BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, February 27, 2010

interviewing Erap

My phone rang early afternoon. I had just been told that deposed president Erap would be coming over to The Philippine Star newsroom for the paper's presidentiables series. I was told to join the discussion and write about his economic plans.

I panicked. I was in my jogging outfit, carelessly unexpecting any event that would require more decent clothes. So I crossed the street to an age-old mall in Manila and bought a blue polo for P75. I only had P100 left in my wallet. All I could afford was the P75 polo in a small tiangge stall in Harrison Plaza.

Not surprisingly, Erap did not even notice my long-sleeves polo. He liked my recorder, examining it for a long time.

For three hours, he talked about a lot of things under the sun.

He gave a mouthful --

from his sex-life: "dati araw-araw, gabi-gabi, ngayon, gabi-gabi nalang." his smoking habit: "I smoke one pack a day. Why should I quit? I don't bother anyone. I buy my own cigarettes." eliminating smuggling: "It's very easy to eliminate smuggling...what we can do is...ay mahirap din ah." family planning: "Every woman should have the right to plan her own family. I am 100 percent against abortion."

to his plans to declare a debt default as what Argentina did in 2002: "If Argentina can do it, why can't we?"

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Joseph Ejercito Estrada(again).

No new taxes under Erap
By IRIS GONZALES (The Philippine Star) Updated February 28, 2010 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Promising not to impose new taxes if he gets elected as president again, Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino standard-bearer Joseph Estrada said his administration will negotiate with creditors to restructure the country’s debts, like what Argentina did in 2002.

In a round table with The STAR editors on Friday night, Estrada said the savings from debt restructuring would be used in infrastructure projects for food security such as farm-to-market roads and irrigation facilities.

“We can talk to our creditors like what Argentina did. If they were able to do debt restructuring, why can’t we?” Estrada said.

Estrada was referring to the move by recession-hit Argentina to finance its large foreign debt by swapping 76 percent of its defaulted bonds with discounted new ones at a longer maturity rate.

The center of Estrada’s economic agenda is food security because the country cannot compete in manufacturing, except in the canning industry.

He noted that the Philippines only assembles imported materials.

“My priority is food security and agriculture, “ Estrada said.

In line with his food security agenda, he promised to make the country self-sufficient in rice, but did not lay down specific measures to achieve that goal.

On the issue of agrarian reform, Estrada said he would push for the repeal of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law of 1988.

“Agrarian reform is a total failure in the last 20 years since it was made into law,” he said.

Estrada said there are too many factors that prevent it from succeeding, such as middlemen who prey on farmers who own the land and the regular typhoons that damage crops.

In the area of tourism, Estrada said the Philippines has many attractive tourist destinations but lack peace and order, causing tourists to prefer other countries in Southeast Asia.

“In Thailand, they attract six million tourists a year because it’s very peaceful. We can have the best platform in government and the best economics but for as long as we don’t have peace and order in our country, we’ll never move forward,” he said.

He said the problem of peace and order in the country has been the same for more than 50 years now, leading several foreign governments to issue travel advisories against the country.

“There’s bombing here, and kidnappings there,” Estrada said.

He said if there were peace and order, investments would also come in.

He said that to attract more investments, the Constitution should allow foreign ownership of land, except agricultural lands. Media liberalization should also be allowed.

To address the power supply shortage, Estrada said the government should tap geothermal energy.

Estrada, whose ouster was triggered by allegations of jueteng (illegal numbers game) pay-offs and insider trading in the stock market, said he still has no plans on how to improve the country’s corporate regulatory environment.

“I have to be honest, I haven’t studied that (improvement of corporate regulatory environment) yet,” he said.

Estrada, who runs on a pro-poor agenda, also failed to elaborate on what concrete measures he would take to make economic growth trickle down to the grassroots.

Estrada, an actor before entering politics, was the 13th president of the Philippines. He was elected in 1998 and served until his ouster in January 2001.

(photo by Fernan Nebres for The Philippine Star)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 14, 2010 (a page from my Moleskine)

It is a few hours before the clock strikes 12. The gongs are banging, roaring like wild lions.

The lights -- red, blue, orange and hazy yellow -- are blazing nonstop. The piercing smell of incense wafts in the air.

Dragons are dancing and endless chants are reverberating throughout the night, igniting these winged spirits.

This is a feast for the senses. Every trickle of blood that runs in my veins is thumping faster. My eyes -- like those of a little girl delighted by the sight of bright red balloons and purple lollipops -- are seeing a kaleidoscope of colors.

The Chinese Gods are calling my name, wishing me a good year ahead. I hear them for the first time. I hear them vividly.

Majorettes in olive green miniskirts are dancing to the blaring sound of drums and other percussion instruments. Pink and blue flags are waving, almost up and about the evening sky.

Firecrackers are lit to ward off two-faced snake charmers in black turbans. The thunderous cracking drowns the nightmares that haunted me the past year.

My dreams are now within arms' length. I see these in images out of the smoke emanating from the incense-filled temple.

It is a moment of infinity. It is a moment of lucidity. It is a concession to the harsh reality.

Ah, I can hold eternity in my palm. Right here. Right now.

(Needless to say, thank you for bringing me here on my birthday).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

2009 budget deficit swells to P298.5 billion

By Iris C. Gonzales (The Philippine Star) Updated February 19, 2010

MANILA, Philippines - The government’s budget deficit swelled to P298.5 billion last year, above the expected P290 billion and also higher than the target for the period of P250 billion because of anemic revenues and additional spending, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves announced yesterday.

Last year’s budget gap is more than four times the P68.1-billion deficit registered in 2008 or an increase of 338.3 percent.

A budget deficit means the government does not have enough revenues to fund its expenses, particularly social services and infrastructure spending.

Teves said the implementation of so-called revenue-eroding measures which translated to P49 billion in foregone revenues in 2009 alone left a huge dent on state coffers.

“We were actually hoping to perform better than the likely scenario due to the improved tax collection performance in December. But the revenue gains were offset by increased spending for infrastructure towards the end of the year,” Teves said.

Total 2009 revenues amounted to P1.1 trillion, lower than program by P115.9 billion. Of the total revenues, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) collected P750.3 billion or P48.2 billion lower than its collection goal.

The Bureau of Customs (BOC), meanwhile, collected P220.3 billion, lower than program by P53 billion due largely to a sharper than expected drop in imports.

The Bureau of the Treasury posted an income of P69.9 billion, higher than program by P9.8 billion. Other offices which included proceeds from privatization, posted P82.7 billion in revenues, lower than program by P24.6 billion.

Total expenditures, on the other hand, amounted to P1.42 trillion which is lower than program by P67.4 billion.

In December 2009 alone, the budget deficit amounted to P26 billion, significantly higher than the deficit of P1.4 billion posted during the same month of the previous year.

Total revenues for the month amounted to P101.5 billion, lower by 16.3 percent compared to revenues recorded in December 2008. The BIR accounted for P68.4 billion of the month’s revenues or 20 percent higher than the agency’s collections in the same period in 2008.

The BOC, on the other hand, collected P18.9 billion, a slight 0.4 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The BTr, meanwhile, generated P9.4 billion in December 2009, almost 50 percent higher compared to the previous year while other offices generated P4.9 billion or a decline of 87.5 percent.

Total expenditures in December 2009, meanwhile, reached P127.6 billion, 3.9 percent higher compared to disbursements in December 2008.

With the latest fiscal position, Teves expressed hopes there wouldn’t be additional revenue-eroding measures approved in Congress.

“We hope to sustain our revenue performance through the vigorous implementation of the action plans of the BIR and the BOC and the attainment of our privatization program but we need the cooperation of Congress to protect our fiscal gains from further erosion,” Teves said.