Monday, October 22, 2018
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Fake history: Unitary system failed us

Policymakers ordinarily use history badly. When resorting to an analogy (or historical data), they tend to seize upon the first that comes to mind, they do not search widely. Nor do they pause to analyze the case, test its fitness, or even ask in what ways it is misleading.”

That quotation is in the preface of Ernest R. May’s book “Lessons of the Past,” a textbook used in a course on political development. The quotation is timely because we are now enmeshed in the issue of fake news and, worse, of fake history, as in the repeated assertion that the unitary system of government has failed us and we must, therefore, federalize.


There are four episodes in the role of the unitary system of government in Philippine history. In Episode I the unitary system was the only option for the Spaniards; otherwise, there would have been no “Las Islas Filipinas.” Spain had to weld into one nation what was at that time separate tribes with no central authority.

Episode II came with the American colonial regime. If one reads the works of our “nationalist” historians, the First Republic established by Emilio Aguinaldo would have evolved into a modern society had the Americans not intervened. This thesis ignores the historical reality that the Philippines, in common with our Latino cousins, inherited a nation with a peculiar social structure.


Spain, unlike France or Britain, did not maintain a large colonial army. Its system of governing its colonies was based on the land grants given to hacendados (our term is hacenderos).  A typical hacienda operated like a medieval society with its own rules and, more important, its own private  army. Eventually, the hacendados evolved into caudillos. When most of the  Latin American countries gained their independence from Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, the governments that emerged were the product of the shifting alliances of caudillos. The only constant was the unwritten rule that whichever group seized power, it would not change the social structure of the country. (This rule  was broken only by Fidel Castro of Cuba.) This is the cause of the instability of Latin American governments to this day.

In this regard, Aguinaldo would have faced a more daunting task of governing than our Latino cousins. The Latin American countries are contiguous territories, but our country has 7,021 islands. Aguinaldo did not have a navy that would have allowed him to establish an effective central government. Thus, the government of the First Republic would have been based on the

caudillo system, just like in Latin America. To put things in perspective, the centralized unitary government under the American colonial regime arrested the development of the caudillo system in the Philippines.

Episode III was the period when the Philippines was given autonomy under the Jones Law, from 1916 to 1946. Under the unitary system of government during this era, the Philippines developed and emerged as the second most developed economy in Asia, after Japan. It was an efficient government run by Filipinos. Our “nationalist” historians effectively erased this era under the mantra that everything about American colonial rule was bad.

Episode IV is marked by the unitary government that has been operating from 1946 to the present. During this era, the Philippines slipped from being the second most developed economy in Asia to a basket case.

Our mistake, as noted in May’s book, is that we are not searching widely enough to look at the history of governance in our country. Actually, the unitary system served us well in the past; it failed only in Episode IV. So one can argue that the current debate should center, not on a shift to federalism, but, rather, on a new system to select the leaders that would replace the political dynasties running our country.

The thesis that the unitary system of government has failed us is fake history.


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Hermenegildo C. Cruz was the Philippine ambassador to Chile and Bolivia from 1989 to 1993.

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TAGS: Ernest R. May, fake history, federalism, Inquirer Commentary, Lessons of the Past, unitary system
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