Thursday, March 24, 2005

A spoonful of sugar

A spoonful of sugar

Posted 00:34am (Mla time) Mar 24, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A10 of the March 24, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

"JUST a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down," Julie Andrews sang in "Mary Poppins," the 1964 Oscar-award winning movie, which was later turned into a Broadway musical.

A 2005 version of that tune haunts the country's sugar industry leaders: how to balance the Food Fortification Law's directive to lace staples with crucial nutrients, even as malnutrition ravages their workers' families within the "sugar belt."

Long before Republic Act 8976 came on the books, scientific data mounted on how widespread "hidden hunger" devastated the most vulnerable groups: children and pregnant or breast-feeding mothers.

The Sixth National Nutrition Survey, released last July, confirmed what previous studies revealed: 4 out of every 10 pre-schoolchildren lack Vitamin A, making them vulnerable to blindness and stripping away immunity to diseases. Stunted with crippled IQs, many go to premature graves.

Two out of every 10 pregnant and lactating women lack this vital micronutrient. Scrawny anemic women mother and nurse wizened infants who, in turn, will give birth to the next generation of dwarfed babies.

Here, "the rate of 172 maternal death rates per 100,000 is unacceptably high," says the United Nations study, titled "A Common View, A Common Journey." The comparative toll in Thailand is 36. It is 30 in Malaysia.

Experience shows that boosting micronutrients in staples -- from salt, flour, oil to soy sauce and sugar -- is the most cost-effective way of bringing these threats to heel.

The United States was "the first country that successfully used salt iodization in the 1920s." About 80 percent of instant noodles in Thailand today are fortified with iron, iodine and Vitamin A. China buttresses its soy sauce. Extensive tests confirmed that the rice variety IR681440 is Vitamin A-rich. It also packs four to five times more iron than other strains. But its commercial use may be three years away.

Fortifying salt here licked iodine deficiency. Yet, up to the late 1980s, 9 out of every 10 women in Mountain Province were inflicted with goiter. Use of iodized salt bolted from 31 percent to over 56 percent in less than five years.

Urine tests of pubic school kids document that "the Philippines has solved its iodine deficiency problem, although pockets of deficiency still exist."

Goiter is rarely seen now. How many kids were saved from becoming cretins or deaf mutes? No one can tell. The head count is only for the victims.

Reluctantly at first but with growing cooperation, flour millers and coconut cooking oil manufacturers are implementing the law. "Social responsibility is also good business," says a flour miller.

Members of the Coconut Oil Refiners Association are following the path blazed by San Pablo Oil, which fortified Minola since 1998. Three flour manufacturers market fortified flour commercially.

In Metro Manila and Cebu, the National Food Authority sells iron-fortified rice on a pilot basis. From the pork barrel, Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar set aside P1.49 million for an experimental project to distribute fortified "pan de sal" buns for students in 10 North Cebu elementary schools.

Will sugar see the example blazed by other industries as a "window of opportunity" for growth through service? Or will it forfeit the high ground by seeking exemptions?

The "sugar belt" sprawls loosely across Regions 6, 7 and 12 and some other pockets. Sugar workers and families make up a substantial portion of the population.

Ironically, it is here where nutritional shortfalls are most severe. In Negros Occidental for example, almost half the kids, from six months to five years of age, lack Vitamin A. Four out of 10 are anemic and underweight. Anemia is most prevalent in Iloilo (77 percent). Aklan follows closely.

Sugar is grown in Northern Cebu, mostly in Rep. Clavel Martinez's bailiwick. She wants to slice off the district into a miniscule province as her term ends. But over half (56 percent) of pregnant women lack iodine and almost 52 percent of children face Vitamin A shortfalls. They're also underweight.

That skewed pattern prevails in sugar areas in Tarlac, Negros Occidental, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato. It reinforces the stigma of exploited "sacadas" [seasonal workers] who work in sugar fields.

Impersonal statistics rarely capture the grisly poverty that savages lives of sugar workers. "They squeeze from most of us nothing beyond statistical assent," the late FAO regional representative Dioscoro Umali once said.

There are enough loopholes in the law to beat its purpose by foot-dragging. Who is accountable, the producer or repacker? What about the lack of Vitamin A sugar premix? Given the quedan system, will sugar destined for beverages be exempted? And so on. "More questions can be asked than a wise man can answer," Jose Rizal once said.

Persistent micronutrient shortfalls can shove death rate sharply up, the Nutrition Center's Dr. Florentino Solon warns. But it may be the "human face" on that toll that will be a crucial factor.

Perhaps, no one traced these features better than the late Claretian Nial O'Brien, who lived among sacadas. In his book "Island of Tears, Island of Hope," Father O'Brien, who chose to be buried in Negros, writes about what is at stake.

Here's just one searing incident: The sacada Nanding lays out the corpses of her two daughters, Margarita and Benilda, on top of a rough wooden box. "When I came nearer, I realized they were not really wearing dresses. It was crepe paper..."


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Two ladies and different drummers

Two ladies and different drummers

Posted 00:39am (Mla time) Mar 17, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the March 17, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

TWO handsome, brainy, articulate women named Mary Ann have grabbed headlines and prime time in Cebu's often truculent media. In their mid-30s, both have college degrees, are business-like and are increasingly visible in this crammed metropolis' radar.

But the similarities end there.

One of the ladies is the brash prosecutor of neighboring Talisay City. Mary Ann Castro wants to fill the Cebu City Prosecutor's Office boots. She also applied to become a judge. "I'll bring beauty and brains to the bench," she says without skipping a beat.

"Chief fiscal," snorted a skeptical Mayor Tomas Osmeña. "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Big joke."

All Castro brought, so far, is yet another firestorm. An unexpected coalition of judges, lawyers and fellow prosecutors raked up her less-than-brilliant record. It is one capped by cases before the Ombudsman. Her high-profile dates, after a failed marriage, were tracked by the media. That hasn't helped her.

The other lady is a low-profile “barangay” [village or neighborhood district] captain. For her solid record of service, citizens in 39 sitios of Lahug gave Mary Ann de los Santos and ticket a landslide mandate. That thrashed Mayor Osmeña's all-out drive to beat her. "Meet Mary Ann -- the giant killer from Lahug," Sun-Star captioned the story.

De los Santos' no-nonsense settling of disputes, through voluntary barangay mediation processes, saw 936 out of 938 cases settled in a year. Only two went to congested courts.

This is 99.7 percent efficiency. A tough review by independent experts led by a former Supreme Court justice validated this new national achievement record.

An earlier Ateneo School of Government study found that in one year, 236,452 cases were settled out of a total of 279,115 barangay disputes recorded nationally.

"This is an 84 percent solution factor," wrote the Philippine Judicial Academy's Bernardo Ponferrada in a study of the "Barangay Justice System and Other Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanics." It's a telling indicator of "substantial number of potential cases that never reached the court because of the effective intervention of a settlement mechanism."

That record bagged for Lahug the coveted Bureau of Local Governments Supervision Award. De los Santos will get a P125,000 check from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for the Lahug projects.

"Credit citizens who mediate as well as our systems," she says. "If our experience can improve mediation, as practiced in over 41,943 barangays nationwide, that would be a bonus."

The two ladies serve the same constituency within the same metropolis. Yet, reaction to them starkly differ.

"She Isn't Fit," read the Cebu Daily News' banner on its report of a manifesto, sent to Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, bucking "even mere endorsement" of Castro.

Backed by the highly regarded Judges Gabriel Ingles and Meinrado Paredes, the prosecutors bluntly said the City Prosecutor's Office "does not need someone with a tarnished reputation and a baggage of graft cases as its chief."

The Cebu Lady Lawyers Association Inc. (Celia) and Child's Legal Bureau concurred, saying that other prosecutors were more qualified. But the Legal Alternative for Women Inc. was more explicit. Castro was nailed by the Ombudsman in four cases, Law Inc. executive director Dolores Aliño stressed. These included monies in a drug case, a fling with a married man, meddling in other people's businesses and interference in a filed case where "she was not the resident prosecutor."

The critics are "only jealous of [my] accomplishments," she scoffed. Inggit lang sila? But Filipino chutzpah has always been Castro's signature.

De los Santos, in contrast, shuns bombast. In fact, she has a reputation for understatement. "Osmeña magic does not work in Lahug," she shrugged to puzzled broadcasters after she trashed, yet again, City Hall in the 2004 elections.

That's matched with sustained citizen consultations and innovative services, from postal services in barangays to deep wells and garbage collection. Nor does she wheedle City Hall for personal perks, be it handguns or bonuses. (In 12 Cebu barangays, the Commission on Audit reports, officials helped themselves to trust funds for Christmas bonuses.)

The BLG award is only the latest of the feathers in De los Santos' cap. It may also have nationwide implications for the informal system of dispute settlement nailed into place by Presidential Decree 1508 in 1978. Republic Act 7160 updated the system.

"A distinct characteristic of the system is its informality," notes the Philippine Judicial Academy study. "Lawyers are banned in the entirety of the process." Was it Dick who said in Shakespeare's Henry VI, "The first thing we do is kill all lawyers"?

Despite its success, "there are recurring doubts" since the system started 27 years back, Ponferrada writes. "Our courts are still congested" although the lack of judges is a crippling bottleneck, an Inquirer editorial observes.

In urbanized areas, author John Willem notes, judges and citizens hardly know who their barangay captain is. "This decreasing credibility...may explain why the backlog of cases is more serious in urban areas."

Maybe so. But the system worked in Lahug, within a major metropolis. De los Santos' experience could provide future guideposts.

Funny, but the paths of these two ladies apparently never crossed. Is it because they march to the beat of different drummers? In any case, Mary Ann, may I introduce to you Mary Ann?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The President's men -- or wimps?

The President's men -- or wimps?

Posted 11:04pm (Mla time) Mar 14, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the March 15, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

THE CLOUT of a "strong republic" is gauged by the compassion it extends to the weakest citizens.

Now, a rookie lady senator is testing President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's men: Can they apply that humane yardstick in, of all places, "Paradise"?

Some call the place Boracay. For many, it means white beaches, sailing, food, fun, etc. -- at devalued peso bargain rates. For tourism honcho Dick Gordon and Secretary "Ace" Durano, the place is a Filipinized Rubaiyat: "Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, /A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou/ Beside me singing in the Wilderness -- /And Wilderness is Paradise enow."

But few know -- or care -- about the "origs" who gave the island its name. Like Mount Pinatubo Aetas, the Atis were Boracay's original inhabitants, then Kalibo Bishop Gabriel Reyes wrote the President in 2002. "Lacking education," they're often harassed and evicted. "Help them, Ms President."

Boracay's white sand reminded the Atis of “bora,” or water bubbles. They spliced that with "bocay," meaning "white." But the name is all the Atis have left.

As in Mindanao, after outsiders ("Bisayas") came, Atis were muscled off the land, the Inquirer Visayas noted. Only then did the Atis realize the "Bisayas had other notions of land ownership."

Exploiting the weak is not a Filipino monopoly. It has occurred in Australia, the United States, Indonesia, among other places.

"In Honduras and the Philippines, indigenous people have been systematically forced into more marginal (lands) which echoes the 'native reserves' of Southern and East Africa," notes the Journal of Agrarian Change. "They're frequently denied social and political rights. And struggles often focus on asserting these."

Today's "reserve" in Boracay is a one-hectare lot in Sitio Bolabog, a 10-minute tricycle ride from the tourist strip. Some 200 or so Atis live there in huts, malnourished, sickly, poorly educated. Although laws, like the Indigenous Peoples' Right Act (RA 8371) offer protection, they're insecure.

More difficult is enforcing the law in a country where "the local political bosses [caciques] lord it over the countryside through a complex network of patronage," Saturnino Borras Jr. told the International Conference on Agrarian Reform.

In "Paradise," the rich with political clout have taken to stringing barbed wire to slice the miniscule Bolabog. They've also set deadlines for next week's eviction.

"Your trusted man Nathaniel Sacapano ordered Atis to vacate their abode," Malacañang's fund-strapped National Commission on Indigenous Peoples wrote Rep. Joven Miraflores of Aklan. The "Atis have a pending Certificate of Ancestral Land Title claim over this area," NCIP Chair Reuben Lingating reminded Miraflores, who claims extensive tracts. Until a decision is reached, "their right to stay is guaranteed" by law.

The Boracay parish priest, meanwhile, confronted tax declaration holder Aniceto Yap's workers who were fencing the Ati village. An overnight wall sliced three and a half huts. An accomplished eviction, the priest feared, would outrun the law.

Daughters of Charity nuns, who live among the Atis and serve them, stand up for the embattled Atis. Bishop Jose Romero Lazoto wants the Kalibo church to live the Second Plenary Council's call for "a preferential option for the poor, a church of the poor."

The Catholic Church protest was ignored. It's not the first time. "How many divisions has the Pope?" Josef Stalin scoffed in one of history's grossest under-estimations. Can "Paradise's" tourist trade afford front-page photos of nuns, serving the Atis, dragged from their nipa hut convent?

Sans publicity, Sen. Jamby Madrigal bucked Boracay's slice-and-divide tactics. In a polite but blunt letter to the President's men -- Secretaries Angelo Reyes, Mike Defensor and Rene Villa, the NCIP chair and other officials -- she wrote that the Atis are threatened with eviction by persons who "represent themselves as owners of the land of which said tribe sojourns and are indigenous to." Boracay land is "inalienable" since it is classified as forestlands. (PD 180 also sets aside the island as a tourist zone and marine reserve.) The law "recognizes the superior right of indigenous peoples to their ancestral domain." Their right to stay "shall be inviolate." Neither may they be "relocated without their free and prior informed consent."

Can Madrigal change the odds?

"This is about very poor people fighting the odds," notes Oxfam's Global Land Policy adviser Robin Palmer. "Land is always a deeply political issue, involving highly disputed and often very dangerous terrain." It's happening when the long wave of land reform, kicked off by the French Revolution ended in the 1970s, as globalization surged. "It's a world in which human and labor rights are being put into reverse gear.... And the poor find themselves, in today's global supply chains, in a race to the bottom."Madrigal's speaking up for those at the bottom was unexpected. Many saw her as a spoiled rich dilettante. Like Jinggoy Estrada, wasn't she out of her depth in the Senate? some people asked. Did we under-rate this lady?

Madrigal insists that a "strong republic" is measured by the compassion it extends to the weakest. Can the President's men match that? Or will they be wimps in the face of a gauntlet tossed by land claimants who built a hut in the Atis' basketball court?

"The measure you mete out to others," the Master from Galilee said, "is the measure that will be meted out to you."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The e-mail brigade

The e-mail brigade

Posted 11:51pm (Mla time) Mar 09, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the March 10, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ARE overseas foreign workers "an emerging middle class"? e-mailed an overseas Filipino worker. Interesting question, but I don't know the answer, we replied. Anyone out there seen a study on this issue so far?

But there are qualified people who know: Inquirer's resident economists Solita Monsod and Cielito Habito, or the University of the Philippines School of Economics' Ernesto Pernia, among others. Perhaps, they'll address the issue soon.

Will OFWs, like the poor, be always with us? "Hearts Apart," the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' study on migration, found that even before graduation, the majority of OFWs’ children mull over leaving the country. Last week's roundup of Filipino workers in Malaysia shows migration streams are not subsiding. Neither are their e-mails. Here are excerpts:

From Luis Zamora in Korea: "I'm an OFW, one of those keeping the economy afloat. Yet, government can't even simplify processing of the overseas employment certificate (OEC).

"We need this P100-certificate every time one vacations or leaves. As an OFW (1985-1988; then 1993-1995, and 2002 to the present), I find the tedious OEC processing unchanged. Although more Filipinos go overseas, we find the same rude employees, same windows, same dirty toilets, etc.

"I'll [be] on vacation this May. Already I dread the long lines. Even if one files early in the morning, it takes more than half a day to finish."

From Anthony Yu: "Almost 11 years ago, armed with an Ateneo degree, I worked and did well at my job in Taipei. When news of President Fidel Ramos' reforms reached Pinoys, I felt hope and returned.

"Many ethnic Chinese are products of a much older diaspora. Younger overseas Chinese no longer see China as the motherland. These days I look at China the way all other nationalities look at it: a huge opportunity with a large competitive labor force that's also a large consumer market.

"The world is getting smaller. It's no longer a question of Pinoys against somebody else. It's now just a question of where is the best place to do anything: live, run a business, raise children, etc.

"I fear that Filipinos who've migrated will have descendants who'll become like the Taiwanese-a demographic grouping that has its own identity apart from its "motherland."

"There have been many disappointments since my return. But I cannot make any claim to patriotism. Nor do I have the right to brand anyone a thief. I only want the best for this country for one reason-- I happen to live here.

"This reason should spur commitment in me, and probably in others who also live here. It does not take rocket science to arrive at a conclusion as to where this country is headed.

"Exclusivity has always been the bigger sin of any country. But for our own sakes, we must pin our hopes on ourselves, not on those already packing for the next flight out."

Former Health Secretary Jaime Galvez-Tan and San Beda's Dr. Helen Santiago-Sigua have written, in the Inquirer, on the Filipino medical diaspora. Now, Davao's Henrylito Tacio notes the debate is resounding in The Lancet, the international journal for physicians.

"Developing countries, such as the Philippines, India, and Africa, face a serious crisis in the loss of their doctors and nurses," writes Our Lady of Peace Hospital's Dr. Willie T. Ong in the March 5 issue of The Lancet.

"Because of a shortage of doctors, some government clinics are manned by midwives," former health chief, Galvez-Tan, says. "Unless something is done, [this] could lead to the collapse of the health-care system."

The Philippine Medical Association estimates that one in five doctors today is taking up nursing to "qualify" for jobs abroad. By 2010, we'll be short of 10,000 doctors.

The main reason is economic. Doctors-turned-nurses earn 10 times in the United States, Britain or Saudi Arabia more than they do here. Human rights bar a law to block this exodus. A cash-strapped government spends 3 percent of the gross national product on health.

"In response, the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) drew up a Doctor's Covenant. It asks members to stay for at least three years after qualifying. They're to dedicate some time to charity work. This contract has no legal implications, working instead on the notion that a doctor is answerable to his own conscience."

When launched last September, half of 1,500 doctors at the PCP convention signed. Ong notes that 30 percent was "undecided." And 20 percent bucked.

"The Covenant might seem inadequate, but its implications are far-reaching. PCP believes that if 2,000 doctors sign up, Filipinos are assured of specialist care in the next three years.

"Patients welcome this assurance," Ong writes. "I'd encourage doctors in other countries, especially those also affected by migration, to consider a similar initiative."

But isn't it too early to declare the covenant a "success"? The shortage of nurses overseas is projected to continue up to 2010, Dr. J. Ruiz -- who returned from the United States to serve here -- writes in the Philippine Journal of Internal Medicine.

Remember the nursery song: "Mother, Mother, I am sick/Call the doctor very quick"? Will the answering machine tell Mama: "The doctor is out and will get back to you-say, two years from now. Maybe never."

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Please pass the salt

Please pass the salt

Posted 05:41am (Mla time) Mar 08, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the March 8, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

SAY "iodine deficiency disorder" or blurt out "IDD," and P1 gets you P10 that few will grasp what you're driving at.

IDD means, nutritionists tell us, lack of iodine in the body. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, 9 out of every 10 women in Mountain Province were necklaced with goiters from IDD. Over half the Cordilleras' population was similarly afflicted.

Among kids, IDD inflicts a toll in mental retardation, deaf-mutism and stunting. In the early 1990s, almost 7 percent of Filipino schoolchildren had goiter, higher than the 5 percent cut-off point. That's when a disease is tacked up on the list of public health problems. Was a generation of cretins unavoidable? some asked then.

"Iron deficiency anemia affects as many as 600 million women and children in South East Asia," the Asian Development Bank notes. Its effects "include increased maternal and infant mortality, limited learning capability, reduced immunity against diseases and reduced ability to work and function."

Over the last decade, the Philippines attacked the problem with a combination of law, vitamin supplements and innovations. As part of his first 100 days in office, President Fidel V. Ramos, ordered that all Cordillera Autonomous Region residents be provided with iodized oil capsules. Pregnant women got priority billing the following year.

But spiraling costs and snarled logistics compelled the Philippines to look at international experience. Worrying IDD levels in Sarawak, for example, led the government to import iodized salt in 1982. New laws jacked up iodized salt supplies in affected communities from 28 percent to 65 percent in seven years. Thailand fortified seasoning in instant noodles with vitamin A, iodine and iron since 1996. At present, 80 percent of Thai instant noodles are covered.

This trend heeds the US experience "as the first country that successfully used salt iodization, in the early 1920s, as a strategy" against IDD. Mandatory fortification of staples like flour, oil, sugar and salt saw rates of micronutrient deficiencies fall in Europe.

As a first step here, salt iodization plants were set up in the CAR. In tandem with the country's biggest salt producer, Pacific Farms, the Department of Health initiated a nationwide campaign for iodized salt use.

But it was rough sailing. A Nutrition Center salt farm survey stumbled across wide data and regulation gaps. Salt farms were often lumped with brackish water fish farms. Producers chafed at rules for quality control, warehouse and fortification plants. Neither were they organized to facilitate consultations.

In free markets, like the Philippines, consumers are king. Many think iodized salt is refined (“pino”), which is costlier. In fact, iodized salt can be fine, rough, solar or crystal -- provided it's laced with iodine.

"When Congress passes a law, it's a joke," the comedian Will Rogers once snorted. "And when it cracks a joke, it's a law." But to Congress' credit, it institutionalized salt iodization in 1995 by enacting the "Asin Law." RA 8976 mandates iodization of all salt for human and animal consumption.

Tasked to implement the law, the Bureau of Food and Drugs was swamped. It had to ensure mandatory iodization on a yearly staggered basis among big, medium, small and subsistence salt producers. That was more than it could handle.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Despite the "Asin Law," consumption of iodized salt has remained piddling, rising to 25 percent in 2001 from 15 percent in 1995, barely enough to dent the health threat. Reasons: high price and lack of iodized salt.

Other countries, like Malaysia and Thailand, meanwhile, overtook the Philippines in iodized salt consumption, by ensuring supplies and mandating its use. China chose a different vehicle to reduce IDD: a large-scale program, with manufacturers, to make iron-enriched soy sauce on meal tables. "A pilot study ... showed that anemic school children given fortified soy sauce had significantly better iron profiles than those who did not," an ADB paper notes.

Here, the tide turned in October 2002 with the health department's "Patak sa Asin" campaign where salt in markets and sari-sari stores were tested using low-cost test kits (a drop of solution makes iodized salt turn blue). Backed by local governments and schools, the "Patak sa Warehouse" campaign followed.

Tracking revealed the upward surge. A Unicef survey showed that 31 percent of households used iodized salt three years back. The 2003 National Nutrition survey found use of iodized salt had risen to 56 percent. Now it's 77 percent, says the latest Helen Keller International survey

Using urine tests, the National Nutrition Survey found that "from 1998 to 2003, median level urinary iodine among schoolchildren increased from 71 microgram per liter to 201 microgram per liter."

What does that mean, in layman's lingo? Below 100, IDD would pose a major public health problem. But at 201, "it is now documented that the Philippines has solved its iodine deficiency problem, although pockets of deficiencies still exist."

Thus, the country beat a major threat but few noticed. That's understandable. The victors are invisible. A goiter bulge intrudes. But normal necks go unremarked. There's no accounting table for tallying the number of kids saved from cretinism.

But there'll be little loafing on this laurel. Tomorrow's battles will be with vitamin A gaps, which cause blindness, and illnesses from iron anemia. But passing the salt signals that failure is not necessary.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Del-Norte-Del-Sur virus

Del-Norte-Del-Sur virus

Posted 10:47pm (Mla time) Mar 02, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the March 03, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IN CONGRESS, when the end of their term approaches, some legislators' fancies skid toward "chop-chop," street jargon for the 1812 tactic of splintering election districts and saving political hides.

In lieu of "chop-chop," political scientists use "gerrymandering" -- derived from Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry who redrew a salamander-like district to favor his party.

Our most visible "chop-chop" artists are three representatives whose terms are ending. They'd split Cebu, a province of 3.35 million people, jammed within 5,088 eroded square kilometers, into three. That opens for them governorships.

This virus has erupted also in Bukidnon, Surigao del Norte and Quezon. But congressmen who relish publicity duck whenever gerrymandering is raised.

Rep. Clavel Martinez zippers her lips on House Bill 3657. It'd spin off her district into "Cebu del Norte." Rep. Antonio Yapha swore he didn't file anything, until reporters trotted out his HB 3632 which would create an "Occidental Cebu." Rep. Filemon Kinatanar claimed he hadn't read HB 3733. "Makapal kasi." It's thick. But 12 of his 15 mayors thumbed down a "Cebu del Sur."

Reaction has been ballistic. If Cebu's four other districts were also "chop-chopped," religious leaders, businessmen and newspapers asked, would seven provincial capitols be wedged into one island? That'd need seven sets of officials, from governors, vice governors, provincial health officers, treasurers, assessors, agriculturists, prosecutors to superintendents, fire chiefs and janitors.

Europe, Asean and other bodies are moving toward integration, former Finance Secretary-and Cebuano-Jesus Estanislao pointed out.

A fragmented Cebu would resemble Siquijor, warned Cebu Daily News' Fernando Fajardo. In this one-district province, 69.5 percent of the 2003 budget go for salaries. Maintenance and operating expenses chew up the rest, noted Fajardo's column, "New provinces or new leeches?" Nothing is left for investment.

"How about a Cebu del Mar?" cracked Visayas Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar to cheer a glum congressional coffee clutch. Del Mar's solid track record makes his reelection sure. "No one laughed," he ruefully recalled. "Bad joke?"

Bukidnon has its "bad joke" in HB 3312. While Rep. Nereus Acosta was a world fellow at Yale University, Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri sneaked in an "Act Creating the Province of Bukidnon del Sur." Zubiri would lop off 10 from Bukidnon's 20 towns and two cities into a Del Sur dependency. Without a by-your-leave, Zubiri swept in Kalilangan and Pangantucan from Acosta's district.

"Why not a Bukidnon Oriental and Occidental?" a fuming Acosta told the Central Mindanao Newswatch. The far larger Pangasinan and Pampanga are not fragmenting. "This is sheer gerrymandering for political gain."

That's happening, too, on Dinagat Island, off Surigao del Norte. One policeman and 17 Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association members were killed during a gun battle with a joint police-military force that arrested "Supreme President" Ruben Ecleo Jr. for the murder of his wife Alona.

"Politics and religion combined into a potent, if not deadly, brew in the Ecleo family's fiefdom," writes Marites Daguilan-Vitug in the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism book "Faith, Hope and Politics." Today, the PBMA "boasts an even bigger and more fanatical following."

"An Act Creating the Province of Dinagat Island" (HB 884) gives local ayatollahs elbow room. Its author is Rep. Glenda Ecleo, mother of the "Supreme President" who is out on a million-peso bail. In Congress, one member scratches the back of others, so HB 884 has 42 co-authors, including Speaker Jose de Venecia.

HB 2862 would slice off a "Quezon del Sur" from the original province of 1.72 million people living in 40 towns and Lucena City. It would have 22 municipalities and Gumaca as capital.

The mother province would be renamed, what else? "Quezon del Norte." But all four Quezon congressmen-Proceso Alcala, Rafael Nantes, Danilo Suarez and Lorenzo Ta¤ada III-signed on.

Except for local differences, all bills are word-for-word copies of a legal form. If any part is declared unconstitutional, a clause decrees other provisions remain in effect.

Thus, few will bother with the US Supreme Court's recent 5-to-4 decision upholding boundaries of Pennsylvania districts amid charges of "unconstitutional political gerrymandering."

Redistricting was a political matter, Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas held. That's beyond the court's purview. But courts must step in when the maps of political districts would put one party at an advantage over the other, Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer insisted.

But the court never explained what the standard was for fracturing the Constitution, The New York Times notes. "Since then, no challenge to partisan gerrymandering has ever been successful."

Here, the brawl will be over cash. Expenses for Quezon's mandatory plebiscite are to be charged against unexpended Comelec funds. The Bukidnon bill is silent. Does it assume the incumbent governor, Jose Ma. Zubiri, will pay for Junior?

Charge Surigao del Norte, Dinagat suggests. The Barbers there always murmured to PBMA leaders: "Thy will be done." But Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia snaps: "I'll veto any appropriation for such a foolish exercise in Cebu."

As the virus festers, former Gov. Emilio Osme¤a snorts: "If my grandfather [President Sergio Osmeña] were alive, he'd have asked: Na buang mo? Have you gone bonkers?"

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Caudillos as authors

Caudillos as authors

Posted 11:18pm (Mla time) Feb 28, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the March 1, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

DID you see who just reemerged, without advance notice, from the woodwork? Gregorio B. Honasan of the controversial Philippine Military Academy Class 1971, that's who.

This is "Mistah Gringo" (a nickname lifted from the 1966 Clint Eastwood's western movie "A Fistful of Dollars"). PMA baron and class president. Ex-colonel. Former senator. Mentor of the Magdalo mutineers. Guru of seven coups.

All the coups that Honasan planned and staged failed, notes "Closer Than Brothers," Yale University's comparative study of PMA Classes 1941 and 1971. "That is a record of sorts."

Class '71 graduates include Panfilo Lacson, Honasan, Vic Batac, Red Kapunan, among other officers. "Only 18 months after graduation, Class '71 became the defenders of the dictatorship," wrote Alfred McCoy in that study. "They were the ultimate creatures of martial law."

Among the 85 graduates, five practiced torture. Six were murdered. They provided 15 of the 77 officers involved in two or more coups. Among these were then Lt. Cols. Tiburcio Fusillero, Rafael Galvez, Franklin Brawner. (Add former AFP comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, now facing court martial for graft.) The number of would-be caudillos "was by far the highest for any single class."

But Gringo faded from the radar-screen after he capped a lackluster Senate term by joining the "Craven 11." He voted to seal the second envelope of evidence during Joseph Estrada's impeachment trial.

Yet, Honasan was only being consistent. As class spokesman, he pledged earlier that no matter how the impeachment turned out, "Erap [Estrada] would be adopted as a class 'mistah.'" And he turned fugitive, yet again, when his fingerprints surfaced in the failed Oakwood mutiny.

Now, Honasan told Inquirer's Michael Lim Ubac, he's a budding author. Together with aging Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabansa comrades, he's writing a book. Is this, as Maurice Oldfield once said, "a book by a committee, for a committee, about a committee"?

But Filipinos never read a definitive account of what led to and followed Edsa I, Honasan asserts. Historical distortions and biases stud everything that came before this still-to-be-written book. "RAM's contributions to peaceful revolution were marginalized, even distorted."

"History books [used] in public schools brand us as criminals," he complained. "My children ask if I'm a criminal and I reply: 'Do I look like a criminal?'"

So, will this be RAM's "Apologia Pro Vita Sua"? Oxford scholar John Henry Newman's towering integrity insulated the Apologia from being self-serving. Otherwise, self-justification guarantees a bookshop flop.

Mortals like us, meanwhile, make do with findings by scholars. There's the Ateneo-Madison Universities conference on the Marcos regime. Yale University did a perceptive analysis of RAM in its study of PMA graduates. From 12 books and 16 periodicals, professional editors stitched together a riveting account in "Chronology of a Revolution."

Then, there's the Fact-Finding Commission report, written by now Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. Maybe Honasan can explain away items like this on page 182 of the commission report:

"Unable to get to Malacañang, rebel troops under Honasan headed for Camp Aguinaldo through the Santa Mesa route. But in their withdrawal, they fired on civilian onlookers who were jeering at them, killing 11 and wounding 54. Earlier, they fired at the convoy of President Aquino's son, Noynoy. Noynoy was wounded while his bodyguard was killed."

What about this detail on Page 234? "In January 1989, Enrique 'Henry' Cojuangco, younger brother of Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco, arranged for Gen. Alejandro Galido to meet with then fugitive Honasan in a darkened van at Makati...While they cruised along South Superhighway, Honasan asked Galido's support for a planned destabilization for March 1989...Galido kept ex-President Marcos informed about the progress of the attempt."

RAM originally was a group of 11 idealistic PMA officers organized to fight corruption. Inspired by the charismatic Victor Corpus, they launched their "We Belong" March on PMA Alumni Day, led by Cadet Honasan.

RAM grew to 861 academy alumni, although leadership came from 15 officers of Class '71. "In later coup planning, Honasan stripped it of his mentor's ideological content and applied their tactical contents to simple seizure of power," the Yale study notes. When Edsa rolled around, RAM had become an armed unit backing a Juan Ponce Enrile determined to succeed Marcos. People power saved them from Marcos tanks.

"Against the tide of history, RAM leaders persisted in their reach for power, even after President Aquino had won her electoral mandate," notes "Closer Than Brothers." Dreams of becoming caudillos die hard?

Over the years, RAM has been fractured and frustrated, Fault lines run along factions based on loyalties to military and civilian patrons, military academy class ties, linguistic differences, and generational differences.

"During the time of darkness, we, together with a few, held hands and jumped into the void risking everything, praying for light and change," Gringo claims. "This act of RAM sparked the 1986 revolt."

This is insipid PR pap. Will this still-to-be-completed book read that way? Then, Dorothy Parker's classic review will come to pass. "This is a (book) that's not to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown-with force."