Erap's Turn To Speak

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Time's May 29 article on Joseph Estrada [Acting Leader] set off a firestorm in the Philippines. For the past two weeks, the nation's leading columnists have been vigorously debating the article's strengths and weaknesses. Given the passions that the piece unleashed, we invited President Estrada to provide a personal view:Your article makes a big thing of my having slipped a thousand pesos (about $24) into the pocket of my helicopter pilot after an out-of-town sortie, as if that act were proof of presidential indiscretion--or worse, a damaged Filipino culture. I have done the same thing for countless others, all in the spirit of gratitude for service well rendered or genuine compassion for the less fortunate in life. I shall not apologize for this supposed flaw.Your story has cast aspersions on my person--and my competence to lead our nation--on the apparent premise that I have no right to be President because of my previous stints as a film actor and small town mayor. I am no great philosopher or policy wonk. I do not hide the fact that I am a college dropout. My family life is an open book. I have been transparent to my people, and my election to various public posts over the past three decades is an indication that they have accepted me--and continue to accept me--for what I am.In more than 30 years in public service, I have been swept to the post of mayor, senator, Vice President and now President on the crest of popular support from the masa, the Filipino masses. Alleviating, if not eventually eradicating, poverty in my struggling country is the least I can do to repay the people's trust. It is primarily for this reason that I take exception to Time's claim in the article that my government has neither a coherent vision for development nor a master plan for poverty eradication. I have created, and now chair, the multisectoral National Anti-Poverty Commission (napc), which implements our strategy to free 2 million Filipinos from poverty each year, or 10 million people by the time I step aside in 2004. To do this, napc has identified the 100 poorest of the poor families in every city and municipality of the country, each of whom will get a package of benefits including livelihood services, low-cost homes and social services like food subsidies, basic education and training and primary health care.Our poverty eradication agenda dovetails with my government's Medium Term Philippine Development Plan, which we have dubbed Angat Pinoy 2004. Far from having no coherent vision as Time's article claims, my administration aims to attain rapid growth with social equity by way of pushing six of the plan's priority concerns--basic social services like housing and health care; rural infrastructure; public infrastructure like power and telecommunications; reforms in governance; macroeconomic stability; global competitiveness of the domestic market.It was grossly inaccurate for Time to say that the current hostilities and hostage situation in Mindanao were marked by inept negotiations by my government. In the first place, the fragile peace in the southern Philippines was broken by violations of the cease-fire and criminal acts by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (milf). Government troops and I were merely responding to these illegal and violent acts in keeping with our constitutional duty to uphold law and order and defend our country's territorial integrity. I was not elected President in 1998 to oversee the dismemberment of our Republic. Sure, we want peace. But this has to be peace founded on sincerity and mutual trust. The door will always remain open to Muslim separatists and all other rebel groups, for that matter, who sincerely want to talk peace, to ultimately lay down their arms and return to mainstream society.As for the hostage standoff, your magazine would do well to bear in mind that the Philippines is as much a victim here as the other countries whose nationals were seized on Easter Sunday by Abu Sayyaf rebels from a Malaysian diving resort and brought to Sulu in the Philippines. The governments of the foreign hostages have separately given their full backing to the way my administration has been handling this problem. Various Muslim organizations here and abroad have also condemned the Abu Sayyaf for committing un-Islamic acts in abducting the civilians and, worse, torturing and beheading some of their Filipino captives.If we are not proceeding as fast in the negotiations as certain quarters want us to, it is only because of our policy to put a premium on the safety of the hostages. We are constantly in touch with the governments of the foreign captives, updating them on developments and assuring them that the safety of their nationals remains our paramount concern. In the meantime we have been working on the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to channel food, clothing and medicine to the hostages on a regular basis.But we are happy to inform your readers that we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Three developments bear us out: the resumption on May 30 in Cotabato City of peace talks between the government and the milf; the recent opening of formal discussions in Sulu between our negotiators and the Abu Sayyaf leadership on the release of the 21 mostly foreign hostages; the arrest last monthof, and subsequent filing of criminal charges against, milf elements believed to have been behind the Metro Manila bombings. Such positive news has reinvigorated our economy, leading last week to a stock market rebound and a relatively more stable peso against the dollar.Which brings us to the real state of Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines. Contrary to what Time portrayed in its special report, our country's economic rebound is on track. Moreover, international institutions and local business groups remain bullish on our growth prospects despite the Mindanao situation. In the first place, the hostilities are confined to a few barrios in a handful of areas that comprise not even 1% of the total land area of Mindanao. Hence, there is no war in the Philippines. The only war we have now is the total war that I launched against poverty at the start of my presidency. Moreover, the military has scored decisive victories against the rebels. Our troops have cleared the strategic Narciso Ramos Highway of rebels and overtaken various milf strongholds.The Mindanao problem is a temporary setback that we hope to overcome soon. Even international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, along with big business groups like Intel Corp., remain upbeat on the country's growth targets. The World Bank has even adjusted its growth forecast for the Philippines this year from its original estimate of 3.5%up to 4%. Your magazine could have presented a better economic picture of our country in the article if your reporters had only taken time out to get the views of the executives of America Online, which is set to become Time's new parent company and which has set up shop in our country.Let me categorically state that cronyism is dead on my watch. Your article played up the supposed return of cronyism under my presidency. But do you think foreign investors would take a second look at my country, let alone invest good money in it, if they believed that the playing field is rigged in favor of my supposed friends or political allies in the business community? Continuing investor confidence in our economy is the strongest evidence to the contrary.International institutions and big business players share our optimism over our growth prospects, apparently because of the strong macroeconomic fundamentals that have been set in place. Our economy rebounded last year on the back of the come-from-behind performance of our agriculture sector. Thanks to ample food supply, inflation has fallen to a 12-year low, despite the year-long series of fuel-price adjustments brought about by the global oil shock. Interest rates are less than 10%, down from double-digit levels in the previous administration. Unemployment has also declined; the government created more than 1 million jobs last year during the tail end of the Asian financial storm. Our gross international reserves have hit an all-time high of $16 billion, from less than $10 billion when I took over two years ago. Philippine exports also surged to a record $35 billion in 1999, boosting our projections to hit $50 billion by the end of my term. These rosy indicators point, we believe, to an economy on a dramatic rebound--certainly not what one would expect under a national leadership supposedly in disarray.Ours is a vibrant democracy patterned after that of the United States. It is a democracy conducive to a freewheeling press, an environment that has allowed a prestigious newsweekly like Time magazine to demonstrate its great tradition of fair and balanced reportage. But it is the same U.S.-style democracy that has imbued in us Filipinos faith in the equality of all citizens. It is these same ideals that have prompted me to aspire for--and reach--the highest post in the land regardless of my shortcomings. This I owe to my people and this I hope to repay by making the government truly work for them.