I HAVE been to some Latin American countries since the 1980s and have found a certain affinity with their people. It is perhaps because we were all once colonies of Spain: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Argentina. The Spanish language was the glue tying these countries together — except Brazil, a colony of Portugal — but still imbued with the Latin temperament — which at best is an accepted but nebulous concept nevertheless.

My previous trips to Argentina were all work-related. But my umpteenth trip — this time with my wife Sylvia, her first — was purely for pleasure, renewing ties with good and true friends of almost three decades. I am seeing the country therefore in a more intimate light, overwhelmed by its vastness, the richness of its culture, the range of its climate, from the tropical north to the arid and temperate middle to the cold south polar regions and, more importantly, the resilience and contradictions of its people. It is said among the Argentinians that “when God created the world, he made Argentina what it is, vast, beautiful, resource-rich and diverse. Others were envious, upon which God to appease those resentful ones decided to populate it with an appropriate race — Argentinians.” Perhaps to level the playing field with His other creations.

Freedom from Spain
Argentina was a colony of Spain for 294 years from 1516, ending with the revolution of May of 1810, and eventual declaration of independence on July 9, 1816. The Federal Republic of Argentina was formed 45 years later. It has come out from under Spain’s skirts to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Being exempted from the ravages of the First and Second World Wars, the new republic thrived and, beginning circa 1910, became known not only as a European city in Latin America but behaved like one.

The rise of Argentina as a world economy was propelled by consistent liberal economic policies starting from 1880 and to the opening of its borders to a wave of European immigrants, this fresh blood catapulting the economy to new economic heights. Infrastructure was developed, railroads and subways were built, and public parks, museums and amphitheaters were established — all these are still evident today. Its growth, by current standards was phenomenal and, by 1908, it ranked seventh among the wealthiest developed nations, after Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Belgium.

Cultural flowering
It was during this period, too, that a cultural flowering occurred, nurtured by a then-radical concept of a public, free and compulsory secular education, prompting an increase in literacy rates and influencing other Latin American countries. This was perhaps the golden age of Argentina. For one, the emergence of the passionate yet erotic tango came into the scene, with the poetry and songs of Carlos Gardel accompanied by the eerie cries and lamentations of Anibal Troilo and Astor Piazzolla’s bandoneon. The charming complexity of the tango defined Argentina’s character.

In Buenos Aires, the capital, one can see traces of Paris, London and Rome in its architecture. Their main boulevard, Nueve de Julio could be compared to the Champs-Élysées of Paris, a broad avenue with shops on both sides with its own equivalent to the Arc de Triomphe or the La Place de l’Étoile. The Obelisk of Buenos Aires was erected at the Plaza de la Republica in 1936, commemorating the 400 years of the city’s first foundation.

But all good things must end, it seems. As in a similar piece I wrote on this column last week on the decline of the Roman Empire, its actual rise was nebulous, but its end certain. Argentina’s ascent in Latin America and among the world’s first economies could not be sustained, and this trend from the 1880 was reversed, beginning in the late 1920s. The seeds of populism began to germinate and at a time when the Great Depression was coming to a head, Argentina’s government accelerated its march towards a populist-propelled welfare state. Government enacted social and economic reforms extending assistance and subsidies to small farmers and businesses — policies the government could ill-afford.

A series of coups d’état by the military divided the nation, precipitating an economic and social decline that put the country virtually back to square one —this while the world was wracked by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

At this point, a charismatic leader emerged — Juan Domingo Peron, a former minister of welfare who was popular with the workers and the poor. With his equally popular wife, the enigmatic Evita, the tandem embarked on the creation of a political movement that would serve the interests of this motley clientele. As in the beginning of any welfare state, government policies are directed toward the immediate gratification of populist demands — not minding the cost — postponing the inevitable consequences of political acts. Thus, wages and working conditions were improved, nationalizing and putting under control strategic industries and services by Peron’s cronies, the better to control the dispensing of government largesse. Standing by Peron’s side, Evita persuaded Congress to give the vote to the womenfolk and was extremely generous with government funds for the poor and needy. She was projected as an angel to the downtrodden and he could do no wrong. But she died early of cancer, and he did things wrong indeed.

He was eventually ousted, but his and Evita’s concern for the poor, however questionable, metamorphosed into a ghost that propelled the growth of the Peronistas, a populist movement. But the poor were not the exclusive domain of the Peronistas. There were other claimants vying for political power that eventually drove the right-wing dictatorship to employ state terrorism now labeled as the “Guerra Sucia,” or the Dirty War. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 left-wing activists and militants, students, trade unionists and Peronistas were killed.

This was part of the military-led National Reorganization Process (Proceso), a euphemism for succeeding juntas that further condemned the economy to stagnation. The last military dictator, Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri blundered into invading the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) simply to divert the Argentinians from the economic crisis and regain his waning popularity. The British crushed the invasion. Argentina surrendered. Rioting in Buenos Aires ensued, the military was humiliated and Galtieri resigned.

Argentina, purported to be a federal republic with independent and autonomous states, was always run as a unitary government with powers controlled from the center — Buenos Aires. Perhaps this is the root problem of the country — the traditional politicians have captured the tools and institutions of the state and have gone rogue. Corruption in the highest levels of government flourished.

The subsequent economic blunders by President Carlos Menem pegging the Argentinian peso to one-on-one with the American dollar was political hubris. Today, hawkers at the pedestrian Florida street in Buenos Aires will exchange your $1 for P62; and interest rates charged by banks to businesses could reach 70 percent annually. You could, of course, invest in the money market at 54 percent per annum return. But would you?

And if this is not resolved, Argentina will continue in its slide. And, I’m afraid — Argentinians will cry for Argentina.
The Senate President crowed yesterday that the party he nominally coheads, PDP-Laban, has a “pleasant problem” — too many potential senatorial candidates. Koko Pimentel’s estimate is they have up to 20 possible choices for the 12-person slate for the 2019 senatorial race. But his list includes the five administration-affiliated senatorial incumbents up for reelection next year. This is a group that has made noises that, much as it prefers to remain in the administration camp, it is unhappy with the way PDP-Laban has been designating its local leaders and candidates, and therefore prefers to strike out on its own, perhaps in alliance with the other administration (regional) party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, headed by the President’s daughter and current Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte.

Setting aside, then, the five-person “Force,” the administration-oriented but not PDP-friendly reelectionists (Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and JV Ejercito), what Koko’s crowing over is a mixed bag. Some of them have been floated by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (with whom Mayor Duterte clashed in recent months): six representatives (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is in her last term in the House of Representatives; Albee Benitez, Karlo Nograles, Rey Umali, Geraldine Roman, and Zajid Mangudadatu), three Cabinet members (Bong Go, Harry Roque, and Francis Tolentino), and two other officials (Mocha Uson and Ronald dela Rosa), which still only adds up to 11 possible candidates (who are the missing three?).

Of all of these, the “Force” reelectionists are only fair-weather allies of the present dispensation; their setting themselves apart is about much more than the mess PDP-Laban made in, say, San Juan where support for the Zamoras makes it extremely unattractive for JV Ejercito to consider being in the same slate. Their cohesion is about thinking ahead: Creating the nucleus for the main coalition to beat in the 2022 presidential election. The contingent of congressmen and congresswomen who could become candidates for the Senate, however, seems more a means to kick the Speaker’s rivals upstairs (at least in the case of Benitez and Arroyo) and pad the candidates’ list with token but sacrificial candidates, a similar situation to the executive officials being mentioned as possible candidates (of the executive officials, only Go seems viable, but making him run would deprive the President of the man who actually runs the executive department, and would be a clear signal that the administration is shifting to a post-term protection attitude instead of the more ambitious system-change mode it’s been on, so far).

Vice President Leni Robredo has been more circumspect, saying she’s not sure the Liberal Party can even muster a full slate. The party chair, Kiko Pangilinan, denied that a list circulating online (incumbent Bam Aquino, former senators Mar Roxas, Jun Magsaysay, TG Guingona, current and former representatives Jose Christopher Belmonte, Kaka Bag-ao, Edcel Lagman, Raul Daza, Gary Alejano and Erin Tañada, former governor Eddie Panlilio and Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña) had any basis in fact.

What both lists have in common is they could be surveys-on-the-cheap, trial balloons to get the public pulse. Until the 17th Congress reconvenes briefly from May 14 to June 1 for the tail end of its second regular session (only to adjourn sine die until the third regular session begins on July 23), it has nothing much to do. Except, that is, for the barangay elections in May, after a last-ditch effort by the House to postpone them yet again to October failed.

Names can be floated but the real signal will come in July, when the President mounts the rostrum and calls for the big push for a new constitution—or not. Connected to this would be whether the Supreme Court disposes of its own chief, which would spare the Senate—and thus, free up the legislative calendar—to consider Charter change instead of an impeachment trial. In the meantime, what congressmen do seem abuzz over is an unrefusable invitation to the Palace tomorrow — to mark Arroyo’s birthday. An event possibly pregnant with meaning.
“Then I fall to my knees, shake a rattle at the skies and I’m afraid that I’ll be taken, abandoned, forsaken in her cold coffee eyes.” – A quote from the song, “She moves on” by Paul Simon, singer/songwriter

THE recent tremors affecting the central provinces of Mindanao caused by a series of seismic waves radiating to the northern and southern parts of the island, were like nature shaking a rattle, emitting sharp sounds and unnerving motions from the underground, both frightening and bewildering as to the intensity and confusion they generated.

The successive earthquakes and aftershocks were rattling the nerves not only of residents close to the epicenter but also those living along the active fault planes who were not used to strong earth movements. Some reported dizziness, anxiety, depression and other post-traumatic stress symptoms after experiencing continuous shaking and periodic vibrations.

As this article was written, less frequent but perceptible tremors were felt on the affected areas although everyone is reportedly bracing for aftershocks which many hope and pray, would not turn out to be the dreaded “big one,” as some irresponsible persons are falsely posting on social media. Shake a rattle drum to this latter blokes.

According to Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), since the 1900s, Mindanao has been rocked by at least 35 earthquakes, three of which, felt at “Intensity 7” or worse, were deemed destructive: the 1976 Moro Gulf earthquake which caused a tsunami reaching up to nine meters that killed about 8,000 people including the unaccounted ones; the 1999 series of earthquakes in Agusan del Sur damaging roads, and poorly constructed schools and infrastructure; and the Sultan Kudarat earthquake in 2002, killing eight people with 41 others injured and affecting over seven thousand families in the provinces of Sarangani, North and South Cotabato (Rappler 2019). Shake a rattle of prayers for all who perished in these tragedies.

The series of earthquakes in October of this year, just weeks apart, with magnitudes of over 6 hitting many provinces, again, in Cotabato and southern parts of Davao accounted for the death toll of 22, damaging homes, school buildings and many infrastructure, shaking and sending chills to many residents who have to deal with continuing albeit smaller tremors which can be felt as far up the city of Cagayan de Oro and down the southern province of Sarangani.

Some local officials reported residents having developed “earthquake phobia” keeping watch on their clock hanging inside their tents in evacuation sites, losing sleep with anxiety awaiting when the next tremor would be coming. With frayed nerves, some would panic over even slight ground shakings.

But this is not about the temblor as much as the response of people and the country’s leaders and responsible officials. Except for the government of China which donated P22 million in aid and support for relief efforts in Mindanao, hurray for China, other foreign countries just expressed condolences and messages of sympathy to families of victims. No pledges, no assistance. Perhaps, they can’t trust our government agencies to do the job for them anymore. To them, a shake of the baby rattle.

To the initial bunch of donors who immediately come with their financial assistance such as Yorme Isko Moreno of Manila with his P5 million personal money, Mayor Vico Sotto with relief goods and P14 million coming from the people of Pasig City, Mayor Marcy Teodoro of Marikina with 100 modular tents, movie star Angel Locsin who moved about sans fanfare for her charity work offering food and other assistance to victims in Davao and North Cotabato, to Mayor Inday Duterte for relief distribution, Cebu provincial government for disaster relief campaign and to the many nameless others who came with their relief aids, shake a rattle of joy and thankfulness for their kindness and generosity.

To our government officials and politicians goes our appeal to set aside politics, distribute the relief items according to the wishes of their donors and not allow goods to rot because of political colors as was shown in the previous administration’s handling of donated goods. To them, shake a rattle of enlightenment and peace.

In whatever disaster or crisis that befalls the country, trust Filipinos’ resiliency and coping mechanisms such as resorting to prayers and humor to come to their succor.

Social media become a natural venue for memes, practical jokes and bantering such as the ones which came after Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy reportedly claimed that he caused to stop the earthquakes so they can no longer create damage. To everyone, shake a rattle of laughter and fun while we help provide for the needs of our less fortunate brethren in Cotabato and Davao provinces.