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Philippine Leaders Come and Go But Corruption Reigns Supreme

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

By just about any international standard, the Philippines ranks near the bottom rung among the world’s most corrupt countries. Transparency International places it 134th among 178 countries, one place below Nigeria but far below the scores of other countries often criticized for massive corruption, including the two Asian giants, China and India. You wonder why the Philippines earned this ranking when its gross national product goes up by several percent a year, and foreigners keep flocking to the country to enjoy the beaches, the snorkeling and sailing, the nightlife and the restaurants. But then you begin to get the idea as you drive out of the decaying hulk of terminal number one of Ninoy Aquino International Airport, passing by squalid shanty towns, rows of huts and hovels where thousands of squatters live rent free – and also free of water and sanitation facilities.

Revelations of the endemic corruption that’s deep-rooted in Philippine culture and society leap out from the pages of newspapers every day in reports of investigations, charges and counter-charges. The relative freedom of the Philippine media, however, does not mean the level of corruption decreases or anything is really done to stop the rot. The country’s ruling class of billionaires and multi-millionaires reap most of the profits while the average Filipino subsists on less than two dollars a day. The figures show an unemployment rate of slightly more than seven percent, but the number is highly deceptive. It fails to include a majority of the country’s 95 million people who are underemployed, and exactly how the figure was reached is far from clear.

In any case, upwards of ten percent of the people choose to work overseas, many as nurses, nannies and caregivers, some as bar hostesses and go-go dancers, others in professional or semi-professional positions as teachers, engineers, journalists, computer technicians, commercial seamen, or whatever. There seems to be no limit to what Filipinos will do or where they go, but the bottom line is they now send more than US$18 billion a year in remittances back home, according to the latest statistics, and that’s more than 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It’s often noted, while the billionaires send much of their money out of the country, the overseas foreign workers, or OFWs as they are known, send just as much if not more back home. The poverty level in the Philippines, now around 50 percent, would be far higher were it not for the OFW’s contributions.

Class, social, and cultural differences are vastly compounded, however, by the corruption that’s everywhere but that nobody seems able to conquer. The corruption of the long-ruling Ferdinand Marcos, deposed in the People Power revolution of 1986, was clear for the world to see. At least US$10 billion was reportedly deposited in Swiss bank accounts during his long rule, but the government has recovered virtually none of it. Marcos died in exile in Honolulu, but his wife, Imelda, who reaped a fortune as governor of Metro Manila before her husband’s downfall, has long since returned and now fights for recovery of confiscated land in the Philippines from her vantage as an elected member of the lower house of congress.

Their son, Ferdinand Jr., after serving as governor of his father’s province, Ilocos Norte, is now a senator, while his sister, Imee, took over as governor. The old cronies who grew rich under Marcos are riding high, none the worse for the transition of power in the mid-1980s.

But did power really shift during the People Power revolt? The winner was Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who was gunned down two and one half years earlier as he stepped onto the tarmac of what was then just Manila International Airport. Aquino was returning from the United States to challenge the rule of Marcos and his wife and cronies, but he was really from the same social class, an offspring of the landed elite. “Cory” Aquino, during her six years as president, talked a great deal about reform and tried to clean up corruption, but was regarded as basically ineffective. One of the signal achievements of her presidency was getting the airport renamed Ninoy Aquino International Airport, a fitting memorial to the man who died there as a martyr.

The names of the elite in the Philippines always seem to live on in their children and grandchildren. It seems highly appropriate that Cory and Ninoy’s son, Benigno “NoyNoy” Aquino, has now ascended to the presidency after having handily won an election in May 2010 to succeed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Barred by the constitution from seeking a second six-year term, Arroyo had still managed to serve nine years. Elected as vice president in 1998, she took over from the corrupt Joseph “Erap” Estrada as president in 2001 in People Power II, another revolution of the streets, and then was elected to a full a six-year term as president in May 2004.

Or was she really? As just about always in Philippine society, Arroyo’s claim to power was colored by nepotism, influence-peddling – and money. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal, had served for four years as president before he was defeated by Marcos in 1965. Although he promised to clean up graft and corruption, as do all those who win the Philippine presidency, Macapagal got a reputation for corruption that was just about as bad as anyone else’s until Marcos, in 20 years as president, set all-time Philippine corruption records. Nor was Macapagal’s daughter necessarily much less corrupt than Estrada. Gloria now faces numerous claims of having spent millions of dollars buying off votes while diverting millions more from official funds into her own accounts. At last report, the government was investigating a number of generals to determine their role in all the skullduggery that got her elected. Considering that she had already stepped down as president of her own volition and was then elected to the lower house of congress, one got the sense that the headline-grabbing investigation was really going nowhere. But that’s how it so often is, at least in the Philippines. Scandals come and go, merge with one another, provide fodder for headlines – and then are forgotten or covered up before investigators and investors and readers move on to the next scandal. The investigation into the “stolen election” of 2004 was all the more absurd considering that Arroyo’s defeated competitor, an actor named Fernando Poe Jr., with no known qualifications aside from box office appeal, had died of a heart attack a few days after the voting.

As if that weren’t enough to snuff out any real effort at punishing Arroyo for election fraud, General Angelo Reyes, her one-time defense secretary who had been chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces while Estrada was president, committed suicide as the scandal was brewing. But did he die by his own hand or was he murdered? Political violence, along with corruption, is a constant fact of Philippine political life, and his suicide may have been an assassination. He had, after all, betrayed Estrada, who was arrested and held for years, by siding with Arroyo when Estrada needed him to head off the revolt against his rule.

If it’s a little late to try to take back Arroyo’s 2004 election victory, it’s not too late to try to grab her and her husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, the former first gentleman, as he is known in the media, for plunder – that’s right, for plundering the state, a term in Philippine law, by helping themselves to public funds. In Gloria’s case, she’s suspected of having made off with millions of dollars from funds for fertilizer and for overseas workers, among other things, and for failing to turn over taxes reaped from the sale of government real estate.

And that’s not all. Arroyo’s husband, Jose, who once served in the Congress, is an astute business leader, former power behind the throne, and quite an operator in his own right. Among other offenses, he’s been under investigation for the sale of five helicopters that he said were brand new but had been used for other purposes. Jose Arroyo’s brother, Ignacio, a member of the Congress, was also implicated in the deal. In the spirit of family loyalty, “Iggy” said his brother had never claimed to have bought the choppers but only to have leased them – a rationale that was denounced as a lie during the investigation. Iggy then fell back on another reason why he was reluctant to cooperate in an investigation by the Senate. Traditional courtesy, he said, barred a Senate committee from calling on a member of the lower house to testify.

If all else failed, moreover, those under scrutiny could always battle fire with fire. That is, they spun out charges of their own. A spokesman for Arroyo, namely, the former president, not the first gentleman, said that the Aquino government was staging an overall production carnival in order “to keep with trial and conviction by publicity against the Arroyos.” As if that were not enough to convince the doubters, the spokesman said the objective was to “cover the incompetence and dismal performance” of the NoyNoy Aquino regime. The whole idea, he said, was to “divert public attention” from “more massive anomalies by Aquino’s close associates” (of course, he neglected to spell out what “anomalies” he had in mind).

Not to worry. It is a safe bet that before Aquino steps down at the end of his six years in office, someone would get the goods on him too and bring charges – and counter-charges. That would be par for the course in the game of vengeance played out in bold headlines for the fun and games of the country’s first families. The masses of impoverished people would be forgiven for shrugging their shoulders in a cynical sense that all of their leaders were bought and sold and nothing was about to change.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books on the Philippines, Looted: the Philippines after the Bases, published by St. Martin’s, New York, in 1998, and Philippines in Crisis: U.S. Power versus Local Revolt, published by Anvil, Pasig, Metro Manila, in 2006.

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