June 12, 2008

Glad To Be Back Home

I Am Back Home, Our Home Glimpses

By Jose Ma. Montelibano

It is good to be home. Three weeks in the United States can effectively cause a distortion of a native Filipino's reality. There are common facets, like rising oil prices and the constant mingling with brown-skinned compatriots. But it stops there for the most part. Once out of an international flight, the American airport settings contrast sharply with our own Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The contrasts further intensify once one steps out of the airport to the freeways and highways with all sorts of vehicles plying the routes. One immediately knows he or she is not in the Philippines, even in the company of Filipinos.

Truly, the battle is in our homeland. I witnessed the exasperation, even insecurities, of Americans as oil prices rise to unimagined levels. I heard that major American car makers were closing several plants, especially those manufacturing the gas guzzlers. I felt the depression of plummeting real estate values, of unpaid mortgages leading to re-possession of homes. Yes, even the land of the free and the home of the brave are not exempt from economic woes.

Yet, at its worst today, America remains light years beyond the state of our native land. I saw a few poor people sleeping in the sidewalks of LA and San Diego, but I could count them with the fingers of my hand. Our own poor is like an ocean, vast and immeasurable. They simply are too many to count. They would be eyesores except that they are human beings. How can human beings be eyesores? How can Filipinos be eyesores?

As oil prices skyrocket, we get assurances that our gas prices are "under control." What is meant by "under control?" The same is worse for food prices which had risen even before oil prices went crazy. The import levels of rice are unknown, from below $300 per MT to at least four to five times their previous level in a few months. And no one can tell the Vietnamese or Thai to stop increasing prices just like no one can tell the oil-producing countries to stop exploiting the rest of the world.

We find a Philippines that is quickly deteriorating to its classic rich-and-poor syndrome, meaning those who can afford and those who cannot. The gap is again widening with the poor winning the greater numbers as usual. It is a most dangerous trend. Even the fledgling middle class is slipping towards poverty. The government has much to be careful about. Fear turns to paranoia quite quickly, and paranoia to desperation.

When the rice prices began to rise three months ago, many predicted food riots to start July or August. Actually, a few food riots have already broken out in a few countries and even a foreign government had collapsed because of food prices. The Philippines must do all it can to avoid such riots, to avoid such social and political turmoil. Those for or against Gloria are not ready to handle a wild situation. The fundamentals of Philippine society are weak, very weak, with tens of millions impoverished and tens of millions more capable of sinking to poverty.

Poverty is not kind. It punishes the poor daily, demeans their dignity, and drives them to despair. When the political situation is stable and hunger only intermittent, our poor remain docile even in their misery, a lingering pattern from colonial days. Government mitigates the situation by subsidies, and so far has done enough to stave off organized protests. But July and August are delicate months; there will be no homegrown rice until harvest time in September. And debts incurred for the new school year have to be paid.

The Philippines just celebrated its Independence Day. Unfortunately, independence is a hollow state, just as hollow as democracy. The trappings are all there, but the substance is missing. Poverty makes slaves of people, denies them choices. How can true independence and democracy co-exist with a poverty so massive and crippling? How can independence and democracy live with such shame?

Filipinos have little to celebrate, but much to strive for. Those who have wealth must share it, and those without wealth must create it. The kind of poverty we have cannot be eliminated with occasional successes; it can happen only with great sacrifice, with great generosity, with great determination. Most of all, poverty cannot be dismantled without corruption being dismantled as well. Honest and sincere leadership must accompany the journey from slavery to emancipation.

Is there hope, then, for independence and democracy in the Philippines? The odds are against it, the poverty too massive, the corruption too endemic. The odds are against a peaceful transition to transformation but compensates but greatly improving the odds for violent revolution. After all, independence and democracy have more often been born from blood rather than from enlightenment.

Two people-powered, peaceful revolutions have shown that Filipinos know how to create a miracle. What Filipinos do not yet know is how to keep miracles from turning out to becoming debacles. We know how to get through the night with spectacular creativity and festivity but have no morning after formula. No one thought out the whole process. Changing leaders do not change fortunes, not collectively, that is. Two revolutions, both successful, did not carry the more important ingredients - leadership and vision for sacrifice and progress beyond temporary euphoria.

Perhaps, the pressure from food and fuel will force both rich and poor in our country to change. And, perhaps, the ability of Filipinos abroad to confront diverse environments and the disadvantages of being foreigners who have to prove themselves - yet succeed - can be like a shining model to those left behind. Filipinos abroad, though, must find a way to return, to share their golden experiences, to tell the stories of hardship and loneliness, and most of all, to show how heroism and undying love for the home land can raise a whole people out of shame.

Independence and democracy are worth the sweat of our brows and the blood of our veins. They are the legacy we must build, the honor we must attain, for ourselves and for Filipinos of all time.

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