AT the Batasang Pambansa yesterday, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo delivered the official state of the nation address (SONA). Outside on Commonwealth Avenue, about 7,000 citizens gathered for the unofficial, if possibly more candid, version they call the “People’s SONA.”
While Arroyo harped on progress and achievements, the rallyists carped about regress and her administration’s poor performance in many areas.
As early as 9 a.m., throngs of rallyists from various sectors hurling anti-Arroyo placards and banners gathered in front of the Ever Gotesco Mall and marched toward Capitol Estates near St. Peter’s Church in Quezon City.
One of the protesters, Janine Tenorio, 44, came with her husband and five children. “Nandito kami hindi lang para sa pamilya namin. Lahat na kasi damang-dama ang krisis (We’re not here for our family alone. The crisis has fallen upon everyone.)”
Arroyo, says Tenorio, couldn’t seem to grasp the real situation of the Filipino masses. “Bigas, gasolina, mahal na lahat. Wala na yatang mura ngayon (Rice, oil, everything’s expensive. Nothing’s cheap anymore.)”
In her 57-minute SONA, Arroyo declared that, “because tough choices were made, the global crisis did not catch us helpless and unprepared.”
In her view, Arroyo acknowledged that the crisis has hit the nation but that thanks to the “foresight, grit and political will” of her government, “we built a shield around our country that has slowed down and somewhat softened the worst effects of the global crisis.”
“We have the money to care for our people and pay for food when there are shortages; for fuel despite price spikes,” Arroyo had said.
To Carol Araullo, chairperson of the multi-sectoral alliance Bagong Alysansang Makabayan (BAYAN), Arroyo cannot keep blaming the global recession for the country’s problems. In this context, Araullo says Arroyo’s SONA “adds insult to injury” and sounds like “a pack of lies.”
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo, one of five congressmen who boycotted Arroyo’s SONA, points out that it is Arroyo’s “canine devotion” to multilateral instruments and U.S. President George W. Bush that “has deprived the economy of any defensive shield and flexibility to withstand the impact of the recurring crisis worldwide.”
“Gloria Arroyo cannot evade blame for the dire state of the nation by pointing to external causes as culprits,” asserts Ocampo, the House deputy minority leader.
BAYAN Secretary-General Renato Reyes describes Arroyo’s SONA as “out of this world, out of touch with reality.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. She’s saying we’re doing well, that we survived, but this is not the scenario,” Reyes adds.
Arroyo has defended the controversial Expanded Value-Added Tax (E-VAT) law, amid popular calls for its revocation, in her SONA. “Take VAT away and you and I abdicate our responsibility as leaders and pull the rug from under our present and future progress, which may be compromised by the global crisis,” she had said.
This reasoning, Reyes observes, shows that Arroyo “is obsessed with taxation.” But instead of helping the poor, the taxes collected, he notes, mainly support “debt servicing, extravagant government expenses such as her foreign trips, plus corruption.”
Araullo intones: “Hindi naman kasi bumabalik sa tao ang binabayaran nilang buwis (The tax people pay [in terms of social services] doesn’t go back to them.)”
Arroyo bannered in her SONA a new initiative she called the National Social Welfare Program, which supposedly aggregates the pro-poor projects of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Health (DOH), Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), and the Social Security System (SSS).
Even this program finds no believer in Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño who insists that the President must implement not only short-term but also long-term measures to alleviate poverty. In particular, he submits that Arroyo must focus lifting the VAT on oil, regulating the oil industry, and pushing for food self-sufficiency.
Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luz Ilagan, for her part, calls Arroyo’s SONA “full of empty promises” even as on the ground, the people’s socioeconomic conditions have worsened under Arroyo.
Rep. Liza Maza, also of Gabriela, says she disapproves of Arroyo’s subsidies and doleouts, adding that these have failed to sugarcoat worsening hunger and poverty.
“Hunger mitigation programs and subsidies that President Arroyo showcase in her SONA provide no solution, not even relief,” Maza explains. “Long-term policies toward genuine agrarian reform and agricultural development, job creation and a national policy for health care and education should be pursued.”
To Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano, Arroyo must assign priority to economic relief measures to help cushion the impact of the rising commodity prices. Mariano referred to the P125 wage hike and the P3,000 salary increase for government employees, and the passage of House Bill 3059 to institute “Genuine Agrarian Reform in the Country.”
This bill, he says, would help attain food self-sufficiency by breaking up land monopoly, distributing lands for free to the landless farmers, which will thereby launch the agricultural sector’s thoroughgoing development.
Various groups performed song and dance numbers between the stinging speeches. Minutes to the start of the official SONA, an effigy of Arroyo that was hung on to a huge paper airplane designed to resemble the U.S. flag, was set on fire. By dusk, the “People’s SONA” came to a close.
Quezon City police chief, Col. Magtanggol Gatdula, says the day turned out to be “generally peaceful” despite a little incident with members of AKBAYAN, which hosted a separate protest rally.
The SONAs are done but BAYAN’s Araullo says it was not the end of protest actions for the militants. “It takes a lot of organizing to do especially during these hard times, but we’ll keep it up and convince more groups to join.”