Slavery By Poverty

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and never will.”

Few words can move me like these from Frederick Douglass, an African-American born a slave who became an abolitionist, orator, author and statesman.

I wish someone would translate these same words into the regional languages of the Philippines. Technically, we have no slavery here as what America had. In real life, however, poverty enslaves just as powerfully, and horribly. And our poverty has many slaves in the motherland.

Born a slave in the 1800’s in America, born a slave of poverty in the 21st century in the Philippines. What’s the difference? From the outside, plenty. From the inside, little. After two centuries and great leaps called modernization and globalization, there is little change for the enslaved.

Our slaves vote. That alone should qualify them to be deemed free, but it has not, it does not. Freedom is not about voting, it is about choices, various, accessible choices. Choices have to be a reality to the majority. And I speak here of the most fundamental, even elemental, of choices, like dignity, security, shelter, food, and mobility. Voting is not an adequate substitute for all these human needs. And voting by those greatly in need will go the way towards the satisfaction of those needs before anything else.

I have no experience whatsoever with a life with the elemental and fundamental choices. Unlike many, I was not born a slave of poverty. My parents were free, as their parents before them. I do not know at what point my ancestors found their freedom from the shackles of colonization, not even sure if one of them had been a soldier for the foreign masters. All I know is that by circumstance of birth, either one is free or one is a slave of poverty in our country.

By choice, though, I gave in to an attraction when I was in my mid-thirties, a sudden interest to know my people more – after realizing that the class I belonged to and family and friends from there in no way was representative of the Filipino. Yes, we are Filipino but so different from most Filipinos. And when I realized this in the 80’s, the poor were counted at 90% of the population, 55% from economic Class D, and 35% from Class E. I was Filipino but I did not know who the average, mainstream Filipino was.

When I embarked on that journey, what I thought would be a short period of time never ended. I am not a lover of the poor, although I now personally know and admire a few who really are. But I can say I am a lover of the Filipino people, most of whom just happen to be poor, and an abnormal percentage very poor. How truly unfair that slavery to poverty is attained by the simple circumstance of birth, not because they have failed, not because they are lazy, not because they are stupid.

“The less poor among the general poor, the upper portion of Class D, make up the bulk of what is now the OFW sector. What was once 55% is now down to about 25%, and Class E is estimated to be 30%.  This corresponds to the percentage of self-rated poor, around 55%.  In the estimated 30% very poor, or Class E, half to two-thirds of them experience hunger, from occasionally to frequently.  When we talk about hunger, when we talk about being food poor, it is easy to understand why they are no better than slaves. There is no choice between this food or that food. There is only food or no food. “

Fortunately, and precisely because the poor struggle to be free, the need for good workers had become a demand in many countries whose domestic populations could not fill. Many say that Filipinos speak English and that is why great numbers have managed to find work abroad. That may be true. But what is more true is that Filipinos want freedom, have the courage and talent to chase that freedom, and needed only the opportunity to do it.

Many countries are poorer than the Philippines. But not many of their people sought their freedom from their own slavery to poverty in the way Filipinos did, and still do. Many poor countries do now have overseas workers in the volume and percentage that the Philippines has because our people are simply different from them. Many countries experience the path of violence and have become even more enslaved, first to poverty, then to war. Their freedom will cost more, and too far in the horizon to be even felt.

Yet, it is just as true that the powerful in our country will concede nothing with a demand. But if our poor are not drawn to violence to break the powerful, our powerful, too, are not prone to violence to retain power. The blessing of our culture, despite a harsh and debilitating colonial history, is that it has deeper layers of spirituality and harmony that mitigate the anger against the horrible experience of the last 400 years.

The peacefulness of our people, though, may have lulled the powerful to believe that the thirst for freedom is a shallow one. That is not only a great disservice to the humanity of poor Filipinos but a dangerous assumption because it is false. Filipinos can rise in rage, Filipinos can kill in rage, and Filipinos can force radical change in rage. But recent history tells us that a Moro rebellion cannot do it, a communist insurgency cannot do it.  The same recent history tells us that people power can.

How, then, can people power change the lives of our poor on a day-to-day basis, before its ultimate expression can only be in the streets? This is the challenge of the powerful who rule but are not tyrants. This is the question for all who are not poor, too. People power is not exclusive to the marginalized; it should be the path of all good people towards freedom, towards self-reliance, towards prosperity.

If power will not make freedom inclusive on its own, then the demand will come. That is the law.

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