Swimming in unfinished roads

After hearing President Aquino’s reference to the inordinate amounts of calamity and public works funds allotted to Pampanga, particularly its second district, the rest of the country will probably think what a privileged tribe the Kapampangans have been under their cabalen, the former President and now Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  All I can say is that excess can be as much a curse as scarcity itself.  When the floods start coming in this year, the residents of Pampanga’s second district will be swimming literally in unfinished roads.

I grew up and studied in this place. Except for the church and the school, the landscape has been transformed beyond recognition.  Little that is familiar remains.  Progress has come but it has been uneven, leaving behind grotesqueries and superfluities from which one cannot draw any meaning.  As in almost every town in the rest of our country, these places of our childhood no longer serve as markers of identity or memory.  The only story they tell is the vicious opportunism and corruption of local officials, and the benign neglect of citizens.

At a recent reunion with my high school classmates, the conversation turned to the streets of Guagua and what has happened to them.  In 2009, at around the same time that Ms Arroyo began her weekly visits to her father’s hometown Lubao (mainly to establish electoral residence, as it turned out), public works projects started to pour into the six towns of the second district.  Existing streets were overturned, and in their place, workers dumped truckloads of gravel and sand, forming what looked like dikes at first glance.  It became clear that the streets were being rebuilt to a level dwarfing the houses on both sides. The frenetic construction buried the existing drainage canals and left rain water to collect and stagnate in the surrounding homes.

One Guagua resident sent me a set of photos depicting the triumph of politicized public works over commonsense and community participation. These photographs constitute a powerful documentation and indictment of thoughtless waste.  The photos show neighborhoods bisected by a Berlin Wall-type structure towering over homes, and blocking the view from living rooms. They show residents having to climb up the elevated street from their boxed-in houses using improvised ladders.  The roads, by the way, are unfinished. They were rushed before the election ban kicked in, with the promise that they would be completed after the election.  The affected residents were not consulted.  It was as if heaven misheard their prayer for roads and overnight dumped all the available concrete on their communities.

The unstated element in all this, of course, is the familiar “S-O-P” – the portion that is creamed off from public works projects and goes to graft. The problem is no different from the rotting supplies that result from the deliberate excessive importation of rice which President Aquino alluded to in his Sona. In such instances, government acts not so much to fill a need as to create the occasion for graft.  When this happens, scarce public funds that would have gone to meet the most pressing needs are instead allocated to heavily politicized projects and programs that are conceived precisely to provide the widest opportunity for corruption.

This has been the system of governance under Ms Arroyo in the last nine years.  It is what made it possible for her to secure unconditional loyalty from favored local government officials, high-ranking military and police officials, bureaucrats, justices, and legislators.  What she could not command because of her lack of a political and moral mandate, she obtained through the remunerative powers of the presidency.  In a real sense, we were ruled by a mafia that had full control of the public coffers, dispensing funds to buy support, and using our laws and institutions as coercive tools against critics.

That era has come to an end.  But the period of rebuilding is just starting. We need honest and competent people to replace those who participated and benefited from the looting of government.  But, more important, we need to rebuild our institutions. What this means basically is reviving the rules, restoring transparency, and checking arbitrariness in decisionmaking.  If finding the right people to serve in government is hard, this is going to be even tougher.  For, it will require no less than the dismantling of an entire culture of corruption that served the purposes of a patronagedriven political system, but was completely antithetical to the nation’s longterm development.

This brings us back to the realities of our political system.  It is, as we know, a system of political domination that rests more on coercion and patronage than on the rule of law.  In this regard, our political system is perhaps closer to the Ampatuan mode of rule in Maguindanao than to the democratic system outlined in our Constitution.  A modern democracy draws its legitimacy solely from the citizens’ free exercise of their rights and responsibilities. What this requires, at the minimum, is the emancipation of the majority from the restraints created by absolute poverty.  This remains an unmet ideal.

Be that as it may, the last election gave us a president we can trust. Though it hardly touched the old power structure, it is a good start. The first business of the day should be to unite the whole nation and put an end to the divisive practice of favoring one region over another.  As a Kapampangan myself, I am not proud or happy to be swimming in roads we do not need.