WHENEVER THE PHILIPPINES’ foreign policy towards the United States is discussed, the latter’s “military assistance” to the Philippines never fails to come up. When Filipino worker Angelo dela Cruz was abducted in Iraq last July, for example, certain personalities warned against saving him for fear of losing millions in US military aid. Presidential Spokesperson Ignacio Bunye had to affirm that the US remains our “big brother in the security arena.”
The tragic death of Raymundo Punongbayan whose work in the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake and the Mt Pinatubo eruption is deeply appreciated by many Filipinos and his eight other companions in a chopper crash last week shed light on the kind of “assistance” we’re getting. The Huey helicopter they were riding in was one of the second-hand helicopters transferred by the United States’ to the Philippine military as part of the former’s “military assistance” to the country.
Having tallied at least six accidents in the past ten years alone, the Hueys have been lovingly called “flying coffins” by the Air Force. Going farther back, in 1987, three helicopters all of them Hueys crashed in various places in the span of just three months. Even in its heyday, the Huey’s record during the Vietnam War was not comforting: Up to 2,500 Hueys were lost around half of them due to combat, the rest to “operational accidents.” No wonder even Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri dismissed these aging helicopter as “scraps” and US military assistance in general as “very limited.”
More of these scraps all 33 of them — were among what President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo proudly brought home from a visit to the White House in 2003. While she reported bagging $356 million in military aid in that trip, it turns out that she may have been counting her eggs prematurely: In 2003, the Philippines eventually received only $82 million in both “Foreign Military Financing” (FMF) and in “International Education and Training” (IMET). In 2004, total FMF and IMET went down to $23 million and up again to around $33 million in 2005. The request for 2006 is back to $23 million.
For all that we’re giving, what we get at least those that get reflected in official records is a bargain. Despite the country’s strategic value to the US, military aid to the Philippines lags behind that of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Poland, Pakistan, Colombia, Chile, among others. The requested FMF for the Philippines is only 0.4% of the total, compared to 50% for Israel and nearly 30% for Egypt. Its share in IMET funds in 2006 is just 3% of the total. Such allocation undermines the image of the Philippines being particularly dear to the US, and therefore subject to some extra generosity.
What is the US giving us?
FMF refers to grants given by the US government to other countries for the purchase of US-made weapons, services, and training. When the US gave us $49 million in FMF in 2003, for instance, we could only use the money for buying equipment made by US defense corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, the Carlyle Group, among others. FMF is actually a kind of US taxpayers-financed government subsidies to the US military-corporate complex. It’s also a marketing ploy: once we get M16s, we’ll be locked in and have no choice but to keep paying the rifles’ manufacturer for maintenance, future repairs, and spare parts.
IMET are grants used to pay the US military for “educating” Filipino soldiers. The curriculum of the School of the Americas, a military institute in Georgia for grooming Latin American soldiers, is instructive. The School had to be renamed after it was found teaching torture techniques complete with manuals on “interrogation.” Its alumni include dictators, “death squad” commanders, and other notorious human rights violators.
The Hueys were given as Excess Defense Articles or surplus equipment designated for disposal by the US military. To give us an idea of how much the US values them, in 2003, we were offered equipment worth only $0.9 million from an original acquired value of $9 million. The Hueys may be cheap but there must be a reason why the US wants to get rid of them.
Who gets the perks and who foots the bill is a different question altogether. Under the FMF, for example, our generals get their guns, US taxpayers pick up the tab, even as US weapons corporations and their local frontmen get all the bucks. Incidentally, one of the most vociferous critics of the decision to save dela Cruz was former President Fidel Ramos, who was at one point a member of the Carlyle Group’s advisory board. While some pocket the windfall, we are all made to pay for the consequences of the foreign policy choices that others have made for us.
Interestingly, what often doesn’t come up in discussions on US military aid is what we’re made to trade off in exchange for the crumbs tossed our way. Those who were willing to sacrifice dela Cruz in order to save the alliance with the US, for example, had no qualms making money out of an illegal occupation that is estimated to have killed over 100,000 Iraqis all for some “flying coffins” and M16s.
To be fair, the US is not just dumping scraps on the Philippines. In August last year, a US naval ship taking part in “joint military exercises” was caught unloading human waste into the waters of Subic Bay. In our relationship with “big brother,” being treated like that ship’s discharge has taken on a literal meaning.