Walden Bello: The Deglobalizer

By Mara Coson and Leloy Claudio
December 2011
Esquire Philippines

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Since Socialist Party candidate Arnaud Montebourg made it the main message of his campaign, ‘démondialisation’ has been gaining clout in the run up to next year’s French presidential elections.

"Démondialisation" or deglobalization posits the scaling back of the immense web of international trade and financial agreements, which, given the current climate of the European Union, has gotten both left and right wing candidates talking.

But the term was born miles away, penned by former UP sociology professor and now Akbayan Party Representative Walden Bello.

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and the Shock Doctrine, calls him “the world's leading no-nonsense revolutionary.” Founder of the Bangkok-based think-tank Focus on the Global South, Bello is considered one of the pre-eminent critics of global financial institutions like the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 2003, he received the Right Livelihood Award - the “alternative Nobel prize” – “for his outstanding efforts in educating civil society about the effects of corporate globalization, and how alternatives to it can be implemented.”

But, outside the academe and progressive circles, very few people know him in the Philippines.  Bello, who cut his activist teeth in the anti-Marcos movement, is the classic prophet shunned in his own country. While French legislators have had to contend with his idea of deglobalization, his colleagues in the Philippine House have probably never heard of it.

At nine am on October 3, Bello enters his congressional office and sets a huge chunk of papers down. They are transcripts of the Senate RH Bill interpellations that he read over the weekend to prepare for a possible House interpellation later in the day. “Enrile asked really probing questions,” Bello notes as he flips through the stack of typed out pages. “He was really lawyerly.”

“I just want to make sure I have everything. Today’s going to be a crazy day.”

Before his morning staff meeting, we sneak in a quick chat about his unlikely fame in the European country which, since Voltaire, has lionized radical intellectuals the most.

“In the last few months, I’ve had a number of calls from France and interviews with French periodicals on the deglobalization issue,” says Bello. The second edition of his 2003 book,Deglobalization: Ideas for a New World Economy, has been translated for French readership and a French publisher has commissioned his political biography. But that is far from today’s agenda and Bello’s crazy day has already begun.

His staff members are casually rounded up around his desk in multi-colored chairs (the only other color in his office is the post-its on his desk). Even the Picasso reproduction on his wall is two-tone. “I stole it from Madrid” he says. The humor goes past our heads. “I was just kidding,” he chuckles.  Later on he would joke again, claiming the painting was “Pablo Picasso’s representation of the RH Debate.”

We observe a regular Monday morning meeting between ‘Pops’ and his staff. First on the agenda is the strike of members of the Philippine Airlines Employees’ Association (PALEA), whom Bello supports. On September 27, PALEA workers were locked out of their workstations amidst a protest over the termination of their tenured positions. The subsequent strike resulted in a number of flight cancellations.

“I think most people will be supportive of PALEA, but there might be some crazy ones who will be angry because they missed their flights,” Bello comments, as the staff pour coffee from the drip kettle in the middle and help themselves to some M.Y. San butter biscuits.

“Sir, let’s make sure what we’re saying jives with what the union is saying,” one of his staff butts in before Bello has a chance to outline his talking points. One gets the sense that Pops’s enthusiasm needs some restraining, lest the academic in him turns the PALEA strike into a case study illustrating the defects of “neoliberal globalization.”

But Bello has already done his homework. On top of his weekend read of the RH debate transcripts and brushing up on the science behind contraceptives, he had also read up on the PALEA stance. He begins to cite Inquirer and Star articles about the issue. It is Monday, and Professor Bello is prepared for class. 

The second item of the meeting is the possible RH Bill interpellation, which he is told may be postponed to accommodate the celebration of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte’s birthday.

 “Inaral ko na lahat nitong contraceptives and drugs; maloloko na ako, (I’ve studied everything about these drugs and contraceptives; I’m about to go crazy,” kids Bello.

“By the way, don’t you think it’s interesting that Bongbong Marcos is an RH supporter? Maybe we can ally with him,” remarks a staff member.

“Okay, let’s ally with Bongbong,” Bello nods. “But just on RH okay?”

For the longest time, Bello was famous for tracing the links between international financial institutions and the Marcos dictatorship in the Development Debacle based on six thousand secret documents of the World Bank before Wikileaks was considered cool. A little bit like Jose Rizal’s novels, ‘Development Debacle’ became an ‘underground bestseller’ that helped tip over the Marcos dictatorship in the eighties.

He was so serious about exposing the links between Marcos and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) that he not only snuck into the World Bank to photocopy secret documents, but was also willing to play the fool in a special mission to the Washington office of the IMF.

“I declared myself as the President of the Philippines and Miss Piggy declared herself as Imelda”, he tells us of the time he walked into the IMF with Charito Planas, asking the reception that they see the Managing Director for their cut of the loan to the Philippines. “And boom, we were thrown out.”

Another time, Cecil Licad, who was then a protégé of Imelda Marcos, performed at the Kennedy Center. The first lady was there, sitting with American pianist Van Cliburn. After the first piece, “we ran up to the front and said that there’s an unwelcome guest in the house. And bedlam broke because people thought that we were saying ‘fire’ and so we pointed to Imelda, and boom!” Bello was thrown out again. “The concert eventually went on, but we got into the Washington Post.’

His anti-Marcos activism culminated on February 26, 1986, when Bello and some colleagues raided the Philippine Embassy in the Washington and claimed it for Cory Aquino’s new revolutionary government. Kermit and Miss Piggy were finally out of power. Drunk on champagne, Bello nearly passed out on the ambassador’s chair.

“You’re talking to Imelda now in the House of Representatives,” we comment.

“Yes after doing all this to her,” he laughs.

“Do you think she remembers you?” we prod.

“I don’t know; she’s old now. She probably confuses my face with that of Qaddafi’s.”

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At two pm, we ride with Bello in his number eight car, headed to a university where he will give a talk on workers’ rights. In the car, he reviews his speech for the students and slips in a story about his younger days. We drive through a fair distance and finally arrive at the small university, whose entrance is in a cramped side street. There is a rally that, based on past experience, could be one timed for his arrival. Bello identifies with the Left, but some of his old comrades now see him as a “counterrevolutionary” and “pseudo-progressive.” A few years back, Bello was placed on the hitlist of the Communist Party. And while his life is no longer under threat, his condemnation of armed revolution from the countryside still tends to irk some militants. 

The rally turns out to be about something unrelated, and without the air of celebrity, he enters the university. If the students hadn’t been wearing their uniform, a bird’s eyeshot of the place wouldn’t make Bello stand out.

The program is slightly delayed, and the congressman might be late for his more important speech in the House. But he sits on a monobloc chair in the front row, waiting patiently for his turn, almost invisible, like the wearing down of polish on the tattered gymnasium floor.  Not everyone cares to listen. He may not get as much interest as he does from blogging for the Huffington Post, but he proceeds with his talk. 

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By four pm, Bello is back in Congress and freshens up in his office. As he makes his way to the plenary, he lets people through the door before he enters. He slips into the session hall, does the common greet, and sits on his seat at the back while the other representatives banter and chuckle.

On a normal day, you’d expect the soft-spoken nerd to be alienated from his more gregarious colleagues--but today is different at the House. To his left are hundreds of PAL employees, some still in their yellow and black pattern uniform. Bello’s staff had managed to get all of them in. 

For someone known to talk about big structural issues, it is odd to hear Bello discuss consumer rights. “Like most of us in this august chamber, I am a member of Mabuhay Miles, and when I say compromising the safety of the riding public, I also mean I fear for my own well-being as well as yours.”

People turn around to listen more closely at the point raised, including bored students on a field trip, while PALEA members wave in silent applause (you can’t clap in Congress). Bello continues, “How can we trust an airline that leaves crucial work to operate their system to unqualified workers?”

He mentions that one of the contractual replacements damaged an Airbus A340 door when he mishandled the plane’s airstep. “This clearly reveals the grave danger that unknowledgeable contractual labor poses to the broader riding public,” he adds.

Walden Bello knows what he is talking about when he talks about precarious work. After all, he was fired from his first teaching post less than a year after graduating from Ateneo de Manila in 1966.

Exasperated by the middle class milieu of The Ateneo, he shirked the employment fairs and took a plane straight to Sulu take a humanities post in a Catholic university. While in Sulu, he wrote an article for a local newspaper calling for the modernization of Islam. Naively, he thought he could balance the piece by writing another one critical of Catholics who celebrated Easter in the largely Islamic Jolo. The gambit backfired and Bello got into trouble with both the Catholics and the Muslims.

Shortly after being fired from his teaching post, Bello woke up one day to a huge banging on his door. Men with rifles accosted him, demanding that he be brought before the Imam. 

“Sulu was Wild West at the time,” Bello recalls. Facing the angry Imam, he couldn’t say anything to interrupt the hour of tongue-lashing; rifles were already clicking in the background. Thus ended Walden Bello’s flirtation with the Wild West of the Philippines.

He returned to Manila and accepted a Fullbright scholarship to Princeton for a PhD in Sociology. While in the US, amidst the escalating Vietnam War protests of 1969, Bello developed a critical stance towards American foreign policy. But his first foray into political controversy abroad involved his alma mater in Loyola Heights. 

In a two-part series for the US-based Philippine Times, he revealed that Ateneo’s Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC) had been receiving grants of up to US$ 500,000 from the US Defense Department in the Office of Naval Research – the same institutions that committed human rights violations in Vietnam. 

While his conscience rested easier, the IPC saw it as an act of ingratitude. “That was goodbye for me,” he notes. “I also think that that affected Ateneo’s view of me in a way that hasn’t really changed.” Don’t expect to see Bello cheering for the Blue Eagles anytime soon.

When Bello’s political biography is finally published in France, expect it to chronicle the life of a man who has consistently challenged authority. Bello has pissed off Imams, Jesuit priests, politicians, and policemen from different continents. After leading protests and teach-ins during the WTO’s talks in 1999, he was beaten by the cops. During the G-8 summit in Genoa, he was detained and nearly run over by a police car.

So, when earlier this year, Gloria Arroyo’s allies slammed an ethics case against him for saying that the former president should be moved from the halls of Congress to a cell in the New Bilibid Prison, you couldn’t blame him for not being scared. “The crow will turn white (puputi muna ang uwak) before I apologize to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo,” he declared in a press conference.

But the master of political theater claims that so far he has gotten his best ideas and has kept his head clear by not running away or running around, but simply by jogging. His day, he notes, doesn’t quite start if he isn’t able to go for his morning jog.

It was through jogging one morning last month that Bello conjured the idea of asserting Philippine solidarity over the Spratlys islands through a “peace and solidarity” mission. While other legislators only paid lip service to the claim that the Spratlys belonged to the Philippines, Rep. Bello decided to go there to prove the point.

“Yeah,” Kit Melgar, Bello’s Chief of Staff, said with trepidation when asked about the mission. Pops has a reputation for crackpot ideas even within his own party.

“I didn’t want to do it [the mission] at first, because I was afraid that it would definitely upset the DFA and the [PNoy] administration. We didn’t know what the reaction of the Western Command would be. While we had the support of Congress, this was different because we were actually going to the Spratlys—not to mention there were logistical and administrational concerns,” notes Melgar.

The military eventually accompanied Bello, the DFA declared that a representative did not need its permission to visit what it considered Philippine soil, and Pops didn’t just land on Spratlys but also on Fox News and the Washington Post—just like old times. The anti-imperialist who for decades had been so concerned about the American empire was now the David who took on the new Chinese Goliath.

‘Walden’s friends have advised me: ‘Leave it to Walden.’ Those ideas, just leave it to him. Sometimes I think, okay, I just have to trust him,” confides Melgar.

“So did you jog today?” we asked Bello earlier in the day.

“No I didn’t. Because I knew you were coming,” he replied.

Based on Bello’s musings on the mind-body connection that he achieves through jogging, his day should have been a bad one.  But the man who predicted the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 (and potentially ‘démondialisation’) can sometimes get himself wrong: not jogging that day didn’t prove to make him less capable.

Back in the session hall, Bello is wrapping up his PALEA speech. He is interrupted by a congressman, whose unwarranted call for adjournment gets a laugh from colleagues who egg him on. Bello stops amidst the debauchery and continues when the peeved Deputy Speaker resumes the session.

After his speech finally ends, three sympathetic congressmen interpellate Bello, asking rhetorical questions like “Don’t you think it was unfair for PAL to lock out employees without consultation?”

“Yes, dear colleague,” he answers and the three congressmen surprisingly take his side. It reminds us of a film convention whereby a protagonist’s monologue during the make-or-break turning point receives a lifting soundtrack and roaring applause—or in this case, waving. Bello beams as we glean more silent applause from teary-eyed PALEA workers in the gallery. “I think most if not all members of the House will join me in condemning the actions of PAL,” Bello concludes. Nobody objects, and, unlike the 70s and 80s, nobody throws Bello out.

Outside the session hall, the PALEA workers rush to shake Bello’s hand. Smiling almost sheepishly, he awkwardly poses for photos. Walden Bello, famous in France, is a minor Philippine celebrity today. But this time, he will not make it to the Washington Post the following day, not even the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Maybe he was right, maybe he needed to jog.

At six thirty pm, Bello retires to his office from the session hall and entertains a group of students who ask him about the RH Bill for their school project. He tells them, “abstinence is only for angels and not for human beings,” adding that the RH Bill works perfectly as it is ‘higher than priests and lower than angels.’ The RH interpellation may not have happened that day, but at least he got to speak his mind.

Sensing that they’ve taken up enough of his time, the students wrap up the interview and begin to stand up.

“That’s it? But we’ve only just started,” he jokes.