THE PHILIPPINES, CUBA AND THE UNITED STATES

December 2001

I'm living in the Philippines but there's not a day when I don't think also about Cuba and the United States. These three nations are deeply, historically bound.

Cuba and the Philippines were first linked by their common colonization by Spain. Both were hubs of the Galleon trade, with ships leaving Manila every two years laden with silks and spices from China, sailing east to Panama and then Cuba. In Havana the Asian plunder was added to the gold and silver from Latin America and then carried in convoys to Spain.
Both nations endured four brutal centuries of Spanish colonization. Cuba experienced rapid annihilation of its indigenous population, who were replaced by hundreds of thousands of African slaves imported to work the plantations. In the Philippines most of the native peoples survived, but had their collective gene pool modified by the thousands of horny Spanish colonists. By the nineteenth century, both nations developed vibrant independence movements and experienced unsuccessful liberation struggles. In 1898, just as the respective Filipino and Cuban independence movements were on the verge of expelling their exhausted and impoverished Spanish occupiers, the United States intervened (the Spanish-American War) and provided a change of masters.

Cuba succumbed quickly and was soon granted nominal independence under a "democratic" national government, with actual control residing in Washington D.C. (and the infamous Platt Amendment written into the Cuban constitution provided the U.S. Government with the perpetual right to directly intervene in Cuban affairs as needed.) Cuban farms, sugar mills, banks and the substantial tourism and gambling industries were largely owned by Americans, and a series of American-supported dictators were chosen to assure that the Cuban economy would be properly subservient. Broad resentment led to the immensely popular national revolution of 1959 that brought Fidel Castro and socialism. Cuba's 40 years of subsequent independence has been defined by persistent destabilization efforts and terrorism by the US Government as it attempted to overthrow the revolutionary government. In spite of this harassment, Cuba has made incredible progress in numerous areas, including development of an internationally acclaimed national health care system, a sophisticated universal educational system, great strides toward elimination of deeply rooted racism, construction of millions of housing units, and virtual achievement of wealth equalization. The revolution has provided a rich environment for the continued development and blossoming of music AND dance, of which Cubans are justifiably proud.

The Philippine response to American occupation in 1900 was very different from Cuba: the Filipinos offered fierce resistance, and approximately 250,000 died in the failed insurrection. Formal colonization, interrupted by Japanese occupation during World War II, continued until the US granted independence in 1946. But the US remained closely involved with its former colony, and during the 1950's the American CIA under Edward Lansdale directed the Philippine constabulary in a successful counterinsurgency effort against the Hukbalahap guerrillas (the Huks were supported by the US Government during WWII while they fought the Japanese, but were mercilessly hunted once the US re-occupied its colony after the war.) Here the CIA developed counterinsurgency techniques that were later used in Vietnam.
As President for 21 years, Ferdinand Marcos was the pivotal Filipino figure since independence. With American support from 1965 until 1986, he ruthlessly suppressed opposition and built a dictatorship characterized by cronyism and criminal enterprise. In an interweaving of American post-war global policy with Philippine domestic politics, the US Government allowed Marcos to declare martial law and personally loot the national economy in trade for acting as America's surrogate and partner to fight communism in Asia.
Since independence, the Philippines has had an ambivalent relationship with the USA: on the one hand, the national elite created a government and constitution modeled after that of the former master, and has led the country in idolizing America. I've heard many Filipinos tell me they wish the Philippines could become the 51st American state! Simultaneously there is a more defiant, patriotic current, which resents the way the country has been used by its former patron. This movement resulted in the 1990 cancellation of the previous 99 year lease which allowed the US to operate 23 military bases on Philippine soil. There was a prolonged national debate two years ago on a proposed Visiting Forces Agreement which reopened the door to "friendly" visits by US military forces to the Philippines (the VFA was approved by the Philippine Congress, and the US has recently been sending counterinsurgency experts here to advise the Philippine military on their campaigns against the Abu Sayyaf, Muslim independence movement and New Peoples Army.)

Catholicism brought by the Spanish to the Philippines has been deeply embraced by the people. By encouraging large families and fostering a passive "God will decide" attitude amongst the faithful, the Catholic Church seems to me the biggest impediment to development of this country. In particular, church resistance to family planning and birth control fans unchecked population growth, exacerbating poverty and environmental degradation.
In Cuba on the other hand, the Catholic Church made little effort to convert the millions of African slaves, instead remaining the domain of the wealthy classes. I think Cuba really benefited from Vatican neglect!

The modern histories and identities of both countries have been molded by, and both have suffered greatly from, being bound involuntarily to the United States. All America wanted was compliant nations integrated into a world economic order of exchange in which American business was predominant. To accomplish this goal, the U.S. engaged its usual arsenal of war, covert activity, terrorism and economic intervention, buying and selling to fuel the insatiable appetite of the American economy for cheap raw materials and willing consumers.
Yet, in neither country did it did get what it wanted. It seems to me the US has been greatly disappointed by these two "little brothers." The US probably wanted the Philippines to serve as its Asian proxy: playing the role of a dynamic client economy, hosting American military bases, and fulfilling regional police functions (the Philippines did dutifully send battalions of soldiers to Korea and Vietnam in support of the American war efforts.) In the mid-1960's the Philippines had one of the most dynamic economies is Asia, but the economy has since regressed and the unresolved social problems have if anything gotten worse. In spite of great potential, the Philippines remains the "sick man" of Asia (but it does serve as a source of cheap labor for the US domestic economy, e.g. nurses and software engineers.)

Obviously Cuba too has been a disappointment to Uncle Sam. Far from playing the part of convenient playground for American tourists and gangsters as it had been until 1959, Cuba has forged an independent development course and directly challenged the global hegemony of the U.S. Initially revolutionary Cuba was perceived as a huge threat to American domination of Latin America and the world, but now much less so. Following the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and world socialism, the Cuban economy has stagnated and the U.S. has achieved global hegemony on a level it never foresaw. Although no longer perceived as a significant threat to its global interests, Cuba is forced to continue to pay a heavy price for decades of defiance. If you want into the clubhouse, you have to listen to the boss.

I'm sorry to say I think the Philippines is a hell of a mess. It's a country of incredible contrasts, with a friendly and adaptable people living in a grossly inequitable society characterized by maldistribution of wealth, intractable social problems, an endless war with the Islamic minority, dysfunctional social behaviors, and deeply embedded governmental and private sector corruption. Opportunism is a survival mechanism deeply entrenched in the national psyche. It seems most people want to leave.

Cuba, meanwhile, has made enormous achievements for a small island state of only ten million people. Unfortunately, as the world socialist experiment has failed, the outlook for development of socialism in Cuba has dimmed. For the past ten years Cuban society has struggled to survive in a world increasingly characterized by an integrated "global capitalist economy." The glue that holds the Cuban revolution together is thinning; what will happen when Fidel passes from the scene?

Can Cuba and the Philippines learn from each other?
Yes, lots. The Cubans can learn how to be adaptable, how to get along without complaining. Filipinos can learn from the Cubans how to assert their national identity/pride, how to share the wealth they have, and how to get organized. They are very different peoples, but share so much. I wish they could realize it... perhaps they could help each other.

Final thoughts:
A tragedy is not just when something bad happens, but even more so, when a good opportunity is wasted. The United States could have spent the last hundred years using its astounding economic and technological resources helping the underdeveloped nations of the world to implement land reform, grow food for people to eat, build more houses for them to live in and schools for teaching their children, develop locally-appropriate forms of organization and government, and find meaningful access to technology. Instead our foreign policy has supported the most regressive social elements around the globe, directed by the needs of American corporations to expand profits and maintain our global political and military hegemony. I'll venture a guess that the Coca-Cola marketing budget in the Philippines is bigger than the Philippine government budget for education. The Philippines has been America's closest ally in Asia and look at it now: perhaps the biggest mess in Asia. Talk about a country that needs a revolution, this is it.
In Cuba the US has spent 40 years and billions of dollars beating the revolution down, instead of acknowledging that Cuba of 1959 was a disaster (largely because of the US) and needed a revolution. Since then, Cubans have paid a heavy price for their self-determination.
Both the Philippines and Cuba have experienced a stunted and warped development. That's a tragedy.

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