Chance Of A Lifetime

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I start the year with a greater resolve to build in tune with people of like-spirit who see 2014 as the year of reconstruction. There will be serious distractions, I am sure, as Filipinos have finally found the impetus for change long evaded. My distractions will be somebody else’s advocacy, and change demands both dismantling and rebuilding. I will fasten my seat belts, tightly.

To those who care to listen, strengthen your resolve, too. 2014 will not be a walk in the park. The political upheaval that began in social media will be fed by more of the same. Corruption of decades that had never been effectively uprooted will expose more of its ugly transactions in every branch of government, in almost all departments. Many forget that there are two former Filipino presidents among the list of world’s most corrupt, and one more may soon be added as the most greedy. Their thievery was possible because they infected the whole system, making corruption the standard of government rather than its curse.

The accidental beneficiary of exposed corruption is the helpless poor and the poverty they wallow in. When scandal after scandal in the billions made their way to public attention, many Filipinos began to think that those billions would have done great good if they had been given to the poor instead. It suddenly came to mind that poverty was inevitably linked to the poor, and the votes of the poor just as linked to the election of many corrupt politicians.

Keeping pace with political controversy has been disasters, natural and man-made. 2013 was a very busy year, especially the second half. I remember that we had gone to Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, to deliver food aid after a storm with powerful winds flattened rice fields and electric poles. Damage, mostly to agricultural crops, reached almost 3 billion pesos.

Then, Zamboanga experienced a rebellion of sorts, or at least, a botched attempt to regain attention and value by one-time Muslim VIP Nur Misuari. Hundreds of armed Muslims in a crowded sector of the city took over control and a drama ensued. It was not clear who were residents and who were hostages. It seemed outsiders had penetrated the communities but it also seemed many in the communities were sympathetic. It took three weeks to return order.

The Bohol earthquake followed and stole all the attention when it collapsed historical churches and aftershocks just would not stop. Full relief operations went into high gear, both from government and the private sector. And when the earth, and people’s fears, settled, as plans for rehabilitation were being finalized, Yolanda barged into the Visayas as the world’s most powerful typhoon.

Yolanda’s story need not be repeated. It is too painful for many, for the families and friends of the thousands who perished, for Filipinos who lost their home and everything normal in their lives. What demands focus is the determination to rebuild, and to rebuild fast. The determination restores hope, and speed will bring optimism to the country.

The massiveness of Yolanda’s destruction, however, should not devalue the need to rebuild in Nueva Ecija, in Zamboanga, in Bohol. In fact, most of the survivors of Typhoon Pablo are waiting for their fresh chance towards normalcy and the rains and floods of the past week have returned terror in their lives. We are not rebuilding Leyte or Samar, we are rebuilding the Philippines.

Corruption mangled our morality and collective soul. Poverty demeaned us and is a national curse. Climate change is the least of our problems; it is more whom we wish to save from the impact of climate change. After all, the rich can greatly insulate themselves from floods, landslides and storm surges. But the poor, they will be the usual offering to the gods of disaster. Whenever, and wherever, disaster has claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, they are mostly the lives of the poor.

That is why we must confront the issue that many among the rich, the powerful, the learned, and even the religious, have long avoided. Do the lives of the poor have equivalent value, or might we as well admit to our own version of a caste system where a few are more equal than the many? If we have to rebuild, we must first look ourselves in the eye and ask whom this motherland called the Philippines belongs to, if there is, indeed, the reality that all her sons and daughters are equal in worth and dignity.

Because we can rebuild the structures that fell and replant the crops that were destroyed – this only needs time and money. But can we rebuild our values, patch up the erosion of our soul, reclaim the nobility of our culture, and still become modern day bravehearts in the footsteps of Rizal and Bonifacio?

Before us today is a chance of a lifetime. That is what change offers, the kind of change that is not afraid to confront poverty from landlessness, poverty from no opportunity, poverty from historical greed and perpetuated by historical amnesia.

When we rebuild our communities, we first have to know for whom we rebuild. The value, or lack of it, that we give the future residents of those communities dictate how we design, what materials we wish, the amount of space we use, and the kind of amenities we include. Moreover, we know the industries we will invite, the companies we will ask to invest, the schools that will enlighten the young, the hospitals for the sick and the elderly.

We have to plan our agriculture and prepare our farmers, protect our fishing grounds and teach our fishermen how to sustain their traditions, and propagate Internet coverage so our young will never be isolated from the rest of the world, or the world of information and imagination. When, from anywhere and anytime, the Filipino youth are wired to everywhere, they may even choose to live in the provinces.

And most of all, we may choose to embrace a future with less elitism and more democracy, a future full of hope.


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