[PHOTO AT LEFT - US General Arthur McArthur (second from left) with members of his staff outside Malacañang, 1901. Photo courtesy of the American Historical Collection, Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University, Q.C. |MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, DECEMBER 7, 2009 (STAR) By Carmen Guerrero Nakpil - Yes, exactly. In that ironic, irascible Quezonian phrase. Just so. That’s what this country had for 45 years. From the purchase at a bargain price of U$20 million through the Treaty of Paris in December 1898 (briefly interrupted by the celestial Japanese invasion and occupation) till July 4, 1946, when we were set free, we were an American possession, subjects of US Occupied Territory and under American rule. Alleluia!

Seriously. No kidding? We even had elections run by Americans. What about that?

Early on, there were elections for local governments, townships and such. And later, for the First Philippine Assembly of 1907, for the members of congress. These were the voters’ qualifications. You had to be a man and not a woman, at least 23 years old, have served in a pueblo office under the Spanish regime, or spoke, read, and wrote Spanish or English, owned real property valued for at least 500 pesos, or paid at least 30 pesos of established taxes. At that time, one could buy a whole house for 200 pesos and Filipinos were used to receiving a peso a year wage for building galleons or fighting in a misbegotten Spanish war in Asia.

The most important requirement for suffrage was the oath of loyalty to the US. But the Filipino-American War (also known to Americans as an “insurrection” but to modern historians as “the First Vietnam”) did not end till years later, because certain misguided Katipuneros, ilustrados, principalia, farmers, and workers did not believe in the American heaven. The Americans were not disheartened by the small qualifying electorate of a few thousands, or the fact that actual voters were even fewer than those who had registered.

The Philippine Commission or the American civilian rulers, noted that “the great body of the people are ignorant, superstitious, and, at present, incapable of understanding any government but that of absolutism… We ought first to reduce the electorate to those who would be considered intelligent.”

The Filipinos were not aware of that report, nor the fact that in October 1907, Gov. Gen. Taft’s report to the US Congress dealt only with American trade and agriculture (tobacco and sugar) mining claims and land ownership by American corporations. Taft also warned that if the Nacionalistas prompted disturbances, the Philippine Assembly would be abolished.

Ignorance was continuing bliss in American Heaven. In the first 20 years of occupation, the US had cleaned up all that ancient, romantic Spanish filth. By the 1920s, Manila was hailed as the cleanest, brightest city in the Orient, with broad asphalted avenues and boulevards, Neo-Classical public buildings like American capitols, a city center designed by the illustrious architect, Daniel Burnham of Chicago, a new, reclaimed port area, a corniche along Manila Bay, a post office and a new charter enlarging Manila. Electricity, running water, police patrols, hospitals, free public schools, fire stations, public transport (electric tramways, railroads, bus service, and a nationwide network of highways, bridges, and ports) were in abundantly available.

Public health was the most salient improvement in the quality of life. Smallpox, cholera, malaria were eradicated by the ceaseless efforts of sanitation and health officers who vaccinated, fumigated, collected garbage, drained swamps and fetid ponds. There was no flooding, even during storms; neither were there shortages of any kind. Imported American products, including Hollywood films, books and magazines, clothing, technology, everything for sale in America was available to Filipinos. A Filipino Commission sat in the US Congress, a program of pensionados or scholars from every elite family, sent young Filipinos to the States to imbibe American customs and values.

“Free trade” flourished. In 1935, a Philippine Commonwealth that admitted Filipinos to a senate and congress, courts, cabinet, provincial governments, cities and municipalities was inaugurated and Quezon moved into Malacañang.

But that was not what the people wanted, wrote Renato Constantino, our greatest revisionist historian, decades later. They wanted to be free and independent as quickly as possible. Quezon’s sardonic indictment of “a government run like Heaven by Americans” and the preference which became an enduring prophecy, of “a government run like hell by Filipinos” had slowly become apparent.

The Americans had wiped away all the gains the Filipinos had attained and from the success of the Revolution against Spain and their Republic, the first indigenous people’s attack on Western colonialism and the very first democratic, institutional republic in the whole of Asia.

The Revolution had already turned over in 1896 the friar haciendas and the Royal grants to the age-old tillers and tenants, thus solving the crucial land ownership problem that still festers to this day. (Hacienda Luisista was originally a Spanish tobacco plantation). The coming together of the Katipuneros and ilustrados in a people’s war had begun the destruction of the medieval fiefdoms. The Republic and the Malolos Congress had taken the first step away from elite politics. The Filipinos of the turn-of-the-century had taken themselves out of the medieval Spanish absolutism, and were on the cusp of political and cultural modernity. One has to only read Mabini, Jacinto, Bonifacio, Luna who were certainly the intellectual and moral superiors of Americans like McKinley or Taft. The Filipinos were well on their way to a genuine, homemade republic when the Americans stepped in.

Ironically, that was the reason the Americans gave for the invasion, occupation, and annexation: to modernize us. The more colorful phrase was “civilize ’em with a Krag.” And so our nation died stillborn. It was resurrected as the American travesty we have now, a population obsessed and naively infatuated with becoming American. The US had announced that they would remake us, as Karnow said, “in their image.” But they proved unequal to their self-imposed task. A statement by George F. Kennan in 1959 says it all:

We set the Filipinos free in 1946, but not really primarily for their sake — not primarily because we were sorry for them or thought them prepared for freedom and felt that we had an obligation to concede it to them — but rather because we found them a minor inconvenience to ourselves; because the economic intimacy that their existence under our flag implied proved uncomfortable to powerful private interests in this country, because, in other words, we were not ourselves prepared to endure for long even those rudimentary sacrifices implied in the term, “the white man’s burden.”

Americans and Europeans used that phrase, “the white man’s burden,” to romanticize their often unwanted and sometimes brutal colonization of the less developed countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They liked to portray themselves as selfless, altruistic, noble heroes who took up the task of saving “primitive” countries from poverty and obscurantism. After WWII, they lost their colonies and their profits but found a substitute euphemism — globalization.

American returns on investments in the Philippines had been sadly overestimated. In addition to the down-payment of U$20 million to Spain for a country they had already lost to a rebellion, the US spent U$300 million more and the services of an army of 150,000 men to “pacify” the Filpinos during the Filipino-American War, and colossal sums on naval battles to “liberate” Manila in 1945, plus war damage and veterans’ payments (still being amortized in a reluctant trickle), plus trouble from the sugar beet and pineapple lobbies! As George Kennan put it, the US was “no longer prepared to endure rudimentary sacrifices” for reduced profits. Besides, technology had made the bases and trade agreements into white elephants.

But mobs of Fil-Ams and Pinoys continued to storm the gates of the US Embassy for visas, petitions, and green cards, while the consuls tried to tell them: “Forget about us. You’re just too much trouble.” And Quezon’s curse has been kicking in with a “government run like Hell by Filipinos.” It’s worse than that. Quezon’s partisans always try to remind us that there was a modifying phrase to his stated preference for a hellish Filipino-run government. He did add: “Because we can always change a Filipino government.”

Wrong, MLQ. We’ve been having a devil of a time for the last eight years, trying to change a government run like hell by one Filipina, and it looks like we’ll never make it.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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