A Warning for Egyptian Revolutionaries: Courtesy of People Power in the Philippines

Much like Mubarak, the former democratic reformer turned long-serving US dictator for the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, demonstrates what can happen to even stalwart defenders of capitalism when they are opposed by their citizens en masse.  Like Mubarak, Marcos previously provided a ray of hope for Western elites intent on quelling popular resistance within their own countries; after President Ronald Reagan launched his “worldwide campaign for democracy” before the British Parliament at Westminster in June 1982, he then decided to visit Marcos in the Philippines “where he announced in a public homage to the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, that ‘the Philippines has been moulded in the image of American democracy.'”  This commitment to ‘democracy’ in the Philippines was not new; the previous year vice president George Bush “raised a toast to Marcos during his visit to Manila, declaring ‘We love your adherence to democratic principle and to the democratic process.'”1

Little wonder that when the US government institutionalized their commitment to democracy, it took the form an Orwellian organization called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — an organization that was set up by the US government to overtly carry out the ‘democracy promoting’ interventions that had formerly been undertaken covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency.  Since then, the NED has assumed a pivotal position in defusing revolutionary movements all over the world, but their central role in the eventual ouster of Marcos is worth retelling, especially bearing in mind the similarity of his regime of oppression to Mubarak’s.  Thankfully the history of the US government’s ‘democratic’ invention in the Philippines has already been analysed in William I. Robinson’s ground breaking book Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996); consequently this article merely aims to encapsulate some of his key points.

To begin with, there should be no doubt that the ouster of President Marcos in 1986 was not due to any long-range conspiracy hatched in the White House: his removal from power was entirely due to a popular uprising.  On the other hand, the US government did belatedly succeed in undermining and co-opting the revolutionary ferment that was in the air.  What is clear is that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the poor and oppressed citizens of the Philippines had been gathering political strength.  This emerging power was significantly bolstered by the August 1983 assassination of the most visible leader of the elite opposition, Benigno Aquino Jr. — a murder which had the effect of ensuring that the non-Marcos elite was finally “galvanized . . . into active opposition.”  This galvanization had the effect of drawing the middle classes into the already popular and vocal opposition movement; and with the potential for a broad-based increasingly radicalized opposition movement developing in the Philippines, the US government became more than a little interested in intervening in the region.  Elite concern in the United States was further aggravated when in late 1984, the wife of the assassinated Benigno, Cory Aquino — who was now a serious contender for power — worked with other opposition leaders to draw up plans that “spelled out a nationalist-orientated program of social reform and development and also called for the removal of US military bases from the Philippines.”2

The US had always been interested in the Philippines because of the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base: military bases which were key strategic sites from which every US invasion of Asia had gone through since 1898.  Concern really heightened and got greater in about 1984, because of the people’s movement, including the New People’s Army (NPA), a fighting force of over 20,000 fighters and led by the Communist Party of the Philippines.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it now became evident to US planners that a “diverse and well organized” movement was gaining momentum in the Philippines, “ranging from the NPA insurgency, to the mass, left-of-center civic movement BAYAN (New Patriotic Federation, which went by its acronym in Tagalog), which brought together millions of Philippine citizens, to numerous parties and groups of the center, center-right and right.”  Noting that “[p]erhaps the weakest among the opposition were the center and conservative sectors which, as in Nicaragua and other authoritarian Third World regimes, had vacillated during many years between support for, and opposition to, the dictatorship,” they quickly funnelled ‘democracy’ aid to these needy sectors of civil society.3

Between 1984 and 1990, Philippine organizations received at least $9 million from the NED and other US sources.  These included: the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), which mobilized the business community against Marcos; the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), a minority, conservative union federation affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which competed with more radical and left-leaning labor organizations; Philippine “youth clubs” established under the guidance of US organizers to mobilize Philippine youth; the KABATID Philippine women’s organization (KABATID is the Tagalog acronym for Women’s Movement for the Nurturing of Democracy), also established under the guidance of US organizers; and the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL).4

Here one should note that Robinson’s figure of $9 million is based on publicly available NED annual reports, and as he observes, “the actual amount is probably much higher, since millions more were sent to the Philippines circuitously via such organizations as the AAFLI [Asian-American Free Labor Institute] and via the CIA and other ‘national security’ related spending, which is classified.”5  To be sure the TUCP, which was the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO’s Asian-American Free Labor Institute, was a creation of the Marcos Dictatorship pure and simple, and its goal was to keep the labor sector under control.  Indeed, after Aquino’s assassination, the US Government channelled millions of dollars to the TUCP through AAFLI as a way to help the TUCP — and the Marcos Dictatorship — survive.  On the other hand, the most significant pro-worker, anti-management part of the labor movement in the Philippines was the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU-May First Movement) — which was a nationalist, militant labor center of unions built in the various regional political economies across the nation that united on a national level on May 1, 1980, in Manila. KMU specifically challenged the TUCP, and they were central to the nationalist challenge to the dictatorship.

Living in fear of the evolution of a “left-center popular alliance,” the US State Department dispatched their finest experts in conflict resolution to meet with Cory Aquino and the leader of the right-wing opposition, Salvador “Doy” Laurel, to “convince them to run under a united ticket that would stress anti-communism and refrain from opposing US bases in the Philippines (Laurel subsequently became Aquino’s running-mate as candidate for vice-president).”  Having laid the groundwork for a change of leadership, events then heated up when Marcos decided to ignore the results of the snap election held on February 7, 1986, in which the people of the Philippines elected the Aquino/Laurel ticket to power.  Contrary to US interests, Marcos’ adverse Dictatorial reaction further inflamed popular resistance, providing further fuel for the popular insurrection.6

The US wanted to do whatever it could to contain the growing insurrection, and an important part of the US’s ultimately successful intervention in the Philippines was to get the military onside and ready for the ‘democratic’ transition; and a key player in this regard was General Fidel Ramos, a long-time loyalist to Marcos who was acting as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).  It was in this way, with a ‘little’ prodding by the United States, that in mid-1985 General Ramos came to see the futility of supporting Marcos’s crumbling regime and joined with Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in helping organize a reformer’s revolt which split the military shortly after the contested election.7  Thus when the people subsequently rose up in defiance of Marcos to protect the military reformers and their forces in Manila, Marcos’ only choice at that time — if he had wanted to crush the military revolt — was to order the Army to slaughter the masses, and the US didn’t want that!

With few other options left on the table, the US turned all its resources to bring pressure to bear on Marcos, and they did this by dispatching “at-large ambassador Philip Habib to Manila to urge Aquino to keep her followers off the streets and to convince Marcos to step down.”8  However, when Habib failed to make the US’s case firmly enough, Paul Laxalt, a right-wing US Senator from Nevada, called Marcos (on February 24) and told him to “cut and cut clean”; and within twenty-four hours Marcos was gone and Aquino had been sworn into office.9  Taken together, these actions served to undermine the growing political power of the people’s power movement, as they circumscribed the need for the massive (potentially revolutionary) social protests that were in the pipeline — which were to include economic boycotts and a general strike.

Significantly, “[s]uch actions would have greatly enhanced the labor movement, with its militant base and left-wing tendencies, in both removing Marcos and in shaping the post-Marcos government and policies.”  Yet one should note that there was never any question of Aquino — soon to be Time magazine women of the year — supporting labor, and particularly KMU, over the military.  All the same, the big question for the US was: could she re-establish social stability and be won away from wanting to close the US military bases?  Consequently after Aquino assumed power, there were several military coup efforts against her by the Marcos-inspired military,10 in which her side eventually prevailed: Ramos and Enrile played key roles here, with Ramos becoming more important of the two over time.  Both Enrile and Ramos were longtime allies of the US — Ramos is a graduate of West Point — and they were able to convince her to keep the US bases.  At the same time, the US government provided tons of money, and a direct address by Aquino to the US Congress, to keep her on their side, which wasn’t hard: Aquino herself had gone to college in the US and was very pro-American.  She also agreed to pay debt incurred by the Dictatorship, seeing them as legitimate.

In the aftermath of the US’s ‘democratic’ intervention in the Philippines there has been a vigorous debate about the significance of the US’s role in the process.  Yet as Robinson points out, “whether or not US intervention was itself the determining factor in the overthrow of Marcos obscured a much more significant issue: US intervention was decisive in shaping the contours of the anti-Marcos movement and in establishing the terms and conditions under which Philippine social and political struggles would unfold in the post-Marcos period.”11  Moreover it is critical to observe that the post-Marcos era has not been a happy period for the majority of the Philippines’ citizens,  In fact, Walden Bello and John Gershman described this new post-Marcos environment as “politically sanitized” to such an extent that “anti-elite candidates with radical political programs have been driven from the electoral arena by the threat of force — so that even intense electoral competition would not be too destabilizing.”12  Likewise in a stark reminder of what might happen in Egypt, Philippines labor specialist Kim Scipes writes:

. . . [R]eplacing Marcos with Aquino left a brutal state apparatus intact, which Aquino used to kill peasants, workers and the urban poor.  In fact, KMU leaders told me that the human rights abuses under democrat Aquino were worse than under dictator Marcos: she couldn’t control her generals.  However, whether she couldn’t control them or if she didn’t want to control them — Alfred W. McCoy in Policing America’s Empire(University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) claims the latter — the fact is that unless the brutal state apparatus is dismantled, and especially the Police and the torture agencies, the repression could be re-instituted.13 

The Egyptian people have struck a great blow for freedom from tyranny, and have complicated US and Israeli foreign policy in the region immensely, and such external forces will want to re-establish control at very first opportunity.  However, not only foreigners but remnants of the Egyptian elite want to re-establish the control they’ve long had, and will do anything they can to do so.  The Egyptian people need to learn from the Philippine experience, and do all they can to keep that from happening.


1  William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.117, p.122.

2  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.123, p.126.

3  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.125.  “In November 1984, a secret NSC Study Directive made the call for a concerted US intervention in the Philippines to facilitate a transition.  ‘The United States has extremely important interests in the Philippines. . .  Political and economic developments in the Philippines threaten these interests,’ stated the directive.  ‘The US does not want to remove Marcos from power to destabilize the GOP [Government of the Philippines].  Rather, we are urging revitalization of democratic institutions, dismantling “crony” monopoly capitalism and allowing the economy to respond to free market forces, and restoring professional, apolitical leadership to the Philippine military to deal with the growing communist insurgency.’  ‘These efforts,’ it went on, ‘are meant to stabilize (the country] while strengthening institutions which will eventually provide for a peaceful transition.'”  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, pp.124-5.

4  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, pp.125-6.  The reactionary Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) received almost US$7 million from the National Endowment for Democracy between 1984 and 1991 (p.135).  One of the reasons for such emphasis on Philippine labor was the challenge from the militant KMU and the importance of labor in national political struggles” (p.136).  For an excellent historical study of the KMU, see Kim Scipes, KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994(New Day Publishers, 1996).  Scipes is also the author of AFL-CIO’s Secret War Against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, 2010), which provides an excellent historical overview of the interaction between the US government and the National Endowment for Democracy and organized labor.  Needless to say, this labor movement imperialism is not being done through labor movement procedures, but behind the backs of members.

5  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.403.

6  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.127.

7  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.128.

8  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.127.

9  With the ouster of Marcos, Ramos was now rewarded for his assistance by the newly elected Aquino administration who appointed him Chief of Staff of the AFP, and later Secretary of Defense.  In 1992 when Cory Aquino left office, Ramos was elected president of the Philippines, a position he held until 1998.  After his presidency, Ramos became a committed ‘champion for democracy’ by taking up a position as the Asia advisory board Member for the Carlyle Group, that is, until the board was disbanded in 2004.  He is presently a trustee of the ‘democracy promoting’ International Crisis Group, and is a patron of the related Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.  www.webofdemocracy.org/foundations-anthropology-an.html

10  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.141.

11  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.129.

12  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.141.

13  Kim Scipes, Email to Author, February 12, 2011.  For a must-read analysis of the post-Marcos developments in the Philippines, see Kim Scipes, “Review of the Month: Global Economic Crisis, Neoliberal Solutions, and the Philippines,” Monthly Review, 51 (7), December 1999, pp. 1-14.

Michael Barker is an independent researcher.  He blogs at <michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com>.  This article was first published in Jewbonics on 15 February 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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