I wrote this article for the Philippine Online Chronicles.
Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Dinky Soliman’s admission that the Aquino government brought homeless families to a posh resort during the visit of Pope Francis only confirmed what everybody already knew. Hiding the poor from foreign leaders and dignitaries visiting the Philippines is not new for the country’s government. This practice has rather become the rule rather than the exception with the country’s ruling classes notorious for massive spending on beautification as opposed to social welfare programs.
The classic practitioner of the “vanishing poor” act was no other than the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Manila slum-dwellers were driven away en masse from the parade routes of the 1974 Miss Universe beauty pageant and the 1975 visit of US President Gerald Ford. Ever since the 1976 International Monetary Fund-World Bank meeting in Manila, it has become an annual ritual for succeeding Philippine governments to wall up slum areas along the highways to keep them out of sight from visitors.
Even the coming to power of Corazon Aquino on the heels of the 1986 “People Power” uprising against the Marcos dictatorship did nothing to end this anti-poor tradition. Over 600,000 informal settlers were reportedly evicted from their shanties during the rule of the current president’s mother. Successive governments from Ramos, to Estrada (whose pro-poor rhetoric has not prevented him from demolishing over 22,000 squatters’ homes in the first year of his term), to Arroyo, up to Noynoy Aquino have resorted to all sorts of schemes to hide the poor.
After repeatedly denying that the homeless and poor were removed from the streets of Manila in preparation for the visit of Pope Francis to the country, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman admitted that the Philippine government sent some 100 poor homeless families to an air-conditioned resort in time for the papal visit. A teary-eyed Soliman said in a Senate investigation meeting that her agency took them to an air-conditioned resort in Batangas to clear Roxas Boulevard, which was part of the route taken by the pope’s motorcade in Manila.
The homeless families were brought to the Chateau Royale resort in Nasugbu Batangas, located 90 kilometers south of the predominantly Catholic country’s national capital. The DSWD spent $97,600 for the six-day “family camp” supposedly as part of the Aquino government’s anti-poverty program. According to the agency, the training is supposed to equip the participants with the skills to help them find jobs.
Secretary Soliman had earlier denied a news report that the department gathered and hid the poor during the papal visit. She insisted that the training given by her agency merely coincided with the visit of the pope. And indeed, bringing the poor to a resort is definitely a more creative way of hiding them than simply walling up slums like they did last May 2014 when the World Economic Forum (WEF) was held in Manila.
The penchant for magically covering up poverty continues today as the Aquino regime struggles to keep up appearances of progress amidst unabated corruption, poverty, and inequality. From the onset, Aquino has always insisted that his good governance and anti-corruption campaign has led to economic growth. But as his term comes to a close, it has become clear to all that this so-called development have only benefited Aquino’s close friends and family in power, big businesses, and the landed elites.
It thus comes with a tinge of irony that Pope Francis, who is popular for his support for the poor, visited the country to see firsthand the real conditions of indigent and destitute Filipinos, especially the victims of typhoon Haiyan. The Aquino government’s staged vanishing of the poor came to an abrupt end with the homeless families being taken back to Manila after the pope left the country.