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Monday, May 29, 2006

Drawing the Line

Muslims all over the world were up in arms when their prophet Mohammad was depicted in unflattering terms last year by a Danish newspaper. In Christendom, the publication of the Da Vinci Code has stoked the same rage and anger over the fictitious description of Christ having an intimate relationship with Mary Magdelene and begetting a child. Well at least in some quarters.

Do we draw the line then? At what point should we allow a fictional depiction of Jesus Christ without stepping foot into heretical territory?

Catholics who know their faith do not need to worry. Dan Brown”s foray into questionable pseudo-theological, Church-led conspiracy to hide the real truth about Jesus’ blood line has been shred into pieces by theologians who matter, both Catholic and Protestant, except those few who insist that the Gnostic gospels, from where Dan Brown’s got his seminal ideas for the book, are as valid as the existing New Testament Four.

I saw the movie and was never attracted to the book. Since everybody was reading it, I did the opposite thing: I avoided it. I still have the same reaction to the Harry Potter series: I do not jump into the band wagon just because everybody is reading the books. I hate the herd mentality and might as well venture out on my own. I digress again.

The movie was exceedingly long, and quite, quite boring. It felt longer than 2,000 years, or the entire history of the Church. I believe Tom Hanks is preparing for his retirement, otherwise, why be part of this lamentable, obviously commercial movie?

I pity the Opus Dei, which were unfairly depicted in the Da Vinci Code. I do not for a moment, believe that they have murderous members, like the monk Silas’ character, among their ranks. In the first place, everybody knows Opus Dei isn’t a monastic order, for crying out loud.

As for the codes and the clues, oh well, c’mmon, you really think Leonardo would go to great lengths to hide his messages through an elaborate system of symbols integrated into his artwork as a full-fledged member of the Priory of Sion? Brown’s reading too much in between the lines and making too much fuss about symbols.

And besides, this Priory of Sion which supposedly has its origins in the Knights Templars during the Crusades is a figment of one Frenchman’s imagination, a Monsieur Planchard who wrote an elaborate membership list that counts Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci as members, and hid this in the National Library in Paris, and titled it the Secret Dossiers!. As one theologian said, if he really wanted it to remain secret, Planchard wouldn’t call it Secrets and wouldn’t hide it in a National Library, of all places.

For this reason, the Da Vinci Code deserves a yawn, except clearly for those who have an axe to grind against the Church, who are convinced the Vatican is really manipulating everything to ensure its survival, like my friend Barry Manilaw.

Those who were calling for its boycott may be overreacting. But I do understand their fears. For one, Brown is talking about the origins of our faith and a scenario of Jesus different than what the church says. After all, it is clearly an attempt, in fiction terms, to undermine the teachings of the church. Brown addresses fundamental questions such as whether Jesus was divine or human, or how the New Testament was established.

The Da Vinci Code is without doubt fiction, (unless you really believe that Mary Magdalene is buried under the Louvre, then you're a freakin' eejit) but you very well know what he’s driving at, and the institution he is accusing of manipulating and hiding basic Christian facts. Unfortunately, no matter how exciting and how much suspense the book and the movie generate, much like the over-hyped National Geographic feature the Gospel of Judas, I remain unconvinced of its main hypothesis.

Dan Brown, whose ideas are being attacked relentlessly from all sides, says rather sheepishly that "You don't have to believe a single word of the story to enjoy it, to engage in the debate, to remain open-minded to perspectives that make us think, perspectives that challenge us to ponder and articulate why we believe what we believe. Who knows? Many of us may emerge from that debate with stronger faith then when we started."

Yeah, right, but in the meantime, his book has sold over 40 million copies and he will die a rich man out of the royalties from the blockbuster movie. Even if he only gets a dollar, which is highly unlikely, for every copy sold, he’s still loaded with Da Vinci money. He might as well have found the Knights Templar's riches himself. That is the catch.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Piano Extravaganza: Verbier Festival

10th Verbier Festival 2003
Verbier, Switzerland

Verbier is an idyllic alpine village in Switzerland that plays host every year to a series of performances featuring an elite group of musicians. 2003 marked its tenth year and in invited no less than 23 prominent musicians from around the world, counting among them the legendary Martha Argerich.

It was a joy to watch Argerich play again, now in her golden years. She teamed up with the youthful Evgeny Kissin to perform Mozart’s C Major Sonata for 2 pianos, K.521. Argerich has been busy with ensemble performances of late, she is not obsessed with solo repertory. I still have her CD recording of Ravel’s dazzling La Valse, Strauss’ Domestic Symphony, as well as Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, all for four hands. I fortunately have a solo CD recording of her Liszt and Schumann Sonatas, the former exhibited without doubt, her technical mastery of the instrument, she seems unfazed by any technical demands made by any composer.

The Mozart was a delight to hear: the ringing, lilting melodies, the graceful ornamentation that served as variations to a childish theme. The Russian Kissin held his own against the legend, after all, he is an accomplished pianist himself. It was like seeing a grandmother and her grandson making beautiful music together on the grand.

Smetana’s one movement work for 2 piano/8 hands was an exercise in musical color and texture. Performed by Kissin, Met Musical Director James Levine (I didn’t know that he’s a pianist of note), Emmanuel Ax and Leif Ove Andsnes. Levine and Ax were like Santa Clauses, chubby, with big and curly hair, while Leif looked like a porn star. I digress. Beautiful. Full of fire and rhythmic color.

Heidrich’s Happy Birthday variations featured prominent string soloists, among them Sara Chang (violin) and Mischa Maisky (cello). Using the familiar refrain, various moods were evoked employing different styles: from the celebratory, to the mysterious, dangerous and the melancholy. If you ever wondered how classical musicians hang out and jam together, this is exactly what it looks like.

Argerich teamed up again with three other pianists (4 grand pianos in all) to perform J.S Bach’s Concerto for 4 pianos BWV 1065. Bach’s music is sublime, and it shows clearly in the performance. The string soloist earlier provided the tutti, or orchestral backdrop and support to the four. Wonderful.

And then there were eight. Yes eight pianists, including Lang Lang (who made sure the audience didn’t miss the fact that he’s Chinese, he wore a Cheong Sam, I think that’s what you call it), Mikhail Pletnev (who’s a lot older now, he’s a fantastic Chopin and Scriabin interpreter) and others. The performed Rossini’s Semiramide Overture, originally for an orchestra in an opera house. For an orchestral work, 8 pianos are quite good enough to recreate the orchestral sonorities. I like this one best, especially towards the end when the work hurtles to the all-too-familiar Rossini specialty, the crescendo.

The pianists fared badly in Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. This Wagner work is powerful when performed by an orchestra. It is full of color and rhythmic vitality. An attempt to recreate its sound through the piano alone can be risky. In this case, the pianists only managed to convey a sense of chaos, and what we hear is basically noise.

The other numbers were too cute and corny, like the Jamaican Rumba, Stars and Stripes and L’Union, a paraphrase of the famous national tunes like the Star Spangled Banner. Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee arranged for 8 pianos was a fitting encore, however.

It was an altogether satisfying concert, although I would have preferred a heavier repertoire which would include Rachmaninoff and Ravel.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Loony Tunes

Jerry was our cranky neighbor who lived just two houses away from us. He was the eldest son in their family, the father always away at work, the mom looked like she were a Liwayway character in the flesh: a stereo-typical cigarette-smoking, gin guzzling, mahjong fanatic who seemed to have forgotten that she had children to feed and raise; while the siblings went about their ways, unattended. Unfortunately, probably because of neglect, Jerry developed into a loony character, which frightened everybody in the neighborhood.

As kids, we’d play all over the neighborhood’s front lawns, sometimes near Jerry’s. The problem was that, on some occasions, he’d throw a fit for no apparent reason, maybe something caught his attention and got his ire, and he’d vent his irritation by pelting houses nearby or people within his viewing distance with rocks. For this reason, we steered clear of him at the first sign of trouble. We’d scram and scamper in all directions, while our parents boarded up the houses, closing windows in the hope that Jerry would calm down and the situation resolved without any broken windows.

Nang Elsa, however, had the unfortunate situation of living right next door to Jerry’s. I think her house had the most number of broken windows in the neighborhood, all thanks to Jerry.

One fine summer morning, Jerry was in one of his more subdued moods: he was taking a stroll, whistling and occasionally humming some folksy tune. Nang Elsa was also outside, cleaning the yard and doing some gardening. I was playing marbles with Andy, her eldest son, near Jerry’s house. Their AM radio was on, loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear, as the Fighter Wine jingle blared:

“Fighter wine, Oh Fighter Wine,
Let us buy, Fi-gh-ter, Wiiine”

This delighted Jerry no end, humming along, and almost dancing to the beat. Unfortunately, it ended, which frustrated him. He demanded that Nang Elsa play back Fighter Wine, because he loved it and wanted to sing it again. She tried to explain that it was impossible. He wasn’t convinced. He was getting insistent and angrier by the second, and increasingly turning livid with rage. I smelled trouble.

And then, the all-too-familiar scene: as if by instinct, he turned around to pick up a rock (gasp!).

Just before Nang Elsa could nervously run inside the house, I think it was Jerry’s father who intervened in the nick of time and prevented another stone-pelting episode (whew!).

As for me, Andy and I were preparing to climb an avocado tree nearby!

I do not know if he got straight-jacketed to an asylum. They moved elsewhere some time after that. I’m sure Nang Elsa’s prayers got answered.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Joebalbs

Maria informed me today that my high school classmate Joebalbs, who was in dialysis, passed away last weekend after falling into a coma. To think that we were just talking about him last night.

Stella confirmed the information and passed over the phone to Zarah (who now goes by the name of Zee) whom I haven’t heard from since high school.

Zarah: "Who is this? Do I know you? Were we classmates in grade school?"

Me: "Yes we know each other. This is Joebalbs."

Zarah: "#$*&^!+*%@!"

Believe it or not, we were laughing like hyenas recounting old times. Not out of disrespect to Joebalbs, but more because we haven’t really kept in touch all these years. Anyway, as Stella said, Joebalbs wouldn’t have wanted us to be brooding over him.

Obviously, his death had a profound effect on them. Zarah said they’ve been pondering the meaning of their existence and mortality since morning. In fact, they were discussing their preferred funeral arrangements! Stella, who is very much in touch with her emotions, surmised that Joebalbs must have been the “goodest” in class because he was taken away first. Which had me thinking. In our class of about forty or so, where do I figure in the “goodest-to-baddest” spectrum? Zarah apparently had the same idea. She assured me, in her list, I didn’t figure in the top ten.

Joebalbs’ seat in class was near mine. Stella may be right. He was an affable fellow. He was the only one who called me by my nickname.

I pray for the family he left behind. May he rest in peace.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Manila Bay Blooper

In Manila Bay, you’d see all kinds of garbage: diapers (yuck), plastics caps and bottles, and if you look closely and scour the bottom, you might find some false teeth!

Well yesterday, I made a sorry-ass blooper. You see, Scrooge’s false teeth fell off while huffing and puffing during dragon boat training, hitting Harold’s paddle behind him before it disappeared into the murky waters of Manila Bay. Harold, understandably almost fell off his seat laughing. The supposedly funny situation was lost on me since I didn’t see it and that I was busy huffing and puffing myself through a really arduous training session.

Fast forward to McDonald’s: Harold kept talking about it and well, paid for Scrooge’s breakfast, to assuage the latter’s feelings.

I impulsively said, “It’s a good thing you understand each other”. Only to realize, to my utter horror, that Harold was wearing false teeth himself (gasp!) and that his grin seemed to have been frozen for a couple of seconds as I spoke.

Silence.

I wanted to salvage the situation by saying something funny or clever. It never came.

“Yes, indeed.” Harold said with a wry smile.

He changed the topic. Good.

Me and my big mouth.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Airport Troubadour

I was waiting for my flight back to Manila in Tagbilaran’s tiny airport when all of a sudden, a loud guitar strum and a short introduction in English with a thick Bisaya accent and a slightly American drawl (um, um) boomed from behind the dark glasses of a beaming mid-sized guy with newly cropped hair. He was blind and he was going to entertain waiting passengers, while his companion positioned the donation box prominently in front.

“I’m gowna sing this classic song by Iltoon Jen”, he drawled. Who?

“Tarn me looze…” Ah, Elton John.

Despite the almost unintelligible lyrics, it was obvious the guy was enjoying himself. He was like your neighborhood tambay (bum) singing the blues away at the corner sari-sari (variety) store. He did well although he snarled himself through some of his numbers and he was unable to hit and occasionally scrapes the top notes.

Usually, when I hear a musical number my mind automatically searches for technical flaws and inconsistencies. I wear my critic’s hat and right on the spot mentally assesses the performance. You can’t really blame me. With so much bad music around, one has to distinguish works that have real merit from filth and garbage.

Anyway, this time around, I found myself really entertained. I didn’t mind the fact that he was obviously not a very good singer and he mangled the lyrics. But he sang from the heart and he was like having the time of his life. He was beaming with such good natured-ness it was infectious. I already forgot, at least for the moment, that I only slept three hours the night before, which was the eve of our barrio’s fiesta. (Our house was unfortunately only a shouting distance from the basketball court/disco venue). This is not even tongue-in-cheek, mind you. I do appreciate well-meaning efforts like this one. Bravo.

In the middle of his performance, he paused and thanked a long-list of government officials for their support: mayor, governor, the province’s three congressmen, tourism director, airport administrator. I forgot the others. Plus the usual hype that comes with their positions: “our very own”, “energetic”, “supportive”, “young and dynamic”. Oh my God. Honest. It took something like 5-7 minutes.

Anyway, it was time to leave and he bid the passengers adieu. (No, he didn’t sing “So Long, Farewell” from the Sound of Music).

Upon reaching the foot of the plane’s stairs, I had to stand back as some people were having their pictures taken while climbing the stairs! Oh, well. We have the usual tourists from hell on board.

Back to my humdrum, inconsequential existence.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Heat Wave

I was staring at the monitor for 15 minutes, fidgeting in my seat, unable to clack away at the keys- blog-tied, yeah I think that’s the word. Blank screen, blank mind. The sweltering summer heat is just too much to bear. My mind wanders off, my thought processes become disjointed. A mixture of irritation and discomfort add to the festering lethargy that has taken hold over my mind. I’m not making any sense, am I?

I try Cayabyab’s Araw-Gabi on the piano. Bad idea. Hands feel like paws. Need to practice my scales again. Someone outside hears the music, has the temerity to rap the red metal gate loudly with a small rock, and asks if I can spare her some change. WTF. Here. She asks if I have old clothes. What’s wrong with these people?

I resume practicing. The phone rings. It’s Singapore. Oh, ok. Yeah, I’ll be sending the template EOD. By the way, spoke with Coke. Great. Thanks.

Another knock. A sit-down bible study? No! Are you nuts! You know what time it is? It’s freakin’ eleven o’clock in the morning. Yeah, Christ is a cool guy. He’s great. No I’m not making fun of Him. Dammit, oh excuse me.

I’m hungry. Not in the mood to cook, never been good at it, what, in this heat? No way.

Phone rings, again. Oh, maan. It’s Ali Baba. Dude, my life’s wasted. The hell do I care. I can’t live this way any longer. Can’t you introduce me to some white girl? I need a job. I want to move to Germany. No wait, to Spain. I don’t like the States, it’s so lonely there.

Ali Baba, if you must know, is 40 years old, single, lives with his rich parents, out of job, and keeps on dreaming of getting into bed with some white girl.

Why he thinks I make a good sounding board is beyond me.

Somebody outside the gate calls out, Sir, hi, we’re doing a survey on…No I’m not interested! Just five minutes. Did you hear me? But you get a free shaver. You think I can’t get myself one?

Mobile rings. It’s Shrek. Is 5-6 a good idea? Where should I put my money? In my pocket, you filthy SOB!

Cranky, eh? I know, it must be the heat.

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Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Yeah, Right!

I caught the trailer for GMA-7's I-witness feature, "Condo" (or was it Reporter's Notebook) last night and it featured field reporter Jay Taruc literally making his home under a bridge, in unbelievably squalid conditions for five days, and experiencing first-hand how life is in the most desperate conditions.

I have no problem with features about urban poverty, as that is a reality we have to live with in this God-forsaken part of the world. But I take issue with how the issue is being presented on TV, because for crying out loud, the program could have done a better job by featuring someone who is really enduring the sub-human conditions and living under the bridge, not just some field reporting by a middle-class journalist.

I remember Oprah interviewing a newspaper journalist who went undercover for several months, trying to pass of as "really poor", moving from trailer to trailer, living on welfare and food coupons, in other words, she investigated and found out for herself first-hand how difficult it is to be poor, with Oprah nodding her head from time to time.

Amazing. Did she really have to do that? Damn eejits. The producers could have chosen the POOR themselves. (And you people wonder why I'm not an Oprah fan!)

This is not the first time Taruc engaged himself in dramatic reporting. He has pulled this stunt before. One time, he took a bath at a tiny bathroom slightly larger than your average refrigerator, in some dorm in Quiapo or Morayta area, occasionally pouring water over his head from a dipper, in between his spiels, just so the viewers can relate to the difficulties most students endure when taking a bath in the U-belt area. The humanity!

He's also fond of the double-camera takes: he is usually seen shooting his subjects with a video camera, by the camera man! For effects! Howie Severino does this as well, but it is different because he usually does all the camera work himself.

I'm not just being my usual KJ (kill-joy) self here. You know, instead of gaining valuable insights into the lamentable situation many of our countrymen are mired in, we end up irritated. You want to support the show. You believe in its cause. In the end, you flick the remote to Spongebob Squarepants.

That’s the problem with so-called serious programs such as investigative reports. The presenters take themselves too seriously; it’s as if the weight of the world were in their shoulders. Unfortunately, they usually succeed in annoying the viewers instead.

You think foreign news programs are better? Think again. CNN's veteran anchor Miles O'Brien is unbearably corny I really believe he should transfer to Oprah's show instead. I remember clearly O'Brien suddenly becoming a composer and lyricist when he featured his own musical composition, sort of a tribute to the Oklahoma bombings in the 90’s, over CNN! (Can you really do that?).

In the latest Katrina episode in New Orleans, he just had to taste the water behind him to prove to the viewers that sea water had indeed seeped into the neighborhood when the levee broke. (gasp!).

Also, Al Roper, you know the black guy who looks like a cross between a genie and Shaq O’Neil, who does the weather reports on NBC’s Today, had to grope and generally trip and fall over in the middle of the storm at the height of Katrina. Again the question, did he really have to do that?

Back here, Karen Davila is a classic. When Bobby Yan was beside himself grieving over the death of his brother, Rico Yan, guess what question Davila asked Bobby. Yup. With teary eyes and a voice to match she asked him, “How do you feel?”.

To think that she never fails to remind people that she won a CNN award.

And so I watch MAD TV instead.

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Friday, May 5, 2006

Strike Three

The Supreme Court has finally decided that PD 1107, or the declaration of the State of Emergency last February by President Arroyo, is constitutional in as far recognizing the fact that a crisis existed which required “calling out” the state’s defense institutions to protect itself. The accompanying directives and its implementation, most notably the warrant less arrests and the raid of media outfits were however, as was widely expected, deemed in violation of the law.

Gloria seems to have accumulated a string of legal losses in the High Court: the gag order of officials in the Executive branch appearing before Senate and Congressional hearings, the Calibrated Pre-emptive Response order which prohibited mass rallies and demonstrations without a permit and now the constitutionality of the State of National Emergency. Gloria ought to change lawyers. It’s an embarrassment. Even non-lawyers like me can see clearly where these decisions were headed from the very start: in the dustbin (see my March blog).

They should have asked Sen. Miriam Santiago for advice. Despite her lunatic streaks, Miriam remains an excellent Constitutionalist. At the height of the PD 1107 controversy when Prof. Randy David and members of militant organizations were dispersed and picked up by the PNP, I remember Miriam confidently explaining on ANC News that the “the exercise of the freedom of speech occupies the highest priority in the hierarchy of constitutional values” as stated in the Bill of Rights, and thus, although the declaration was a recognition of the state of affairs, it did not put a lid on the freedom of speech and to peaceably assemble. She said, the no-permit, no-rally order was off the mark because authorities were predisposed to grant permits to rally, the permits were required only to ensure order.

Well, you can’t really blame Gloria. After all, it seems invoking her special powers were simple knee-jerk reactions typical of a paranoid President who is bent on perpetuating herself in power. Even the gag order on officials of the Executive branch and the CPR, all these measures were clearly designed to protect herself from being booted out of office, considering that her popularity remains negative, in the double-digits, and that she refuses to address the issue of whether she cheated in the last Presidential elections or not. (Some quarters believe Gloria cheated but would still have won if she hadn’t).

In a related issue, the national ID system has been given the green signal from the High Court. I’m quite suspicious of the government’s motives, however. Just like the three executive orders, this one’s also a product of Gloria’s paranoia. Mike Defensor, Gloria’s lap dog nowadays, says this will facilitate transactions with government agencies. Really? For one, this would consolidate in one file each person’s confidential information collated from various agencies: SSS, BIR, and the DFA. It’s scary, isn’t it? The thing is, we already have a lot of personal identification cards in transacting with government agencies. So what’s up? Ostensibly, the national ID system is really designed to track your movements, your transactions and when in the wrong hands, can be used to intimidate you.

Gloria and her advisers have been testing Marcos-era tactics. It’s a good thing the Supreme Court remains independent and does not seem to bend to the wishes of Malacañang.

Since the Court is not Palace-friendly, so what’s next? You can bet your last cent that Gloria and her aides will now be training their guns and exerting pressure on the Justices of the Supreme Court, you know, just like Marcos did. This is already the third time they disagreed with her, and I’m sure she’s mad as hell. I do not know how she’s going to do it but given the kind of advisers she has (particularly Ermita), she will.

Whether the Justices will bow to the pressure and remain independent remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Simon Bolivar Isn't Smiling

Bolivia is dead-set on nationalizing its gas-and-oil industry, and has deployed soldiers to take over the facilities of gas entities mostly owned by foreign companies. This was widely expected, as Evo Morales, the leftist Bolivian President and former coca farm leader, has assumed the leadership mainly on a socialist platform. With surging prices in oil and gas, Bolivia is set to benefit from this scenario at the onset, having the largest gas reserves in South America, after Venezuela.

Not surprisingly, Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, has given his thumbs up sign to Morales, the former seems to act as the latter’s mentor. Ostensibly, both leaders share an affinity: both are members of indigenous communities who took the helm of political leadership under a socialist-populist agenda.

The implications of nationalizing this crucial industry will have serious repercussions. Although on paper, this would mean taking back just its fair share of profits from resources that they rightly own, reneging on existing contracts with oil and gas multinationals might prove to be only counter-productive in the long-run.

Simply taking over ownership does not guarantee it can successfully take over the operations as well. Is La Paz well equipped to undertake massive investments to fund exploration and development of its gas reserves? Does it have the necessary infrastructure support, and most critically, manpower support? Bolivia is among the poorest countries in South America.

Governments engage in business activities only in sectors where the private sector is unable to carry it out, like national defense and social services. Or in some cases, critical sectors like power generation and telecommunications that require really massive investments.

In most Western countries, these sectors are largely-privately held, given that developing technology and funding investments best take shape in a capitalist set up where operations are not hampered by regulatory gridlocks and unprofitable concessions to powerful interest groups.

In Bolivia’s case, American, Spanish and Brazilian companies mainly run the gas facilities and conduct the exploration and drilling, mainly because these companies have the technology, and most importantly, the cash to fund these things.

By kicking them out, it remains unclear whether the La Paz can sustain the same momentum in running these facilities given its lack of resources. I’m quite sure Morales has already considered this. The thing is, he may find himself relying increasingly northwards, to Caracas for support. Morales is like Chavez’s boy toy now.

And so there appears for Bush, a growing ‘axis of evil’ version in Latin America sans the nuclear ambitions (but remains a threat, nevertheless) personified by the trio led by Cuba’s Fidel Castro with Venezuela’s Chavez and the latest addition, Bolivia’s Morales.

Morales is clearly getting his cue and support from Chavez (Castro is too old and ailing, and besides Cuba is not oil-rich like Venezuela). Venezuela is riding sky high on current high prices of oil. And recent researches show that Venezuela has very large untapped quantities of oil and gas reserves. Because of this, Chavez is able to snub the United States and make US oil executives prostate before him, much to Bush’s chagrin. His extreme right-wing ally, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club fame, has even suggested that the US assassinate Chavez instead (this guy’s a Hitler in a minister’s robe).

Bolivia is set to follow his example. Next-door neighbor Brazil remains hungry for gas to fuel its growing economy, and so is Argentina, Bolivia’s two main clients. The rest goes northwards.

But whether or not Bolivia can buck the odds and ride high on existing high global demand for energy remains a big question. The fall out from nationalizing these critical industries will be felt, unfortunately in other sectors just as critical.

For one, foreign loans and grants necessary for education, healthcare, and transport infrastructure, for example, will not likely make a stopover in La Paz, as this means Bolivia cannot be counted on to honor its obligations.

Another is that other critical industries (mining and agriculture) are likely to be nationalized, as Morales has indicated in so many occasions. You can bet investments in these areas to freeze as well.

And so the vicious cycle of poverty hounding its mostly Indian and mestizo people will likely persist. That is always the danger in installing a die-hard Marxist to head a government. The heart is in the right place, although the brain gets stuck in its bankrupt ideology, while humming the Internationale.

The socialist platform is a throwback to the Cold War era where centrally-planned economies did show a certain degree of economic success. But none has really made it to the present, except of course, Cuba and North Korea. But look where they are now.

You ask, so what has Bolivia’s political issues got to do with us on the other side of the planet?

Nothing.

Why are you even reading this?

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Monday, May 1, 2006

White Collar Greed

Executives of the collapsed Enron in the US are currently facing trial over allegations of manipulation and outright deceit. At least the wheels of justice are working.

Here in the Philippines, blatant displays of white collar crimes have regrettably become all-too-common. And the perpetrators go scot-free. They used the same skills in luring the public to buy their products in manipulating the legal system and the existing patronage-based politics currently in place. The best example would be the pre-need fiasco involving subscribers of College Assurance Plans (CAP) of the Sobrepeñas and Pacific Plans of the Yuchengco Group.

CAP was the industry pioneer in the pre-need industry, and the most popular. CAP and other pre-need companies capitalized on every parent’s dream of sending their children through college. Pre-need plans work like insurance, but with a twist. Upon maturity, the plans were supposed to pay the full tuition regardless of the amount. They call this the traditional plans. The standard plans now require a definite amount to be paid upon maturity.

The problem arose during the height of the Asian financial crisis, when most investments of these companies’ trust funds were invested in real estate projects that went sour and fell drastically in value. During the real estate boom of the mid-nineties, the real estate company of the Sobrepeñas, Fil-Estate, went on an aggressive real estate development mode, developing subdivisions and golf courses all over the country (Camp John Hay, Forest Hills, Manila Southwoods and Fairways & Bluewaters in Boracay), and even invested in Metro Rail Transit (or MRT) bonds which offered low rates. And so, the resulting cash flow didn’t match its expectations.

It is less clear for Pacific Plans, as financial statements do not clearly show where the funds were invested. But a towering answer lies along the corner of Ayala and Buendia Avenues, the humongous twin tower RCBC Plaza, owned by the Yuchengcos, reportedly constructed at a cost of approximately PhP12 billion.

And so when the school year beckoned and schools started adjusting their tuition rates to account for inflation, these two decided to simply bail out, leaving millions of subscribers, who were faithfully paying their premiums, clueless and desperate.

In the case of Pacific Plans, it did not seek to be bailed out using the liquid funds of its sister companies, particularly its commercial bank RCBC, which happens to be one of the largest banks in the country. It didn’t want to pass on the burden of paying subscribers’ tuition fees even as the tower failed to bring in the expected revenues early on (the towers were completed when the vacancy rate in Makati was high, resulting in falling rental fees).

So its owners simply created a new company, transferred the non-traditional plans in force to this new entity, and declared Pacific Plans, now consisting of only the remaining traditional plans, bankrupt.

You can’t just do that. It’s cruel! Shouldn’t these companies be held accountable for their bad investment decisions? Why let them get away with it? They can’t just run away from their obligations and hide under the skirt of bankruptcy laws, look the other way and then right under their subscribers' noses, set up a similar company while leaving the traditional plan holders holding empty bags. Why punish the subscribers who simply stuck faithfully to their end of the deal?

It is downright ugly.

Enter the politicians. Go figure which side they are supporting. Truth is, executives of these two companies have strong ties with the political elite. Robert Sobrepeña happens to be golfing buddy of former President Fidel Ramos (he had to be, he developed so many golf courses using plan holders’ money, didn’t he?). And Alfonso Yuchengco, Chairman of the Yuchengco Group of Companies which owns Pacific Plans, happens to be a former Ambassador. Get it?

These two companies are making their lawyers do all the talking, citing obscure Supreme Court rulings that allow them not to honor their obligations to their plan holders, while investing billions to other business ventures. Oh yes, they’re liquid. According to the SEC, Pacific Plans isn’t insolvent at all. In fact, Sobrepeña’s Fil Estate is planning to invest P1 billion in various real estate projects, most notably the North Triangle project along EDSA near the MRT.

Ambassador Yuchengco, for his part made the dramatic gesture of shelling out P250 million of his own money to make sure children of Pacific Plan holders get to enroll last year. Out of the goodness of his heart? Think again. It comes with an 8% interest rate.

Robert Sobrepeña remains defiant and is in no mood to dip into his own fortune to shoulder the matriculation of CAP holders.

There’s only one motive why all these things are happening: GREED, lots of it.

The plan holders are taking their fight to the Supreme Court and all possible avenues to force these two companies to honor their obligations and punish them for being socially irresponsible.

I do hope the regulatory agencies, particularly the SEC, come up with a stronger framework on which to monitor pre-need companies, such as mandatory transparency in its operations and investments.

The fact that so many Filipinos slave away in foreign lands only to find out the money they invested in the pre-need plans won’t be able to send their children through college after all, should be enough to jolt our lawmakers to address this lamentable situation.

I am not optimistic, however. This is the Philippines, it is easy to lose hope here. You ever why wonder why so many, risking life and limb, leave this country?

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