Guaranteed export quotas and tariff protection for sugar and coconuts also stifled innovation and investment, and further entrenched the hacienda oligarchies that could remain shielded from competition while having guaranteed revenue streams. It was such a cozy situation that the hacienda clans in Congress worked hard to keep the Laurel-Langley Agreement, a trade agreement signed in the 1950s between the Philippines and the United States, until 1974. Their incentive was to look after themselves rather than nation-build, so the things that the country really needed – land reform and increases in taxation – were avoided. Filipino politicians have historically moved around between parties in search of the sweetest deals, so much so that they have become known to the citizenry as balimbing, after the star-shaped fruit that looks the same no matter from what angle you view it. The poor and disenfranchised remain so today. In the countryside, there is little prospect for many beyond serfdom or laboring abroad. To have some skin in the capitalist game, the people need some capital in the form of their own land, and while land reform may have existed in policy, it’s never been enacted in any meaningful way.
A casual observer arriving in Bonifacio Global City, a kind of new Makati, could be forgiven for admiring how far the economy has progressed. Cranes dot the skyline. The high street pedestrian mall is a joy to walk down. But scratch the surface and look a little deeper. This is no Singapore or Santa Monica. Parking is strictly monitored and jeepneys are forbidden. Every intersection has large “Give way to pedestrians” signs and state-of-the-art traffic signals. These are summarily ignored – and you take your life in your hands putting faith in the green light when a car is turning. Even when traffic police are on hand, these basic rules are ignored. Over time, patterns become apparent. The fancier the car, the more intimidated and cowed the traffic police are, especially when the car has tinted windows or Philippine National Police license plates that are frequently attached above regular license plates on civilian cars. Another plate above a plate I saw read “Supreme Court Prosecutor.” Imagine seeing that in an advanced country? It really shouts, “I’m important, I’m powerful, I am the law and above the law.”
Speaking of which, the Land Transportation Office was unable to issue new car license plates last year. In all my travels, that’s a first. Car dealers fixed temporary ones to cars, while 300,000 pairs of plates languished at the Manila International Container Port for a year pending the payment of duties. PhilPost, the national postal service, is notorious for sitting on parcels until frustrated customers come to the post office and pay to have their hostage parcel released, even if they’ve already paid postage. Want to trace your US parcel online? No problem, until it arrives in the Philippines, that is.
And one of the best scams going was at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport: the “bullet scam.” Once clearing passport control and grabbing their bags, unsuspecting visitors would be called to baggage inspection by customs and upon opening their luggage would discover, lo and behold, a bullet. The conversation would then be moved to a private office where threats would be made and money extorted. Fortunately, the new president put a quick stop to that little scam.