In the American magazine Foreign Affairs published in July of 1968, a young Filipino senator introduced his country to the American people as “a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor. . . . a land consecrated to democracy but run by an entrenched plutocracy… a people whose ambitions run high, but whose fulfillment is low and mainly restricted to the self-perpetuating elite…a land of privilege and rank – a republic dedicated to equality but mired in an archaic system of caste.”
It is unfortunate that the novice senator did not share his insights about his country with the Filipino people. It should have been required reading in Philippine schools. It still should be, even now – 46 years later.
The young author was Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., a member of the “entrenched plutocracy” and the “self-perpetuating elite” of the Philippines.
Ninoy Aquino came from a “prosperous family of hacenderos” (Wikipedia), a family which gained prominence when his grandfather, Servillano Aquino, served as a general in Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo’s Revolutionary Army. Aquino’s father Benigno Aquino, Sr. was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives in 1919 before winning a Philippine Senate seat in 1928, the first of many Aquinos to be elected to the Senate including Ninoy, his son Noynoy, his siblings Butz and Tess, and his nephew Bam.
While Aquino was the youngest Filipino politician ever to be elected mayor (at age 22), governor (at age 29) and senator (at age 34), he never got to be the country’s youngest president because Marcos declared martial law in 1972 voiding the 1973 presidential elections where Aquino was favored to win. While Aquino never became president because of his assassination in 1983, his widow, Cory, and his son, Noynoy, were both elected to the country’s top post.
The origin of the “self-perpetuating elite” of the Philippines can be traced to the decision of the Spanish colonizers in the third century of their rule to appoint the most prominent local Ilustrados in each town and province as gobernadorcillos to collect taxes from the people.
When the Americans colonized the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, they continued the Spanish colonial practice and appointed local Ilustrados to political positions as well.
Uncomplicated Mind blogger Joe Rivera wrote: “When the U.S. colonized the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, they took these Ilustrados under their wings and trained them for the practical affairs of popular government. The first American civil governor of the islands, William Howard Taft, believed that the rudiments of self-government would easily be transferable to these Ilustrados, the oligarchic elite, because of their social and economic status. So, it was the fault of the American colonizers that spawned the political dynasties we have now.”
In every province of the Philippines, political power was wielded by the local Ilustrados who kept political power limited to their families making the surnames Osmena, Lopez, Cojuangco, Roxas, Aquino, Macapagal and Marcos household names in Philippine politics.
Rivera described the consequence of Taft’s Ilustrado policy: “Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute the Philippine Assembly in 1907 and Congress in the ensuing years resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuate their hold on political offices. A truly representative democracy failed to flourish, shattering the hopes that the country would now be able to draw upon all classes in Philippine society in electing public officials.”
As Carlos Conde noted in his New York Times article, Family dynasties bind politics in the Philippines, (May 11, 2007), “political dynasties were an offshoot of the country’s colonial experience, in which the Filipino elite was nurtured by Spanish and American colonizers. Even after the country gained independence, in 1946, the largely feudal system persisted, as landed Filipino families sought to protect their interests by occupying public offices.”
Conde added: “There are an estimated 250 political families nationwide, with at least one in every province, occupying positions in all levels of the bureaucracy… Of the 265 members of Congress, 160 belong to these clans.”
According to one estimate, 40 percent of provincial congressmen and governors are related, and 50 percent of both are related to previous holders of those offices.
“These are the same families who belong to the country’s economic elite, some of them acting as rule makers or patrons of politicians who conspire together to amass greater economic power,” said Roberto Tuazon, director of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance.
Even when a political figure with no ties to the traditional Ilustrado elite emerges, he quickly develops the impulse to amass and perpetuate political power in his family.
An example is Joseph Ejercito who was born to an upper middle class family in Tondo, Manila, and who became a popular movie actor under his screen name, “Joseph Estrada”, after he was expelled from Ateneo University. He parlayed his fame as an actor to be elected mayor of San Juan, a post from which he then ran for and was elected variously as senator, vice-president and then as president in 1998.
After Estrada was removed from office in 2001 by “People Power II”, his first wife, Dr. Loi Ejercito, was elected to the senate, followed by one son, Jinggoy, and yet another son, J.V. Ejercito. His nephew, ER Ejercito (real name George Estregan, Jr.) was elected Laguna governor in 2010 (although he may soon be removed from office for “overspending”). Even after a plunder conviction and a sentence of life imprisonment, “Erap” Estrada managed somehow to be elected mayor of Manila in 2013.
Like Estrada, the man widely assumed to be the next president of the Philippines, Vice-President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, also did not descend from the Ilustrado elite. Orphaned at nine years old, Binay was adopted by his uncle, Ponciano, a man of modest means. Binay studied at regular local schools before acquiring a law degree from the University of the Philippines. As a lawyer, Binay volunteered to provide free legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos dictatorship.
Because he was an ardent supporter of Cory Aquino in the 1986 People Power Uprising, Binay (later known as “Rambotito”) was rewarded with an appointment as mayor of Makati in 1986. He was elected in his own right in 1988, then reelected in 1992 and 1995 when term limits required him to relinquish the post to his wife, Elenita Binay, who was elected mayor in 1995. Binay was elected mayor again 1998 and again until 2010 when he ran and won as Vice-President.
Since Binay’s mayoral appointment in 1986, Makati has known no other mayor not named Binay. After he was elected VP in 2010, his son, Jejomar Erwin “JunJun” Binay, Jr., succeeded him as mayor. One daughter, Mar-Len “Abigail” Binay is a House member representing Makati while another daughter, Nancy, was elected to the Senate in 2013 despite having absolutely no prior job experience other than as her father’s “executive assistant”.
Conde observed that members of dynasties, like the emerging Binay Dynasty of Makati, have “developed a sense of entitlement regarding public positions while many ordinary Filipinos accept the arrangement as inevitable, which makes it difficult to change the situation.”
In his widely-read 1988 essay, A Damaged Culture, James Fallows wrote: “when observing Filipino friendships I thought often of the Mafia families portrayed in The Godfather: total devotion to those within the circle, total war on those outside. Because the boundaries of decedent treatment are limited to the family or tribe, they exclude at least 90 percent of the people in the country.”
Anthropologist Brian Fegan asserts in his book, “An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines”, that Filipinos tend not to vote according to class, ethnicity, religion or even ideology. They vote for family which has become “the most enduring political unit and the one into which, failing some wider principle of participation, all other units dissolve.”
The system of family clan dominance is a vicious cycle, Political Science Prof. Julio Teehankee asserts, because it “prevents the expansion of the base of aspirants and candidates for representation.” The result, he added, is a political system dominated by patronage, corruption, violence, and fraud.
The dominance of the family clans has prevented the flowering of democracy in the Philippines.
“Continuing clan dominance is a product of the seemingly immutable and unequal socioeconomic structure, as well as the failure to develop a truly democratic electoral and party system,” said Prof. Teehankee (quoted by Conde).
The system is a vicious cycle, one that prevents the expansion of the base of aspirants and candidates for representation, Teehankee said. The result, he added, is a political system dominated by patronage, corruption, violence, and fraud.
This is the political system that has produced fixers like Janet Lim Napoles who conspired with the dynasts in Congress to steal taxpayer money intended to provide the people with much needed services and infrastructure improvements.
Not all the “self-perpetuating elite” of the Philippines conspired with Napoles but all those who did were certified members of the “self-perpetuating elite”.
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