Birth pains in Duterte administration

Zoilo ‘Bingo’ Dejaresco IIIAS the war against drugs escalates, birth pains have been noted as prevailing in the new Duterte administration.

For instance, agriculture, the least contributor to local output or the GDP, has always stunted the rural areas where most agricultural activities thrive.

Lifting agriculture from the morass of decay, however, will likely remain only a lip service in the Duterte era if the antismuggling drive at the Bureau of Customs (BOC) remains anemic. Why? That’s because local producers and farmers can never hope to compete on price with the agricultural goods from abroad that do not pay tax.

Sinag, an activist agri-non-governmental organization, deplores that since 2010, when then-President Benigno S. Aquino took office up to the present, some P200 billion worth of agricultural products have been smuggled. That includes rice (P94 billion), pork (P40 billion) and sugar (P25 billion). The balance of some P40 billion covers smuggled chicken, vegetables and even spices.  No wonder the government estimates the BOC loses P300 million worth of revenues a day from smuggling.

Have we heard of smuggling arrests lately? Why not start with those granted quotas to import rice? Logic 101.

Next, there is mining. And for as long as activist environmentalist Department of Environment and Natural Resources chief Regina Paz L. Lopez holds sway, mining companies who ignore environmental warnings, debase the community and squirrel inordinate profits abroad will not see the light of day.

Black propaganda papers trying to soil Lopez’s mantle of rectitude are not going to work with President Duterte. No arm-twisting here, he says, as the country can do without mining. The issue of environmental preservation is non-negotiable in the Duterte regime.

Not even the humongous P6-billion Tampakan copper project associated with the world’s biggest will get past Lopez’s cutting scissors. As a result, some mining stocks at the Philippine Stock Exchange have tumbled to a fourth of their value from previous levels. But, so what?

Mining could we be a sunset industry now.

President Duterte, in the meantime, is a leader who aches to leave a legacy as a “peacemaker,” particularly in his being able to write finis to two decades-long rebellions: the NPA or National People’s Army and the Muslim secessionist movement.

When the Oslo-based communist leaders Luis Jalandoni, Jose Maria Sison and the RP-based Jesus Dureza/Silvestre Bello group took giant steps toward rebellion-ending talks, two violent groups apparently held no fealty and allegiance to their formal leaders’ wishes in Oslo.

In the midst of a cease-fire declared by the government, the rebels ambushed a government-Cafgu unit and separately threw a grenade to a passing-by tricycle, both incidents occurring in Davao, Duterte’s home turf, as if to taunt the President.

However, a joint GRP-NDF panel will declare a cease-fire before August 20, a new number on the peace talks target date.

Will the communists ever really change? Can one really erase the stripes of a tiger? People often ask.

Lately there have been efforts to actualize President Duterte’s pet project—the proposed change from unitary government to federal.

The idea of a constitutional convention (Con-con), which would gather “experts” on the subject matter from all over the country to craft a federal type of government as its avowed goal is dissipating.

In its stead, the current political wind, given the rather expensive price tag of P6 billion for a Con-con, blows towards convening Congress as a constitutional assembly (Con-ass) to decide on constitutional changes.

The danger with this is that people are now generally suspicious of anything that Congress spews out of its chambers touching on constitutional change.

There is, therefore, that high possibility that the Filipino nation, derisive of Congress, will vote down federalism, blessed by a Con-ass (ironic pun) during a resultant referendum.

We must note that a recent Pulse Asia survey showed more people (44 percent) disliking Charter change compared to only (37 percent) favoring it, with 19 percent undecided.

One might ask what is President Duterte without federalism? Would he be like a spurned suitor who puts everything on the line to get a “yes” only to get a “no” in the end? So what would be next, Mr. President?

Finally, there seems to be a shift in fiscal policy.

Whereas Aquino’s mantra was “we’d rather not spend the budget lest the money be corrupted,” underspending, thereby, became its middle name.

Added to this was the outlawing of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (congressional pork barrel) and the Executive’s Development Acceleration Program by the Supreme Court.

The Duterte administration is having none of that and will steamroll for a high 7-percent GDP growth or better, with government spending on gung-ho mode with all expenditure-barrels blazing.

We just have to make sure, however, that this fiscal tendency we shall baptize as “frenetic intemperance” does not lead to hastily conceived megaprojects that do not make socioeconomic sense but also do not pass the sieve of the gatekeepers like the Commission on Audit and the Ombudsman, post facto.

Do we really have the revenues—or are we back to debt-financed expansion—to funnel these ambitious economic growth goals?  And, more important, do our executive agencies and local government units truly have the “absorptive capacity” to plan and execute projects that address both the “poverty” and the “inequality” angles at the same time?

Birth pains are normally overlooked during the so-called 100 days of a new administration. But should we?

Bingo Dejaresco, a former banker, is a financial consultant, media practitioner and political strategist.

A life member of Finex, his views here are personal and donot necessarily reflect those of Finex.


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