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Hopes Rise at Family's Hacienda : Vexing Land Reform Issue a Crucial Test for Aquino

March 17, 1986|JIM MANN | Times Staff Writer

TARLAC, Philippines — It is the season for cutting sugar cane here, and on the Hacienda Luisita, the family plantation of President Corazon Aquino, the fieldworkers have fallen as usual into the rhythm of days in the fields, nights in the barrios.

The cane cutters, most of them migrants, are paid an average of 35 pesos a day, about $1.75. They have few possessions, and they often live in homes with no electricity. Of late, though, they have begun to hope for a change for the better.

"We will make money," said Carlos Ambrosia, 24, who was born on the hacienda and is raising two children here. "We are looking for a bright future now."

The cause of their optimism is the election of Aquino, the woman who sometimes occupies the white ranch home with the cared-for lawn in the five-house compound up the road from the cane fields, near the hacienda's private airstrip and golf course.

In the campaign leading up to last month's presidential election, Aquino promised the Philippine people a fairer share of the ownership and benefits of the land. She pledged specifically to use her family estate, the Hacienda Luisita, as a model for land reform throughout the Philippines.

"I shall sit down with my family to explore how the twin goals of maximum productivity and dispersal of ownership and benefits can be exemplified for the rest of the nation in Hacienda Luisita," she told a campaign audience on the island of Mindanao.

In the face of growing agrarian unrest and peasant-based insurgent movements, Philippine governments have been espousing the cause of land reform for decades. Jaime Tadeo, chairman of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, says that since 1935 "they have been promising a genuine land-reform program; so far, it's just a promise."

The United States has done some occasional prodding in this direction. As early as 1952, a high-powered American mission recommended land reform and elimination of graft and corruption as top priorities for this country. So far, though, there has been little change in the structure of rural Philippine society.

In some places, land reform has never even been tried. In others, it has been carried out in such a way as to produce a class of debt-ridden tenants forced to sell or mortgage their rights back to their landlords--somewhat like the sharecroppers in the American South after the Civil War.

The land reform issue raises the broader question of whether Aquino and her government will represent merely a perpetuation of the old Philippine social elite, as skeptics on both left and right suggest, or whether she has the will and political strength to bring about a more even distribution of income.

Five years ago, writing about Aquino's late husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., a prominent Filipino predicted that an Aquino government would be "nothing more than a change of political personnel" and went on to say: "Superficial reforms would affect only an insignificant segment of the population. Otherwise, things would be as they had always been: Social injustice, economic stagnation and political strife would continue to dominate the national scene."

Marcos the Writer

The writer was Ferdinand E. Marcos, the recently deposed president, and his remarks appeared in a short book entitled "Progress and Martial Law."

Such criticism has been revived here since Aquino took office and named her Cabinet. Nick Elman of the May 1 Movement, a workers' group affiliated with Bayan, a left-wing umbrella organization, observed: "There is no member of the Cabinet who belongs to the broad mass base. This is an elite government."

Yet Elman said his organization is backing the Aquino government, for now. And others argue that the political climate is more conducive to social change now than ever before.

Prof. Maria Aurora Carbonell-Catilo, a professor at the University of the Philippines, said: "You cannot deny the class origins of Cory Aquino, but the countervailing forces are there at work now--the church, the media, the people themselves, who can get organized at a moment's notice.

"The important thing is the experience that every Filipino has had under Marcos. He has been burned, he has had poverty and hard times. He knows he has a stake in the political system, and that feeling can't easily be set aside."

Hacienda's Phones Tapped

The Hacienda Luisita, in particular, felt some of the political effects of the Marcos era. In the 1970s, when Benigno Aquino, then Marcos' chief political rival, was in prison, the hacienda's phones were tapped and its airstrip was closed.

Aracelino G. Sutto, manager of the hacienda's services group, said: "We were not allowed to use planes. We couldn't even use radios."

Socially, however, the hacienda has not changed much since 1957, when Corazon Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, bought the plantation--about 17,300 acres--and its mill.

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