Haiyan and the other Philippines typhoon: The untold political scandal underpinning this tragedy

Another storm is centered on the Filipino Senate; it won’t be gone by Monday

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There are two storms raging in the Philippines right now - one you’ve heard of, and one you might not have. The former is Supertyphoon Yolanda, or Haiyan, which hit the country on Friday. It has been widely touted as the most powerful cyclone to make landfall in recorded history. Three people have been reported dead so far, but that number is likely to rise, and the true scale of the damage will take many days to assess. Early estimates say that millions, at least, will be affected.

The other storm’s eye is centered on the Filipino Senate, and it won’t be gone by Saturday morning. This week, Filipinos have been watching a political scandal unfold that may even touch Malacanang Palace. At a time when the poor are suffering the deadliest effects of a killer typhoon, a pork-barrel corruption case is throwing into even higher contrast the division between the political elite and those they rule. It is even threatening irreproachable public image of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who pledged to clean up politics when he came to power in 2010.

The stimulus programs at the heart of the controversy are the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) - both designed to boost public infrastructure spending and reduce poverty. Businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles is alleged to have set up a host of fictitious NGOs into which crooked officials funnelled billions of government pesos. That was money that could have been used to rehouse vulnerable squatters or support flood control in coastal communities. Instead, it ended up in the pockets of a cabal which, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, included five senators and 23 members of the House of Representatives.

Beside the ravages of a corrupt political elite, Filipinos know that their country is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live, threatened by volcanic eruption and frequent earthquakes. Yolanda is the strongest of 24 typhoons that have already buffeted the group of islands this season. Hence their impatience with a government whose approach to calamity remains reactive.

Malacanang’s focus remains on stockpiling supplies before an imminent event or securing international relief in the immediate aftermath, rather than longterm thinking about risk prevention, say, through better land use or communal insurance projects. Most importantly, says the World Bank, the government has failed to address the clear links between poverty and vulnerability to disasters. The country desperately needs spending on preventive infrastructure. Hence the anger when a pork barrel scam funnels key funds away from those projects, resulting in a deadly nexus of geography, poverty and government inaction.

And even by Filipino standards, the scale and brazenness of the pork barrel scam is shocking. For those unfamiliar with the country’s politics, things can get pretty dramatic. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who has been grilling Napoles this week, warned the businesswoman that she should turn states’ witness or risk her powerful co-conspirators in the Senate silencing her for good. Napoles appeared in the hearing in a cumbersome-looking bulletproof vest, not doing much to inspire faith in the health of political system. And Santiago scored some points herself. She used a press conference after the hearing to accuse her rival Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, whose dyed black hair belies his 89 years, of being the real ringleader. Her evidence partially comprised the knowledge that one of the co-conspirators was referred to by code name “Tanda”: “old”. In the same press conference, she claimed that codename “Pogi” (“cutie”) must refer to the screen actor and Senator Bong Revilla, and “Sexy” was Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who has recently had a lot of liposuction.

Filipinos are tired of this soap opera. Hackers attacked government websites this week, including the newly launched disaster prevention portal, which redirected users to a pornographic website. The local branch of Anonymous replaced a variety of pages with a call to join anti-corruption protests and a message accusing the government of failing Filipino citizens.

A million-man march against the Aquino administration represents an unhappy reversal for the President. Many will remember the joyous scenes of popular protest against the Marcos regime that helped bring his mother Corazon to the office herself in 1986. Noynoy frequently invoked Cory, as she is known by a largely adoring public, as his role model in the fight against corruption. And indeed, he has made some progress, cleaning up the anti-graft body and prosecuting former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her associates for corruption. But for his legacy to be secure, he must do more to clean out structures that make political patronage and theft possible - even if it means taking a hard line with those who have supported him in the past.

At a moment when government funds are in great demand, it’s little wonder that such close attention is being paid to the Napoles hearings, and not only because of the assassination plots and camp code names.The money earmarked for the kind of projects that could save lives in the aftermath of Yolanda was instead used to buy Janet Napoles-Lim a flat in the Los Angeles Ritz-Carlton. Noynoy is now halfway through his term, and it remains to be seen whether his less wholesome colleagues will prevent him from implementing the real reforms needed to help the Philippines weather the next storm.

Maria Paz Mendez Hodes is a freelance journalist. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Oxford University. Previously, she was a producer at the Charlie Rose Show in New York City.

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