Quezon’s Curse

Very rarely do I write about politics or a country’s history.  That’s because I know people who can write about politics and history better than I. Among them is Ambeth Ocampo. Below is from his column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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Quezon’s Curse

MANILA, Philippines—Teresa de Avila, the 16th-century Spanish mystic and doctor of the Church, warned us to be careful about what we wish for because we might get it. There are more tears shed over answered prayers, she said, than unanswered ones.

While the coming elections give us a welcome sense of hope, it should remind us of Manuel L. Quezon’s famous quote: “I prefer a government run like hell by Filipinos to a government run like heaven by Americans.” Quezon got his wish. We are living under his curse today.

Quezon’s most quoted line, however, is incomplete. The last part goes, “because however bad a Filipino government might be, it can still be improved.” But history has yet to pass judgment on each postwar Philippine president to see whether we have turned Quezon’s curse around and made it into a promise.

Watching the aging veterans of Edsa 1986 on TV trying to make the most of a lukewarm commemoration made me reflect on history and memory. How far back do we remember?

My present students were born after 1986. For them Edsa seems as old as Rizal, Bonifacio and Aguinaldo, thus making me, a “martial-law baby,” feel as old as a dinosaur.

After assigning my students to dig up the newspaper on the day they were born, I offer a bonus for those who would also dig up the newspapers on the day their parents were born and describe the state of the nation then. To experience the same process, I dug up the time my parents and grandparents describe as “pistaym” (peace time) to see what Quezon’s world was like which might help put his famous quote in context.

Fernando C. Amorsolo was at the height of his powers in the years 1923-1941, painting hundreds of sun-lit canvases depicting idyllic Philippine landscapes inhabited by a happy and beautiful people. Idealized, sun-bronzed dalagang Filipina were depicted working cheerfully in the fields, gathering mangoes, or bathing in clear unpolluted streams that are no more. Everything was innocent in this lost time in Philippine history; even the carabaos in Amorsolo’s paintings seemed to smile.

While Amorsolo lived and worked in urban Manila, he escaped into the rural in his art. At international auctions today, Amorsolo’s work command six to seven-figure sums in US dollars. His works capture the spirit of an age before the horrors of World War II, which Filipinos refer to as “pistaym.”

Wall Street crashed in 1929 and the United States entered the Great Depression, but its colony half the world away had its attention elsewhere. Earlier in the decade, three young men rose to become the stars of Philippine politics— Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Roxas—whose adult faces look out of Philippine bank notes: Quezon on the orange P20 bill, Osmeña on the red P50 bill, and Roxas on the violet P100 bill. The contravida of the decade was US Governor General Leonard Wood who reversed the move toward autonomy and “Filipinization” encouraged by his predecessor Francis Burton Harrison. Wood’s hard-line policies caused a mass resignation of Filipinos from his Cabinet in 1923, triggering a crisis in government. Wood died while undergoing surgery in 1927.

A succession of Filipino independence missions to the US resulted in the passage of the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Bill (HHC) in 1933, providing for Philippine independence after a 10-year transition period during which Filipinos must draft a constitution for approval by the US president. Osmeña and Roxas (their tandem then was known as “Os-Rox”) brought the HHC back to Manila, but it was opposed by Quezon and later rejected by the Philippine Legislature. Quezon left for Washington on his own independence mission, returning in 1934 with the Tydings-McDuffie Act that was exactly the same as HHC, except for one amendment. It was accepted by the Philippine Legislature, a constitutional convention was then convened under Claro M. Recto.

In 1935 the Philippine Constitution was sent to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who referred it to the Filipino people, who accepted it in a plebiscite. Quezon and Osmeña buried their differences and formed an alliance that would get them elected to the Philippine Commonwealth government against two tired relics of the Philippine Revolution: Emilio Aguinaldo, president of the First Philippine Republic, and Msgr. Gregorio Aglipay, founder of the Philippine Independent Church.

One candidate forgotten by history was Pascual Racuyal who would run in all presidential elections, challenging everyone from Quezon to Marcos. He also attempted to run in the 1986 snap election, but was disqualified as a nuisance candidate.

Racuyal called for pothole-free rubber roads, a plastic currency, and the building of a clear glass dome over the archipelago to shield its land and people against the destruction wrought by typhoons. Now part of the underside of Philippine history, Racuyal can be considered either as a visionary or a madman.

Those days seem so far away from our time and experience, but the circus that comes with every election continues to provide some diversion from our worries. Textbook history is preoccupied with our struggle for independence in the late 19th century. Maybe historians should focus their attention on the 20th century to help us understand why we are the way we are. Should we blame Quezon for his answered prayers?

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