For a “Third Reconstruction”: An Interview with Bill Fletcher, Jr.

As the 2016 electoral game here ratchets up to nasty polemics, the US media is mainly focused on the carnival atmosphere of the Republican Party candidates.  (The Democratic Party infighting is only now beginning to boil over.)  Meanwhile, the Obama administration, free from scrutiny, continues its airstrikes in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.  The refugee crisis in Europe reverberates only when framed in the context of terrorist threat such as the carnage in Paris and Brussels.  Except for Cuba, which Obama visited recently, and Syria, other peripheries of the Empire have been all but forgotten.

The Philippines, the only former Asian colony of the United States, is among those seldom remembered peripheries, synonymous only with Pacquiao the Boxer, Miss Universe 2015, or some terrifying natural disasters like Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan.  And despite over three million Pinays and Pinoys in the US — now the largest Asian-American group from a single country (unlike the Chinese who come from all over the world, not just China) — Filipinos tend to trail other Asians in their civic interventions, which are often reduced to wealthy Filipino doctors or businessmen trumpeting their tithes to local candidates.

During the years of the brutal Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986), in contrast, Filipinos were mobilized to join political rallies.  Younger Filipino-Americans were also radicalized by the anti-Vietnam War and Central America-solidarity movements.  But with the neoconservative resurgence, boosted by the 9/11 attacks, the old colonial mentality acquired over a half century of miseducation, called “American tutelage” by genteel academics, began to return.  The result: persistent underdevelopment, flagrant inequality, deep impoverishment of 75% of over 100 million peasants and workers, chronic corruption, and the ruling oligarchy’s inveterate subservience to Washington reminiscent of the Cold War.

The Philippines is once again an operational US neocolony.  While the US military bases were removed by strong nationalist protest in 1992, several hundred US Special Forces remain in the islands owing to mendacious executive agreements.  The local military and police remain dependent on US aid and supervision, following US foreign policy toward US enemies (China, North Korea, Russia).  Peace talks between the government and the communist-led insurgency have been stalemated (the US classified the communist New People’s Army as “terrorists”) while the various Muslim guerilla forces (often stigmatized as all “Abu Sayyaf” bandits by the foreign press) are paralyzed by reformist schemes offered by the US-backed elite.

About 4,000-5,000 Filipinos leave the country every day.  Subsisting on less than $2 a day, the majority are victimized by rapacious paramilitary groups and warlord gangs protecting multinational companies which plunder the land for minerals, lumber, and other resources.  Local compradors and semifeudal landlords act as accomplices.  The bloody March 30 dispersal of thousands of peaceful demonstrators by government troops in the starved rural corner of Kidapawan in southern Philippines follows a familiar pattern of violent repression, from the US campaign against the Huk peasant rebellion in the fifties, the Mendiola massacre of unarmed farmers by the Corazon Aquino administration in 1987, to the Hacienda Luisita murders by Benigno Aquino’s kin in 2004.

Perennially judged criminal by Amnesty International and international agencies, the US-backed oligarchy in the Philippines still enjoy impunity.  They live luxuriously amid continuing incidents of torture, detention, and killing of citizens demanding employment, decent housing, medical care, food and other forms of disaster relief, etc.  Hundreds of political prisoners languish in jail.  Politicians habitually raid the public treasury, earning the sobriquet of “bureaucrat capitalists.”  The courts are useless, chiefly serving the rich families of landlords and compradors.  Not a single official of the Marcos dictatorship has been tried and punished for ruthless human rights violations; impunity extends to his equally vicious successors.  No wonder over 11 million Filipinos in desperation have fled to find work abroad, escaping the murderous status quo and disavowing the accursed land of their birth.  (Their hard-earned currency remittances, however, ironically helps perpetuate the culture of impunity, not only keeping the economy afloat but also fuelling mindless consumerism and self-important slavishness to foreign fashions.)

Here in Washington, DC, most Filipinos I meet work as caregivers, domestics, and professionals in service industries (nurses, clerks, etc.), except a few of them who are here on special visas to take care of diplomatic families.  In DC as in other cities in the US, issues such as tenants’ rights, unemployment, voter registration imbroglios, drugs and police abuse function as symptoms of the historically rooted racial conflict hiding permanent class warfare.

In DC, too, the legacy of the sixties survives in the militancy of Black Lives Matter.  DC, after all, is less than an hour away from the still smoldering Baltimore battleground.  Discontent seethes everywhere in the US, visible in urban riots and demonstrations against police abuse, mass incarceration policy, and the prison-industrial complex geared to control organized rebellion.

Frustrated dreams of success amidst inequality on the other hand lure an increasing number of ordinary white folks to neofascist calls for white-supremacist authoritarianism, hence the right-populist appeal of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  Bernie Sanders has offered American voters a left-populist alternative to the Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton.  But the Establishment machinery of both parties has so far managed to maintain hegemonic control — though the phenomenal voter approval for Sanders’ program betokens a glimmer of hope for radical systemic change.

What do we make of this conjuncture of events?  Perhaps a comment from an experienced observer of the US political scene can clarify some of the hidden sociopolitical trends behind the largely pro-corporate bias of the mass media.  Having moved to DC recently, I was fortunate in encountering our old friend from Boston, Bill Fletcher, Jr.  In the seventies we were involved in diverse civil rights and anti-imperialist struggles.  We collaborated in educational campaigns about the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship, in support of the free labor union movement in the Philippines.  In 2012 he conducted an interview of Jose Maria Sison regarding the peace talks of the National Democratic Front and the Arroyo administration for AlterNet: Bill Fletcher, Jr., “Revolutionary Jose Maria Sison on US Imperialism and a Way Forward for the Philippines” (AlterNet, 22 January 2012).

Fletcher has been a well-honed activist since his youth.  Upon graduating from college, he worked as a welder in a shipyard and became involved in the labor movement.  Over the years he has been active in workplace and community struggles as well as electoral campaigns.  He was a senior staffperson (first Education Director and later Assistant to the President) in the national AFL-CIO, after which he became the president of TransAfrica Forum.  He is also an editorial board member of  He is co-author (with Peter Agard) of The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941; and (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice.  His most recent book is “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.  This interview took place in DC on April 3-5, 2016.

ESJ: What do you think is the prospect of any change in Washington’s policy toward the Philippines?

BF: I do not anticipate any changes in the near future in the absence of a movement on the ground in the USA that pushes the USA on foreign policy generally and the US-Philippines relationship in particular.  Frankly, the relationship is very comfortable for the USA and the ruling circles see no reason to change this.  The guerrilla war, led by the New People’s Army, seems to be stalemated and the government of the Philippines seems to be able to get away with tolerating (and promoting) human rights abuses against the popular movements.  The US media gives precious little attention to the democratic struggle in the Philippines.  Therefore, in order for a change to take place, there needs to be a broad movement built in the USA that is analogous to those built against US policy toward Central America and the US relationship with apartheid South Africa.

ESJ: And if Clinton succeeds Obama?

BF: There is very little incentive for Clinton to change policies.  If the Republicans get in, we should expect a further militarization of the conflict.  What may be especially dangerous, whether it is Clinton — should she receive the nomination — or any Republican, is the possibility that they might provoke a military confrontation with China, using as a pretext the territorial disputes between China and the Philippines.

ESJ: What is your sense of the US public’s understanding of foreign policy with regard to the Philippines in confrontation with China and other powers in the Asian region?

BF: The US public has very little sense of the Philippines or, for that matter, foreign policy.  Most foreign policy discussions in the USA focus on matters of Islamic terrorism or, periodically, the antics of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).  The US public neither understands the struggle for democracy in the Philippines nor the dispute with China.

ESJ: Do you foresee any change in the US public’s consciousness of the US imperial war on terror in the near future?

BF: Fear is a driving force in the USA and the fear of terrorism obscures so much of what is really at stake in matters of foreign policy.  In the recent nuclear conference held in the USA, for instance, much attention was focused on the possibility of terrorist groups getting nuclear materials and/or nuclear weapons.  The bulk of the US public does not see the “war against terror” as an imperial adventure, irrespective of whether they support or oppose the war against terror.  After 11 September 2001, the entire debate around US foreign policy shifted.

ESJ: Given the debate on tightening the borders, what is your opinion on the possible changes in immigration policy toward Filipinos and other Asians?

BF: Part of the answer depends on who wins the election and the balance in Congress.  But, in general, Filipino migrants are not perceived as a threat in the same way that Latinos have been demonized as a threat.  Part of this is the result of the nature of the occupations that Filipino migrants tend to occupy.  Yet, there is job competition, so no group of immigrants is exempt from ultimate demonization.  Ask Arabs.  Before 11 September 2001, many of them felt quite secure whether they were born in the USA or migrated here.

ESJ: Do you see any effect of Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic Party Establishment?  And of Trump’s disregard for the old Republican elite?

BF: We are in the midst of a complicated systemic crisis, at least at the political level.  There has been growing anger with the dysfunctionality of the system.  The challenges led by Sanders are exciting and progressive, though there is a tendency for Sanders to limit his narrative to matters of economics.  Increasingly he is speaking out on matters of foreign policy but he needs to be pushed.  The support for Trump and Cruz, however, comes from a combination of factors that include frustration, but also the declining living standard for many white Americans and their refusal to accept that the cause of this decline is not the result of Jews, immigrants, Blacks, women, etc., but that the problem resides with capitalism and the manner in which it is working.  To put it another way, white America looks at the crisis of US capitalism through the prism of racial lenses.  To paraphrase a slogan from the 1992 Presidential campaign, white America does not quite get that “it’s the system, stupid!” rather than any of the myriad scapegoats.

ESJ: Finally, what is your diagnosis of the crisis of the US empire in the next decades?  Would the Black Lives Matter movement develop into a larger mass movement that can challenge the corporate hegemony in the next five to ten years?

BF: To borrow from the late Dr. Manning Marable, we need a movement for a “Third Reconstruction.”  The first was 1865-1877.  The second, metaphorically, was the 1960s.  We need a third which really moves to expand democracy, take on racial and gender privileges, address the environmental crisis, and alter US foreign policy.  I do not think that this means that socialism is on the immediate agenda, though it is clear that socialism has risen in the polls recently.  The “Third Reconstruction” is a metaphoric way of referencing a popular-democratic movement that actually fights for power and introduces major structural reforms.  Movements such as Black Lives Matter, the immigrant rights movement, Occupy, etc. can all play a major role in the configuration of such a movement.  Yet, to build such a popular-democratic bloc, there will need to be a “political instrument,” to quote Marta Harnecker, that is, an organizational formation on the Left that helps to bring such a bloc into existence.  It will not happen on its own and it will not happen as simply a spontaneous reaction to increasing authoritarianism and right-wing populism.  It must be consciously advanced.  And, by the way, we are running out of time.

E. San Juan, Jr. was recently a fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University; emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University; and professorial lecturer at Polytechnic University of the Philippines.  Among his recent books are US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Palgrave), In the Wake of Terror (Lexington), and Between Empire and Insurgency (University of the Philippines Press).