By now President Aquino may feel overstuffed with advice for the new year. But maybe he still has room for the advice of two men, who may be of unsavory reputation, but who surely knew all about power and its uses. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of “The Prince,” advised rulers in the 15th and 16th centuries to listen to their enemies, because their friends, for many reasons, will not tell them the harsh and bitter truths they need to know. The advice of the second man, the Godfather (Marlon Brando), is similar: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
It’s not easy to listen to critics—friendly or unfriendly—even if they are telling you the truth. How should President Aquino, for example, react when knowledgeable and respected observers tell him his land reform program has “grossly underperformed” in 2012? Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, Bishop Broderick Pabillo, head of the Church’s justice and peace work, and Christian Monsod, legal counsel of the Task Force Mapalad, told him exactly that a month ago.
How should he react when urban poor protesters tell him there have been few, if any, real changes in their lives since he became President, despite the fact that he has promised more reforms than preceding presidents? How should he react if the protesters tell him that some national agencies and local government units do not agree with the reforms he suggests—in-city resettlement for evicted families, for example—and refuse to implement them?
How does the President actually react? He doesn’t “blow his top” as other presidents are known to have done, when he hears criticism. Maybe he already suspects the worst.
He doesn’t react dramatically in a way that might thrill the nation. While I was writing this commentary, I had a dream so real I woke my poor wife Alice to tell her about it. In the dream I was in charge of a thousand-woman unit of the Philippine government whose task was to fight crime. I don’t know if we were military or civilians. When something went wrong, we flew to the site of the crime and took care of things. I wondered later why I was in charge of that thousand-woman force.
My dream was probably based on Ramon Magsaysay’s 1951 flight to Negros with a company of elite soldiers to arrest the murderers of his friend and political colleague, Moises Padilla.
We don’t know the President’s dreams, but we know he doesn’t act dramatically. My wife Alice, by the way, urged me to go back to sleep, but told me to change my job in the next dream.
President Aquino doesn’t react dramatically, but like his mother, he does react to suffering poor people. Such a person is Dorita Vargas, 63, a sugar worker from Negros who marched with her fellow sugar workers to Manila last June and met the President. She and her neighbors applied for land reform on their sugar hacienda in 1995. In reprisal, their homes were burned down. They have continued to work for reform.
Dorita told the President that the Department of Agrarian Reform people taunt her: “They say I am old and have no way to till the land. They are right, I am old, but I still have a brain. I have grandchildren who will till the land. I will get this land for them.” She told the President that the DAR in Negros lost her papers. The President, to his credit, called that office, and the officials told him they would find the papers in a week. They still haven’t found the papers. The President told her she would have her land by the end of 2012. That also hasn’t happened.
Last December Dorita was back in Manila, still seeking land. Along with 50-plus other farmers she went on a hunger strike in front of the DAR office. On Dec. 17 she began taking only water and on Dec. 20, a few days before Christmas, she collapsed and was taken to hospital. She has returned to Negros because of a family crisis. She still says her only hope is in the President.
The President has his special friends also among the urban poor—Jose Morales—and other sectoral groups. These friendships ensure he is in touch with the poor and their hardships. We might say he relates in a personal way with the poor, rather than as an ideologue or social scientist might—that is, as a class or sector.
We would like him to do more for the poor. But if he can finish what he has concentrated on—namely, growing the economy, achieving peace in Mindanao, and ending corruption—it may be fair to say he has done a good job and also helped the poor; the next rounds in the battle for justice must be fought by other people with his help.
To achieve a more humane society, we need a genuine political party, strong and flexible groupings of all sorts, including unions, co-ops, people’s organizations, etc., and the Church. I don’t think the President is clear on the development roles of these three entities.
One man or woman cannot change a country. We see that now when national agencies oppose the President’s commitments. Leaders need members of their party all the way down to the grassroots level who share their goals and their zeal. The party cannot be just a collection of guest candidates and job-seekers. We don’t have such a dynamic party now, but it is very much needed. The poor complain that government agencies and LGUs refuse to do what the President orders. This can’t happen if there were a real political party in office.
Nothing much will happen—perhaps nothing—unless the poor and near-poor are organized. They have to be the main actors in their development. Basic reforms benefit them principally, so they have to be the engine of reform.
If we had 200 more Task Force Mapalads, Pakisamas and Kabalikat (Baseco), we would be halfway already toward our national goals.
Finally, the Church. Common work for the poor can bring together Christians and Muslims. Such work can also bring together members of the Church, lay and cleric, who may quarrel over other issues. As Bishop Teodoro Bacani has often said, the Philippine Church is destined to be the Church of the poor, or to be a Church in continued search for an identity. To borrow an image from the lives of the urban poor, the Church must resettle with the poor with an unbreakable title.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).