Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has received more than her share of comments for her repeated and failed attempts to meet US President Barack Obama. Probably because Valentine’s Day was approaching, early this week one commentator compared Mrs. Arroyo to a love-sick woman vainly pursuing the object of her affections. She’s also been accused of being caught in the “outdated” anti-terrorism framework of the unlamented Bush administration. And (gasp), those who fret over the country’s “image,” especially before the US and Americans (what will they say!), have complained that by crisscrossing the planet trying to catch Obama’s eye, she’s embarrassed not only herself and her government but the entire country as well.
No one has so far bothered to seriously ask why she should be so focused. That’s certainly because there’s a near universal assumption among Filipinos that every Philippine government needs US approval. After all, many Filipinos ache for the kind of American recognition and appreciation exemplified by singing a duet with Celine Dion, or beating a Mexican to a pulp in a Las Vegas ring to the roar of an all-American crowd.
But the truest, most enduring colonials of all are the creatures of the Philippine political class, who need US approval not only because they have a psychological ache for it, but also and primarily because US approval is often so delightfully expressed in the dollars and cents of economic and military aid that somehow manage to stick to official fingers.
Former Marcos spokesman Adrian Cristobal once described the United States as “a stake in Filipinos’ hearts.” Cristobal didn’t elaborate when asked. But was he suggesting that Filipinos are the undead, unable to rise because impaled to their very core by their most successful colonizer? Was there virtue as well as need for the undead to rise in the first place? Or was it Cristobal’s way of saying that the US was a thorn on Filipinos’ side so huge it might as well be Charon’s pole?
No matter. The US has been shafting the Philippines for over a century, and does loom large in the Filipino universe because it’s been so much a factor in the making of Philippine society as we know it (or as too many Filipinos still don’t know it), thanks to a political class it claims to have trained in independence and self- governance.
The US might as well have trained it in dependency. Indeed it did, the results of the US colonial period being so much in evidence only the stupid can fail to conclude that the stated intent was the exact opposite of the real one. In the six decades after the US formally relinquished sovereignty over these isles of want, government after government has seen to it that it’s tied so closely to the US it can’t breathe without US permission.
No government since Marcos has epitomized this dependency more than the Arroyo regime. Gloria Macapagal -Arroyo came to power in 2001 with the help of the US and its local allies in the Church, the military and the business community. The Arroyo regime has managed to stay there by giving the US even more than what it wants: first in 2001, when, a scant eight months after it came to power, it pledged total support for whatever initiative by way of war, mayhem, or blackmail the administration of George W. Bush was contemplating to retaliate for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that year.
It followed that demonstration of lapdog devotion with the signing of the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA) and an invitation for US troops to train Filipino forces in counter-terrorism. Its security forces meanwhile began to implement a policy of extra-judicial killings that echoed the US’ Vietnam assassination program known as Operation Phoenix (1965-1970), while it prepared for the elections of 2004. To halt the demonstrations as well as criticism against the fraud-ridden 2004 exercise, but in the guise of counter-terrorism, it declared a state of emergency and began an attack on free expression and a campaign for constitutional amendments that have persisted to this day.
Throughout this period, and despite one corruption scandal after another that has involved not only the presidency but also Congress, various executive departments and the military and the police; despite a wave of extra-judicial killings; and despite a sustained assault on the Bill of Rights, the regime has survived, US support being the one constant it has relied on and has been sure of.
US support is crucial in this outpost of neocolonial rule. Not only does it matter in terms of economic and military aid. It’s also vital in keeping Filipinos believing that despite the corruption, the human rights violations and the sheer mendacity of government, the fact that the US supports it must mean it has virtues mere mortals can’t appreciate.
Armed with this awareness, Mrs. Arroyo has flown off to various places, the latest being Washington, DC, in pursuit of that precise moment when, shaking Barack Obama’s hand, the cameras are able to capture for the benefit of the folks back home what her press agents would hype as proof positive of support by the new US administration.
But there’s more than photo-ops in the game she’s playing. So steeped in the ways of Philippine backroom politics is Mrs. Arroyo she’s certain that if given the chance she can charm Obama into believing she’s the repository of democratic ideals, and the harbinger of change he can believe in. She’ll enthrall him with the audacity of her claim to adherence to human rights despite her recent appointment of Jovito Palparan to the Dangerous Drugs Board. She’ll convince him she’s no tyrant “clinging to power through deceit and the silencing of dissent”. She’ll proclaim that she’s not “on the wrong side of history”.
But Obama didn’t seem to be in the market for such shoddy goods. No, he hasn’t singled out Mrs. Arroyo for humiliation. But by now briefed by his advisers and the US intelligence services on who’s who and what’s what in the global pantheons of heroes and rogues’ galleries, it’s almost certain Obama knows whose hand to shake and whose to avoid. Which is all very well, but indicative anyway of how deeply embedded is that stake in our hearts.