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DISPATCH FROM MANILA

Rice cop for her country

Philippine President Arroyo is tackling the nation's shortage with fervor, but critics say it's all political and not helpful.

May 01, 2008|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — There are moments during these days of worry over soaring international food prices when it appears that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is out to solve her country's rice shortages all on her own.

Arroyo seems to be everywhere: convening a national food summit one day, appearing on television the next to tout the nutritional value of pan de sal, buns made with cheap flour that she wants poor Filipinos to eat as a substitute for rice.

Her vow to crack down on "rice and bread bandits" has turned her into the nation's food sheriff. She showed up to personally inspect a Manila warehouse, where police seized thousands of bags of rice being hoarded in anticipation of higher prices. And she dragged the Philippine media along to a customs office, where she badgered officials into filing charges against alleged flour smugglers.

The furious pace reflects Arroyo's awareness that rice is not just a food but also a political commodity in a country of 91 million, where large swaths of the population live on the margins of hunger. But critics say the president's hyper-activism is instead stoking a sense of crisis that leads to greater hoarding and pushes prices higher.

"This is all showmanship from the president," said Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former armed forces chief of staff who accuses Arroyo of "eroding confidence in public institutions."

"She's working really hard, but trying to look busy has unintended negative consequences," said Benjamin Diokno, secretary of budget and management under the previous government of President Joseph Estrada and now an economics professor at the University of the Philippines.

"When she asks people to switch to other foods, it's a sign of panic," he said. "The raids on the warehouses have made legitimate traders nervous that they'll be caught in a sweep, so they've stopped buying rice from the farmers. Now we have rice spoiling in storage."

The president's office dismissed those criticisms, saying Arroyo has always been a "hands-on president" and will continue to be seen in action.

"In an effort to reassure Filipinos and to make sure the global rice issue does not become a crisis in the Philippines, she is personally overseeing an effort to ensure supply, secure proper distribution and make sure there is no price gouging or corruption," said presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye.

But Arroyo's credibility has been badly compromised by widespread corruption allegations against her government. The stain of sleaze has created a well of mistrust that inhibits her ability to rally the country to her policies, opponents say.

Given the food crisis, the most damaging allegations may be the still-unresolved charges made by a Senate committee investigating the disappearance of $15 million from the Agriculture Ministry fund intended to buy fertilizer for farms. The Senate says farmers went without fertilizer while the money was diverted to Arroyo's 2004 reelection campaign, a charge she denies.

But her opponents have freely invoked the so-called fertilizer scam to question Arroyo's sincerity about improving agricultural production.

"People really distrust her and they see through this drama she's creating," Diokno said. "In the queues to buy cheap government rice, they're cursing her."

Arroyo's name does come quickly to the lips of many of Manila's poor when asked who they blame for the rising food costs. There has been no food-related violence in the Philippines, but potentially hungry urban mobs make for a combustible situation.

And for Arroyo, the prospect of a presidency undermined by soaring food prices has haunting personal overtones. She was a teenager when her father, Diosdado Macapagal, was defeated in his 1965 reelection bid for the presidency, succumbing to social unrest caused by rice shortages that he proved powerless to control.

The dynamic of that election was certainly seared into the consciousness of the candidate who defeated Macapagal: Ferdinand Marcos.

"Marcos was more afraid of a rice crisis than of the communist insurgency, and back then, that was saying something," said Francisco Tatad, who was Marcos' information minister for more than 10 years during which the Philippines produced enough rice to be an exporter for all but a short time.

"After that election, Marcos made sure that supply was there," Tatad said. "He never took a chance with rice."

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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