BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Welcome to the Philippines: My Country Profile for The Internationalist May Edition

Country Profile: The Philippines

INSIDE the Bronx-like district of Tondo in Manila, the Philippine capital, one will see a densely populated labyrinthine community of makeshift dwellings, licked by the trash-filled waters of the famed Manila Bay. It is home to the city’s poorest of the poor. 

Deeper into the interior, surrounded by this sea of shanty homes is the heavily -guarded seaport empire of Filipino billionaire Enrique Razon, who runs 27 ports around the world – from Manila to Madagascar. 

Tons of cargo – From Feta Cheese to iPads – change hands at Razon’s port everyday as the slum dwellers around it beg for food in Manila’s streets or eke out a living doing odd jobs. 

The contrast is stark and telling and is seen in the rest of the country.  Decades after a bloodless revolution toppled the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and restored democracy in 1986, the Philippines remains home to only a few filthy rich families, with the rest still among Asia’s poorest. 

These families have been controlling big businesses in the country, from retail malls, beach resorts and toll ways to a new and glittering 100-hectare Las Vegas-style gambling city. 

From the airport to the nearby Roxas Boulevard, for instance, one will find homeless families sleeping on the cold pavement or children selling sweet smelling Sampaguita garlands to sleek four-wheel drive SUVs plying the road, lined with five star hotels and high-rise condominiums.

President Benigno Aquino III, the only son of the late Corazon Aquino who became president when democracy was restored in 1986, is trying to change that, boosting economic growth and trumpeting an anti-corruption platform with the aim of uplifting the poor. 

After putting Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the ailing former president, on hospital arrest on corruption charges, Aquino is now building cases of plunder against opposition lawmakers who allegedly received commissions for ghost infrastructure projects.

More than three years since he took office, however, economic growth, although increasing – 7.2 percent in 2013 from 6.8 percent the previous year – is not trickling down to the 25 million people living below poverty line. 

The administration has failed to create local industries that are heavy enough to significantly boost the economy, relying instead on the call center business, which is booming in this English-speaking country. 

Everyday, some 5,000 Filipinos still leave Manila to work mostly in the United States, Hong Kong and the Middle East as domestic helpers, entertainers, caregivers or seafarers, because there are not enough gainful opportunities in the country.  

And while Aquino enjoys high popularity ratings, he has yet to fulfill many of his campaign promises such as addressing the problem of extrajudicial killings of journalists and human rights workers.

One of the most awaited promises yet to be fulfilled is the distribution of his family’s 4,000-hectare sugar plantation in the northern part of the country as mandated by an agrarian reform law.  It is the same promise his mother made 28 years ago as president. 

He also promised to build infrastructure – new roads, trains and airports – with the help of businessmen to decongest traffic in Metro Manila and at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the main gateway named after his father, which has been consistently dubbed by travelers as the world’s worst airport.

Motorists are waiting for such promises as they brave the daily three to six hour traffic jams along EDSA, the main thoroughfare that stretches 23.8 kilometers through six cities while commuters endure the impossibly congested elevated metro train that traverses the same route.

The monstrous traffic jams daily have put the Philippines in novelist Dan Brown’s fiction Inferno, which described Manila as the gates of hell and one with apocalyptic poverty. 

Indeed, Manila is a place where truth reads like fiction; where the surreal meets the mundane and where a handful of Filipino billionaires make it to the Forbes list every year, while the poor stay desperately poor.