Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dogmeat, Dictators and Barack Obama

Published May 27, 2008

If he wins in November, Barack Obama will become the first president of the United States … to have tried dog meat, or at least the first to have admitted it publicly.

That’s not likely to win him votes, but it sure makes him a hell of a lot more interesting to Filipinos. Here are a couple more biographical tidbits.

As a boy, Obama played kite duels like the game enjoyed by Pinoy children in which one tries to force an opponent’s saranggola (kite) down from the sky.

Then this: Obama knows on a personal level the dehumanizing power of poverty and dictatorship in the Third World.

You can learn more from his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” first published more than a decade ago, and a paperback bestseller in the US.

It’s a fascinating read, especially for Filipinos.

Obama found dog meat tough, snake meat tougher and roasted grasshopper crunchy. Bicolanos, in particular, would enjoy his company: Obama said he “learned how to eat small green chili peppers raw with dinner” with “plenty of rice.”

I wonder if, as some of my childhood friends in Cubao did, Obama and his buddies also used razor blades attached to their saranggola string to gain an advantage in aerial duels.

It is the third point that I think is most relevant to Filipinos.

After Obama’s parents separated in Hawaii where he grew up, his mother married a visiting student named Lolo Soetoro who took his new family back to his native Indonesia.

Lolo had witnessed the rise of Indonesian nationalism that eventually led to the defeat of Dutch colonialism. His father and brother were killed in the resistance and the Dutch burned their house down. But as a student in Hawaii, with Indonesia emerging as a newly-independent nation, Lolo was “so full of life, so eager with plans,” Obama writes.

“Things would be changing now that the Dutch had been driven out, Lolo had told [my mother]; he would return and teach at the university, be a part of that change,” Obama continues.

But the change was not what he expected.

Sukarno, the admired but controversial independence leader and president became a target of right wing forces. In 1967, a coup still widely believed to have been aided by the CIA, overthrew his government. That led to a bloody crackdown and the rise of the Suharto dictatorship.

“The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe half a million,” Obama writes. “We had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times.”

The change was devastating for Obama’s stepfather. Lolo was a strong, hard working and decent man who took care of Obama and his mother. But he also faced painful choices in Indonesia under Suharto – similar to those many Filipinos endured under Marcos. Some Indonesians fought back against dictatorship, while others simply accepted, even embraced, the new regime.

Lolo Soetoro chose the latter.

“Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line … making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own,” Obama writes. “So Lolo had made peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting.”

Filipinos and Indonesians remember how, at the height of the Cold War, the United States endorsed, even bankrolled, brutal dictators who were considered “friendly” to American interests. That sinister policy reemerged in the post 9-11 world, underscored by the Bush administration’s cozy ties with authoritarian rulers in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Would Obama embrace the same attitude? Or would he remember his stepfather and other Indonesians who endured repression and humiliation under dictatorial rule?

This is a critical question if, as some fear, the Philippines may be in danger of repeating a dark chapter in our own past. If the current occupants of Malacanang are indeed looking for a way to extend their stay beyond 2010, as some suspect, Obama in the White House could pose a serious problem.

Obama’s memoir also offers some hints on how he might take on issues of poverty and inequality. These became real for him in the cities and countryside of Indonesia.

Recalling the beggars in Djakarta, Obama writes, “They seemed to be everywhere, a gallery of ills – men, women, children, in tattered clothing matted with dirt, some without arms, others without feet, victims of scurvy or polio or leprosy …”

He relates how his mother once visited a wealthy area in Djakarta that sounds much like the posh neighborhoods in Ayala Alabang or Makati, where “diplomats and generals lived in sprawling houses with tall wrought-iron gates.” To drive off a poor woman who had wandered near one of the fancy homes, a group of men who were washing a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes threw a handful of coins onto the road. “The woman ran after the coins with terrible speed, checking the road suspiciously as she gathered them into her bosom,” Obama relates.

And in the Indonesian countryside, he remembers “the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields.”

Obama also probably understands that people eat dogmeat in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines – a practice viewed as reprehensible in the West – for a simple reason: hunger and lack of food.

Many U.S. and European politicians have often appeared clueless, if not insensitive, when it comes to issues of poverty and repression in the developing world. Take the reaction of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell a few years ago when he was confronted in Manila with the Philippine government’s bid to get duty-free access for tuna exports, similar to the one given to South America.

In presenting its case, the Philippine government had tried to convince Powell that the issue was a matter of survival for tens of thousands of impoverished fisherfolk in Mindanao. But Powell, who was then trying to sell the world on the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq, was unimpressed, even saying, "I did not know someday I would be dealing with tuna.”

Would Obama react in the same way? As another American politician worried about how he is perceived at home and about his chances in the next election, maybe.

But there’s also a chance, even a small one, that he would react differently. He would listen intently, consult his advisers and weigh the broader economic issues involved. But as he makes his decision, he may also see the faces, hear the voices and remember the stories of the struggling people he knew on the streets of Djakarta.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Monday, May 19, 2008

In Memory of My Last Yosi

Published May 13, 2008

I still remember my last cigarette. I was at Narita Airport, waiting for my flight home to Manila. Declaring it to be my last, I smoked it up to the edge of the filter then stubbed it out in the ash tray. I watched the last wisp of smoke expire, before I finally walked away.

That was 18 years ago, on May 9, 1990.

Now, the fact that I still remember the date, and even some of the details of that moment, is bad news: It means I’m still vulnerable. After nearly two decades of being nicotine-free, of being a proud and committed non-smoker, the craving is most likely still there. Dormant maybe, but still breathing and waiting to be reawakened (like Voldemort perhaps).

The fact that I even decided to write about this, on the anniversary of my last yosi, is a disturbing sign. But that’s what smoking does to you. Even after giving up, the memory of how good it felt, the craving, lingers on for years. There are even some nights, and I know some ex-smokers go through this, when I actually dream that I went back to the habit. Actually, it’s more of a nightmare with the sensible part in me yelling, “Oh no, not after all these years!”

Growing up in Quezon City, I was exposed early to a world of heavy smokers. My father smoked and so did my brothers-in-law. As a boy I would secretly retrieve my father discarded cigarette butts, relight them and smoke them. I know – that was stupid, not to mention unsanitary and very unhealthy.

It was not until I went to UP and joined the Philippine Collegian that I became a fully-committed smoker. Surrounded by smokers during all-night press work, especially during the height of the protest movement against the Marcos dictatorship, the temptation was simply overwhelming. From a few sticks a day, I quickly moved up to half a pack.

By the time I began working as a journalist, I was consuming a pack day. It was inevitable really. In Manila, at least back in the ‘80s (and I suspect this is still true today) smoking, drinking and journalism pretty much came as one package. After a day covering the often tumultuous days of the post-Marcos era, heading to the nearest beer house for a night of San Miguels (or Gold Eagles) and packs of Marlboros or Camels became a way to unwind.

The thought of quitting was always present of course, especially after it became more difficult for me to walk up a flight of stairs without ending up gasping for air. Then there was the fear of cancer. Some non-smoker friends would have event taunt me, “Boying, make a political statement by quitting smoking. How can you call yourself progressive?”

But as Mark Twain said, quitting smoking is easy – he did it many times.

So did I.

The first time I survived roughly two months without lighting up, I was so proud of my accomplishment that I decided to give myself a reward – I allowed myself a smoke. And just like that, I was back in the clutches of nicotine.

I realized eventually that I could never be like many friends of mine who can become social smokers, smoking only when with fellow smokers at a party or some other gathering, but who can just easily turn the craving off once the party is over. Sadly, I couldn't do that. I could only either be a non-smoker or a heavy smoker. No middle ground.

Eventually, money and Manila smog turned out to be the keys to my escape.

When I smoked my last cigarette at Narita airport, I was on my way home after a long visit to the United States. I knew from experience that the heat and the polluted air would make it tough to smoke in Manila. So it was an opening I could exploit.

Then, I was also set to return to the US in a few months to begin graduate studies at UC Berkeley. In other words, I was a bout to begin a new chapter in my life as a starving graduate student and expat. Smoking had suddenly become a luxury I could no longer afford.

And so it was that at Narita Airport, I said good bye to nicotine.

I have actually embraced a radical attitude: I have literally not touched a cigarette or a cigarette pack in the past 18 years. (Well, maybe I did a couple of times when I had to hand a pack over to someone.)

But that hard-line approach, I believe, is key. Because I only know too well that once you become a regular smoker, even for only a few years or months, you will forever be vulnerable. Vigilance is important.

Perhaps someday I can confidently say once and for all that I no longer have to worry. And as I honor the memory of my last yosi and the day I said goodbye to smoking nearly two decades ago, I also look forward to the day when I actually will no longer remember.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel