Manila. Holy Week in the Catholic Philippines brings on one of the most bizarre performances by its citizens that, perhaps, helps to explain the political situation as well. In many of the barrios (small villages) penitentes, or men who wish to atone for past sins, torture themselves in a manner hard to believe. On Good Friday the penitentes rise early, dress themselves in purple robes and a black hood to hide their identity, and then drag a large wooden cross for many miles. Others will don the black hood, bare their backs and have helpers beat them with sticks in which pieces of glass have been imbedded. They then march through the streets beating themselves on the back and after three hours or more fling themselves prostrate in front of their favorite church or shrine. By this time, many of them are a bloody mess. But they rise again—pure—ready for another year of come what may. Even though it's not pleasant to watch, the roads are clogged with tourists from Manila and elsewhere coming to watch this spectacle.
Politically the country is made up of penitentes. They have endorsed a dictatorship (if the vote of the barangays is a valid endorsement) which has brought them a rush of rising prices. For example, rice is selling for almost two pesos a kilo, more than double its price two years ago. They have "peace" in Manila, but war in Jolo, a large city in the southern islands inhabited by Muslims. Jolo was virtually destroyed by Marcos' troops in order "to save it." Does it sound familiar? Of course, the destruction was blamed on the Muslim rebels, which does not help the people whose businesses have been destroyed.
In addition, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Butz is here telling the Philippines politely that this former U.S. colony will no longer get trade concessions from the United States. "Trade is a multinational process, not a bilateral process," he told a gathering of the Sugar Club here in Manila. This remark was aimed at the negotiations for the Laurel-Langley Agreement which has governed U.S.-Philippine trade for 20 years and expires on July 3.
The U.S. wants to replace this preferential treatment of Philippine trade with a standard treaty of commerce based on the same kind of trade the U.S. gives to other countries. This would virtually eliminate the sugar industries' largest import market since the U.S. gives the Philippines the largest share of its sugar quota market. This trade amounts to about $250 million to $300 million annually for the Philippines. Ambassador Sullivan (the only U.S. ambassador to have a war named after him) supported this new position of the U.S. in an earlier speech to a business audience.
Ambassador Sullivan also pulled a welcome switch in U.S. defense assistance policy when he announced the U.S. would still provide that doctrine of President Nixon, a nuclear umbrella, but that "…the ground force involved must come from the allies themselves." In a speech at the base of the 23-story cross on Mt. Samat, built by Marcos to commemorate the memory of the Bataan Death March, he said, "We tell our allies and friends in this part of the world that we will honor our past commitments but we stress mutuality." By helicopter it is only a few minutes to the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay or north to Clark Air Force Base, both housing more than 16,000 U.S. troops.
Although Marcos has denied it, speculation has it that he will use these bases as a lever to force more favorable terms on the Laurel-Langley Agreement renewal. Marcos claims the Russians have ships berthing in Singapore, but the U.S. has berthing there, too. It would also be unlikely that he would offend the large sector of Philippine economy that is controlled by Americans, the largest foreign owner of Philippine industry.
On the other hand, during the oil crisis (whatever happened to it?), he supported the Arab nations openly, received oil supplies, and is now negotiating a "soft loan" from the Arab oil producers to benefit developing countries. All this is fine for about 7 to 10 percent of the population. The rest of the involuntary penitentes—the poor—find they are no longer able to buy enough food to live on, nor get to work on the thousands of buses and "jeepneys," since gas prices have forced up rates. Leaving the sugar producers of the Philippines to compete on the world market by the elimination of the U.S. sugar quota could virtually destroy the already staggering sugar industry. This will produce even more unemployment. Marcos' disastrous land reform project led many poor tenant farmers to believe the land they were living on and working was legally theirs, and left the real land owners unable to evict their tenants through court procedures.
There are many of us who fear that an uprising against Marcos would force U.S. military intervention to protect not only the U.S. bases, but business interests as well. It would be a difficult military action to sell to the American public, still saturated with U.S. efforts for "self determination" in Vietnam. But the history of the Philippines has been one of penitentes under first the Spanish and then the Americans. Americans never really have exhibited much feeling for the common Filipino. Not even when his back is bleeding.