Indeed, we have freedom. Sadly, we have no independence. There is a struggle to be won, not against an external aggressor, but against our own weakness.
Free but dependent. That is the Filipino, the collective Filipino. There are changes, of course, but not yet enough to earn independence. Not until we rise above our poverty, not until we rise above corruption.
With half of Filipinos believing themselves to be poor, and ten million reported to be working abroad at the cost of separation from their families during the best years of their lives, independence remains a struggle of a free people. Freedom may mean we rule ourselves instead of submitting to a foreign power, but independence is a collective standing on our own two feet – and we do not.
In a homeland that is blessed with awesome abundance, poverty haunts Filipinos in great numbers. Definitely, our Overseas Filipino Workers have dramatically lessened the numbers of the poor. By doing so, they have raised the level of our self-reliance, our independence. But they do so feeling forced, wanting to rise above their inherited poverty in the bosom of their motherland but not being able to. It is a choice made from freedom but difficult to say the choice was independent.
We have paid a great price for our freedom. Four hundred years of enduring the rule of foreign masters, and the wars they had waged against each other, the freedom we gained in 1946 put us squarely against a more insidious enemy – our own patterned conditioning. History had been most unkind these last four centuries. We tasted the loss of our freedom, we tasted the iron hand of colonialism, we even became witness to the betrayal of some of our own who chose to collaborate with the enemy for ten pieces of silver. The harshest of all, though, is that too many of us lost our anger and learned to accept submission as a way of life.
Poverty does that. Poverty keeps a human being and a family at survival mode. Foreign masters had to plunder our native resources; that was why they conquered us in the first place. They had to make us poor, then weak. That was the only way to exploit us on a prolonged and sustained basis. It meant bribing local leaders to help them exercise control over a native population that far outnumbered them. Greed is such a powerful motivation for treason, just as fear, and the foreign masters knew how to stoke both.
When freedom wins for us the absence of foreign rule, it does not win for us everything else. The loss of inner strength, the loss of confidence from a loss of opportunity, and continuing governance that copies the exploitative bent of the past masters instead of one that seeks democratic empowerment had stunted independence despite freedom from external rule.
People can confuse freedom with independence. This confusion is aggravated when leaders do not guide them firmly and effectively away from begging and towards self-reliance, and actually perpetuates exploitation. That exploitation of power, always accompanied with material gain, is what is known as corruption. Nothing encourages corruption more than poverty in the midst of plenty. History, too, negates the assumption that the rich do not need to take advantage of power; it is almost always the opposite.
No wonder, then, that in the midst of plenty, in the midst not only of natural resources so mind-boggling in their abundance but also of an economy that thrives from remittances and the aggressive intelligence of the elite, corruption defines governance at all levels. Statesmanship is lost when power has open access to wealth. The common good is nowhere as inviting as personal gain for those who govern when a country has great wealth but a poor population. Inner temptation can be a more formidable enemy than a foreign invader.
It does not mean that change for the better is not possible. A crusading president, if the crusade outweighs all other considerations, can make history turn. But he needs to be relentless in order to make history change its course. A leader cannot reverse patterns unless he or she has personally risen above these same patterns. All the more when the leader works within the confines of democratic rule because a system based on political maturity makes good governance almost impossible in a reality of selfish politics.
But leave it up to evolution to level the playing field. Tipping points are not only reached by personal efforts but maybe even more so by collective convergence. Our younger generations, complemented powerfully by awesome technological advances, now challenge the patterns of history and are actually winning. They have ripened the tipping point and guarantee radical changes. The culture of corruption dominates still but is severely challenged by the transparency triggered by technology and the surprising nobility of our youth.
The moment nears when freedom will finally find its sought-after independence. The moment nears when the poor will find kinder treatment and more value in society, when they will value themselves more. When they do, they will not tolerate poverty from inheritance. And they will stand up to the corrupt. It can be then said that the maturity of democracy is such a sweet fruit.
What stands between today and that coming moment is sacrifice and commitment. Those who seek a better life must invest more towards it. Those who advocate for change must be more single-minded in its pursuit. There will be no quantum leap from poverty and corruption to justice and prosperity, no quantum leap from freedom to freedom and independence without paying the price, a steep price.
Filipinos are paying the price.