When Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the island of Homonhon in Samar on the feast day of Saint Lazarus of Bethany in 1521, he named the group of islands Las Islas de San Lazaro in honor of Saint Lazarus. Twenty-two years later in 1543, Ruy Lopez de Villalobos reached the same islands and named them Las Islas Felipinas in honor of the Prince of Asturias, the then Philip II of Spain.
But Spanish colonization didn’t start until 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi became the first Governor General of the Spanish East Indies, which included Las Islas Felipinas (The Philippine Islands) and other Pacific islands. In 1571, Legazpi named Manila the capital of the Spanish East Indies.
To populate the Philippine Islands with Hispanic people, he attracted them from Nueva Espana (New Spain), which is now Mexico, by giving them land ownership. Most of them came without families. Needless to say, these single men intermarried with native women.
In my article, “The Landed and the Landless” (October 21, 2005), I wrote: “Land ownership, the Filipinos’ ultimate dream, has been the exclusive domain of the rich. Truly, ‘land ownership’ separates the rich from the poor — the landed from landless.
“Land ownership for the rich has its beginning when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, upon colonizing the Philippines, instituted the Encomienda system. He divided the archipelago into large parcels and assigned each parcel to a favored Spaniard for administration and care. Encomienda, which means ‘to entrust,’ was adopted in Spain to reduce the abuses of forced labor. It was implemented in Spanish America and the Philippines to take care of the economic and spiritual welfare of the natives. However, its benevolent purpose was circumvented and abused by the Spanish grantees — the ‘encomenderos.’ They collected tribute from the natives.
Pretty soon the tribute became rents to powerful landlords and the natives became share tenants. In the end, the natives became virtual slaves of the encomenderos. In 1674, the Spanish Crown abolished the Encomienda system in all of its colonies. However, for more than 100 years after its abolition, it remained in effect in the Philippines.
“The Encomienda system evolved into the Hacienda system. Land grants were given to the ‘hacenderos’ – ‘Filipinos’ (pure Spanish), ‘mestizos’ (mixed Spanish and native ‘indio’), and the favored families (the ‘indio’ elite). The hacenderos expanded their influence in all sectors of the economy. They became the political masters, second only to the Spanish masters.
“When Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the Americans were precluded from touching the Friar lands because the treaty bound the US to protect the land owned by religious orders. When Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo established the first republic in 1899, he promised to confiscate large estates particularly the Friar lands. But that did not materialize because he spent his time fighting the Americans until he was captured and forced to pledge allegiance to the new masters.
“During the commonwealth period under American colonial rule, the Rural Program Administration, created in March 1939, provided for the purchase and lease of haciendas and their sale and lease to tenants. However, the tenants were so poor, they simply could not buy the land they were farming.
“When the Philippines gained its independence from the United States in 1946, the hacenderos had complete control of the economy. They also became the political masters of the new republic. They constituted the new aristocracy and the oligarchy, all bundled into an exclusive class.
“The new Philippine government grappled with the problems of land ownership. Numerous agrarian reforms were instituted. During the presidency of Ramon Magsaysay, former HUK dissidents and landless farmers were resettled and given land ownership. His untimely death stopped the program.”
Today, Philippine society is still divided between the landed and the landless. Large segments of the rural population are still poor and landless. They work for the landed – the hacenderos. But many of them look up to the insurgents for deliverance.
It did not then come as a surprise that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military wing, the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) thrive because of their toehold in the rural areas where dissidence is common and unemployment high. They have been successful in attracting young men and women into the ranks of insurgents that have been at war with the government since the Philippines gained independence in 1946. In fact, they’re the only communist insurgency that exists in the world today.
Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No. 70, which ordered the creation of a national task force that would seek to “end local communist armed conflict.” The EO reads, “There is a need to create a national task force that will provide an efficient mechanism and structure for the implementation of the whole-of-nation approach to aid in the realization of the collective aspiration of the Filipino people to attain inclusive and sustainable peace.
Towards this end, the Government shall prioritize and harmonize the delivery of basic services and social development packages in conflict-affected areas and -vulnerable communities, facilitate societal inclusivity, and ensure active participation of all sectors of society in the pursuit of the country’s peace agenda.” The President shall chair the task force, while the National Security Adviser shall serve as vice-chair.
While it’s commendable that Duterte has finally focused on ending the communist insurgency that has been taking a high toll on the social and economic agenda of the government, this author believes that there is one element missing in this “whole-of-nation” approach to achieve peace and prosperity.
It’s interesting to note that what made the then Secretary of Defense Magsaysay successful in breaking the back of the Huk communist movement was his “Land for the landless” program, which by the way, was “borrowed” from the Huks’ own slogan, “Land for the Landless.” For each insurgent who surrendered his weapon, the government gave him a carabao, a plow, and several hectares of arable land in Mindanao. Within two years, the communist insurgency was defeated. The anti-Huk campaign propelled Magsaysay to national fame. In 1953 he ran for president against his former boss, President Elpidio Quirino, and won with the support of 68.9% of the voters.
The social problem that Legazpi imposed on the “indios” in 1571 still exists today — two classes of people – the landed and the landless, the rich and the poor. The Philippines is still a rural and agricultural society. And this situation provides a climate for dissatisfaction and resentment against the ruling elite. And that’s the reason why the country is still fighting an insurgency that seeks social justice, which by the way, was enshrined in the Constitution.
But the old colonialism is no longer around. It’s the present-day colonialism from within that hinders our progress. Indeed, the elite today are the new encomenderos.