observer of the US political scene can clarify some of the hidden sociopolitical trends behind the largely pro-corporate bias of the mass media. Having moved to DC recently, we were fortunate in encountering our old friend from Boston, Bill Fletcher Jr. In the seventies we were involved in diverse civil rights and anti-imperialist struggles. We collaborated in educational campaigns around the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship, in support of the free labor union movement in the Philippines. He recently conducted an interview of Jose Maria Sison regarding the peace-talks of the National Democratic Front and the Arroyo administration (see Alternet Website for 22 January 2012; www.alternet.org).

Fletcher has been a well-honed activist since his youth. Upon graduating from college, he worked as a welder in a shipyard and thus became involved in the labor movement. Over the years he has been active in workplace and community struggles as well as electoral campaigns. He was senior staffperson in the national AFL-CIO, after which he became the president of TransAfrican Forum. He is also an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com. He is co-author (with Peter Agard) of The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941; and (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice. His recent book is They’re Bankrupting Us—and Twenty other myths about unions. This interview took place in DC on April 3-5, 2016.

ESJ: As one of the few progressive public intellectuals who have commented on US foreign policies in your blogs and lectures, what do you think is the prospect of any change in Washington’s policy toward the Philippines?

BF: I do not anticipate any changes in the near future in the absence of a movement on the ground in the USA that pushes the US on foreign policy generally and the US/Philippines relationship in particular. Frankly, the relationship is very comfortable for the USA and the ruling circles see no reason to change this. The guerrilla war, led by the New People’s Army, seems to be stalemated and the government of the Philippines seems to be able to get away with tolerating (and promoting) human rights abuses against the popular movements. The USA media gives precious little attention to the democratic struggle in the Philippines. Therefore, in order for a change to take place, there needs to be a broad movement built in the USA that is analogous to those built against US policy towards Central America and the US relationship towards apartheid South Africa.

ESJ: If it is a continuation of the old neocolonizing treatment, is there a prospect of change if Hillary Clinton succeeds Obama?

BF: There is very little incentive for Clinton to change policies. If the Republicans get in, we should expect a further militarization of the conflict. What may be especially dangerous, whether it is Clinton–should she receive the nomination–or any Republican, is the possibility that they might provoke a military confrontation with China, using as a pretext, the territorial disputes between China and the Philippines.

ESJ: What is your sense of the US public’s understanding of foreign policy with regard to the Philippines in confrontation with China and other powers in the Asian region?

BF: The US public has very little sense of the Philippines or, for that matter, foreign policy. Most foreign policy discussions in the USA focus on matters of Islamic terrorism or, periodically, the antics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea]. The US public neither understands the struggle for democracy in the Philippines nor the dispute with China.

ESJ: Do you foresee any change in the US public’s consciousness of the US imperial war on terror in the near future?

BF: Fear is a driving force in the USA and the fear of terrorism obscures so much of what is really at stake in matters of foreign policy. In the recent nuclear conference held in the USA, for instance, much attention was focused on the possibility of terrorist groups getting nuclear materials and/or nuclear weapons. The bulk of the US public does not see the “war against terror” as an imperial adventure, irrespective of whether they support or oppose the war against terror. After 11 September 2001, the entire debate around US foreign policy shifted.

ESJ: Given the debate on tightening the borders, what is your opinion on the possible changes in immigration policy toward Filipinos and other Asians?

BF: Part of the answer depends on who wins the election and the balance in Congress. But, in general, Filipino migrants are not perceived as a threat in the same way that Latinos have been demonized as a threat. Part of this is the result of the nature of the occupations that Filipino migrants tend to occupy. Yet, there is job competition, so no group of immigrants is exempt from ultimate demonization. Ask Arabs. Before 11 September 2001, many of them felt quite secure whether they were born in the USA or migrated here.

ESJ: Do you see any effect of Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic Party Establishment? and of Trump’s disregard for the old Republican elite?

BF: We are in the midst of a complicated systemic crisis, at least at the political level. There has been growing anger with the dysfunctionality of the system. The challenges led by Sanders are exciting and progressive, though there is a tendency for Sanders to limit his narrative to matters of economics. Increasingly he is speaking out on matters of foreign policy but he needs to be pushed. The support for Trump and Cruz, however, comes from a combination of factors that include frustration, but also the declining living standard for many white Americans and their refusal to accept that the cause of this decline is not the result of Jews, immigrants, Blacks, women, etc., but that the problem resides with capitalism and the manner in which it is working. To put it another way, white America looks at the crisis of US capitalism through the prism of racial lenses. To paraphrase a slogan from the 1992 Presidential campaign, white America does not quite get that ‘it is the system…stupid…’ rather than any of the myriad scapegoats.

ESJ: Finally, what is your diagnosis of the crisis of the US empire in the next decades? Would Black Lives Matter movement coalesce into a larger mass movement that can challenge the corporate hegemony in the next five to ten years?

BF: To borrow from the late Dr. Manning Marable, we need a movement for a ‘3rd Reconstruction.’ The first was 1965-1977. The second, metaphorically, was during the 1960s. We need a 3rd which really moves to expand democracy, take on racial and gender privilege, address the environmental crisis, and alter US foreign policy. I do not think that this means that socialism is on the immediate agenda, though it is clear that socialism has risen in the polls recently. The ‘3rd Reconstruction’ is a metaphoric way of referencing a popular-democratic movement that actually fights for power and introduces major structural reforms. Movements such as the movement for Black Lives, the immigrant rights movement, Occupy, etc., can all play a major role in the configuration of such a movement. Yet, to build such a popular-democratic bloc, there will need to be a “political instrument,” to quote Marta Harnecker, that is an organizational formation on the Left that helps to bring such a bloc into existence. It will not happen on its own and it will not happen as simply a spontaneous reaction to increasing authoritarianism and right-wing populism. It must be consciously advanced. And, by the way, we are running out of time.

{An early version first appeared in MR Zine; completely revised for Bulatlat}

E. San Juan was recently a fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University; emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature and Ethnic Studies from Washington State University and Bowling Green State University; and professorial lecturer at Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Among his recent books are US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Palgrave), In the Wake of Terror (Lexington) and Between Empire and Insurgency (University of the Philippines Press. Forthcoming books are Filipinas Everywhere (De La Salle University Publishing House) and Wala: Mga Tula & Adka (Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press).

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