Filipinos lament how far they haven’t come

 MANILA — When former President Corazon C. Aquino died this summer, Filipinos filled the streets in mourning and in celebration of the golden moment in 1986 when she led them in a peaceful uprising that some called a revolution.
         The nation’s dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos, had fled as masses of people faced down his tanks, and democracy was restored after 20 years of repressive rule. Aquino, the opposition leader who became president, ushered in wide-ranging political reforms.
         But the weeks since Aquino’s death at age 76 have been a period of self-examination and self-doubt among many Filipinos, as they consider how little has really changed since then.
         “The legacy is the mess we are in,” said F. Sionil Jose, 84, the nation’s most prominent novelist, pointing to continuing poverty, inequality and political disarray as evidence that the nation failed to capitalize on its moment of possibility. “We have a word for it — sayang — ‘what a waste.”‘
         In schools, coffeehouses, rice fields, churches and offices around Manila and in the countryside, there seemed to be a shared sense that the people of the Philippines had failed themselves.
         “We thought all we needed to do was remove the dictator and do nothing about it,” said Teresita I. Barcelo, president of the Philippine Nurses Association. “We thought the problem was just the dictator. I say the problem is us. We did not change.”
         Sister Dory Reyes, 61, a former Roman Catholic nun and teacher in the farming town of Santa Maria, said: “The poverty is still there. The corruption is still there. Unemployment is still there. I don’t see improvement.”
         The Philippines, with a population of 92 million, is one of the most vibrant nations in Asia, with a flamboyantly free press and a creative, assertive body of independent organizations and interest groups.
         But it has not managed to tame its Communist and Muslim insurgencies or its restive military, which seems constantly to be plotting coups. The military has regularly been accused of human rights abuses and disappearances.
         And the political arena sometimes seems more like a form of mass entertainment than a place of governance. Since Aquino left office in 1992, there have been three presidential elections, two attempts at impeachment, two apparent attempts to stay in power through constitutional change, one popular uprising that ousted an elected president and another that failed.
         “We keep coming up with new ways to describe the country,” said Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University in New York, who for years was a leading journalist in the Philippines. “Democracy in decay, a nonfunctioning democracy, a challenged democracy,” she said, listing some of the epithets.
         Almost nothing in the Philippines escapes politics, and Aquino’s funeral procession on August 5 has been widely seen as a protest against the unpopular incumbent president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose term is scheduled to end next May.
         “When Cory’s term ended, she did not seek to extend her stay,” said Consolacion Paje, 53, a housewife, as she stood in the rain with tens of thousands of people to view the funeral cortege, referring to Aquino by her nickname. “That’s what makes her different from Gloria. Cory was honest. She had integrity.”
         Arroyo is barred from running for a second six-year term as president. But the nation is transfixed by the possibility that she could amend the Constitution and stay in power as prime minister in a parliamentary system, a concern she sought to tamp down in July in her state of the nation address. Despite constant attacks on her, Arroyo is a ferocious politician, and she has already used her majority backing in Congress to turn aside attempts at impeachment.
         With so much energy expended on political theater, not much progress has been made in improving the lives of ordinary Filipinos in a nation where 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
         “Things get harder and harder every year,” said Ernesto Policarpio, 74, a farmer in Santa Maria, about 30 kilometers northeast of Manila, who sells snacks and supplies from a stall by his rice field for extra income. “But here in the province you don’t feel the hard times as much as in the city. Here if you have nothing to eat you can always go to the neighbor and ask for food.”
         Policarpio said he had worked abroad for a while, as many Filipinos have, earning $2,000 a month as a security guard in Los Angeles until the economy stumbled and he headed home.
         Eight million Filipinos work overseas, or 25 percent of the country’s work force. They send home about $17 billion a year, accounting for 13 percent of gross domestic product in 2007, according to the World Bank.
         Many families here depend on remittances from abroad, and an overseas job can be one of the highest ambitions for the upwardly mobile.
         “I’m optimistic,” said Danica Canonigo, 16, a high school student in Santa Maria. “I’m looking forward to another future in another country.”
         This umbilical connection to the outside world may come in part from the history of the Philippines, which was an American colony for half a century, until 1946, after spending 400 years as a colony of Spain.
         “We are not yet a nation,” said Jose, the novelist. “This is the whole problem. We have all the trappings of a modern state, but we are not yet a nation.”

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