Monday, April 21, 2008

Gloria, Eva and Juan

PerryScope: by Perry Diaz

The recent trips of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to rural areas doling out goodies to the poor reminds of me of Eva Peron during the reign of her husband, Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Eva Peron -- affectionately called "Evita" by Argentina's descamisados, the "shirtless ones" -- became popular with the poor Argentines. She could have been the next President after her husband. But fate was not kind to her for she succumbed to cancer at the young age of 33.

Born poor and out of wedlock, Eva's rise to power has been the subject of historians. But one thing that most historians would seem to agree on is that Eva was very much part of Peron's authoritarian style of government called Peronism. The workers and the poor were his base of support; however, it was the popular Eva who was credited for getting their support for Peron.

In 1948, Eva created the Eva Peron Foundation which she funded with 10,000 pesos from her personal funds. The foundation collected donations from workers' unions and private businesses. Within a few years its assets grew to more than three billion pesos -- or about US$200 million at that time. The foundation employed 14,000 workers including 26 priests. It distributed hundreds of thousands of shoes, sewing machines, cooking pots, and other household items. It gave scholarships to the poor and built homes and hospitals. Her supporters called her "Santa Evita." However, her critics accused her of using the foundation to divert government money into private Swiss bank accounts controlled by her and Peron.

In 1951, Peron was reelected with the help of Eva and her 500,000-member Peronist Feminist Party. It was the first time that women were allowed to vote in Argentina. On May 7, 1952, the Argentine Assembly, which was controlled by Peronistas, gave Eva the official title of "Spiritual Leader of the Nation." She carried that title until her death on July 26, 1952.

Peron, who was first elected President in 1946, was beset with problems during his second term. High-level corruption, economic problems, and conflict with the Roman Catholic Church had a destabilizing effect on his government. Once one of the top 10 richest countries in the world, its agricultural exports substantially decreased due to the conversion of agricultural lands for industrial use.

In June 1955, anti-Peronists staged a coup d'etat using navy planes. However, the coup failed. That same year, the Roman Catholic Church withdrew its support of Peron's government for a variety of reasons including the enactment of the controversial divorce law. When Peron expelled two Catholic priests, Pope Pius XII excommunicated him. On September 16, 1955, Peron was ousted by an Army-Navy coup. He escaped to Paraguay and then moved to Panama. He eventually settled in Spain under the protection of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

The new Argentine government conducted an investigation into the corruption in the Peron regime. Of the more than 1,000 suspects, 314 cases were filed in the courts. A government investigation revealed a web of corruption from the top all the way down to the lowest level in the bureaucracy.

The TIME magazine issue of December 19, 1956 said that "Peron did his mother-in-law out of half of her bequest from the late Eva Peron, then with medieval flourish had Evita's brother, Juan Duarte, killed because he knew too much." Cronies of Peron profited immensely. In April 1956, the government investigation was abruptly ended without prosecuting anyone. It was believed that the reason for ending the investigation prematurely was that some people being investigated were in the new government.

It's interesting to note that there seem to be similarities between Gloria Arroyo and Eva and Juan Peron. Like Eva, Gloria has been projecting herself as "pro-poor." Whenever there is a calamity, Gloria would be there doling out relief goods to the people. At a recent trip to a barrio, Gloria addressed the rice shortage by invoking the Virgin Mary to perform a "miracle" to feed the poor. That's the Eva Peron in her.

On the other hand, there's the Juan Peron in her. Behind the walls of Malacanang and shielded by "executive privilege," Gloria has built -- as Romulo Neri has told Senators Ping Lacson and Jamby Madrigal -- an intricate web of corruption that permeated at all levels of her government. Neri also disclosed that Gloria's cronies -- he called them "oligarchs" -- controlled the Philippines' major industries. Like Juan Peron, Gloria's failed economic policies are causing havoc in the country. Like Juan Peron, Gloria is encouraging the conversion of agricultural (rice) land to other land use; thus, increasing the country's dependency on imported rice. Like Peron, her government reeks with corruption.

Recently, a Pulse Asia survey showed Gloria as the most corrupt president in the history of the Philippines. In another survey, by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), the Philippines was tagged as having the most corrupt economy in Asia. What an inglorious distinction: Most Corrupt President, Most Corrupt Economy.

The looming rice crisis in the Philippines would be Gloria's biggest challenge in her political life. While the people may not be too concerned with corruption in high places, hunger is the one that would surely hurt them the most. With her lucky streak of surviving coups, impeachment, and a series of corruption scandals, the question is: Would she survive a food crisis?

Recently, she approved a request from the military to sell government-subsidized rice to soldiers, veterans and their dependents at a price lower than that paid by civilians. Gloria knows that her staying in power is contingent on the military's loyalty. She wants to make sure that the military remains loyal to her… at all cost. The last thing she wants to see happen are hungry -- and angry -- soldiers.