Critics say Arroyo stokes sense of crisis
By Bruce Wallace | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
MANILA — There are moments during these days of worry over soaring international food prices when it appears that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is out to solve her country’s rice shortages on her own.
Arroyo seems to be everywhere: convening a national food summit one day, appearing on television the next to tout the nutritional value of “pan de sal,” buns made with cheap flour that she wants poor Filipinos to eat as a substitute for rice.
Her vow to crack down on “rice and bread bandits” has turned her into the nation’s food sheriff. She showed up to personally inspect a Manila warehouse, where police seized thousands of bags of rice being hoarded in anticipation of higher prices. And she dragged the news media along to a customs office, where she badgered officials into filing charges against suspected flour smugglers.
The furious pace reflects Arroyo’s awareness that rice is not just a food but also a political commodity in a country of 91 million, where large swaths of the population live on the margins of hunger. But critics say the president’s hyper-activism is instead stoking a sense of crisis that leads to greater hoarding and pushes prices higher.
“This is all showmanship from the president,” said Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former armed forces chief of staff who accuses Arroyo of “eroding confidence in public institutions.”
“She’s working really hard, but trying to look busy has unintended negative consequences,” said Benjamin Diokno, secretary of budget and management under the previous government of President Joseph Estrada and now an economics professor at the University of the Philippines.
“When she asks people to switch to other foods, it’s a sign of panic,” he said.
The president’s office dismissed those criticisms, saying Arroyo always has been a “hands-on president.”
But Arroyo’s credibility has been badly compromised by widespread corruption allegations against her government, creating a well of mistrust that inhibits her ability to rally the country to her policies, opponents say.
Given the food crisis, the most damaging allegations may be the still-unresolved charges made by a Senate committee investigating the disappearance of $15 million from the Agriculture Ministry fund intended to buy fertilizer for farms. The Senate says farmers went without fertilizer while the money was diverted to Arroyo’s 2004 re-election campaign, a charge she denies.
But her opponents have invoked the so-called fertilizer scam to question Arroyo’s sincerity about improving agricultural production.
“People really distrust her and they see through this drama she’s creating,” Diokno said. “In the queues to buy cheap government rice, they’re cursing her.”
For Arroyo, the prospect of soaring food prices has personal overtones. She was a teenager when her father, Diosdado Macapagal, was defeated in his 1965 re-election bid for the presidency, succumbing to unrest caused by rice shortages that he was powerless to control.
That election was seared into the consciousness of the candidate who defeated him: Ferdinand Marcos.
“Marcos was more afraid of a rice crisis than of the communist insurgency, and back then, that was saying something,” said Francisco Tatad, who was Marcos’ information minister.
“After that election, Marcos made sure that supply was there,” Tatad said. “He never took a chance with rice.”
Los Angeles Times