For Which It Stands: The Philippines


MANILA, The Philippines — In her light-green blouse, black trousers, colorful necklace and gold earrings, Carol Araullo looked decked out for a PTA meeting. 

But she soon showed that she is anything but. At a recent forum in a Philippine university, Araullo used a calm, firm voice to lambast the U.S. for its support of Israel. Outside the school, she and other activists continued with their anti-U.S. rhetoric. Several days earlier, on Jan. 16, Araullo and other leftists had burned American flags in front of the Israeli embassy in Manila, chanting "down with U.S. imperialism."

As the chairwoman of the largest leftist organization in the Philippines — the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance) — Araullo, 55, is one of the most recognizable faces of the Philippine left. 

In large part, Araullo's life has been driven by U.S. policy toward former Philippine leader Ferdinand Marcos. Her animus toward the U.S. began when she was at the University of the Philippines. In 1972, Marcos, buoyed by Washington's support, declared martial law and ushered in one of the darkest periods in Philippine history. Like many activists who sought refuge from the growing communist insurgency, Araullo briefly went underground. She was later arrested, tortured and jailed for several months.

After her release, at the urging mainly of her family, Araullo went back to university and finished her bachelor's degree,  graduating cum laude. She decided to study medicine. “That was the only way I thought I could continue with my activism, to personally help and treat people violated by the regime,” Araullo said. As a doctor, she helped organize medical students and health professionals in their struggle against Marcos, who was finally deposed in 1986.

Today, Araullo remains convinced that U.S. policy is the single biggest stumbling block to the Philippines's development.

Her view doesn't reflect the majority opinion here. To most Filipinos, the U.S. stands for something else: a benevolent ally, a longtime friend, a place where anyone's dream can be a reality (most Filipinos emigrants settled in the U.S, after all). The Philippines has embraced U.S. culture in profound ways, as is evident in the enormous popularity here of anything American.

But as Araullo's activism lays plain, there are other Filipinos who are deeply critical of the U.S.

America, she and others here argue, has controlled the economic and political life of the Philippines for decades. She points to payments on the interest of the huge foreign debts that Marcos racked up during his regime: The interest payments — to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and U.S. financial institutions — are the largest allocations in the current national budget. Instead, Araullo argues, this money should be going to pay for basic health services and education.

“The U.S. has been playing a very significant role in our country's history, and not in a good way,” Araullo said.

Activists such as Araullo often complain that the country remains poor, a “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” state, largely due to its history of Spanish and U.S. imperialism. In his 1989 book “In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines,” Stanley Karnow writes that America and the Philippines's “common past had ordained both their present and their future.”

Which is why, to many Filipino activists, Obama's rise won't do much to restore the U.S. relationship with the Philippines, Araullo said. “He promises a new era for America and the world, but so did every other Democrat who won, and nothing changed,” she said.

The Philippines may not be at the top of Obama's to-do list. Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston and an expert on southeast Asia, said Obama will be too distracted domestically to give the Philippines, or southeast Asia for that matter, significant attention.

“I think there is a tendency among Filipinos to overstate their importance to Washington,” Abuza said. “During Bush's first term, he did give a lot of importance to the Philippines, but by his second term, so mired in Iraq, the Philippines fell off Washington's radar screen.”

Rey Asis, an activist who helps organize migrant Filipinos in Hong Kong, echoed this view. “What we are up against is a system known for unjust wars, occupations and exploitation,” he said. “Obama is just one man. If he can overhaul the system, I'd be happy to change my mind about America.”

As for the coming years, Terence Krishna Lopez, another activist who joined in the burning of U.S. flags during protests, thinks the slogan “down with U.S. imperialism” won't go out of vogue here under Obama's administration. “It has survived the decades for a reason,” he said.

And so, on Jan. 20, the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in Washington, Araullo and her leftist colleagues marched to the U.S. embassy to demand that Obama withdraw the American troops stationed in the Philippines since 2002 and stop giving aid to the Philippine military, which has been accused of horrendous human rights violations.

They also denounced what they call America's "silent war" in the Philippines. They accuse the U.S. of intervening in the Philippines's internal affairs by participating in police and military exercises under the guise of training. 

"The U.S. has run roughshod over our sovereignty for decades already," Araullo said. Obama, she added, must demonstrate that "it can't be business as usual."