President of the Philippines


Serge Berthier.- You have been a very successful movie actor in your country, winning several Oscars, before turning your attention to politics. Many commentators compare you to Ronald Reagan, because he, too, was an actor for many years. Do you think that you both share some common traits, beside the fact that you were both actors?

Joseph Estrada.- President Reagan was very much underrated when he became president and I must admit that when he was elected, it gave me inspiration. If a superpower can elect a movie actor, then why couldn't the Philippines? And in fact, our country just followed the trend. And although underestimated when he arrived, he was re-elected by a wide margin, winning I think, 49 states.

S.B.- President Reagan was dealing with the problems of the richest country in the world. You are President of a country where 60% of the people are poor (1). What did you really learn from his success?

J.E.- That somehow he was a great communicator. To be an effective and a great president, you need to have the feel of the people. He had it. He was very human. He does seem to me that he was not very intellectual but a simple man with simple inspiration that responded to the people’s inspiration. What it teaches us is that you do not need to have all kind of diplomas, and master's degrees or be a doctor of this or that, to be a good President. What counts is how concerned you are for your people, how you relate to them and how you lead your country

S.B.- President Reagan did not have a very successful movie career, but you were a star. You were known for your ability to act, to sink into your role as if you had been all your life the character you were playing. Are those qualities and this professional experience helpful in the world of politics?

J.E.- My experience as an actor is a very big asset. For more than thirty years I have played all kind of roles, most of them as the oppressed. I played the role of a farmer, a rebel, a Jeepney-driver, a squatter. To play well, you have to feel the role. You have to be the farmer, the Jeepney-driver, the rebel. In the Philippines, movies are shot on location. When I played the role of a squatter, we had to shoot in the slum area for days. I lived there, day after day, among the slum-dwellers. You talk to them, you listen to their stories. They tell you their problems. When I played a farmer, we lived among farmers. You just have to talk to them to understand your role, to understand their feelings. I even played the role of a New People's Army (NPA) leader, a communist rebel. Today, all these various experiences are a real asset. I can understand their problems because I have been among them.

S.B.- During the election campaign almost all sectors of the society condemned you. Still you got the biggest mandate for any president. Why?

J.E.- The race for the presidency was a fight of the masses versus the elite, and I champion the masses. 60% of our population is deprived of housing, education and health care. How to reduce the poverty level is the real challenge and I want to leave a legacy as being the president who did it.

S.B.- Unfortunately, the Asian crisis was already in full bloom when you assumed office in July 1998. It means that resources are scarce and the growth rate of the economy is just not there. What is your plan?

J.E.- At this point of time of our economy, we really have to go back to basics. We need to have food security. It has been neglected in the past. We have been importing rice, sugar, and corn. We are an agricultural country. It really does not make sense. I went to Vietnam not so long ago (at the Asean Hanoi meeting in December 1998). That country has been at war for over twenty years or more and was bombed, as you know, extensively. I was shocked to discover that right now they are the third largest exporting rice producer in the world. So when I see that, I feel that something is very wrong here, all the more because most of their agricultural experts have been trained in the Philippines. I strongly believe we should concentrate first on this problem and be self-sufficient. My administration should focus on putting up dams, irrigation, post-harvest facilities and so on and so forth.

S.B.- Right now, the local press is reporting that foreign investors are pulling out of the Philippines. Does it mean that it is not possible to be the champion the masses and at the same time have a favourable business environment?

J.E.- No. Both can be pursued at the same time because by helping the masses, we are actually helping the businessmen. The buying power of the masses is an engine of growth. By helping them, you can only increase their buying power and I don’t see any contradiction. It is very simple.

S.B.- Yet, some foreign companies are closing down and the level of foreign investment is low.

J.E.- Some foreign investors are pulling out, but many are coming in (2). And I strongly believe that, among neighbouring countries, especially in South East Asia, we will be the first one to recover.

S.B.- Why are you so confident?

J.E.- Their GNP is in negative territory and we are in positive territory (3). Thailand is minus 8, Indonesia minus 16 and Malaysia minus 5. I am told we are positive or close to positive. We will fast-track our recovery, and the International Monetary Fund is supporting our macroeconomic policies. And at the end of March, we received foreign assistance of 4.5 billion US$ dollars (4). It obviously means that we are receiving a substantial support from outside. If we were wrong, I don’t think it would be possible. It is very encouraging because the amount is more than we were expecting.

S.B.- It is common knowledge that a small elite controls most of the economy of the Philippines. Most of them supported your political opponents. If today they are down, they are not out. How do you deal with them?

J.E.- Oh! The 5% that are said to control things (5). I just spend as little time as possible with them. They don’t need assistance and I am here to serve the masses. I am nevertheless trying little by little to change their mind and convince them to join us.

S.B.- Another perennial pillar of power in the Philippines is the Church. In the past, it was meddling in political affairs and could do or undo local elections or even national ones. How do you deal with it?

J.E.- In our Constitution we have a separation of the Church and the State (6). I very much want them to keep it in mind.

S.B.- How, for the clergymen tend to often forget it?

J.E.- We have to remind them that they should bear it in mind at all time. I will listen to their advice but I will not necessarily follow it. They have to understand that point clearly. Their attitude was perhaps entrenched over time, but I would say that it is not going to be the case during my administration.

S.B.- One of the critical issues in the Philippines is the demographic problem. At the current birth rate, the population is going to be over 140 million in 2025. The Church is very much against a birth-control policy. How are you going to deal with the problem?

J.E.- Birth rate is a problem. The position of the Church is a problem that we have to solve, but with more education, our people should be more aware. So education is the answer.

S.B.- You have formed a panel of experts to revise the Constitution of the Philippines, which was ratified in 1987. Does it really need to be reformed?

J.E.- Yes, we are launching the process of reform. My real concern is with articles that deal with economic issues rather than political ones. We need to be more open to the world, less nationalistic, and so we should scrap whatever limits we have entrenched into the constitution, such as the limit on foreign ownership of land (7). We want to change that to make it open. We also have across the board a limit of 40% on foreign ownership. It is wrong. If we want our economic reforms to be effective by the year 2001, we need to amend the Constitution quickly and my wish is to achieve this during my term.

S.B.- As regards the political frame and problems of governance, is there anything the matter?

J.E.- There is the limitation status for term of office to look at (8). But it does not concern me. My political life will finish with this term. Basically we are giving two years to the Congress to ratify amendments to the Constitution so that the Philippines can really become an open economy.

S.B.- Quite recently, the media were reporting that the Palace was claiming that Supreme Court rulings going against a government decision were not enforceable, for some reason or another. It is not the first time that the Judiciary find itself in the middle of a fight with the government, meddling with economic policies or the award of public tenders. Is the constitutional panel going to look at it, with a view to improve the rules?

J.E.- It will be part of the discussion. Decisions have to be made and clearly, some reforms in the judicial system are necessary. They will have to be debated and approved.

S.B.- In the early nineties, you were very much in favour of phasing out the American presence in the Philippines and pushed for the closure of the Subic and Clark military bases. Today, your government would like the Congress to ratify a Visiting Forces Agreement that would allow US military troops to visit and conduct joint military exercises with the Philippine troops. Is that very consistent?

J.E.- My belief is that as long as there are permanent foreign bases in a country, there is no real independent nation. In the early nineties, I was fighting for the sovereignty of my country. This time I am fighting for the security of my country. It is different. The American forces will not be coming here on a permanent basis but will only temporarily visit our country (9).

S.B.- Security is always the word used to sell armaments and justify defence initiatives and alliances. But can we believe that the Philippines is under any kind of military threat?

J.E.- We really don’t know what is to come about after four or five years. We have been treated quite badly by China who has been building a structure on an island that is within our 200 miles exclusive economic zone (10). The Mischief Reef is actually 180 miles from our shore so it is a violation of our sovereignty. At this point of time, we need a safety net. Of course, we are trying to solve the problem through diplomatic means. If President Jiang Zemin comes to the next Asean-plus heads of state meeting in Manila in November, he will be most welcome but I will express my concern.

S.B.- Ten years ago, the population was very much in favour of a pull-out of the American forces who were considered a nuisance except in the vicinity of the bases. Has the public mood changed?

J.E.- The latest survey seems to indicate that a majority of the population is in favour of the VFA. Our military forces are also in favour of the agreement. It will improve their capability.

S.B.- And give them access to training in the United States, I presume …

J.E.- Yes.

S.B.- It is hard to believe that VFA will force China to change her attitude towards the Spratlys. The only real immediate security threat we can see in the Philippines is the Mindanao rebellion that is dragging on and on with no end in sight. President Ramos signed a peace accord with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996. Yet, it is again war. How are you going to tackle what looks like an intractable problem?

J.E.- The implementation of our agreements was not done properly. Funds are getting lost (11). I told you that in my youth, I even played a Muslim rebel. The point is that the people of Mindanao have been neglected for too many years. It is about time to turn attention to them. Of course, some of their leaders tend to make money out of the situation, at the expense of their people. And the leaders have been warned. We will not allow them to secede by all means, they must understand it. What we need is to show that we are sincere, and the only way is to deal directly with them, so that they can experience personally that we are taking care of them. That is why I want to spend three months a year in Mindanao.

S.B.- When you were campaigning, you were saying that the problem will be solved immediately. That experience shows that maybe presidential goodwill is sometimes not enough. Do you think that the bureaucracy you have to deal with is a problem that will need to be solved sooner or later?

J.E.- Yes. It is true that the bureaucracy in the Philippines is overwhelming, Unfortunately, with the crisis we experience, retrenchment is not the option. You can’t do it when you have no economic growth to speak of. The reform has to be delayed till we reach a better time. And to answer your question about presidential goodwill, I realize there are things that are not going my way so easily, but when I am convinced I should do it, I push and keep pushing. I have to find ways to achieve what I consider is important.

S.B.- You have been in office for less than a year. What has surprised you most and do you think you have started to move things the way you wanted?

J.E.- What surprises me is all the restrictions that are surrounding a president and the fact that a lot of people are just waiting for you to make a mistake. I don’t blame my predecessor for where we were when I took over. The crisis was all over Asia, and we had it. The peso was 44 to the dollar, now it is 38, the interest rates were 28%, now it is around 14%. Law and order was still a problem, kidnapping were an almost everyday occurrence, for the past four months we had none. I think we are on the recovery track, but I admit that domestic investment is still weak. And to fight poverty, I need more time.



1.- In a speech made in April 1999, National Treasurer Leonor Brioness said that almost a third of the country's population lived in absolute poverty in 1997, and while no figures are available for 1998, with the downtrend registered in the economy, an improvement in 1998 or 1999 is unlikely. In real terms, Ms. Briones said that this means that there were 4.6 million poor families in 1997 (with an average size family of about 5.3, it means in absolute terms that more than 24 million individuals live below the poverty line). The threshold for 1997, or the amount spent to satisfy nutritional food requirements and other basic needs, was estimated at 31.2 pesos a day (less than one US$ a day).

On a nationwide survey, two Filipinos out of three consider themselves poor or very poor (see also article by Amando Doronila in this issue).

2.- Although President Estrada sounds positive, he has asked his Executive Secretary - who is more or less an acting de facto Prime Minister - Ronaldo Zamora, to come up with specific measures and initiatives aimed at spurring investment growth and putting a stop to the increasing incidence of multinational corporation pulling out of the country. One possibility under study is to give foreign firms located in economic zones wider access to the domestic market. At present (May 1999), the implementing guidelines of Republic Act nº 07916 (the Special Economic Zone Act) allow export-oriented firms to sell only as much as 30% of their output to the domestic market.

In April 1999, eight multinationals have already announced plans for the closure of their Philippine manufacturing operations: Johnson & Johnson, Warner-Lambert, Colgate-Palmolive, Van Melle, Abbot Laboratories, Novartis Healthcare, Philips Electronics (lighting division), and Uniden Philippines. These pull-outs do not necessarily mean that the companies are leaving the country. Some have subcontracted their manufacturing operations (see in this issue interview with Jose T. Pardo).

The most worrying factor is the drop registered in the imports of capital equipment which are necessary for industrial operators who either set up new plants or augment existing productivity. Imports have declined by 24.7% in January 1999, compared to January 1998, to US$975.38 million, below the level of January 1997. Land transport equipment dropped by as much as 53%, and office and EDP equipment went down by 25.8%.

3.- President Estrada erred on the optimistic side. The Philippines registered a marginal decline, of minus 0.1%, but all other Asian countries have registered a larger decline. The government is targeting a 1.5% to 3.5% gross national product (GNP) growth rate for 1999 and has decided to stick to it in spite of weak lending and lacklustre economic activity during the first quarter 1999 (see other interviews in this issue).

4.- During the Consultative Group meeting in Tokyo held on March 24 and 25, 1999, international aid donors have pledged about US$4.5 billion for 1999 to support the country's economic and structural reform programs. The government was expecting no more than US$2 billion.

Japan is the largest aid donor with US$3.1 billion in pledge, adding US$1.7 billion to the US$1.4 billion already announced under the Miyazawa initiative. The balance, US$1.04 billion comes from multilateral institutions.

On top of the Miyazawa funds, the Philippines will also benefit from the Obuchi fund (an additional loan package of US$5 billion (in yen), over and above the US$30 billion Miayazawa initiative) to the tune of US$1 billion. Obuchi Fund are soft loans carrying a 1% interest rate. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) has approved three development projects - a P3.63 billion Iloilo airport project, P2.15 billion Camanava flood control project and a P1.5 billion Arterial Roads project for possible funding by the Obuchi loan package.

5.- In election after election in the Philippines, many of the same names appear as candidates - at least the same family names, and at the boards of the largest Philippine companies, many of the same names appear as directors. The big clans possess a great deal of power and control 90% of the Phililippines' economy. Except the Chinese elite, all the clans are the product of the rigid class structure imposed by the Spanish rulers, based on control of agricultural land. One of the biggest land owners of the country is the Cojuangco/Aquiño clan. The US rule for more than forty years proved a boon to the Philippines' landowning elite, the hacenderos, who dominated the colonial legislature and forged themselves into a self-conscious ruling class.

After the 1986 People Power revolt, the government of the then president Corazon Cojuangco Aquiño tried to place limits on the terms elected officials could serve. To skirt the restriction, incumbents whose time is up have been fielding spouses, children and other relatives to ensure that political posts remain within the control of the clan. The irony is that the Cojuangco Aquiño clan was the clan with the most number of relatives trying at the last election (May 1998) to hop into public office. Some of the country's top political clans, who, each had a president in the family, are: - the Cojuangco, ruling class from Tarlac, a province north of Manila. The clan is divided into two feuding branches, Eduardo Cojuangco was backing President Estrada's candidacy while the Aquiño were backing another candidate, the Osmeñas, from central Cebu. Sergio Osmeña was president from 1944 to 1946, the Macapagal, who control the second-largest province of central Luzon. Vice-President Gloria Macapagal is the daughter of the late President Diosdado Macapagal.- the Lopez, highly influential in central Illoco province. Aberto Lopez is a congressman, his wife, governor, his cousin Eugenio controls Benpres, controlling shareholder of power giant Meralco. One of the daughters of President Estrada will marry the son of Eugenio Lopez, in July 1999, the Marcos, who, although discredited after the fall of Ferdinand Ramos in 1986, are still a power in their province, with Imelda Marcos, her son (governor of Illocos Norte province) and her daughter, holding public office, the Magsaysay, with Ramon President in 1953-1957, one of his relatives being today a senator, the Garcia, with Carlos Garcia, president in 1957-1961 and today Antonio, president of the Federation of Philippine Industries

6.- In 499 statutes issued between September 1900 and August 1920, a Commission (known as the Taft Commission) appointed by President McKinley of the United States repelled the Spanish way of governance of the Philippines and installed in its place the laws and institutions of a modern civil state. It established a code of law, a judicial system and elective municipal and provincial governments. The Philippine Organic Act of 1902 established a national bicameral legislature and imposed the strict separation of church and state and eliminated the Roman Catholic Church as the official state religion. In 1904 the administration paid the Vatican US$7.2 million for most of the lands held by the religious orders. The lands were later sold back to Filipinos. Some tenants were able to buy their land but it was mainly the established estate owners - the hacenderos - who could afford to buy the former church lands. But the power of the Church if it did decline did not disappear.

7.- Article XII of the Constitution stipulates that :"the exploration, development and utilization of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State". It allows for "co-production, joint-venture, or production-sharing but exclusively with Filipino citizens, or corporations or associations at least sixty per centum of whose capital is owned by such citizens." The article also clearly states that "with the exception of agricultural lands, all other natural resources shall not be alienated".

8.- President Estrada did not elaborate. There is currently in the Constitution a provision to limit the term of office of elective officials, to three consecutive terms of three years. The President is limited to a single term of six years. As mentioned earlier in note 5, in practice, to skirt the limitation, incumbents get relatives elected to their position.

9.- Public opinion is divided about such a move, and the press openly hostile, pointing out that the Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado and President Estrada, to protect their images as patriotic and progressive elements have given the unsavoury task of selling the Visiting Forces Agreement to the public to National Security Adviser Alexander Aguirre. Mercardo and Estrada were two of the twelve Senators that rejected the US Bases Treaty in 1991.

According to its critics, the provisions of the VFA replicate the neo-colonial spirit animating the US Bases Treaty. The main worry, expressed by the Filipinos, is that the VFA will merely articulate the 1997 White House doctrine expressed in the document entitled: "A National Security Strategy for a New Century" in this vein: "First, we must be prepared and willing to use all appropriate instruments of national power to influence the actions of other states and other non-state actors. Second, we must have the demonstrated will and capabilities to continue to exert global leadership and remain the preferred security partner of the community of states that share our interests. In short, American leadership and engagement in the world are vital for our security."

Senators are expected to vote on the VFA in June. There is already a constitutional controversy as to what is the VFA exactly. The Estrada administration is pushing for a Senate ratification (on May 17) because under the Constitution, "foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate, and when Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the vote cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state." However, the United States do not recognize the agreement as a treaty, which requires Congress approval, but only an agreement, which requires only the approval of the President Clinton.

10.- In April 1982, the United Nations adopted the International Law of Sea Convention. The Chinese government was among the first to sign the convention that created the 200 miles economic zone but also acknowledges that "historical waters" do exist. But what means "historical waters" is today widely contested. China claims that it first discovered and named the Spratlys, a sprawling rim of atolls and islets mostly uninhabited, (the Nansha in Chinese) and its adjacent seas.

In Asian Affairs, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wang Ying-fan was saying: " (Such disputes) are a product of history … everyone has to be practical about it… because it is a state-to-state problem, we are holding bilateral discussions. The problem is that most of the time, in such matters as territorial disputes which are a legacy of past wars, others are trying to interfere. It only complicates the matter and never accomplishes anything. But of course, it is sometimes the only purpose".

11.- In Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, three armed movements have been waging an on-again, off-again fight against the central government. They are the New People's Army (NPA), said to be marxist, the Moro National Liberation Front (MLNF) launched in October 1972, led by Nur Misuari and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter group of MLNF formed in 1978 by Hashim Salamat. The government signed a peace agreement with Nur Misuari in 1996. Under the deal, Manila created an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) -Misuari became its elected governor. The region which included the Sulu island has a population of 2.02 million and a size of 11,409 The MILF rejected the peace deal, considering it was not autonomous enough. Meanwhile, the NPA has formed an alliance with the MILF.

published in Spring 1999