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Rural Regions See Paralysis in Aquino Rule

November 27, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

BASEY, Philippines — On the battered desk of Venancio Baclayo, chief municipal planner for this remote town 350 miles southeast of Manila, is a progress report that reads more like a failing report card for President Corazon Aquino's 21-month-old government.

Entitled "Department of Public Works Projects 1986-87," the report lists all $500,000 worth of the ambitious developments Aquino earmarked two years ago for this backward town--the second-largest on the impoverished island of Samar.

The money is gone, and not a single project is finished.

Listed in the report are 11 fresh-water wells that were to have been built in rural villages where infants are dying from water-borne disease. None of the wells is working. Seven are marked "not operational," three others "not yet constructed" and the final one "water quality not safe for drinking."

Road Projects Unfinished

There are 16 road projects, which were to have connected remote tenant farms to the town markets. Millions of pesos have been spent, but none of the roads is complete, largely because too little money was allocated and too much was siphoned off in "professional fees" paid to engineers, surveyors and others.

The Aquino government also has promised Basey 11 new rural schoolhouses at 165,000 pesos ($8,250) each. Again, professional fees have eaten up 45,000 pesos on each project. And next to the listing for each school in the report are the words "insufficient funds for ceiling and floor."

"I'll tell you what it all means," said Baclayo, a college-educated municipal planner who has lived his entire life in this remote coastal town. "This government simply isn't working. Nothing is working. The government isn't reaching the people."

Nationwide, rural residents, town planners and even the members of Aquino's own Cabinet are beginning to agree that after nearly two years in office, the 54-year-old president has failed to get the machinery of government working again in the increasingly poor Philippines.

Aquino, it is true, has found new internal strength since the aborted coup that almost overthrew her last August. And, in a series of powerful speeches that pleased big business, she has successfully ordered projects ranging from massive government garbage collection drives to pothole-filling brigades in metropolitan Manila. Nevertheless, in the underdeveloped rural regions where most Filipinos live, her government remains largely paralyzed.

As in the past, government doctors are not treating peasants in the remote areas where children routinely die from measles and pneumonia; government judges and prosecutors are failing to deliver swift rural justice; government road crews are working in slow motion in almost all rural provinces; government labor negotiators are too afraid or too lazy to arbitrate strikes in regions where law enforcement is lax or undermanned; government teachers are teaching less and less in remote schools, and government "social outreach" workers have stopped functioning.

And as Aquino faces an increasingly violent Communist insurgency that has claimed more than 14,000 lives since 1984 and affected all but five of the nation's 73 provinces, even her armed forces chief of staff concedes that the rebels may win if the government continues to stand idle in the rural areas, which are home to more than 80% of all Filipinos.

Weakens Counterinsurgency

"That is really the weakness of our counterinsurgency effort until now," Gen. Fidel V. Ramos recently told a luncheon sponsored by the Foreign Correspondents' Club here. "Many of our officials have not really been able to function."

In the absence of a strong bureaucracy, Ramos added, the Communist Party of the Philippines, which is waging the war with a rural-based guerrilla army of about 25,000 regulars, is "making a strong bid to gain control of the local areas. And that is precisely where the weakness of our total effort is today."

Within days of the nearly successful coup attempt by ultra-rightist military rebels against Aquino on Aug. 28, Ramos went on national television to appeal: "We must get the government working. . . . There must be no paralysis of government action now or we will be in big trouble."

In an interview two weeks ago, Alfredo Bengzon, Aquino's health secretary, who also was appointed national peace commissioner earlier this year, tried to phrase it more positively.

"If government is present in the rural areas, the insurgency is not going to be a very big problem," Bengzon told The Times. "If we can just improve the bureaucracy by 30%, we will eliminate the entire insurgency in several regions of this country. And, in the end, it will be much cheaper than all-out war."

Aquino's Leadership Blamed

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