She is today, as the widowed ‘Cory’ Aquino, Time’s widely admired Woman of the Year. But she started life as Corazon Cojuangco, daughter of the wealthy sugar magnate Don Jose Cojuangco, and cousin of that Eduardo Cojuangco who in the Marcos era became one of the most notorious plunderers of the Filipino economy. She owes her present eminence to both names, but it is the earlier one that is the more significant for assessing the situation in which the Philippines finds itself.

Like almost all Christian Filipinos, she bears a Spanish Christian name, although Spanish colonial rule ended ninety years ago, and today almost no Filipinos understand the Spanish language. The suffix ‘-co’ to her maiden name, a suffix common to the family names of some of the Philippines’ more powerful dynasties (Cuenco, Chioco, Tiangco), derives from the Hokkien Chinese suffix-of-politeness for males: it shows that she belongs to that Chinese-mestizo class, blooming between the 1760s and 1850s, which has largely monopolised political power in the islands in modern times.1 Important as American influence has been since 1900, it has served primarily to reinforce a social system and cultural order which is profoundly rooted in over three hundred and thirty years of Spanish rule. Not for nothing is it sometimes said that the Philippines is as much a part of Latin America as it is of South-East Asia.

Yet it was Latin America with a difference. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1560s, Felipe II’s empire was already in decline, and the Philippines, named after him, was the last major imperial conquest. Most of Madrid’s energies were spent on her vast American possessions; the few Spaniards who came to the Philippines found neither gold nor silver to plunder; the only source of rapid wealth lay in the fabled ‘galleon trade’ by which Chinese porcelains and silks were exchanged in Manila for Mexican silver and sold at vast profit in Spanish America and Madrid. Outside the Manila entrepot – where Chinese merchants and artisans rapidly increased in number – few Spaniards, except for soldiers and clerics, resided. It was through the latter, above all, that the islands were to be ruled.

The timing turned out to be crucial. In the Americas Christian missionary zeal confronted local, state religions which it crushed with ruthless ease. In the Philippines, however, it found itself in a neck-and-neck race with an energetic Islam sweeping rapidly northeastward across island South-East Asia. (Had the Spanish arrived forty years later, much of the archipelago would probably have become religiously impenetrable, as predominantly Islamic as Indonesia and Malaysia are today.) Thus the late 15th-century politico-religious struggle in Andalusia was renewed, not many decades later, on the other side of the world – and in the same vocabulary. To this day, the Muslim populations of the southwestern Philippines, most of whom the Spaniards never subdued, are known, even to themselves, as ‘Moros’ (‘Moors’), and their armed resistance to Manila as the Moro National Liberation Front. Yet anti-Muslim (and Counter-Reformation) zealotry would not have been enough to ensure a programme of conversion so successful, ultimately, that 90 per cent of today’s Filipinos are at least nominally Christians. What proved critical, and not merely in this religious respect, was the absence anywhere in the Philippines (except where Islam had recently moved in) of indigenous states. Nothing remotely like the Burmese Buddhist monarchy, the Vietnamese Mandarinate, or the Javanese and Malay Hindu-Muslim dynastic realms. Christianisation of scattered pagan communities could proceed largely by peaceful means, a fact nicely underlined by the complete absence in the Philippines of the Inquisition. It was also carried out in the many local vernaculars – to the acquisition of which immense clerical energy was committed – and not in Spanish. Thanks to this policy, as well as the remoteness of the archipelago, and the pervasive, reactionary power of the clerisy, even after three hundred and thirty years of Spanish rule no more than 5 per cent of the population had command of Spanish. Spanish culture, in the most general sense, had a deep, continuing impact: but it was mediated not so much by the Spanish language as by Iberian Christian clerics – a vast, if largely ‘accidental’ difference from the experience of the southern Americas (except perhaps of the Jesuits’ Paraguay).

Ecclesiastical power had one other decisive influence on the development of the 20th-century Philippines’ social structure. While the Church in general, and the Orders in particular, gradually acquired vast wealth, especially in land, and while many clerics fathered children on local women, a formally celibate Spanish clergy could not, by its very nature, create a class capable, through the legal inheritance of family property, of creating vast private latifundia. What it did do, however, was to set a landowning example, create the social space for a mestizo latifundism in due course, and prepare a huge treasure for looting under early 20th-century American colonial rule.

The beneficiaries turned out to be the likes of Corazon Cojuangco’s late 18th-century forebears (the ‘patriarch’ immigrated from Fukien). From the early days the priesthood, dreaming of a Christian Middle Kingdom, had put much effort into conversion of those whom they called sangleys (‘traders’ in Hokkien), and whom we think of today as ‘Chinese’. If they had little success with the sangleys themselves, they did very well with the children born to such men by Christianised native women. Spanish law helped by assigning the formal legal status of mestizo to such children: i.e. preventing them from assuming their fathers’ sangley status. Assigned their own distinctive hybrid costumes and gremios (guild organisations), they emerged quickly as a distinct community – above all, in the environs of Manila.

Historical luck was with them. During the two-year English occupation of Manila in 1762-64, the often-victimised sangleys supplied and fought alongside the invaders; in revenge, the returning Spaniards expelled the bulk of the sangley community, and barred substantial further entry by mainland Chinese for close on a century. They could afford to do so because by then the galleon trade was in steep decline (the last galleon sailed in 1811), and the enlightened Bourbon despot Carlos III was expanding Spanish power into the countryside and promoting a quite new commercial export agriculture (including a royal monopoly in tobacco). With the sangleys out of the way, and the few resident Spaniards mainly occupied with administrative and ecclesiastical tasks, the ‘Chinese-mestizos’ took over most significant local commercial activity, and began moving out into the countryside of Luzon and the Visayas in Carlos III’s wake.

It is striking that when Spain’s American empire was disintegrating between 1810 and 1825, all was calm in the distant Philippines. The creole magnates, lawyers and petty officials who led nationalist revolutions against the Bourbons’ ‘second conquest of the Americas’ found no counterpart in the archipelago – even though the islands were administratively subordinated to the Viceroyalty of Mexico. The Church used its monopoly on education and control of printing to guard against any intrusion of liberal ideas; and the mestizos had good reason to be grateful for the new policies of Madrid. They might have no role in the Orders, and little in the decrepit administrative system, but they were entrenched in the expanding urban and rural economy. When in 1834 Madrid decided fully to open Manila (and a bit later Cebu City) to international trade, the mestizos were poised to take optimal advantage of the new opportunities. By then there were almost two hundred and fifty thousand of them in a total population of not much more than four million.

In the 19th century it was with British capital that the mestizos happily joined hands, as in the 20th century they would do with American and Japanese. For example, the island of Negros was almost uninhabited when British interests set up the first sugar mill there in 1857. Forty years later the population had increased tenfold, mainly by mestizo-organised immigration, and 274 steam mills were in operation.2 Two great Chinese-mestizo ‘sugar’ families with British connections, the Osmeñas and the Cuencos, came so to dominate Cebu’s ‘party’ politics that by the 1950s it was said that in that island ‘there are no Nacionalistas and Liberals – there are only Osmeñistas and Cuenquistas.’3

Like many nouveaux riches before them, the mestizos were, by mid-century, beginning to seek sources of prestige and power beyond those of money. It was the age of the marble-floored hacienda, and the conscious ‘feudalisation’ of rural productive relations by these would-be grandees playing lord of the manor to the illiterate rural indios. Yet it was ‘grandeeism’ in an age of steamships. On the one hand, the steamships brought back, after 1850, increasingly large numbers of ‘real’ Chinese for the first time in a century; and these quickly encouraged mestizos to stay on the hacienda by elbowing them out of much big-city commerce. On the other hand, they made possible for the first time the cultivation of the children of the nouveaux riches in the slowly secularising educational institutions of Manila, and soon afterwards in Europe. By the 1870s, a small, young mestizo intelligentsia – the so-called ilustrados – was coming into existence. And it was through this younger generation, attending the same schools, reading (and writing for) the same young Spanish-language newspapers, and marrying each other’s sisters, that the mestizos consolidated themselves as a single ‘colony-wide’ stratum, rather than as dispersed clusters of local caciques, and thereby became conscious of themselves as a potential ruling class.4

Late 19th-century Spain was too stagnant economically, and too rent by internal conflicts, either to crush or intelligently to co-opt this class. Its one melancholy ‘success’ was the execution in 1896 of the ilustrado-mestizo polymath, Jose Rizal, South-East Asia’s greatest novelist (and a merciless satirist – in Spanish – not only of Spanish misrule but of his own class’s greed and opportunism). By then, an insurrection was under way (remembered today as the Filipino Revolution), which quickly broke the colonial regime’s back.

The insurrection was the first of the three major political crises faced by the mestizos in modern times (the other two were created by the Japanese occupation and the fall of the Marcos regime), and their role in it does much to explain their current situation. The uprising was initiated by Andres Bonifacio, an impoverished autodidact from the Manilan artisanate, who in 1892 formed a revolutionary secret society called by the sonorous Tagalog name Kataastaasang Kagalanggalang na Katipunan nang manga Anak nang Bayan (The Highest and Most Respectable Society of the Sons of the People) and organised partly along Masonic lines. The title of the Katipunan suggests both its appeal and its limitations, and indirectly why Bonifacio himself was executed by mestizo ‘revolutionaries’ in 1897. For its language was Tagalog, a tongue then understood only by the populations of Central and Southern Luzon. This lateral constriction, however, was compensated for by local depth; through Tagalog a radical-populist mobilisation of indios – more or less on modern lines – was made possible for the first time. It is also instructive that ‘the People’ were not explicitly identified in national terms. For while the Manilan Bonifacio certainly thought of ‘Las Filipinas’ as his country (he knew enough Spanish to do so, one might say), it was difficult to think of himself as a ‘Filipino’, because this term, right up to the end of the Spanish period, was the normal word for a pure-blooded Spaniard born in the colony. It was in every sense the opposite of ‘native’ (indio).

For the mestizos, however, especially the Spanish-speaking, and steamship-travelling, younger ilustrado élite among them, the transition was quite easy. They outnumbered the ‘Filipinos’ more than ten to one, and Rizal’s novels, almost the first produced in the Philippines, opened up the possibility of a ‘culturally creole’ nationalism very similar to that which had appeared in the Americas eighty years earlier. All the more so in that the Chinese-mestizos’ hybrid culture offered almost nothing in depth that could stand opposed to criollismo. (For the same reason, this community made, after 1900, a quick, shallow adaptation to the English language and American culture.)

Impressed by Bonifacio’s initial success, but alarmed by his radical populism, the mestizos of Central and Southern Luzon moved to take over his revolutionary movement. By 1898, the Spanish had largely given up the struggle, and in 1899 a Republic of the Philippines headed by ‘General’ Emilio Aguinaldo was proclaimed. But it was a republic that bore strong similarities to the short-lived, agglomerate American republics of Gran Colombia and the Rio de la Plata. It claimed ‘The Philippines’, but it had no purchase on the Muslim south-west; parts of the Visayas showed clear signs of intending to go their own Ecuadorian way; and in spite of Aguinaldo’s judicial murder of Bonifacio in 1899, the latter’s radicalism was carried on by a diverse collection of local visionaries and anti-mestizo populists.5 Moreover, the mestizo generals (who included Benigno Aquino’s and Ferdinand Marcos’s grandfathers), like their earlier American counterparts, quickly began acting like quarrelsome local caudillos. All other things being equal, the Philippines might well, in the early 20th century, have become three weak caudillo-ridden states, with the internal politics of 19th-century Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.

But once again luck was with the mestizos: the North Americans decided to intervene. Not just temporarily, as in the case of revolutionary Cuba, whose independence Washington forced Madrid to accept in 1898 – but as a full-scale colonising power. American colonial rule lasted less than half a century, but it was decisive for consolidating the mestizos’ position as a ruling oligarchy, and established a pattern of American-Filipino relations whose deleterious consequences remain.

In the first place, overwhelming American military power crushed all the various local radical resistances, persuaded most budding caudillos to disarm and collaborate, and later succeeded in subduing and partially incorporating the Muslim south-west within a unified modern state. It thereby made sure that the Gran Colombia of the Orient stayed a Gran Colombia, not least because almost from the start of the American regime there began a steady flow of Christian Filipinos (peasant settlers, prospectors, carpetbaggers, and so on) into the old Muslim-dominated areas – for the first time in history such a thing was safe.

In the second place, after 1913 colonisation gave mestizo sugar magnates tariff-free access to the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, where for much of the time sugar sold at prices well above those on the world market. Moreover, the American regime decided to put up the vast, fertile lands confiscated from the Spanish friars for open auction. In the bidding, the wealthy mestizos had enormous advantages, and the treasure fell chiefly into their hands. Much of the land was turned into vast plantations growing sugar and other export crops for the American market, and a true national-level economic oligarchy now appeared.

In the third place, the Americans installed, by stages, a political regime, modelled on their own, which turned out, perhaps to their own surprise, to be perfectly adapted to the crystallising oligarchy’s needs. In this regime there were three key elements.

1. A small, decentralised civil service, which contrasted sharply with the great autocratic bureaucracies of Netherlands India, French Indochina and British Malaya. Already during the Democratic administration of Governor-General Francis Harrison (1913-21), the proportion of Filipino officials rose from 50 to 90 per cent, and the total number of all officials from roughly five and a half to 14 thousand. The oligarchy inherited no solid bureaucratic traditions from the Spanish period, had no interest in this civil service except as a source of patronage, and thus preferred to stay on the hacienda rather than in the office.

2. A very powerful bicameral, single district/single representative Congress, recruited from a restricted, property-based electorate (as late as 1940 less than 14 per cent of voting-age Filipinos were actually voting) and ‘organised’ through a weak, fragmented party-system à l’Américaine. This legislature’s structure exactly mirrored the character of the oligarchy, in its periodic assembling in Manila of provincial hacendados and their legal henchmen. All one needed to be elected to this body was a firm grip on local power – something which, in a still overwhelmingly rural Philippines, the hacendados had well in hand. (In 1939, 82 of a total 98 Filipino Congressmen were either big landowners or lawyers.) At the same time, like the parliament of Old Corruption, it made sure that all the oligarchs had a stake in the institution. Thus the Congress, with its control over the purse and over local government and judicial appointments – the legal armature of private wealth – secured both the oligarchy’s control of ‘Filipino’ politics and a relatively even distribution of power among its leading members.6

3. An unembarrassed spoils-system inherited from America’s urban machines and Southern courthouse cliques. There is no sign that Governor-General Harrison, having turned over the Central Bank of the Philippines to House Speaker Sergio Osmeña (Sr) and his friends, was surprised that these people gave themselves huge, virtually free loans to finance the construction of sugar centrals, bankrupting the Bank in the process. Oligarchic plundering via manipulation of state institutions, as well as brazen cronyism, were central features of Filipino politics long before the age of Marcos. Given all this, it is small wonder that the oligarchy had every reason to feel comfortable with the United States – or that Commonwealth status had virtually to be forced on it in 1935 (by agricultural and trade-union lobbies in the Depression-racked United States who resented the influx of Filipino sugar and manual labourers).

The lightning Japanese invasion of December 1941 and the occupation that followed brought the dream-days to an abrupt end, and set in motion forces in Filipino society which are central to its contemporary politics. True to form, the mestizo oligarchy – one or two celebrated exceptions aside – rushed to collaborate with the invaders. Among the most prominent of these collaborators were Corazon Aquino’s father-in-law (Don Benigno Aquino Sr, Speaker of the Occupation Assembly and Director-General of the Japanese-sponsored Kalibapi ‘mass organisation’), and her Vice-President’s father (Don Jose Laurel Sr, who became President of the puppet republic established by the Japanese in 1943).7 But collaboration could do nothing to save the hacienda export economy now that its protected market had disappeared and American bombers were wreaking havoc on Japanese shipping. ‘Law and order’ began to break down, guerrilla bands formed in the mountains and remoter rural areas, inflation skyrocketed, and Japanese exactions increased. Many of the oligarchs abandoned their haciendas to the care of bailiffs and retreated to the safety of Manila, where a number turned their skilled hands to the business of war-profiteering.

A certain spell was broken, especially in the Central Luzon homelands of the Aquinos and Cojuangcos: gracious grandees are not supposed to vanish over the horizon at the first sign of trouble, abandoning their loyal villeins to their fates. Former poor tenants began squatting on hacienda lands and growing not sugar but crops needed for their own families’ support. Some refused to pay the old killing rents, and threatened the bailiffs who demanded them. And a good number were recruited by members of the small pre-war Socialist and Communist Parties into the peasant army that came to be famous as the ‘Huks’, and found targets for sabotage and assassination among Japanese and collaborators alike.8

Once again, however, the oligarchs were in luck. Prominent spokesmen of the Roosevelt Administration, genuinely indignant at the oligarchy’s speedy and ‘ungrateful’ collaboration with Japanese imperialism, promised retribution. But the man who began ‘liberating’ the Philippines in late 1944 was, fortunately, the same Douglas MacArthur who had fled the archipelago in 1942, his tail between his strutting legs. MacArthur’s father had played a prominent role in the initial conquest of the Philippines, the family had substantial financial interests there, and the General himself had enjoyed playing aristocrat to Filipino houseboys in the palmy years before the war. His social circle included many members of the oligarchy, and he was not about to let the side down.

With his old friend MacArthur’s backing, the prominent collaborator oligarch Manuel Roxas became in 1946 the independent Philippines’ first President.9 Before his death in 1948 he had achieved the following triumphs: amnesty for all ‘political prisoners’ (mainly those held on charges of collaboration); an agreement permitting the US to retain control of its bases in the Philippines for 99 years, as well as a US-Philippines Military Assistance Pact; and the amending of the Commonwealth Constitution of 1935 to give Americans ‘parity’ access to the economic resources of the ‘independent’ Philippines (and, of course, the oligarchy’s continuing access to the protected American market). The urgency of this amendment lay in the fact that the American Congress had made it a condition for the coming into force of the Tydings Rehabilitation Act, which offered 620 million solid post-war American dollars to those Americans and Filipinos who could prove on paper that they had lost a minimum of $500 as a result of the war. (Since the annual per capita income of Filipinos was a quarter of this sum, the main Filipino beneficiaries of the Act were the oligarchs.)10 Roxas achieved passage of the amendment by removing, on charges of terrorism and electoral fraud, the six Congressmen elected in those areas of Luzon where Huk influence was strong.

The final step was to attempt to restore the pre-war agrarian order. This proved easier said than done, now that the colonial regime’s overwhelming power was gone. The reach of the inherited civil and police bureaucracy was quite limited, and in Central Luzon the Huks had emboldened and armed large numbers of peasants. The Roxas years thus saw the first appearance of the ‘private armies’ which have since become so notorious a feature of Filipino life. Recruited by the hacendados largely from lumpen elements in the war-devastated cities, and working usually with the complicity of the Constabulary, these gunmen struck hard at squatters, peasant unions and the Huks, and thereby contributed substantially to the outbreak of the full-scale Huk insurrection of 1948-53. The crushing of this rebellion required the presence of Washington’s legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale, $1000 million in American military and other aid, the abilities of Secretary of Defence Ramon Magsaysay, and the errors and limited territoral base of the Huks themselves.

By 1954, it seemed as if the palmy days had finally returned, but things were never the same again. Remorseless demographic growth (in the 1950s the Filipino population was eight times what it had been in the 1850s) was creating an ever-larger pool of landless agricultural labour and rural un – and under-employed. Combined with the widening of the suffrage mandated by the ideology of independent nationhood, population increase produced a vastly greater electorate than in the colonial years. This electorate could not be wholly controlled by colonial-era grandeeism – the simple operation of ‘seigneurial’ power in the countryside. A sort of political Boyle’s law came into effect, whereby votes could be corralled only by ever more costly investments in bribery and violence.11 It was characteristic of the practice and mentality of oligarch politics in this era that on losing the Presidential election of 1969 to Marcos, the Visayan sugar baron Sergio Osmeña Jr commented irritably: ‘We were outgunned, outgooned, and outgold.’12 And Marcos’s re-election was achieved only at the price of an 18 per cent increase in inflation, a 50 per cent fall in the black market value of the peso, and a $100 million pre-payment of military base rent by Washington.13

The spiralling costs of gaining and retaining political power in an American-style political system, superimposed on a very un-American (and decaying) social order, produced in the 1960s and early 1970s a marked shift in the operational style of the oligarchy, a shift certainly encouraged by the absence of an American colonial regime to ‘hold the ring’. On the one hand, important elements in the oligarchy took advantage of their now full control of the state’s financial instrumentalities to engage in new forms of plunder: manipulations of exchange rates and import licences (supposedly for encouraging domestic import-substitution industrialisation), huge cheap loans from state banks, pork-barrel legislation, and so on.14 The more enterprising among them, leaving their haciendas to their bailiffs, moved into the urban economy of real estate, construction, the mass media, utilities, light consumer goods, hotels, insurance, and so on. Out of family holding companies, such as the Jose Cojuangco and Sons, Inc., of which Corazon Aquino was for 13 years treasurer,15 siblings, adult children, cousins and in-laws fanned out into diversified subsidiaries. By 1969, 67 per cent of all imports were handled by Filipino firms, compared to 23 per cent in 1948. In that year the top 5 per cent of stockholding companies held 61 per cent of all corporate assets. The top 5 per cent of income earners earned at least 30 per cent of total income, and perhaps (since a certain veil always hangs over such earnings) as much as 50 per cent. In other words, always a highly unequal society, by the late 1960s the Philippines had become among the most unequal in the world, with ever-increasing concentration of financial power in fewer hands.16

On the other hand, the American-style rules of the game were breaking down. The private armies recruited to smash tenant organisations and the Huks in the 1940s, and used to coerce electors in the 1950s, increasingly became instruments in the struggle for power among the oligarchs themselves. Benigno Aquino was not alone, in the late 1960s, in campaigning in a black Mercedes accompanied by Armalite-wielding bodyguards.17 By then, the Philippines had, at 40 per 1000 persons, one of the highest murder rates in the world; and after Marcos’s 1973 assault on his enemies’ private armies, he was able to announce that over six hundred thousand guns had been seized from private hands. The increasingly violent competition within the oligarchy more and more involved not merely the American-style locally-controlled police forces, but also the Army. Since approval by the Congress was required for promotion to colonel and above, ambitious officers made it their business to seek patrons in the legislature: as a result, military units came more and more to be used for private electoral purposes. Given all this, it was only a matter of time before someone like Marcos would make the final break with the American rules of the game, and return the Philippines to the mixture of caciquism and caudillism that seemed likely, in 1899, to be its 20th-century destiny.

One final destabilising factor, the result partly of American colonial policy, partly of the inescapable pressures created by the acquisition of independence, was the rapid spread of English-language education (and the liquidation of Spanish). Already in the late colonial period, the Philippines had far the highest literacy rate in South-East Asia. The spread of English made possible, for the first time in Filipino history, lateral communication, below the level of the ruling mestizo class, between Ilocanos, Tagalogs, Cebuanos, Ilongos, and a dozen other important ethnolinguistic groups, thus laying the basis for a ‘nation-wide’ opposition to the oligarchy: not merely the Tagalog core of the Katipunan and the Huks, or the various Muslim peoples of the south-west. And after 1946, in the wake of English, came, as nationalist consciousness rose, both ‘street Tagalog’ and ‘Taglish’. By the early 1960s, university education was no longer a ruling class near-monopoly, but was open even to a first generation of Muslim intellectuals. Out of these developments came, in the later 1960s, Nur Misuari with his Moro National Liberation Front, and Jose Maria Sison with his New People’s Army (which today has achieved what no anti-oligarchy movement has ever managed before – a militant presence in every one of the country’s 73 provinces). There was still another side-effect. Where Indonesia could cast off Dutch, and Indochina French, as the Netherlands and France sank rapidly in world-significance, the Philippines held onto English, not merely because it was, after World War Two, the language of international exchange, but because it was the key mode of access to the United States. Filipino labourers had begun working in Hawaii’s pineapple plantations in the 1920s, but it was only after President Kennedy’s immigration law, with its strong preference for those with family members already citizens of the US, that large-scale Filipino migration across the Pacific began in earnest. At present, there are about a million Filipino Americans and their numbers increase by the day. A very sizeable part of this population now consists, not of labourers, but of doctors, nurses, lawyers, architects, scientists and businessmen: members of a nascent Filipino-educated middle class who under other circumstances might have been expected to stay in the Philippines and play a major role in the modernisation and democratisation of its politics, but who have decided that they had no secure future there 18. This haemorrhage is a central factor in the present calamitous situation of the Philippines.

It would be pleasant to think of Marcos’s twenty-year rule as a sort of Philippine-style porfiriato – the last hand to be played by the country’s mestizo oligarchy avant le déluge. But the last century has clearly shown the oligarchy’s tenacious grip on power – and its historical luck. Under Marcos, the country has become one of the poorest in South-East Asia, with a $26,000 million external debt (almost half short-term), the servicing of which will eat up half its export earnings in the intermediate future. Living standards for all but the rich have been declining for some time now, and the country will be lucky to return to the levels of welfare of the early 1970s by the early 1990s. But American strategic interests make it very unlikely that the Philippine economy will be allowed to collapse completely. The corrupt ‘crony’ financial empires will be disbanded, but like the ‘friar lands’ of another era, they will probably, in one form or another, be inherited by the Ayalas, Jacintos, Lopezes, Cojuangcos, Osmeñas, Cuencos, Laurels, Roxases, Sorianos and Zobels. For the oligarchy is very much alive. Marcos bent it to his will by punishing financially particular oligarchs he disliked or feared, and by abolishing the political and legal structures by which the oligarchy’s economic power was ‘independently’ safeguarded. But he was one of them in every way – though with the good fortune to have the state military and police as his private army.

Marcos’s originality lay above all in his pushing the destructive institutional logic of caciquism to its logical conclusion: in place of dozens of privatised local police forces, a single privatised national Constabulary; instead of pliable local judges, a client Supreme Court; a legislature packed with cronies and flunkeys; a Presidency without institutional roots or legal shape (small wonder he banned showings of the film The Godfather); a state apparatus, formally strengthened and centralised, but actually a welter of undisciplined and corrupt cliques.

What his fall has left behind is an institutional wasteland out of which no one knows how to escape. Corazon Aquino is ‘president’ according to a ‘constitution’ fabricated by Marcos, which she is hurrying to discard. She has dismissed virtually all the provincial and local officials appointed by Marcos, and found no alternative but to fill the vacancies from the ranks of her various conflicting cliques of backers. She has no political party of her own – indeed there are no real political parties in the Philippines except for the Communist Party. She does not even have a clear-cut political base which could give her the leverage to push through whatever reforms she ends up seriously wishing to institute. She owes her position to her husband’s murder, and a vast, diverse wave of popular revulsion against the Old Cacique and his grotesque wife. Nor are there yet any clear signs of how new political rules of the game can be established, by which a politicised military, the Communist Party, the Church, the intellectuals – and the oligarchy – will agree to play. At the very least, the decay of the ‘American system’ after 1946, as a result above all of the Filipino social system itself, suggests that any attempt to return to the good, gold days is doomed.

Few doubt her good intentions, but the history of well-intentioned members of the mestizo upper class is not promising. Rizal was shot by the Spaniards; Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, the most prominent member of the oligarchy to refuse collaboration with Japan, was beheaded. Washington would like to help her, but does not know how, and besides, retaining the bases and stopping the Communists are its first concerns. The Philippines’ foreign creditors are demanding financial discipline by the state, and the creation of a better business climate, neither of which, in the immediate future, will be to the benefit of the millions of urban and rural poor who formed so important a part of the popular upsurge that brought her to power. Both, however, will probably require reliance on the great business conglomerates of Manila.

She does not have much time. They are waiting to place their bids, the colonels, the Communists, and above all the tenacious, wily oligarchy into which Corazon Cojuangco was born 54 years ago.

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