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Must we ‘Cha-cha’ in the pandemic?

In the languor and lassitude forced by the unabating 10 month-long COVID-19 quarantine, it adds insult to injury to make the anxious, near-catatonic people dance like pitiful puppets to the cha-cha-cha of autocratic governance.

Granted that some autocratic firmness must be employed in herding the people to follow recommended procedures to safeguard public health and survival in the pandemic, it would still be incumbent upon leaders to observe and respect democratic rights, particularly the peoples’ rights to know, to choose, and to speak. “Emergency powers” are for the management of the pandemic, and do not sweep out human rights. Yet it may also be that the lethargy of forced isolation and restrictions has dulled the senses to a stupor in the mind — how many strange happenings have there been in the past almost-a-year that by political sleight of hand, are now part of our laws and social-political mores, entrenched in the fearful, sluggish collective consciousness?

On the first Sunday after New Year’s Day weekend, House Speaker Lord Allan Velasco announced that the House of Representatives will immediately commence debates on constitutional amendments (Charter Change or Cha-cha), which changes will be presented for the public’s ratification alongside the 2022 national elections.

“Days after taking over the House leadership in October last year, Velasco said there was ‘no more time’ to pursue charter change as government should focus on the COVID-19 pandemic,” ABS-CBN News reminded all in a newscast on Jan. 10. It was news indeed that the House turned around and now pushes for Cha-cha again, even while the pandemic is still raging, and the country has not even made up its mind on the vaccine to be used to control the rising contagion of the coronavirus.

But like the forward-backward dance steps of the cha-cha-cha, lawmakers had gone yes-and-no on proposing the charter changes. Due to expressed public suspicions that Cha-cha was a ruse to extend elective positions, President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 campaign promise to shift to federalism by amending the constitution has been whittled down to proposals to change only some economic provisions. In July 2019, Velasco had filed a bill to amend Articles II, XIV, and XVI, which are provisions in the Constitution that prevent foreign ownership of land and businesses in the country. The easing of restrictions on the ownership and management of mass media, public utilities, educational institutions, investments and capital to foreign investors is also proposed by HB 2.

Lawyer-economist and civic leader Christian Monsod said this is the fourth time that it has been proposed to change the economic provisions of the Constitution. The first try was the Constitutional Correction for Development (Concord) under former president Joseph Estrada, then the Sigaw ng Bayan under former president Gloria Arroyo, then another initiative by former House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte. In a Teleradyo interview on Jan. 8, Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, called fresh moves to change the constitution “very dangerous and insidious.”

“It is a sin to be even talking about changing the Constitution when there is still no end in sight to the pandemic, when the government is struggling to secure funding for COVID-19 vaccines, and when the country is still reeling from the continuing impact of the pandemic and the recent typhoons,” Senate Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon said in a news interview on ABS-CBN on Jan. 7. But the “sin” was perhaps absentmindedly permitted by an emotionally numbed people, diverted from pandemic fears by the welcome break of Christmas and the New Year. Senators Francis Tolentino and Ronald dela Rosa (alleged allies of President Duterte) had already filed in December a resolution for both houses of Congress to convene as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) in lieu of a people-participative Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) to discuss limited amendments to the Constitution.

“This is really not the time to talk about this,” Opposition Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan said. But the Senate has already been effectively drawn into the Con-Ass way of fast-tracking the proposed Cha-cha on at least the economic provisions. And if the House of Representatives has its way, the Con-Ass will be voting as one instead of the 304-man House of Representatives and the 24-man Senate voting separately for approval of the proposed changes, as consolidated and distilled in the plenaries. In joint voting (as one), does the Senate really have a say, with its disproportionately small number?

Ay, Senators Drilon and Pangilinan, even voting separately might not mean the Senate will chorus your vehement “No” to Cha-cha on economic provisions. “After the 2019 (mid-term) polls, the ruling party PDP-Laban (Duterte’s party) and its allies take both the Senate and the House,” Rappler noted on July 2, 2019. “But you need three-fourths vote to approve Consti amendments,” Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto quite uselessly reminded, careless of the arithmetic. And in the daze of the depressing COVID isolation and social distancing, will there be enough energy for a groundswell of people protesting?

The implications of the proposed economic amendments to the 1987 Constitution are indeed heightened by the COVID situation. If, before COVID, it was a matter of weighing costs against the economic benefits of allowing foreign ownership of land and businesses in the country and easing of restrictions on the ownership and management of mass media, public utilities, educational institutions, investments and capital to foreign investors — now all previous assumptions and projections must be restated; analyses and calibrations must be reviewed and perhaps even totally junked. There is a “New Now” after COVID-19. Have we not heard the New Now repeatedly called upon by economists and politicians, theorists and practitioners, as the reason (or their alibi) for why things do not now work out the way they did, using the same tools and techniques?

In the long drawn-out and economically draining pandemic, land and indigenous natural resources have been confirmed as the most basic resource for survival, given that economic activity derives from this without dependence on external sourcing that will extort costly competitive pricing. Why, when the world has shrunk inwards in the pandemic, when countries must think of conserving what they naturally have, do we even think of opening to foreign ownership of our scarce (and shrinking vis-à-vis increasing population growth) resources? Do we allow foreigners to poach what is ours, as they increase their wealth using our natural capital?

House Speaker Velasco counters: “Foreign investment plays a crucial role in the Philippine economy by supporting domestic jobs and the creation of physical and knowledge capital across a range of industries. The need to attract foreign capital is critical to support our economy’s recovery from COVID-19” (ABS-CBN, Jan. 10, 2021).

Prof. Monsod points out deep socio-economic costs: “Even the foreign chambers of commerce admit that when you open the land, the prices of land will go up and will be beyond the reach of the poor,” he said. “Those who support it are big businessmen who have the money and corrupt lawmakers making it easy to do transactional legislation. The Philippines has a serious problem of mass poverty and inequality,” he said (ABS-CBN News, Jan. 8, 2021).

And inequality among nations will be even more marked in the exacting New Now, in a world decimated to the bare bones and weakened into sinking to its supplicating knees by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must not Cha-cha in the pandemic.


Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.

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