President Arroyo has gained the most from the present rice crisis, which, it terms of her political survival, has been more a boon than a bane for her so far. Despite the obvious threat to her presidency of the rice and other food-related issues, she has managed to put a spin into it that has served her one overriding goal: to stay in power. I have previously written of how it has diverted public attention away from the ZTE broadband corruption scandal and has thrown cold water on opposition efforts to oust her. She has also used it to showcase her supposed crisis management skills and has gone on a media blitz to highlight her so-called hands-on style of leadership. Witness how she has been seen on television inspecting grain storage facilities and supervising the distribution of NFA rice. She even stayed for two hours at the Bureau of Customs just to watch, like a stern schoolmarm, a minor bureau official type out a criminal complaint against an alleged smuggler and hoarder.
But the problem remains, at the core, a political one.
As noted by sociologist Randy David:
To talk about politics while the country confronts a looming food crisis would seem insensitive. Politics connotes divisiveness, and one has to be callous not to see the need to come together and act as a unified community if we are to solve the basic problem of feeding our people. But if the search for consensus is to be more than a public relations gesture, we cannot lose sight of the connections that link our national problems to one another. These connections remain deeply political.
In short, the GMA problem remains, and festers.
Unfortunately, perceptions have been distorted by Malacanang’s cunning efforts to pin the blame on factors other than the present administration’s venal governance. To some extent, its true that the food crisis is global in character, and climate change, the rising price of oil, the changing political and economic landscape in Asia and elsewhere, and even the Beijing Olympics (the Chinese are buying up all the foodstuffs to feed their guests!), have provided convenient excuses. But that’s only half the story, as far as the Philippines is concerned. The other half is the unbridled corruption in government involving everything from information technology (the ZTE national broadband network scandal) to roads (the P1.1 billion and a P600-million overprice for the short stretch of Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard) to pigs (UP law professor Harry Roque’s recent expose on the diversion of some P600 million of a P2.5-billion swine propagation program to fund the campaign chest of pro-Arroyo senatorial candidates). There seems to be nothing the members of the present administration hasn’t made money out of, including the rice crisis. But Arroyo and her functionaries have been so masterful at doublespeak and muddling the issues that they’ve turned the tables on us, and have actually managed to use the scandals hounding her to strengthen her grip on power and undermine her critics. As explained by Dr. Raul Pangalangan, former U.P. law dean:
But the real sleight of hand is the one that says that these problems are so serious that we mustn’t rock the boat. I saw an exchange in an e-group in which a well-meaning activist said in so many words: Let’s not dwell on politics and Arroyo’s legitimacy deficit. Instead, let’s face the day-to-day reality of migrant workers: their paycheck shrunk by the dollar devaluation, the rising cost of basic commodities, and as we approach the new school year, the steep tuition fees. “Isa-isa lang at mahina ang kalaban.”
This logic is ominous. It means that the worse the problems get, the more we must rally round President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. And since things look like they’re about to get worse, it looks like we must further entrench the President. There was even careless talk about granting her emergency powers. The more exposés, the more we need her.
There is an even finer twist to this logic. It is a bourgeois luxury to speak of changing leaders while the poor starve, to speak of revolution while millions worry about the next meal. The affluent can afford to dream, the poor, they merely survive. We face a practical, economistic turn in Philippine political discourse, and therein lies the power and perils of the rice crisis.
But MalacaÃ±ang’s spinmeisters have been so sharp and adept that it can dull the political impact of these crises by transforming them from threats against the ruling cliques into invitations for them to rise to the challenge. In other words, the real danger is the coup on our logic, the hocus-pocus on our minds.
But how can she benefit from the rice crisis, you ask, apart from the “photo ops” it presents ?
BusinessWorld columnist and management guru Rene Azurin gives one example:
Uncharitably — but expectedly, because of Mrs. Arroyo’s basement-level trust ratings — many Filipinos believe that the whole rice importing business is actually a godsend for certain high government officials and their cronies because of the (allegedly) traditional kickback of some $50 per ton of rice when it was being imported at around $350 per ton and who knows what it is now that it is being imported at $708 per ton. Even before the JocJoc Bolante agricultural fund diversion mess, uncharitable observes have suspected that the Department of Agriculture was a favorite locus of corruption for the simple reason that funds budgeted for the purchase of fertilizers and seeds are quite easy to make disappear without a trace. What auditor is, after all, conscientious enough and porsegido enough to really determine for sure if fertilizers supposedly purchased were in fact spread in the amounts documented or if seeds bought were in fact planted in the quantities indicated but just did not take root. Fertilizers and scaterred seeds, significantly, leave no trace after the first rain.
There is in truth, basis for this suspicions. For example, the people directly in charge of the country’s rice program reveal that this year’s production deficit is 930,000 metric tons of play, which, assuming a yield rate of 50%, is equivalent to about 465,000 metric tons of rice. If that is the case, the why oh why is our government moving heaven and hell to import 2,100,000 metric tons of rice ? The answer to that question may be the compelling rationale for the stay-in-power-no-matter how approach to political leadership.
And now there is the plan, actually already rolled out, to provide direct monthly cash welfare subsidies to poor families, which will initially cost 5 Billion Pesos. This new scheme stinks to high heavens of patronage and corruption. Who knows how many poor families will actually benefit from this or where this amount will really end up as it winds through layers of bureaucracy ? This is another financial scandal in the making.
The Catholic Church considers the dole out anti-poor, leaves them no dignity, and only breeds dependency.
Honesto General explains how the the various scams involving the NFA works and says:
Is it not possible that the real reason for the importation is not so much to fill up the supposed shortfall in production but to earn those huge commissions?
The root of the problem is this: Whenever the government heavily intervenes in the buying and selling of products and services in an open and free market, prices will go up, mainly because the government is very inefficient. And that inefficiency is paid for with taxpayers’ money.