A President for desperate times

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Along certain jeepney routes, children as young as four will clamber into a passenger jeepney or bus even before it’s completely stopped to wipe the passengers’ shoes with a rag in exchange for a few centavos. In some cases it’s a team of brothers or brother and sister, with the older helping the younger get into the moving vehicle by almost throwing him/her into it, of course at considerable risk to life and limb to both.

At the hole-in-the-wall tiendas in the alleys and back streets of Manila’s University Belt where students eat, bands of street children wait for whatever the eaters will leave on their plates, staring hungrily at the food in the meantime. Sometimes they can’t even wait, and grab morsels from the tables. The same thing is happening right within a school campus, in the 500-hectare University of the Philippines enclave in Diliman.

Under the capital’s bridges, flyovers and overpasses, in bus and jeepney stops as well as in the doorways of abandoned buildings, entire families have taken up residence, wandering the metropolis during the day to beg or steal whatever they can, and returning at night to beds of cardboard and plastic sheets.

The Philippine population is currently at 78 million. Forty percent, say unreliable government statistics, live below the poverty line, which means the number could be more. In Manila, 60 percent live in substandard housing, which means no taps, no toilets and hardly any protection from the elements.

Many Filipinos go without the benefit of even the most rudimentary medical care and die prematurely from preventable diseases. Millions of schoolchildren drop out of school every year or have never even seen the inside of a classroom. Violence also rules the streets of Philippine cities. But it reigns as well in the countryside, where local tyrants rule under no law except their interests.

The human rights every Philippine Constitution from the Malolos Republic to the present has guaranteed every Filipino are mocked by the absence of that most basic right of all, the right to life, which for nearly half of the population is both short and brutish.

No Filipino needs statistics to know that these are desperate times, and that the country’s going to hell in a hand basket. But the prospects for the future are even worse. Within two decades the country’s population could double to 140 million, with 60 million living in poverty.

No one who has looked at the state of the country, and feared for the future as a result, has ever argued against the need for reform, and even for revolution.

This is true even for the very few whose wealth and power are conditioned on the poverty and impotence of the many. Reform is indeed the stuff of the sermons of the priests and dignitaries of one of the world’s wealthiest Churches, and the word falls as easily from the lips of even those businessmen who habitually cheat their workers.

But the most expert at talking about it while doing nothing are the politicians and the members of the uppermost levels of the bureaucracy, who publicly talk about change and argue the need for it even as they plunder the public treasury and stay up nights concocting the elaborate schemes that can enrich them further.

In declaring on January 9 to an audience of foreign diplomats during the traditional New Year vin d’honneur at Malaca

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