MANILA — Buried at the bottom of page 6 in last Sunday's Manila Chronicle was a five-paragraph report quoting World Bank sources saying that the country's most recent attempted coup d'etat should not slow the Philippines improving economy.
Good news, sorely needed. After a month of heightened activity by communist rebels, a transportation strike that crippled cities and the assassination of a cabinet minister, the August "bloody Friday" rebellion by mutinous military leaders left optimism in short supply.
Yet even while the bullets flew in Manila, elsewhere in a nation of 55 million mostly impoverished people, things remained largely calm--the principal concern the same as ever: survival.
The capital of this former U.S. colony, with its up-scale shopping centers and walled communities for the wealthy few, is not always a reliable guide to conditions in the rest of the country. Over the past month I have journeyed across the archipelago, talking with a wide variety of people from the political left to the right, farmers and politicians, officials and aid-givers, priests and former rebels.
What emerges is a collective feeling of hope for the future--tempered by concerns that the government of Corazon Aquino lacks clout to implement its good intentions, too heavily freighted with people and attitudes from the oligarchic past. What is also clear is that the United States, by its staunch support of Ferdinand E. Marcos throughout most of his plunderous reign, has squandered much of the traditional good will Filipinos once felt for their former colonial masters.
Twenty-five years ago, as a Peace Corps teacher at a provincial high school, I was struck by the resilience of the Filipino people ("We bend with the winds, like the bamboo," they said), beset then as now by conditions that condemn most of them to lives of poverty. While material conditions have not improved much in the meantime for the great mass of people (up to 70% of the population falls below the basic-needs poverty line), today that resilience is manifested less by a fatalistic acceptance ( bahala na , or "happen what may") than by a realization that things can change for the better.
Last year, on the island of Negros world attention was focused on the starvation among unemployed sugar workers; this year, hundreds of feeding stations hold the line against hunger as a host of national and international organizations work for long-term solutions.
Fighting for change on Negros are groups like the National Federation of Sugar Workers, started in 1968 by a Jesuit priest. The NFSW operates a variety of small-scale development projects--farm tool manufacture, a marketing co-op, aquaculture--and a counseling service for workers on their legal rights.
For the right, such activities mean trouble--particularly for owners of large sugar haciendas who brand the NFSW as a communist front for espousing land reform. Federation leaders tell of harassment from the military including arbitrary arrest, torture and even killing.
For the left, Negros has been a stronghold of the communist New People's Army. The NPA was a minuscule force before 1972 and the years of Marcos' dictatorial regime. Now it numbers 24,000 armed regulars throughout the country; on Negros, rebels recently launched battalion-sized attacks on police outposts, on a city hall and burned a sugar mill train.
Despite NPA violence, government and civilian organizations on Negros have extended their reach. The Pasil medical mission, including doctors and other health professionals, takes volunteers on weekend trips into mountain villages where government health care is sporadic or nonexistent--and NPA strength is greatest. Negros has only one doctor for every 75,410 people, one dentist for every 113,115.
Lourdes A. Cuachon, Philippine National Red Cross Director in Negros, coordinates volunteers who take food supplies beyond the established Negros feeding stations to as many 65,000 people living in remote villages.
"We're getting more volunteers now from the wealthy community," Cuachon said. "Before they only played mah jongg."
In Cavite Province a community development worker for the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction took visitors to a small village that until recently had no road connecting it to the outside. Similar examples of involvement and commitment showed up elsewhere, including the slums of Manila. In Leveriza, a shanty town of 18,000 people, a community organizer pointed with pride to a series of new water-sealed toilets.