Understanding who the oligarchs are become more important as the Philippine nation searches for answers to its existential questions of poverty. It becomes more ironic that the Noynoy Aquino, a member of the very same oligarchy, presents himself as the answer to corruption. It is a ridiculous proposition given that the oligarchy itself is the mother vein, the ice berg, the hub of corruption in the Philippines.
The Philippines is technically a democracy but in essence it is an oligarchy, its original landowning elite now includes dynasties from industry and the services sector, and popular celebrities. We hear the words oligarchs a lot more than usual. The label seems to be a monolithic group of people. Who and what are oligarchs? Are the oligarchs truly the “vested interests” of the Philippines? How are the oligarchs related to the political candidates? What is the history of the oligarchs in the Philippines? Why are the Aquinos, Cojuangcos, Roxases, Garcias, and Lopezes considered oligarchs.
What is an Oligarchy?
Oligarchy is defined as:
- A system of government in which power is held by a small group.
- A form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.
- state or organization so ruled.
- the persons or class so ruling.
Who is an Oligarch?
When Pinoys talk about “pedigree”, they might as well be talking about an oligarch or a member of such a group. Ever time I hear the arguments about Aquino’s “pedigree”, or his being “anak ng bayani”, I get hives, specially when one knows what Benedict Anderson in his book “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams”, wrote about:
“President Corazon Aquino told a most instructive lie. Addressing the Filipino-Chinese Federated Chambers of Commerce on 9 March 1987, she described her appearance before them as a ‘homecoming,’ since her great-grandfather had been a poor immigrant from southeast China’s Fukien province.  Doubtless her desperate need—given the Philippines’ near-bankrupt economy and $28 billion external debt  —to inspire feelings of solidarity and confidence among a powerful segment of Manila’s business class made some embroidery understandable.
But the truth is that the President, born Corazon Cojuangco, is a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties within the Filipino oligarchy.
Her grandfather, putative son of the penniless immigrant, was Don Melecio Cojuangco, born in Malolos, Central Luzon in 1871. A graduate of the Dominicans’ Colegio de San Juan de Letran and the Escuela Normal, and a prominent agricultor (i.e. hacendado) in the province of Tarlac, he was, in 1907, at the age of 36, elected to the Philippine Assembly, the quasi-legislature established by the American imperialists in that year. 
One of his sons (Corazon’s uncle) became Governor of Tarlac in 1941, another (her father, Don José) its most prominent Congressman.
In 1967, one of his grandsons (her cousin), Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, became Governor of Tarlac with Ferdinand Marcos’s backing, and went on to count among the most notorious of the Marcos cronies.
Another grandson (her younger brother), José ‘Peping’ Cojuangco, was in those days one of Tarlac’s Congressmen, and is today again a Congressman—and one of the halfdozen most powerful politicians in the country.
Her marriage to Benigno Aquino, Jr., at various periods Governor of Tarlac and Senator, linked her to another key dynasty of Central Luzon.
Benigno Aquino, Sr., had been a Senator in the late American era and won lasting notoriety for his active collaboration with the Japanese Occupation regime.
At the present time, one of her brothers-in-law, Agapito ‘Butz’ Aquino, is a Senator, and another, Paul, the head of Lakas ng Bansa (one of the three main ‘parties’ in her electoral coalition); an uncle-in-law, Herminio Aquino, is a Congressman, as are Emigdio ‘Ding’ Tanjuatco (cousin), and Teresita Aquino-Oreta (sister-in-law).  A maternal uncle, Francisco ‘Komong’ Sumulong, is majority floor-leader of the House of Representatives.
Nor was Corazon herself, on becoming President, quite the simple housewife of her election broadsheets. For thirteen years she had served as treasurer of the Cojuangco family holding company, which controls a vast financial, agricultural, and urban real estate empire. 
The stifling effects of the oligarchs on the Philippine economy are well documented by Michael Johnston in his study Japan Korea the Philippines and China Four Syndromes of Corruption
For all the hoopla about Cory Aquino and EDSA, except for a game of musical chair nothing has changed fundamentally. Johnston was quite clear:
So here comes, Noynoy Cojuangco-Aquino (an oligarch), bankrolled by Lopez (another oligarch) – with a Roxas Vice-President (an oligarch) – supported by a nationwide network of provincial and regional oligarchs. They are supposedly against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (also an oligarch).
All about the Money
Forbes recently listed the 2009 Philippines 40 richest. The list is shown below:
All of these wealthy individuals are Filipinos, NOT foreigners. These are Filipinos who own nearly all the companies in the Philippines. How can we have an “infantile economy” when we have Filipinos making it to the Forbes Global 500? It doesn’t add up? Unless, our oligarchs are keeping competition out (local AND foreign) to corner the domestic market for themselves.
Despite this, the Philippines 40 richest are still no match to the 40th richest men in our ASEAN neighbors. The Philippines also has the least number of billionaires.
Despite all this prosperity, the Philippines still faces a large disparity in income.
The Proposed 2010 Budget of the Philippines is roughly PhP 1.5 Trillion. If we compared that to the total net worth of the 40 richest Filipinos , that is one helluva pie.
There are at least 80 million Filipinos who have to split the pie (not counting the losses due to corruption) of the Philippines RP budget – 31% of this amount is equal to the net worth (assets-liabilities) of the 40 richest Filipinos – 40 individuals.
The gap becomes more prominent when viewed from a wider perspective – the countries who were supposed to be our “classmates” have vastly improved the distribution of wealth in their respective countries – and we, in the Philippines have gotten worse.
Gini-coefficient of inequality: This is the most commonly used measure of inequality. The coefficient varies between 0, which reflects complete equality and 1, which indicates complete inequality (one person has all the income or consumption, all others have none). Graphically, the Gini coefficient can be easily represented by the area between the Lorenz curve and the line of equality.
On the figure to the right, the Lorenz curve maps the cumulative income share on the vertical axis against the distribution of the population on the horizontal axis. In this example, 40 percent of the population obtains around 20 percent of total income. If each individual had the same income, or total equality, the income distribution curve would be the straight line in the graph – the line of total equality. The Gini coefficient is calculated as the area A divided by the sum of areas A and B. If income is distributed completely equally, then the Lorenz curve and the line of total equality are merged and the Gini coefficient is zero. If one individual receives all the income, the Lorenz curve would pass through the points (0,0), (100,0) and (100,100), and the surfaces A and B would be similar, leading to a value of one for the Gini-coefficient.
It is sometimes argued that one of the disadvantages of the Gini coefficient is that it is not additive across groups, i.e. the total Gini of a society is not equal to the sum of the Ginis for its sub-groups.
Source: World Bank website, accessed 05/07/10
The Gini coefficient is a very powerful tool but its validity depends directly on the quality of the statistical data used to calculate it. Unfortunately, there are no international norms in this matter. That means that the Gini coefficient can be manipulated to a certain extent by left wing analysts who could seek to decry extreme inequalities or by conservative right wingers who might wish to demonstrate that inequality is at a minimum. Care should therefore be taken to make sure of the objectivity of the source of each gini before drawing hasty conclusions.
The Origins of the Philippine Oligarchy
The book “An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines By Alfred W. McCoy” is a very good book for understanding the history of development of the Philippine oligarchy. I highly recommend that you read every dot, comma, and punctuation mark.
Chris Pforr describes the Philippine oligarchy from the outside looking in:
Although the roots of their socioeconomic power can be traced to the development of landed elites in the 19th century, it was in the American colonial period that major families emerged as the national oligarchy, able to dominate the country’s political and administrative apparatus and shape it to their own ends.
- Variously estimated to number between 60 and 400 families, the Philippine oligarchy have expanded beyond agriculture to build empires in commerce, manufacturing, services, and finance.
- Taking advantage of Philippine laws that restrict freedom of operation by TNCs within the Philippines, the oligarchy frequently act as local partners without having to actually do or risk much. Content with rent-seeking and paper entrepreneurship, they are thus failing to make the most of the OWF-generated boon as a medium for sustainable growth and development.
- By using the Trapos (traditional politicians) as surrogates, the ruling class is able to a great degree control the domestic political process and thus assure their continued access to prime economic opportunities. At the same time, the oligarchy finds comfort when members of the political class like Arroyo, are beset with scandals which limit their opportunities to impose change on the national status quo, the maintenance of which remains the over-arching objective of the ruling class.
- The Zobel de Ayala family own and control the Ayala Corporation, the country’s largest and oldest conglomerate that includes the Bank of the Philippine Islands, Ayala Land Inc., the Manila Water Company, and Globe Telecom, one of the largest mobile phone networks in the Philippines.
The Philippine political elite are usually either members of, or else are backed by, the oligarchy. They are virtually a class, whose prime goal is to win elections and to assure that the interests of their families and/or oligarchic patrons are protected. To protect the family welfare, powerful families transform their electoral offices into lasting family assets, building “political dynasties.” Whether they are members of the elite or not, throughout their political career politicians need to build, maintain and expand their network with elite families in their city, province and other parts of the archipelago.
GMA is Evil, Villar is Evil, But so is…. Aquino and Roxas
Philippine politics has been very much an “Oligarch vs Oligarch” affair until the appearance of the likes of non-oligarchs like Raul Roco and Dick Gordon.
Prior to that, whether its an Aquino, a Roxas, an Estrada, a Macapagal – it doesn’t really matter – they are all the same. I would like to cite A 2008 blog by Juan Alvin on multiply
“Oligarchy was established by men with a certain aim in life: the good they sought was wealth… the insatiable appetite for money-making to the neglect of everything else…”
We have been taught since the primary grades that the Philippines is a democracy, that is, a form of government where the people rule. This is a nice and grand idea, and one worth accepting. The sad fact, however, is that the Philippines is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy with some trappings of democracy, and it is all there is to it.
An oligarchy, as defined in political philosophy, is a small group of people who govern or control a nation for their own purposes. In the Philippines, a small group of 100 or so families control the country’s political and economic spheres. This is clearly seen in the past and present plethora of political leaders in the national and local scene.
As the premier example, President GMA herself is the daughter of a former president. In the Senate, we have Magsaysays, Roxases, Osmena’s, and a host of families that have dominated politics in the country since the last century. From this roster will probably come our next president. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, is a conglomeration of landlords, capitalists, tycoons, magnates, and all sorts of moguls in all kinds of business, legal and illegal. This is true even with local governments. Just look at your governor or mayor, and you can see someone who is filthy rich.
Now, this oligarchy is not some sort of corporate board where the members will consciously meet to plan things. The bottom line is self-interest. With almost 100% of our political leaders having their business interests to protect, what can we, as a people, expect? Of course, the wealthy elite would want more money to fund more quests and enterprises that would ensure the flow of money endlessly. Moderate your greed? No way.
So what laws can we expect from the legislature? Simply laws that would protect the interest of the oligarchy. Presidents would then implement the laws that would also protect their own interests. They would all do these while making speeches about freedom, democracy, and national interest.
However, there is no real freedom, because the people cannot buy what they really want with the meager money they are getting banging their heads in a hard day’s work. There is no democracy, because the people are not really ruling the country. But how about elections? Aren’t they supposed to give people the power to choose their leaders? Nope. Elections, with their accompanying astronomical costs, are just designed to choose who among the oligarchs would be the next Big Oligarch.
But we have press freedom, right? Isn’t this a sign that we truly are a democratic nation? Well, the trouble is that press freedom in this country is practiced selectively. Media insiders know that almost all oligarchs are white elephants, and are virtual untouchables. The press, for example, know who the smugglers in Congress are, but have programs like XXX and Imbestigador gone after these rich criminals? Never. They are content with catching lowly barangay captains using public vehicles for their mistresses.
Again, you ask, “Aren’t we free? We can relax in our homes and enjoy strolling in malls all our lives.” Yes, we can, of course, because we are pawns in the oligarchs’ chessboard. They provide us enjoyment in malls created by Chinese oligarchs so we can continue to be unaware of what is really happening and they can continue to use our minds and bodies to drive the economy from which they derive much wealth. To tell it straight, we can relax in our homes and enjoy strolling in malls, while the oligarchs rape the national coffers and devastate the national economy, patrimony, and resources all in one weekend.
And this is why I laugh when they say GMA is evil. It may be true, but I’m sure that GMA is just one of the many evil oligarchs. These evil oligarchs know each other and support each other, although sometimes, they appear to fight each other. But in the long run, oligarchs are one for all and all for one. And I laugh again when people wonder why GMA was able to quickly pardon Erap. They are, of course, of the same blood. Type AB. All Brothers.
So what is evil is oligarchy, which, in short, is the system itself. And this will never be replaced by any of the so-called people power revolution, not in a hundred years. And before I am misunderstood, I am not advocating a bloody revolution to change the system, because the oligarchs are really well-entrenched and are steady in their place. Bishop Villegas has said that if we do not fight evil, then we are on the side of evil. But the evil that we are supposed to fight is the system itself, and we are part of the system. If we intend to fight the system, we must all go out of the system, and crush it to smithereens if we can. This way, we can build a new structure, which we hope, would never become evil again.
What I am saying is let us stop all this hoopla about fighting for freedom and democracy and all this foolishness, because if we are not willing to part with our hours in malls looking for pirated DVDs and licking cheap ice cream, then the Philippines will continue to be an oligarchy, and this will be the root of all our evils for centuries to come.
Thus, I find it idiotic when Noynoy says – “Walang mahirap, kung walang corrupt” because, if there was no poverty in the first place, people don’t have to resort to corruption.
How did poverty take root – in the first place? History 101 – a select few were granted vast landholdings through colonial edict – the hacienderos – the precursors of today’s oligarchs.
Now it becomes more ironic when the masses will vote into the presidency, the very person who represents everything that caused their misery – it is pathetically tragic. How can Noynoy be the answer to the problem, when he himself and his merry band of oligarchs – is the problem?
The entry of a non-oligarch candidate who has done much and in a selfless manner augurs well for the country, but only to the extent that the electorate will give said candidate a mandate to transform the Philippines.
Let’s not kid ourselves – the oligarchs are here to stay and are very much weaved into the fabric and history of Philippine society. We have friends who happen to be… or got married to.. or became.. oligarchs.
They are as Filipino as the rest of us, In asking for transformation we are not asking for the destruction of the oligarchy – we are simply creating a level playing field where the oligarchy and the Joe Schmoe can both thrive.
Let us not waste this opportunity to level the playing field.