These are strange days for America where its relations with friends and neighbours are concerned. We’ve had the unexpected ceasefire in the long-running feud with Cuba, Obama making veiled threats about the UK being at the back of the queue for US trade deals in the event of Brexit, Donald Trump’s awkward encounter with the Mexican President following months of negative Mexican stereotyping by the tiny-handed gobshite, and now the incumbent resident of the White House being called a ‘Son of a Whore’ by the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.
The outspoken leader of the Philippines has previous – applying the same insult to the Pope a few months back and adding ‘gay’ to his favourite catchphrase when aiming it at US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg. But it was aiming it (minus the ‘gay’ part) at President Obama that has caused the cancellation of a planned meeting in Laos this week between the two, in which Obama stated he would raise the tricky topic of the 2,000-plus lives lost in the Philippines’ state-sponsored ‘war on drugs’, provoking Duterte’s outburst. One wonders if Donald Trump has been basing his own charm offensive on the main man in Manila.
After 300 years as a province of the Spanish Empire, the Philippines wrestled itself free of Spanish rule in 1899 and proclaimed a Republic. However, the Pacific island was then caught-up in US interest in the region, following the Spanish-American War of 1898 – one of the endless conflicts the USA has been involved in for the majority of its existence. Capitalising on the vulnerable and diminishing remnants of Spain’s ancient colonial possessions, the US supported Cuban rebellions against Spanish sovereignty in the late nineteenth century and went to war with the fading European power for ten weeks, a demonstration of America’s imperialist expansionism that resulted in Spanish surrender and the Treaty of Paris. With Spain suing for peace, the ball was in the USA’s court and the Treaty of Paris handed over the likes of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the Americans.
The short-lived independent republic that the Philippines proclaimed after overthrowing the Spanish was brutally crushed by the US in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, and the imperial plaything that the Treaty of Paris had ceded to America became the colony of a foreign power again. After hypocritically lecturing Britain for years on the need to grant independence to its own colonies, the US officially surrendered the Philippines in 1946, a year before the British exited India, though this was largely a consequence of the Japanese occupation of the nation from 1942-45. The US promised the Filipino people independence once the Japanese were evicted, and the US kept its word – after between 500,000 and 1,000,000 had died under Japanese rule, not to mention the thousands of Filipino girls and women the Japanese had used as ‘Comfort Women’, a euphemism for sex slaves.
There was an inevitable catch when independence came. The terms of this independence were heavily balanced in America’s favour, with dozens of US military bases remaining as well as legislation granting American corporations access to exploit the Philippines’ natural resources, turning an American colony into an American satellite state. As with the Soviet Union, once the US got its claws into a country, it stayed put. The American Empire of which Gore Vidal wrote – in the writer’s eyes, a betrayal of the original intentions of the post-British US Republic – was never more evident than in the way America controlled the fortunes of the Philippines, with the possible exception of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
That a ruthless tin-pot dictator such as Ferdinand Marcos could be allowed to oversee a regime marked by human rights violations, state censorship and suppression of political rivals yet still be backed by the US speaks volumes. As long as he wasn’t a Commie, he could clearly do whatever the hell he liked – the example of Batista in Cuba had already shown that an inhumane regime would be tolerated while ever it danced to America’s tune.
Even The Beatles were on the receiving end of Marcos’s rule when they were essentially thrown out of the Philippines after turning down an invitation to dine with the President and his shoe-fetish wife Imelda during their strained 1966 tour of the Far East. A decade of Martial Law and the 1983 assassination of Marcos’s nemesis Benigno Aquino Jr upon his arrival back in the Philippines after a period of exile eventually sealed Marcos’s fate – though it’s telling that, rather than stand trial for his crimes, he was allowed to settle in Hawaii upon his abdication in 1986.
In recent years, the Philippines has built bridges with its wartime occupier Japan, has retained relatively good relations with is former colonial overlord Spain, and has also overcome its one-time hostilities towards China – though something has changed where America is concerned. Ironically, the man who was elected Filipino President just a couple of months ago has the kind of pedigree the US would once have vigorously endorsed: linked to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad, cited as responsible for the extrajudicial murders of alleged drug dealers, the very issue Obama sought to raise in the aborted Laos meeting with Duterte. Yet, despite past support for America during the Cold War and the War on Terror, the servant would appear to be finally standing up to its long-time master.
With the newly installed and unpredictable President Duterte at the helm, American-Filipino relations seem poised to enter a new and unprecedented phase. ‘I am no American puppet,’ he declared before making his unsavoury insinuations as to Obama’s maternal parentage. How long this rather reckless antagonism will last remains to be seen; but as Duterte has threatened to withdraw his country from the UN and form an alliance with China and various unnamed African nations, we may perhaps be seeing the beginnings of a drift away from American influence after more than a century, and genuine independence at last – albeit with another nutter calling the shots.
© The Editor