By E. San Juan, Jr.
We will fight for gender equality and rights of women in all levels of governance and livelihood in society.
–MAKABAYAN Coalition Platform, 2009-2010
In 1952, the distinguished writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil published a now classic essay on the character of “The Filipino Woman” which dilated on her variety and heterogeneity by reason of history and cultural provenance. While acknowledging the persistence of traditional habits, Nakpil projected a postmodern image with a split personality: “sorely confused and uncertain, trying to balance the well-insulated goodness of the age of Victoria with the hard-boiled honhomie of the jitterbug era, always groping toward self-realization”. Perceived as a “mongrel contradiction,” the Filipino woman might eventually crystallize into “a clear, pure, internally calm, symmetrical personality.” But, Nakpil concludes, when that occurs, she “will have lost the infinite unexpectedness, the abrupt contrariness, the plural predictability which now make her both so womanly and so Filipino” (1980. 18).
Can reality measure up to this enigmatic persona? It is difficult to distinguish whether this portrait can still apply to the case of Suzette Nicolas, better known as “Nicole,” who was raped by a United States Marine on November 1, 2005, near the former Subic Naval Base—one of many Filipino women victimized by U.S.-Philippines “special relations” (Schirmer 1996). Or whether it applies to Maria Lorena Barros, Cherith Dayrit, Kemberley Jul, martyred combatants of the Communist-led New People’s Army; or to ordinary women, such as Annaliza Abanador-Gandia, Cathy Alcantara, Victoria Samonte, or Rebelyn Pitao, all killed by para-military agents on suspicion of being insurgents or communist subversives (Asian Legal Resource Center 2007)? The Victorian figure of “Maria Clara” idealized by Jose Rizal in his novel Noli Me Tangere has now been superseded not by a mimicry of the modern American woman but by a new generation of activist, intelligent and resourceful women who are neither thoroughly conflicted nor homogenized because they are responsive to the changing pressures of everyday life, sensitive to the constantly altering balance of forces, needs and demands of the social constellation which defines her. Both the raw materials offered by history, culture and nature have converged to shape the dynamic, complex but fully articulated situation of the Filipino women at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
While the history of the Filipino women’s struggles for equality and dignity date back to Gabriela Silang and the myriad revolts against Spanish colonial rule, the core of the demands involved can be condensed to the present conjuncture. Indeed, Filipina women’s full emancipation cannot be divorced from the Filipino people’s struggle for popular democracy and genuine independence. Let us start from a crucial turning point by invoking the people’s opposition to the Philippines’ current woman president. May 14, 2004, election day in the Philippines, may signal a historic turning-point in its political devolution since the February 1986 “people power” revolt overthrew the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship. The prospect is grim. Either the country declines into unprecedented barbarism—so far, international monitors (Amnesty International, World Council of Churches, UN investigators) have documented thousands of victims of extra-judicial killings, forcible “disappearances,” torture and massacres exceeding those committed by Marcos—or President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is impeached by a majority of elected representatives for treason, violation of the Constitution, corruption, etc. This may temporarily stop the “impunity” for State-affiliated criminals. This legal route of redress of grievances is by no means a revolution; it can be aptly described as an in-house purging of decay and rot. Either way, this ritualized election of local officials and Congresspeople will prove a veritable test-case for the country’s neocolonial, oligarchic institutions and the status quo of class inequality that have been, in one way or another, fostered by the United States, its former colonizer, for over a century now.
Fraud as Spectacle and Testimony
In a recent commentary, the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a think-tank based at the University of the Philippines, concludes that “fraud is an endemic disease that has been institutionalized by a political system—the government, executive and legislative structures, political parties—that remains dominated by political dynasties” (Issue Analysis, No. 7, May 2007). Prior to the elections, a group of retired military and police officers revealed a devious plan of Arroyo’s adviser, General Hermogenes Esperon, AFP Chief, to hijack 14 million votes in 4 regions and 12 provinces to insure the victory of Arroyo’s team. This electoral rigmarole follows the routine set up by the U.S. colonial system since the Commonwealth government headed by Manuel Quezon in the thirties and forties.
It is instructive to cite here a recent Social Weather Station survey of citizens’ attitudes to the coming elections. The survey found that 40% of Filipinos expect the government will cheat, while 69% believe that the votes will be stolen by the Arroyo regime through “flying voters,” coercion and other means used during Arroyo’s election in 2004 in which the officials of the State’s Commission on Elections (COMELEC) manipulated the counting of votes in Arroyo’s favor. Arroyo unwittingly admitted her fraudulent tenure in the widely publicized “Hello Garci” phone expose.
During the Cold War, the Philippines was touted as a “showcase” of U.S.-style democracy in Asia. Elected politicians toed Washington’s “free world” party line. With the help of the CIA and the Pentagon-supervised and -trained AFP, a surrogate army of U.S. finance capital, the puppet president Ramon Magsaysay defeated the Communist-led Huk uprising in the fifties. Today the Philippines is hailed as the second “battlefront” in George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.” The U.S. State Department has labeled the 38-year-old insurgent New People’s Army (led by the Communist Party of the Philippines) as a “terrorist” organization, along with the CIA-built and AFP-coddled Abu Sayyaf bandit-group. While the country in the fifties was barely recovering from the enormous devastation of World War II, today, the economy is in shambles: 80% of 87 millionFilipinos are struggling to survive on $2 a day, below decent living standards, while 46 million Filipinos do not even meet their 100% dietary energy requirement (IBON Media Release, 4 April 2007).
Mapping the “Killing Fields”
Just like her predecessors, Arroyo has sacrificed the Filipino people’s welfare by implementing neoliberal globalization policies (privatization, deregulation) imposed by the World Bank, Inerrnational Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. The result is a humanitarian disaster. Filipino economist Alejandro Lichauco has documented unprecedented mass hunger throughout the country in his book Hunger, Corruption and Betrayal (Manila, 2005). Three thousand Filipinos leave every day to join 10 million Filipinos working in hundreds of countries around the world, remitting $12 billion to keep the economy afloat—indubitable proof that the Philippines has plunged from relative prosperity in the fifties to the wretched “basket-case” of Asia in this new millennium of global capitalism.
Meanwhile, the elite desperately clings to power by consumerist propaganda and violence. So ruthless is the carnage in the “killing fields” of the Philippines that it has alarmed some U.S. lawmakers, among them Senator Barbara Boxer and recently Congresswomen Ellen Tauscher (Inquirer.net, April 26, 2007) who urged Arroyo to prevent more murders of left-wing political activists by “prosecuting those responsible for the crimes.” The US Senate Foreign Relations committee is inquiring into the link of U.S. foreign aid with Arroyo’s brutal counterinsurgency program that has caused such unconscionable massive atrocities.
One such case recently highlighted in the media is that of Angelina Bisuna-Ipong. Ipong was a former teacher and peace advocate based in Mindanao. After studying at the Ateneo de Naga University, Ipong worked as a missionary with the Mission Society of the Philippines; she was invited gy the Marykoll priests in Tagum City, Davao del Norte, to work at the Christian Formation Center. She took an active part in the consultation meeting with women’s and farmers’ groups concerning the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and the International Humanitarian Law, which was agreed upon by the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front-Philippines during the peace talks in Europe. Ipong was abducted on March 8, 2005, by agents of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group belonging to the Southern Command, in Aloran, Misamis Occidental. She was taken by helicopter to the Southern Command headquarters in Zamboanga City. There soldiers and officers alternated in humiliating and sexually abusing Ipong. She was declared missing for 13 days before she was presented to the media by Arroyo’s military. She was charged with rebellion and other trumped-up criminal offenses including arson and homicide (National Council of Churches 2007). After two months of her surfacing, General Emmanuel Cayton, commander of the 202nd Brigade, declared that Ipon “was not tortured” (Tupas 2009). At age 65, Ipong is the Philippines’ oldest political detainee, a living testimony to the beleaguered condition of women who dare to challenge an unjust, morally bankrupt, dehumanizing system.
Last March 2008, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, who (at the end of his February 2007 visit) accused the government’s counterinsurgency scheme of encouraging or facilitating the killings, presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council a copy of the secret AFP “Order of Battle” document which converts soldiers as combatants in a “political war” against civilians. Arroyo and the military were not just in a “state of denial.” They were and are deeply involved in vilification of anyone critical of the Arroyo regime and complicit in the summary executions of those they label as “enemies of the state.” The party-list group BAYAN MUNA and allied organizations like BAYAN, for example, have been targeted as “communist fronts” by Arroyo’s Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security. At present, 130 members of BAYAN MUNA (approximately 356 activists from various civic organizations) have succumbed to extra-judicial murder, abduction, arbitrary arrest, harassment and torture by State terrorist agents and paramilitary death-squads.
Dr. Carol P. Araullo, chairperson of BAYAN, has called the plan of extra-judicial killings, abductions, and torture a scarcely concealed “state policy” (see “Streetwise,” Business World 9-10, 16-17 March 2007). Last April, Human Rights Now, a Japanese human rights organization, concluded its fact-finding mission with the appeal to Arroyo “to immediately stop the policy of targeting civilization organizations and individual activists,” and to respect its obligation to follow the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights which the government has ratified. It will lobby the Japanese government to suspend all loan agreements “until it recognizes the human rights situation and accountability mechanism have clearly improved” (Press Statement, 21 April 2007). This was reinforced by the prestigious InterParliamentary Union’s statement denouncing the arrest of Rep. Crispin Beltran and the harassment of the “Batasan 6” party-list representatives.
Earlier, on March 25, the Permanent People’s Tribunal handed down a verdict of “guilty” against Arroyo and Bush for “crimes against humanity.” Based on substantial evidence, testimonies, etc., the killings, torture and forced disappearances “fall under the responsibility of the Philippine government and are by no means justified in terms of necessary measures against terrorism.” Not only is the AFP involved in “the majority of the scenarios of human rights violations,” but it functions as “a central component and instrument of the policy of the ‘war on terror’ declared jointly by the Philippine and U.S. governments” that is being used to justify the political killings and impunity of both governments. Filipino Senator Jamby Madrigal, who testified at the People’s Tribunal against the Arroyo-Bush partnership’s ecological havoc, opined that Arroyo’s de facto “martial rule” has already turned the Philippines into a virtual “killing field.”
Encountering Coni Ledesma
To give a framework to this interview, I recapitulate the main events in Coni’s political history. Coni traces her politicization in the 1970s during the mass demonstrations in the Philippines against the Marcos regime which was then collaborating with the United States in the imperialist war in IndoChina. After some legal political seminars and activities, she went underground and became one of the founders of the Christians for National Liberation, a significant formation of church people that initiated a pathbreaking Filipino version of the “theology of liberation.” In August 1972, she was captured and detained for a year until she was released with the help of the Catholic bishops and the National Council of Churches (as Frank Cimatu reports in KASAMA, April-June 1998). She continued working with sugar workers in Negros, at which time (September 1973) she met her future husband Luis Jalandoni, who is now chair of the NDFP Negotiating Panel.
Aside from her role in the NDFP, Coni is also the international spokesperson of MAKIBAKA, an underground revolutionary organization of women, which has spearheaded the fight for women’s rights and collective well-being in the Philippines. MAKIBAKA, for the record, is not a feminist (in the Western academic construal of the term) but a nationalist women’s group concerned with women’s liberation in a neocolonial “third world” setting, allied with the NDFP. It has roots in the complex debates on “the woman question” in the sixties and seventies (see my book Filipina Insurgency, Giraffe Books, 1999) and in the militant participation of numerous women combatants in the revolution such as Maria Lorena Barros, Cherith Dayrit, Judy Taguiwalo, and Vicvic Justiniani, to cite only a few names.
In my view, Coni’s role in the national-democratic struggle has been immense and substantial, her experience a rich and dynamic reservoir of wisdom for use by solidarity groups everywhere. Thus I feel that her insight into what’s going on may afford us a perspective not available from other sources. My encounter with Coni at The Hague, at a time and place that fused the urgency of the crisis in the human-rights situation in the Philippines with the combative elan of the witnesses at the People’s Tribunal, the impasse of the anti-war efforts here in the metropolitan wasteland, and, above all, the realization that this wild and savage May election may be the pivotal turning-point in our national political life, has prompted this interview (conducted via the Internet from April 23 to May 8.)
CL: Although the May elections is not a presidential election, it is crucial for the survival of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She has survived two impeachment charges initiated in the House of Representatives, because she was able to buy the votes of the majority of the Congressmen, or because they were administration Congressmen and so voted against the impeachment.
If the opposition is to get at least one third of the seats of the lower house and a majority in the Senate, Congress could bring corruption and other charges against Arroyo and this could lead to her impeachment. She needs to ensure her hold on power and preserve the rotten and bankrupt system especially because she wants to conceal her crimes against the people.
She is already taking drastic steps to ensure the victory of administration candidates by using the Commission on Elections, the military and buying votes. Although the the law prohibits the AFP from electioneering, there are reports that General Esperon sent a radio message to all personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to rig the results of the elections and ensure a 12-0 victory for the administration’s senatorial candidates. AFP personnel are supporting and setting up campaign posters for the party list of General Jovito Palparan (also known as “the Butcher of Mindoro”). AFP elements attacked the residence of religious leader, Eddie Villanueva, because of his anti-GMA stand (one of his sons is running for mayor in one of the cities of Mindoro, and another son heads the party-list Cibac). Former President Corazon Aquino recently discovered that her telephone is being bugged. And most recently, Makati Mayor Jojo Binay, who is also the president of the opposition party, United Opposition, was ordered suspended and was ordered to vacate City Hall. Supporters of Binay filled the City Hall, making it impossible for the police to send him out. Binay is running for reelection and is expected to win against the Malacanang candidate, Lito Lapid.
It is expected that there will be “dagdag-bawas” (add-subtract) during the counting of the votes. This means, adding votes for the administration candidates and taking away votes from the opposition. This was the method used to make Arroyo “win” the presidency in 2004.
The increase in extra-judicial killing and enforced disappearance, especially of leaders and members of progressive political parties and organizations, is also a desperate and futile attempt of the Arroyo government to scare and disenfranchise these parties and organizations.
What would happen if the massive cheating is exposed and the public becomes infuriated? The public is already infuriated. Arroyo’s popularity rating is very low. She is considered an illegitimate president because of massive cheating used to get her elected. A possible reason why she still hasn’t been ousted is because of the question of who will take her place as president. The logical constitutional succession would be the current Vice President, Noli de Castro. But the large majority does not think he is qualified to be president.
Yet, an incident could ignite the people’s anger so much that it can lead to mass actions which can lead to Arroyo’s ouster. This was the case with Ferdinand Marcos, and later, with Joseph Estrada.
ESJ: Should Arroyo’s group win and dominate the Batasan, do you agree with some observer’s opinion that Arroyo will implement the anti-terrorism law and suppress BAYAN and other opposition groups, including the party-list political formations – in other words, heighten de facto martial rule?
CL: Even without the anti-terrorism law, Arroyo is already trying to disqualify progressive party-lists like Bayan Muna, Anak Pawis and Gabriela Women’s Party. But the passing and implementation of the anti-terrorism law is important not only as an instrument to help Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stay in power, but also to preserve the interests of US imperialism. The US “war on terrorism” is actually a war against national liberation movements, anti-imperialist forces and against those who pose a threat to US interests.
But the Filipino people are challenging the law and continuing to fight for their democratic rights.. They are holding mass actions, protests, and moving to have the law declared unconstitutional.
ESJ: What is your forecast of the next year or two of Arroyo’s presidency, assuming she will win a majority in the Congress? If she doesn’t, will impeachment unseat her?
CL: If Arroyo stays as president until 2010, and if her current dependence on the military continues, and if she will continue to enjoy the backing of the US, the gross violations of human rights will continue and even worsen. She will implement the anti-terrorism law, or as it is euphemistically called “Human Security Act of 2007.” She will continue with the implementation of Operation Bantay Laya II (Operation Freedom Watch II).
Bantay Laya II is a continuation of the failed Bantay Laya I, a military campaign to crush the revolutionary movement, carried out in 2002-2006. Bantay Laya II is aimed at wiping out the revolutionary movement in five years. It is more vicious than Bantay Laya I, especially in its attacks against unarmed civilians and political activists living in the cities and towns. Death squads who kill or forcibly “disappear” anyone who opposes the regime is part of Bantay Laya II.
At the same time, Arroyo is faced with many problems which she has neither will nor capacity to solve. She could be impeached if the opposition takes the majority in both houses of Congress. She is isolated and unpopular. The AFP is wracked by deep divisions within its ranks due to corruption and complicity in criminal activities. The economy is in chronic crisis. It is being held afloat by massive borrowing and through the remittances of overseas Filipinos. Meanwhile, the mass movement continues to grow. A people’s movement could oust her.
ESJ: The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal Second Session on the Philippines pronounced a verdict of guilty on the US- Arroyo collusion. Please assess for now the impact of this historic conference.
CL: The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal is a court of international opinion and independent from any State authority. The importance and strength of its decisions rest on the moral weight of the causes and arguments to which they give credibility and their recognition in the UN Commission on Human Rights. The jurors are persons prominent in their respective fields of work. The PPT itself has prestige within the United Nations and among NGOs.
The Second Session on the Philippines was held on March 21-25, 2007, in The Hague, the Netherlands. It was held shortly after the Melo Commission and UN Special Rapporteur for Extra-judicial Executions, Philip Alston, came out with their respective reports finding the military responsible for the torture, extra judicial killings and disappearances of hundreds of leaders and members of progressive people’s organizations.
The Tribunal judged the governments of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and of George Walker Bush, accountable ” for crimes against humanity, with all the consequences for the persons who are responsible for them.” It also stated that “such violations must be stopped immediately.” The Tribunal connected the human rights violations with the interests of the United States. It gave a more comprehensive and deeper analysis of the Philippine situation.
The appeal, indictment and verdict can be used as guides in studying the situation in the Philippines. They are also important documents for solidarity groups and organizations in planning activities and campaigns for the Philippines. The Tribunal denounces as unacceptable the inclusion of the Philippine government in the UN Human Rights Council. A campaign should be launched to call for the removal of the Philippines from the Council.
ESJ: Please give a brief survey of the European attitude to Arroyo’s bloody human rights record.
CL: With the increase in gross violations of human rights, more and more European governments and inter-governmental bodies have spoken out to condemn and call a stop to these violations. In a forum in Oslo, Norway, a representative of the Norwegian government expressed concern about the human rights violations in the Philippines. No official of a European country has voiced such a concern in the past.
During the ASEM meeting in Helsinki, on September 10-11, 2007, the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, raised the issue of political killings during Arroyo’s official call on her. The Finnish Foreign Minister later said, “We also want to see an end to the political killings which still form a harsh reality of that country”. Shortly after that, when Arroyo visited Belgium, European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso reminded Arroyo that the political killings in the Philippines were a matter of concern to the European Commission.
The European Commission’s chief envoy to the Philippines, Ambassador Alistair MacDonald, expressed shock over the human rights abuses that have become a daily occurrence in the country.
The European Parliament, in a plenary meeting in Strasbourg, passed a resolution expressing “grave concern at the increasing number of political killings that have occurred in recent years in the Philippines”, and urged “the Philippine authorities to make the necessary investigations in a timely, thorough and transparent manner and to bring those responsible to justice.” The Inter Parliamentary Union has expressed concern about the continuing repression of six members of the Philippine Congress, Congressmen Satur Ocampo, Crispin Beltran, Liza Maza, Joel Virador, Rafael Mariano, and Teddy Casino and called for the release from detention of Crispin Beltran.
After conducting its own fact-finding mission on the human rights situation in the Philippines, the World Council of Churches issued a statement on September 2006 condemning the extra-judicial executions and called an end to the killings. An international fact-finding mission of lawyers (from the groups, Lawyers for Lawyers, Lawyers Without Borders, and International Association of Democratic Lawyers) went to the Philippines last June 2006 to specifically investigate the killings of lawyers and judges. After the disappearance of Jonas Burgos, in late April 2007, the Amnesty International campaign coordinator said the Philippines’ image has become that of ” a land of lawlessness.”
ESJ: What role have Filipino migrants in Europe and elsewhere performed and accomplished in the task of confronting the political killings and massive corruption of the Arroyo regime? Are there new signs of political mobilization on their part?
CL: Filipino migrants in different parts of the globe have formed human rights organizations and have set up forums and other public events to inform the people of the host country about the situation. They are participating in the different actions because their families back home are affected by the policy of killings by the Arroyo government and the military. During forums held, they share the experience of their families and friends who have become victims of human rights violations.
And now, after the Tribunal, Filipino organizations are holding forums and symposia to talk about the verdict of the Tribunal and call for more actions against ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines.
ESJ: Finally, what is your assessment of the gains of the national democratic movement so far, and what are the problems it faces in the future?
CL: In the Philippines, we have the legal national democratic movement composed of legal and open people’s organizations. And we have the 17 allied organizations of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the millions of the revolutionary masses they lead, undertaking national democratic revolution through people’s war.
Both the legal and the underground revolutionary movements accept the analysis that the root causes of the problems in Philippine society are US imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. They also accept that a change in the present system is necessary. Both aspire for a society where the Philippines will be free from US domination, where the feudal mode of production and values are replaced with genuine land reform, and peasants will be given land of their own to till. Where the natural wealth of the Philippines will be owned and managed by Filipinos. Where there will be national industrialization. And bureaucrat capitalism will be replaced with a government free of corruption, where the vast majority of Filipinos (workers, peasants, fisherfolk and petty bourgeoisie) will be adequately represented. A system where there will be real democracy.
The Arroyo regime calls the legal people’s organizations “front” organizations of the CPP and the NDFP. They are not front organizations of the CPP and the NDFP. These legal organizations subscribe to and are guided by their own constitutions, organizational principles, and programs.
The national democratic organizations comprise the legal mass movement which has been the most consistent in the anti-imperialist and democratic legal struggle in the country. It has a strong mass movement. It has members in parliament. It is creative in using all forms of struggle to push for reforms and fight against the ongoing exploitation and oppression in the country. It organizes and mobilizes hundreds of thousands in different organizations and is deeply rooted among the Filipino people.
Of the substantial gains and achievements of the national democratic movement since the 1960s, I will only mention the following: One significant achievement of the national democratic movement has been its politicalization of the Filipino people as a whole. There is now a greater awareness of US imperialism’s hold on Philippine political, economic and cultural life than there was twenty or thirty years ago. For example, the broad mass movement was instrumental for the Senate voting the bases out of the Philippines in 1991.
The national democratic movement played a most crucial role in ousting two presidents, Marcos and Estrada, and by doing so has weakened the neocolonial system.
Major achievements have also been the two major Rectification Movements of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The first rectification movement was in the 1960’s. It repudiated the errors of the Partido Kommunista ng Pilipinas and led to the re-establishment of the Communist Party in 1968. The Second Great Rectification Movement was in 1992. The Central Committee took a strong position to analyze the major errors in the ideological, political and organizational line of the Communist Party and correct them. The rectification movement of the CPP influenced other national democratic organizations to look into their work and to undertake major corrections. The growth and vigor of the national democratic movement today is the result of this rectification movement.
The NDFP, the CPP and the New People’s Army organize mainly in the countryside. Organs of political power and revolutionary organizations of women, youth and peasants are continually being established and strengthened. Mass campaigns such as health, education and economic programs that benefit hundreds of thousands of women, youth, peasants, settlers, and indigenous peoples are taking place in over 120 guerrilla fronts throughout the country. Implementation of the minimum program of agrarian reform such as lowering of land rent, increase of farm wages and farm gate prices, lessening of usury and establishment of cooperatives, is benefiting the peasant masses.
One of the gains of the national democratic movement has been the growth in political awareness and participation in the struggle of women. Women in their numbers have joined national democratic organizations. They have been elected to positions of responsibility and are among the most militant in defending their rights.
MAKIBAKA (Makabayang Kilusan ng Kababaihan / Patriotic Movement of Women), a revolutionary women’s organization and a member of the NDFP, draws its membership from peasant, worker and women of petty bourgeoisie in the cities. Many MAKIBAKA members have joined the NPA and have shown excellence in the field. Many have given up their lives in the struggle. What problems will the national democratic movement face in the future? Because of the crisis of the present system, the national democratic movement can expect more repression from the reactionary state. And so, the national democratic forces have to be prepared for this.
After Melancholia, a Testimony to the Filipina Gaze
By way of illustrating Coni Ledesma’s arguments, I want to focus on a cinematic rendition of the plight of OFW’s with a review of Hella Wender’s small cinematic masterpiece, Mirasol released in Berlin, Germany in 2009. It is a “first-world” response to the gospel of neoliberal globalization which, instead of spreading wealth and promoting a just redistribution of goods, has proved more predatory and destructive by intensifying the feminization of poverty around the world. As I have noted in the previous chapter, the rise of the Filipino diaspora may be traced to the enclosure of the third-world “commons” reminiscent of that in England in the epoch prior to industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries—a diaspora of uprooted peasants and proletariat of the global South driven to seek work in the imperial metropoles.
We live supposedly in the era of the global commons, but very few have actually met their neighbors—except as subalterns: household maids, hotel service-workers, nannies, most likely college-educated women from the Philippines. The ubiquitous phenomenon of Filipina domestics and overseas contract workers (almost ten million), known also as Overseas Filipino workers (OFW), has become a tedious and soporific topic for cynics and skeptics. Scholars have categorized them as modern indentured servants of the global ecumene. If you mention that at least five OFW cadavers/coffins arrive everyday at the Manila International Airport, a big yawn greets you: “So what else is new?” Those still awake may prod: “Why? How did this happen?”
Like millions around the world devastated by global capitalism’s meltdown, the lives of migrant Filipinas/as have become redundant or disposable. This began in the 1970s. The Marcos dictatorship, supported chiefly by the United States and the IMF-World Bank, institutionalized the export of “warm bodies” to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. In the neoliberal global market, the nationality label “Filipino” quickly became equivalent to “servant” or “maid” in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere. After 9/11, the terrorist Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines may have eclipsed the OFWs. But with the continual brutalization of Filipinas in Okinawa, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the “Nicole” scandal (“Nicole” is the Filipina raped by an American soldier subsequently convicted but “kidnapped” by the US Embassy while his case is on appeal), with hundreds in jail or awaiting execution, their plight will continue to haunt the conscience of “the pillars of society.” It may even disturb the sleep of State functionaries whose salaries depend on OFW remittances.
One example is Flor Contemplacion whose case is well-known in the Philippines, but not in the global North. Accused of killing a fellow worker and a Singaporean child, and despite witnesses testifying to her innocence, Contemplacion was hanged in March 1995 by the Singaporean government. Instantly she became a national heroine. She continues to symbolize the unconscionable plight of Filipinas abused, raped, and killed by their bosses. Then president Fidel Ramos, threatened by a groundswell of sympathy for the victim, intervened; but given the historic subservience and bankruptcy of the Philippine nation-state, OFWs will continue to endure barbaric humiliation and exploitation. The fate of Flor Contemplacion stands as a haunting sign of what awaits Filipinos–unless they organize, refuse this intolerable status quo, and help liberate the country from imperial oppression and poverty.
The current Arroyo regime and its predecessors have survived chiefly due to the $12-14 billion OFW remittance. That is more than enough to cover the huge foreign debt and subsidize the obscene privileges of the tiny local oligarchy and the corrupt military/police. At least 1.3 million families, 7.9% of the total 16.5 families of 90 million Filipinos (most of whom survive on $2 a day), rely on OFW earnings for their survival. With the global economic downturn, a small drop in their household incomes will produce extreme hunger, criminality, and untold social upheavals. At least half a million OFWs work in Europe today, with at least 54,000 in Germany alone. The European Union’s new immigration policy will target undocumented migrants by penalizing their employers. What happens to OFWs in Europe and in the diaspora around the world, will deliver an impact with profound consequences. This is why this film about the agonizing plight of a Filipina domestic in Berlin, Germany, serves as an emblematic alarm-signal, a wake-up call, a portentous omen of things to come.
Marisol, the protagonist of Hella Wender’s short film, easily proves herself the uncanny half-sister of Flor Contemplacion. We wonder how a film can depict the structural situation of Filipino poverty driving thousands of wives/mothers to seek work abroad and preserve their integrity/sanity amid abuses, isolation, and uncertain future. One way is to condense the complex total social situation into the experience of a typical individual, into one or two representative episodes. It’s a challenge that Hella Wenders takes up, with intriguing success.
Her film is itself a “balikbayan” box we have to unpack. It uses the predicament of an illegal Filipina domestic in Berlin struggling to support her family (Luis, her husband, and two children, Jason and Lizelle). She thinks of them everyday and wants to go back home—she even orders a plane ticket under a false name. She holds up chiefly because her sister Wena, a domestic in Hong Kong, reminds her of their dream of one day becoming free, owning a store back home.
The normal routine is disrupted. One day Marisol’s husband calls to tell her that her sister Wena is dead. We expect Marisol to collapse, but except for one traumatic instant of abjecthood, she holds up. What happens to her dream of rejoining her family? She is undeterred. We saw her earlier taking care of two German children and cleaning windows. The film then focuses on Marisol—wife, mother, sister, family provider–filling her “balikbayan” box with commodities, gifts lovingly itemized as though they were fragments cut off from her body. Somehow she succeeds in paying for the shipping of her dead sister Wena: a “balikbayan” with a cruel twist. At the end, together with German friends and compatriots, Marisol vicariously participates in the burial of her sister via the computer’s Internet screen.
Will the dead rest in her grave? Is everyone pacified then, assured that Marisol will eventually realize the dream she shared with her “sacrificed” sister? Having hurdled this ordeal, will she move on to dare take other moves? What are her alternatives? These are a few questions aroused by Wender’s film. How about us, the audience: Do we learn anything? While OFW families are disrupted by their country’s neoloconial underdevelopment, migrants re-imagine their community/fictive family with the help of prosthetic devices such as cellphones and electronic mail, satellite TV, internet, that help sustain identities and lifestyles across shifting or porous boundaries. Technology extends and trains the human sensorium for survival in a dis-integrated anomic world, or in contested terrains. In postmodern jargon, these fluid and hybrid identities of OFWs inhabit the crucible of global ethnoscapes; presumably their psyches, if not their bodies, are able to elude bureaucratic definitions and traditional judgments. Do they?
The theme of a Filipina mother working abroad, without valid documents, is one pregnant with sentimental and melodramatic possibilities. No messianic guardian comes to the rescue. Wenders is able to deepen this figure by sophisticated camera work and nuanced framing of scenes and their calibrated sequencing. On first acquaintance, we are impressed by Marisol’s lively but sober demeanor. The upbeat foreward looking tonality of the film is conveyed by the introductory shots: sailors/working gracefully doing gymnastics, smooth transition from ship to flowing traffic overlapping with Marisol’s buoyant address to her sister: “Dear Wena….” Her voice-over evokes the dominant affect of the film. It centers on motherhood indexed by the “balikbayan” box. The leitmotif of sending/receiving packages, plus the recollection of two sisters over their mother’s love, sutures the montage of departure/removal, a transition from Manila to Berlin that easily folds us into the cinematic narrative.
Throughout the film, the “balikbayan” box operates as the central unifying trope: it connects dispersed family members, like the umbilical cord. Though separated, Marisol and Wena are united by memory of their mother and a dream of freeing oneself from serfhood to take up an independent pettybourgeois life—the dream of millions. Marisol is shown cleaning windows, symbolizing both aspiration and blockage; she cooks and minds the German children, a surrogate fulfillment of what her family and society expects. Unlike the child in the theme-song “Anak,” Marisol did not disobey her parents by indulging in wicked vice only to repent later. No pathos here, no melodrama, no tears—except shouting at the vacant urban landscape, a protest against some existential injustice or malice sprung on her from above. The film is very quiet, disturbingly reticent. Is this a deliberate provocation, a Brechtian estrangement-effect, challenging us to complete the film which ends with a medium-shot focus on Marisol’s face?
One alternative is offered by the film: utterance. And access to the facilities of communication. Language unites and divides, but here the Filipino/Tagalog sutures episodes of loneliness and painful endurance. We soon discover that Marisol’s sister Wena lives a double-life: her poetic efforts overshadow her bondage to household chores. Through a phonecall, Wena transmits her prophetic message of a monsoon outburst veiled by the overheated afternoons, allowing them to “fly to the moon.” The power of poetic language supplements, more exactly prescinds, electronic media. Their conversations dissolve the physical and temporal distance that separates them, compensating for their drab alienating circumstances. How long can this last? And can illusory relief by art/communication—the talking cure in which Wena becomes the analysand, Marisol the mute analyst–resolve material, historically structured adversities in our everyday life?
For OFWs, despite kinship networks, the danger of individualist solutions always proves seductive in a competitive global marketplace. There are now organizations like MIGRANTE that provide support (emotional, legal) to make up for government apathy or hostility. However, Marisol and many others are exposed to hazardous psychic injuries on top of physical harms. How do we handle sudden turns of fortune—actually, what’s more horrible than death are marital infidelities–allegorized by interruptions of phone calls, sudden Internet fadeouts, silence? Unexpectedly Wena dies—not an accident but a homicide. No one else can help pay for her return home except Marisol whose precarious status exposes her to possible arrest and deportation. Will she resort to extreme, law-breaking measures? Marisol is already a lawbreaker. But her plight encapsulates risk, alienation, and hope. Her contact with her German employer is defined solely by the money-wage (captured by a brief scene). In Berlin, Marisol’s life-world is inhabited by children, women friends, cellphone, computers, and money. She seems never to engage in any pleasurable leisurely act—except videoke conviviality with other Filipinas and their German friends in a club. Apparently she has no one to replace Wena, someone with whom she can regularly communicate or confide to, linking past and present with the future.
Of course there is the ubiquitous Filipino priest who represents the absent family, homeland, parents. He is shown consoling an illegal OFW (Rica Santos), betrayed by another Filipino, jailed and about to be deported. She personifies the possible future of Marisol and countless others. It is Rica Santos to whom Marisol later confides outside “Gigi’s Meeting Point,” their common predicament establishing their fictive kinship, while other Filipinas and their German friends sing the song “Anak” about a child who repents for having ignored her parents and strayed from the straight and narrow path. Should Marisol repent being an OFW?
Using “Anak” seems a deftly ironic choice here. Poviding continuity to several scenes in the film, this popular song underscores the importance of parents and the need of children to heed their counsel lest disaster overtakes them. It warns children not to strike on their own without the guidance of authority, esp. the father. But the father in the film is starkly undercut, glimpsed only in the unstable computer-screen, eclipsed by the strong mother-figure of Marisol, the lawbreaker. The film interrupts Marisol’s conviviality with the news of Wena’s “suicide” (several Filipina maids who fell from buildings in Hong Kong were really murdered by their employers). Marisol protests, suggesting that Wena should be put in a “balikbayan” box—a fulfillment of her mother’s desire cited at the beginning. Fast foreward and we see Marisol confiding to Rica the sister-surrogate, reflecting on their own somehow intertwined, “weird” fates: one wants to stay but cannot, and the other wants to go home but cannot.
Marisol is a parent without power. Her reliance on electronic media—cellphone, computers, Internet—as a way of preserving contact with her husband and children is contingent on her budget, her free time, and access to such prosthetic devices. Despite this electronic prophylactic, Marisol’s distance from her family is underscored by the fact that she cannot really maintain long exchanges with her children—in one scene, the scream of the German child cuts off her connection with her family. Moreover, her customary deference to the husband insures that she will always be at the receiving end of the line, unable to initiate action except as a response to his call for help. In short, Marisol’s agency seems undercut, annulled, diminished. When her sister Wena, at the start of the film, reminds her of their dreams, based on their mother’s sacrifice as an OFW herself, Marisol is unable to release pent-up feelings except by shouting to the anonymous space outside, to blank windows facing her apartment—a poignant image of frustration and helplessness.
Where or who is the Other who can listen to Marisol? In the process of grappling with this crisis, Marisol is driven by an imperious need to express herself, defying external law or inner prohibition. It is this need to communicate that the film foregrounds, an emergency appeal. This, I submit, is the film’s over-riding purpose: to compel us to listen, to understand. It’s a powerful challenge hurled to cyberspace and the open market, in quest of a responsive audience/viewers.
Solitude is conceivable only because of its opposite: community, solidarity. After the news of Wena’s death, Marisol is faced not only with the tragic deprivation of her other self. Wena incarnates Marisol’s submerged speaking self, the poet-rhetor who reminds her of their common dream. It is the erotic Other that is sacrificed so Marisol can go on. The reality-principle dictates that she defer her return so that the sister can return—literally, Wena’s homecoming in a coffin as the other “balikbayan box.” Marisol rhetorical question to the empty urban space: “What do you want me to do?” is really addressed to the audience, the others who care. She demands from Luis (via cellphone) to talk to her sleeping children; but her “load” aborts communnication. The camera switches to Marisol walking the Berlin thoroughfare like a somnambulist, one of the few close-up shots—except for the cellphone/computer screen faces of her sister and family. She counts and wraps the money to send, via her friend, as though praying in her kitchen-sanctuary.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the film, with images of gleeful playing children alternating with shots of the WESTERN UNION office, Marisol runs in front of two policemen whom she served earlier. She wants to be arrested, interrogated. Her muteness is a desperate appeal for help—to be deported and sent home. However, her friend suddenly intervenes, wresting her away before the police can demand her ID and thus authenticate her identity: Marisol the mother/outlaw. Fast forward and we see Marisol repeating Wena’s poetic utterance—”Where did you come from? Where are you going?….bruised, struggling, crawling on all fours out of the abyss, craving for bliss without end,” demanding more from her compatriots, from those who are watching and witnessing this film.
The film itself offers German women’s solidarity. It concludes with prayers for Wena’s soul by Marisol’s friends, via computerized tele-screens attending Wena’s burial. A gesture to acknowledge Filipino mores is made: the Filipino priest, smiling, consoles Marisol with the remark that Wena has been bumped “first class” on her flight to heaven. This quasi-religious ceremony in secular Europe, the quiet camaraderie and unobtrusive solidarity, the calculatedly subdued ending—all these displace our anxiety about the crime, leaving us with Marisol’s thoughtful, handsome face. We surmise that she will resume her normal life with possibly more awareness of the injustice and danger that lurk behind the civilized facades of the wealthy employing nations. Is there surplus vision or needs accumulated in her consciousness that calls for collective action?
More questions are triggered by the film’s somewhat abrupt end: Is Marisol, as shown in this film, a pathetic example of the helpless OFW? Postcolonial scholars are anxious to counter the stereotype belief that subalterns like female domestics don’t have agency. They disagree with the view that OFWs are totally victims of patriarchal discourse and masculinist violence. They argue that Marisol has agency: she invents a fictional person, “Olivia Flores,” that orders one-way ticket. She shouts that one day she will reveal her real name, fulfill her dream of doing what she wants (as the song “Anak” hints, without repentance). Her maternal and nurturing power is fully demonstrated by her ability to calm the screaming German child in her care, even though that task also confirms her distance from her family.
Here are the partial answers. When the film opens, we see sailors and workers exercising in harmony in front of a ship about to embark. City landscape smoothly blends with the recollection of Marisol’s mother and her balikbayan box peppered with kisses, imagining herself contained in the box sent to her children. This “balikbayan” box that holds gifts, token commodities, etc. functions as the chief synthesizing trope, the allegorical synapse or synergistic node of the film. While we observe Marisol packing her “balikbayan” box, ensuring the safety of its delivery, we also keep in mind what is not shown—the absent montage of her sister’s body being deposited as in a cargo container for shipping home, paid for by Marisol’s savings. We never see Marisol’s own box being shipped, but we see the coffin of her sister being laid to rest in her grave, surrounded by her mourning relatives—”bumped first class” in a flight to heaven. Our last image is of Marisol’s melancholy, thoughtful face, as the camera focuses on her, somewhat distanced from her community, replicating her earlier pose at the food-shop as she ponders giving up to the police. The solitary domestic is left bereft of companionship, isolated, even though we remain aware that it is there in the margins. Do we allow the priest to have the last word, the last “joke”?
Probably not. The film’s intent is to arouse questions and disturb our peace. The film’s style of articulating closed and open spaces succeeds in dramatizing Marisol’s dilemma between “risk-taking” and “security-maximizing,” to use sociological jargon. The arrangement of the scenes is meant to stage the dilemma all OFWs face: one between striking on your own, daring to struggle against customary prohibitions—as the theme song “Anak” warns against—or opting for safety behind law, patriarchal authority, and the opium of religion. It’s a classic existential situation.
What stands out, however, is a nexus of loaded signifiers. Marisol’s situation of risk and maternal resolve is a play on the motifs of the homely and the unhomely, both condensed in the German word “heimlich” which Freud made famous in his essay, “The Uncanny.” Marisol’s homeland (embodied in the electronic images of husband, children, Wena) becomes a cyberspace mirage, fading in and out, charged with frightening possibilities, destroying the bourgeois ideology of privacy and monogamous, heterosexual normativity. Meanwhile, Marisol’s network of friends/compatriots serves as a linkage to the emergent community of Migrante International, allowing the sisters of Gabriela Silang and of Rosa Luxemburg to meet. In this sense Marisol’s female gaze becomes uncanny, answering the misogynist question—”What does a woman want?”—with the threat and promise of slaying the patriarchs: the capitalist State, Hong Kong criminal employers, predatory transnational agencies, and the entire corrupt, unredeemable Filipino bureaucracy/oligarchy parasitic on OFW remittances, colluding with U.S. imperialism in keeping the country impoverished and subservient since the end of the Filipino American War of 1899-1913.
Marisol, stricken with anxiety and desperation, nearly surrendered to authority. That trauma-filled episode in which Marisol’s identity was at stake, dissolved quickly with her friend’s swift snatching of her body from the clutches of the State. Marisol is the mother who displaces the absent father—subaltern fathers have been emasculated by the neocolonial Arroyo state, obeisant to the imperial behest of the U.S. and predatory finance capital. While the paternal German welfare-state harbors threats such as the police and alienated employers, it permits temporary escape from enclosures such as the workplace (bar, house with German children to attend). It is also outside Gigi’s restaurant/bar where Wena’s poems are recited–a cry for help, an assertion of the right to happiness with loved ones, the right to self-fulfillment with others. In antithesis, some enclosure are hospitable: Gigi’s Meeting Point, the church-like place where balikbayan boxes are stored and confidential exchanges with the Filipino priest takes place, Marisol’s bedroom, her friend’s car. The Filipino priest serves as the index of the traditional homeland, accessible as listener to illegal migrants, a native counterpart to the Western psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, filling in for the absent authoritarian Filipino State.
Art, cinema, surely cannot take the place of everyday working life or dominate it. But it’s useful for understanding oppressive institutions and imagining alternatives. Without it, we will remain victims of commodifying capital, money, and consumer goods dictating the content of our souls. Is it enough to be thankful to Hella Wenders and her co-workers for this richly compressed film and take pleasure in the character of Marisol, in her quiet fortitude, her patience, her dignified forbearance amid such paralyzing ordeal? After all, it is her sister, not her children or her husband or mother, who dies in this film.
As I have suggested earlier, Wena symbolizes Marisol’s authentic self, the exuberant twin-soul, who articulates her dreams and the future for her, as well as for millions of OFWs—for the whole dispossessed and diasporic Filipino nation. There is no chain migration here, only the extended family held together in a web or network of virtualized kinship and solidarity, enabled by modern means of communication, specifically cellphones, computerized television, etc. Despite geographical dispersal, communal and familial bonds are precariously maintained, affections sustained despite interruptions and reifying noises. Wena’s transmission is sometimes delayed, so that the unfolding of time is never linear, often recursive, sometimes anachronistic. This message of the film concerning the unpredictable dialectic of proximity and distance, past and future, open and closed spaces, necessity and accident, which escapes commodification by commercial establishments represented here by WESTERN UNION/ASIA IMBISS, is perhaps the most profound lesson to be inferred: organization and political consciousness-raising are needed.
Perhaps we can rescue Wena from the dead and make her speak to her sister again. She might say to Marisol that she needs to break out of her routine and question the condition of her life together with others, such as the OFW group, Migrante International, is doing. We do not need the cheap consolation of evangelical religion, the escape that Sarah Balabagan, the OFW flogged in Saudi Arabia, has chosen. We have other models: for example, Connie Bragas-Regalado, the fighter for migrant rights, or the women in Migrante Europe who attend to the needs of undocumented kababayan. This film is directly a critique of such packaged evasion. It is an oblique critique of individualist self-help. It sharply poses the limits of such solitary claustrophobic efforts even as it partly celebrates Marisol’s courage, resourcefulness and strength, knowing that her family and community (in the interstices of the film-shots) are with her in the struggle. She becomes Olivia Flores, the incommensurable trickster-figure.
As the film unfolds, Wena the domestic emerges in the network of communal exchanges as Wena the poet, inventor of images and figures that transform barriers into opportunities, unleashing the energies of dream for advancing the concrete projects of everyday life. This film succeeds in enabling our discovery of this poetic voice within the domestic serf, the insurgent dreamer, who may be suppressed now, but will always haunt us, especially those vampires and parasites who feed on the remittances of these postmodern indentured servants, even “modern-day slaves,” as Bridget Anderson aptly describes them. In the process of inventing the correct praxis, Marisol draws sustenance from Wena’s words. Maintaining tactful aesthetic distance, the film allows us to empathize with that sacrificed voice whose words penetrate windows and walls to open up a gap, the revolutionary break, not only for reunion with her family but also re-possession/liberation of the ravished homeland where bodies and souls, bloodied from fierce global class wars, can once again be reunited, nourished and fulfilled in collective sharing.
Mabuhay kayong lahat ng OFW [May your tribe increase], Marisol!—###