The Philippines is haunted by its relationship with the United States. I remember the day, in 1991, when the Military Bases Agreement between the two countries was rescinded. The headlines yelled, finally: Freedom! But worrywarts held on to their beads. Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base were America’s largest overseas outposts — powerful vestiges of colonial rule decades after the American occupation, which lasted from 1899 to 1946, had ended. In American history books those decades have fallen into an Orwellian memory hole: lost or abridged.
On the Philippine side, however, the relationship with America looms like Donald Barthelme’s balloon, a deep metaphysical discomfort arising from an inexplicable physical presence. In Barthelme’s story “The Balloon,” a huge glob inflates over Manhattan, affecting ordinary acts of puzzled citizens for no apparent reason. American involvement in Filipino affairs sometimes seems like that balloon, spurring fathomless dread. Bursts of anxiety over the bases’ return pop up every time America finds a new enemy.
The high-level April 30 meeting between the United States and the Philippines in Washington occurs during a standoff between Beijing and Manila over disputed territories. Hillary Rodham Clinton has called the contested portion of the South China Sea “the West Philippine Sea,” fanning Chinese ire and Filipino nationalism alike over obscure islands known by most as the Spratlys. (They have oil, and China wants it, too.) And tensions have not been soothed by joint military training exercises featuring 6,000 American and Filipino troops practicing so-called mock beach invasions on the coast facing China. Indeed, as America pivots to Asia and China rattles Manila, old phantoms are rising.
When George W. Bush declared his war on terror in 2001, many Filipinos wondered whether a new airport on Mindanao, where American soldiers had increased so-called training operations, was big enough to land an F-14. Nations see global affairs through amusingly paranoid lenses, but as Filipinos joke, just because one is paranoid doesn’t mean no one is out to plant a huge airstrip that might conveniently land a fighter jet.
When Raytheon, the defense contractor, repeatedly consulted with visiting American forces last year about making “dumb” bombs “smart,” and in February actual smart bombs fell on Mindanao, killing alleged jihadists from Malaysia and Singapore, editorials came up with a familiar specter. “Forward base,” one pundit said.
The bases haunt us because they emerged during a dreamspace, when we still believed in our capacity for revolution. America “friended” the Philippines during our 1896 war against Spain then “unfriended” us when it paid Spain $20 million dollars for the islands in 1899. The building of military installations began apace, in step with the trauma of our sense of betrayal.
We agitated against the Clark and Subic bases during the Marcos years, that conjugal dictatorship propped up by American good will. There are photographs of the Marcoses with every American president since 1965, many on Wikicommons: Imelda dancing with the sweaty and the suave: with Nixon, as the Vietnam War waxed, and Reagan, as the cold war waned. A brutal war against ill-equipped, proto-Maoist insurgents kept the Marcoses, and American guns, in business. It’s no surprise that the bases became a linchpin in our constitutional debates after we threw out the dictator in 1986.
I was a volunteer sorting through the dregs of history left behind in Manila’s presidential palace when the constitutional convention of 1986 was in full swing. Delegates were venting over the removal of American military bases as I dragged out from the palace drawers, in the office of Imelda Marcos, one document after another branded “For Your Eyes Only.”
I found piles of confidential military documents mixed with love letters from male pop singers apologizing cryptically for failed nights of the soul. I’d go through carved mahogany doors leading to dusty exhibits of Imelda’s forlorn and notorious shoes to come upon banal evidence of a more ominous evil: boring documents outlining strategic maneuvers, backed by American aid. Too many of them were code named Kalayaan: freedom.
Our brand-new 1987 Constitution banned foreign bases, but America’s lease wasn’t up for four more years. Pundits quipped that only an act of God would kick the bases out. God obliged.
Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, pulverizing Clark Air Force Base and devastating Subic. America abandoned Clark and moved to renegotiate the bases treaty. I remember the day the Senate rejected the treaty because my own child was newborn, of age with the country. President Corazon Aquino, a sugar heiress whose family made a fortune during World War II providing alcohol to American G.I.’s, reluctantly signed it in 1991.
A smoldering volcano, Mount Mayon, had heralded the arrival of American forces in 1899, and in a seismic mirror Pinatubo ushered them out — a nation foretold by tectonic shifts. In between the acts, rubble remains.
American policy has always benefited the Filipino elite — the Marcoses, the Macapagal-Arroyos and the current presidential family, the Cojuangco-Aquinos, are among the handful who have reaped a bonanza. The interests of the oligarchy are the ties that bind. Our spectral angst is not so immaterial: our dread is drenched in military dollars and haunted by civilian blood.
After Mr. Bush declared the Philippines “a major non-NATO ally,” his government gave the last president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid. Mrs. Macapagal Arroyo famously boasted in 2004 that she “inherited” United States military aid of “$1.9 million only” but that “our military support is now $400 million and still counting.” She crowed, “We are No. 1 in East Asia and No. 4 in the whole world.”
The State Department’s Human Rights Report notes that security forces under Mrs. Macapagal Arroyo’s rule were responsible for “arbitrary, unlawful, and extrajudicial killings, disappearances, physical and psychological abuses,” and that the Philippine National Police force was “the worst abuser of human rights.”
She is now under house arrest. And her Ampatuan allies on Mindanao are in jail for their roles in the brazen 2009 election massacre of 57 people, including about 30 journalists — digging pits with a government backhoe and gunning victims down point-blank. When the bodies were found, the backhoe was still running, spewing dirt from shallow graves. Corazon Aquino’s son, Noynoy, is now president, and Mr. Marcos’s old defense minister is the Senate president, prosecuting corruption in Mrs. Macapagal Arroyo’s government, whose military reaped the rewards of Mr. Bush’s “global war on terror.”
Raytheon’s smart bombs were sold under a confidential treaty and Mr. Aquino says that American troops “are here as advisers.” But hands are being wrung: when drones start dropping by, who will need a military base — or even a constitution? As psychiatrists say, repetition is the site of trauma. And in the Philippines recursion is our curse. Mount Pinatubo is still trembling.
Gina Apostol is the author of The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata” and “Gun Dealers’ Daughter, and an English teacher in Massachusetts.