Thursday, June 29, 2017

[Second Opinion] Colombia beyond the drug wars

One of Fernando Botero's sculptures in Medellin (Photo by the author)
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA — Colombians have a reputation for being friendly, and even before my plane touched down in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, I was convinced of it. My seatmate, upon discovering that it would be my first time in Colombia, took it upon himself to furnish information about his country. “We have mountains, beaches, historic towns,” he began, listing the attractions of a country that is all at once Pacific and Caribbean, Andean and Amazonian.

“A lot has changed from the 2000s. It’s now completely different,” he said, adding: “For the first time, there is a middle class. Did you know that Colombia is South America’s third largest economy?”

It did not take long for me to experience the middle-class Bogota of which he spoke. The bike lanes, the chic centro comerciales, the well-manicured parques, the branches of Juan Valdez Café with fast internet: All of them hint of an economy that has grown—at least for some segments of the population.

“It’s an exciting time to be in Colombia,” Daniel Buritica, a social entrepreneur, told me, confirming my impressions. “Young people are not bound by old ways of thinking, and are looking ahead.” Last year, Buritica organized a summer camp where he brought together former FARC rebels, paramilitaries, and victims—an attempt to heal the wounds of the conflict. I could sense that his emotions over the conflict run deep, but so is his optimism for the future.

The tension between trying to move on and remembering the past is more palpable in Medellin, a charming highland city where the mere mention of the name Pablo Escobar can still offend locals. For many, he is best relegated to oblivion—not notoriety—even as some continue to view him as a Robin Hood who built football stadiums and helped the poor.

Equally a source of discomfort is a discussion of Colombia’s recent history—and today’s divisive politics. One major point of contention is how to deal with the FARC: A referendum last year was defeated by a hair, but President Juan Manuel Santos has persisted with a fragile peace deal. Meanwhile, Alvaro Uribe, the iron-fisted ex-president, wants a tougher stance. He remains popular, and many are convinced of his view that Colombia is becoming the next Venezuela. As in the Philippines, social media is rife with fake news.

Perhaps the only thing that can rival politics in provoking people’s passions is football, but it is nowhere near as polarizing. While cities contest their La Liga with ferocious intensity, a national football team—currently ranked by Fida as fifth in the world—brings them together, and the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao are sources of pride.

Visiting Colombia’s museums and reading its critical histories, one can find its history of colonization and exploitation depressing; even the distinctive art of Fernando Botero cannot hide the violencia of the past, both remote and recent. Atop Bogota’s Montserrate or aboard Medellin’s cable cars, one cannot deny the visible and enduring social disparities.

On the other hand, one can just as easily see an ebullient side to Colombia, one whose anthems are the upbeat songs of Shakira and Carlos Vives. The people I meet fall somewhere in between, like the petroleum engineer in Bogotá who works part time as an Uber driver, or the tour guide in Aracataca who cannot forgive Steve Harvey for mistakenly announcing his compatriot Ariadna Gutiérrez as Miss Universe 2015. As travelers, I guess we must recognize the complexity of each country we visit if we are to truly learn from it and form a balanced, even if incomplete, view of what it’s all about.

I will leave Colombia with much fondness, and not just because of its beauty or the warmth of its people. Like my beloved Filipinas, this is a country that is misunderstood by the outside world, and one that has been forced into a history not of its choosing. But somehow, it is pulling itself through, which gives me hope that we, too—despite our many contradictions and flaws—can overcome the struggles in our side of the Pacific.

As I learned in my trip, we are only an ocean apart.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, June 22, 2017

[Second Opinion] Unlimited rice, empty stomachs

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I don’t think Cynthia Villar anticipated that her comments on prohibiting “unlimited rice” will draw so much resentment and ridicule. But as she probably knows by now, “unli rice” is not just a gluttonous indulgence for Filipinos but also a compensatory recourse for those with limited means. I hope she also realizes that prohibitionism is not always the answer to our health problems.

To be fair to the senator, however, the idea of discouraging Filipinos from eating too much rice has been raised by experts for many years. In 2012, PhilRice lamented that each Filipino wastes two tablespoons of rice every day, “which, when not wasted, could result in import savings as high as P6.2 billion and could feed 2.6 million hungry Filipinos in a year.”

Her pronouncements mirror PhilRice’s lament and actually sound like something a nutritionist would say: “If possible, we should shift to brown rice so Filipinos would eat less and so that finally, we can be self-sufficient… Unlimited rice is bad for the health. We should learn how to eat more vegetables.” In this, the doctor in me heartily agrees with her.

Of course, what drew the most attention was her misguided suggestion that fast-food chains’ offerings of “unli rice” be prohibited. But now that she has backed down from it, her overall concerns remain salient. Leaving the specifics of rice sufficiency to the economists and agriculturists (which Cielito Habito discussed in his latest column here), what can we do to improve our state of (mal)nutrition?

To appreciate the magnitude of the problem, we have to bear in mind that one in three Filipino children remains stunted. Aside from making Filipinos among the shortest in the region, stunting has dire consequences for children’s health and overall development. Rice, in this context, remains very important because for many Filipinos, it is the main source not just of carbohydrates but also of protein. Ironically, while many are eating too much rice, the poor need more of it.
Instead of prohibiting unlimited rice, a more positive approach is to incentivize the offering of whole-grain (i.e., brown, red, or black) rice, which satiates the eater faster, has more fiber and vitamins, and is easier to produce (even if longer to cook). Surely, increased demand will lower prices.

Another is to go beyond rice and encourage the consumption of other kinds of carbohydrates. Granted, our very word for eating, “kain,” is linguistically and cognitively related to the word for rice, “kanin”—many Pinoys don’t feel full if they don’t eat rice. Also, our viands are prepared in such a way that their flavors are balanced by rice: Can you imagine eating kare-kare by itself?

There are alternatives, however, that can take the place of rice—though we may need to  develop more recipes for them. Despite their lowly reputation, root crops like kamote, gabi and ube are uber-healthy, not to mention easy to grow. There’s white corn, too—which UP Los Baños scientists recommend mixing with rice.

But beyond carbohydrates, a big problem is protein energy malnutrition—the lack of ulam caused by the prohibitive cost of meat and fish. In olden days, Filipinos had more diverse sources of protein: Even insects (now recommended by the World Health Organization) were part of the diet.

What may be more culturally acceptable and practical today, however, are beans and legumes. As the Food Nutrition Research Institute’s Charina Javier tells me, farmers usually plant these in between rice cropping cycles to enhance soil quality. Encouraging the public to embrace beans and root crops, alongside being “rice-ponsible” (as the Department of Agriculture puts it), will surely go a long way.

But what of the urban poor with nary a place to lay their heads, let alone plant crops? Ultimately, we must also address the structural causes of hunger and malnutrition, which include the flooding of our markets with cheap but unhealthy food, the miserable plight of our food growers, and, above all, the extreme poverty that leaves people with no choice but to eat what little — if any — food they can find.

In this age of “unli rice,” no Filipino should have to live with an empty stomach.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

[Second Opinion] Following the footsteps of Rizal in Europe

The author at Rizal Park in Madrid
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MADRID, SPAIN—The restaurant Viva Madrid, where Jose Rizal and his fellow ilustrados used to hang out, is still open on Calle Fernandez y Gonzales; it was founded in 1861 (incidentally the year our national hero was born). The dinner there—tapas y vino tinto—was a fitting end to a day of retracing Rizal’s legacy in the Spanish capital. That afternoon I visited Rizal Park, which looks very similar to our own in Luneta—but with the advantage of not having a Torre de Manila behind it.
As a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, I made it my “side quest” to follow Rizal’s footsteps in the continent where he, too, once studied. From grade school onward we had been taught a lot about Rizal, but I was eager to study him in a different light. What can we learn from Rizal the traveler?

Rizal never managed to visit the Netherlands, so my quest began in neighboring Belgium, where he published “El Filibusterismo.” That he had to delay the Fili’s publication due to limited funds speaks of the difficulties faced by our hero; but at the same time, he showed much diskarte during his stay, managing to publish articles in La Solidaridad and even go to the gym.

Paris featured prominently in his travels: He was actually there when the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated in 1882. Although our hero was mesmerized by the “City of Lights,” what must have struck him more were the French ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité—ideals that doubtless influenced his writings and aspirations for the Philippines.

Rizal also visited Rome and London, capitals of European empires past and present, and many other cities such as Barcelona, Milan, Munich and Litomerice, to name just a few. The breadth of history in these places—spanning millennia—surely inspired him to reflect on his homeland with a broader historical perspective: one that is in brilliant display in “The Philippines a Century Hence.”

One of my memorable Rizal-inspired trips was to the German towns of Heidelberg and Wilhelmsfeld, where our hero stayed with Pastor Karl Ullmer and his family. Lingering in the small park that the town had put up for its illustrious guest, I pictured Rizal practicing German, writing “Noli Me Tangere,” wandering in the Odenwald hills—and I could only marvel at the genius of the man who saw no boundaries.


In his travels across Europe, Rizal reminds us that we cannot harbor a simplistic view of the continent, which, from Paris to Prague, from Riga to Reykjavik, has had a diversity of experiences. Instead of looking at it solely on imperial terms, we should realize that some of the ideals that inspired our revolutions actually came from it: Europe itself, after all, was a colony of its kings. And If Europeans are vocal about human rights, perhaps it is borne of their past, which, like ours, was full of unspeakable suffering.

Rizal also commends us to ensure that wherever we are, our hearts should not be far from home. When he was in Brussels, he wrote about building a school in Calamba; when he was in London, he wrote to the women of Malolos. The Philippines was always his reference point, and today, with more and more Filipinos going and living abroad, we have much to gain if we allow other countries to inspire us about what can be done for our own.

Finally, Rizal in his European journeys exemplifies the importance of an international outlook: one that strikes a balance between patriotism and the idea of a universal brotherhood. Faced with the splendor of Europe and the varying attitudes of the people he met, Rizal felt neither insecure nor resentful, even if he had plenty of reasons to feel that way. Instead, he took a more enlightened path: learning as much as could, opening himself to new experiences, communicating his ideas in reasoned tones, and building friendships along the way.

As we mark his 156th birthday on June 19 and as our nation undertakes a much-needed conversation about our national—and postcolonial—identity, Rizal’s legacy can continue to inspire us. May we follow his footsteps not just in Europe but throughout the world.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Friday, June 2, 2017

Opinion: A sad day for the country and the planet

Photo by Fernando Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News
NEW YORK CITY - Today we are confronted with two troubling and depressing developments - an attack in Resorts World Manila that left at least 36 dead, and Donald Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Paris agreement.

As per the Philippine National Police, in the Resorts World incident, a lone, "foreign looking" gunman was said to have barged into the casino, opened fire and stole chips - before setting himself on fire. The ensuing fire led to intoxicating fumes that suffocated most of the victims.

Coming at a time when the Philippines is trying to deal with terrorists in Marawi, and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, the Resorts World incident has raised anxieties, especially among those who fear that it would be used a pretext to declare Martial Law. Reassuringly, government officials themselves have sought to downplay the development, stressing that it's not and shouldn't be considered a terror attack, let alone an attack from ISIS. But this raises the question: What was the basis for the SITE Intelligence Group - media's sole source for the earlier news - to claim that ISIS is claiming responsibility? How would they define a "ISIS attack" anyway? Given the very consequential nature of news of this nature, we need to ask these hard questions.

As a developing story, speculating or raising conspiracy theories is unhelpful, but even so President Duterte should quickly move to calm a nervous nation by giving reassurance that the incident will be dealt with appropriately - without resorting to disproportionate measures. Much will also depend on the level of professionalism of our uninformed services, and of course, our vigilance.

Meanwhile, here in the US, Donald Trump just announced that he will withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Though long expected from the world's most powerful ignoramus and America's "worst-ever president", it still comes as a sad turn for the planet, given how the US is by far the biggest carbon polluter in history - and Trump has been preaching about "fair share".

What should give us reason to hope, however, is the stiff resistance he is facing, both here and abroad; even China has been vocal about its support for non-binding but still very crucial Paris deal. "Make our planet great again", said new French president Emmanuel Macron - fast becoming one of the faces of enlightened global leadership. More reassuringly, American cities and companies are saying that they will stand by the agreement regardless of what Trump says or does.

When it comes to our looming - and ongoing - environmental and political crises, I wish that we in the Philippines will have the same resolve.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

[Second Opinion] The many voices of Martial Law

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

We cannot pretend otherwise: The nation is sharply divided on the issue of martial law, which President Duterte declared over the whole of Mindanao.

Those who support martial law see it as a logical and commensurate response to a serious threat about which President Duterte has long been warning. In this narrative, enemies of the state have joined forces—drug lords, terrorists, and even the political opposition, and they must be stopped lest they rend our nation asunder. “He knows what he’s doing,” they say of Mr. Duterte. “He’s from Mindanao; why will he harm his own people?”

Those who oppose martial law, on the other hand, see it as a disproportionate response; many fear that it is the next step in the President’s creeping authoritarianism. They cite the precedent of Marcos’ martial law—openly admired by Mr. Duterte even as it was marked by human rights violations. They worry that while the 1987 Constitution has checks and balances against abuses, the institutions tasked to perform them have become inutile and largely subservient.

This debate has taken on an even more divisive turn as some are framing it as a matter between the people of Mindanao and those not from there. “Isn’t it ironic? The people who complain are from Luzon, but martial law is here in Mindanao,” a friend from Davao said, echoing a common refrain in social media. He has a point, but can he speak on behalf of the whole of Mindanao, with all its many voices?

To make sense of people’s attitudes toward martial law, we need to understand where they are coming from. Some people cite the nondeclaration of martial law in Zamboanga City during the 2013 siege as an argument against it, but, as local broadcaster Ronnie Lledo tells me, many in their city actually feel that martial law should have been declared, given what they went through.

For many lumad all over Mindanao, perhaps martial law will be seen as “nothing new,” given the longstanding militarization of their homelands. We speak of “Muslims in Mindanao” as if they were one group, but they, too, have diverse sentiments: Many support martial law, but are gravely concerned about collateral damage. Others are bitterly opposed to it, citing the Moro experience during the Marcos regime.

As for the people of Marawi City, martial law is but part of the ongoing crisis. “This is the saddest Ramadan for us,” they cry, as they narrate stories of survival, escape, hunger, fear and suffering, alongside appeals for humanitarian aid. It is a sobering thought that many Filipinos remain in the crossfire, and that the death toll, civilian and military, continues to rise.

All these are legitimate voices, but theirs are not the only ones. As the death of Senior Insp. Freddie Manuel Solar—who hails from Baguio City—painfully reminds us, the soldiers and police officers in the frontline come from all over the country. Surely their families also have the right to be concerned on whether the fight we’re fighting is just and warranted.

And so does the rest of the nation, including the youth. Omid Siahmard, a UP Manila student from North Cotabato, urged people to stop generalizing their experiences of “feeling safe”—and called for an end to the air strikes, citing the death of a friend’s uncle. Shall we dismiss voices like his? Must we draw lines of legitimacy on the basis of age, region, institution, or religion?

And should we ignore the past? If Digong can invoke the memory of Bud Dajo, should we not invoke the memories of Malisbong? Or, for that matter, Pata Island and Manili?

Personally, I am worried about where this situation might take us: The President’s recent pronouncements (and jokes) are not very reassuring, and neither is humanity’s track record in handling unconstrained power.

But I worry, too, about the divisiveness that martial law is exacerbating and bringing about—a divisiveness that plays into the terrorists’ goal of undoing our cherished institutions and values. As the emerging narratives from Marawi should remind us, there are many voices out there, and the least we can do is listen, especially to those who are affected the most by this deepening crisis.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 1, 2017: