What’s the Deal With an Attack and Controversy in Caracas?

Hello all!

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that only takes aim with words.

In this week’s edition we’ll look back at a vivid aerial attack in Venezuela and determine some background to the incident and what may come of it.

Duck and Cover

On Saturday August 4, President Nicolas Maduro was speaking at a military event in Caracas when an explosion near the stage sent security forces scrambling to protect the president and first lady. The attack was directed from a flying drone that triggered an explosion, seemingly in order to assassinate Maduro. Maduro pulled through unscathed from the incident and immediately placed the blame on right wing elements and its next door neighbor Colombia and its president Juan Manuel Santos,

“All the investigations point to Bogotá,” he said, referring to Colombia’s capitol and government, accompanied by his ministers and military high command. “They have tried to kill me today.”

Blaming Colombia

In addition to blaming Bogota, Maduro has insinuated that the United States, a long-time foe of the Venezuelan government since the Bolivarian revolution in the 1990s, had been behind the attack as well or was plotting to remove him from office.

This is not the first time that Maduro has been targeted. In 2016, a former military official attempted a grenade attack on government buildings that fizzled and whose call for force against Maduro’s government died out after he was later killed by security forces. Mr. Maduro was also accosted by protestors with pots and pans that were part of massive protests in 2017 because of severe food shortages and rising hunger. It is still not clear if the drone was actually an assassination attempt as the Venezuelan government contends as no one has claimed responsibility and the explosion was not necessarily directly at Maduro.

Taking it to the Streets

Some fear that the drone explosion will trigger a backlash or crackdown from the government on an opposition and public that has seen rampant crackdowns on the main opposition party and protests.

Why an Attack?

When one examines the Venezuelan situation outside the attack incident, it becomes clear as to the possible motive. The country has been in a continual downward spiral economically over the past 4 years with food shortages, hyper-inflation, and a mass exodus of people fleeing an increasingly repressive government led by Maduro. Images of Venezuelans standing in long queues for basics like gasoline, rice, and other items highlight the dismal economic situation. Formerly middle income generating jobs now are barely enough to scrape by with. The inflation rate has risen from 254% in 2016, to 1,088% in 2017 and reached an eyepopping 25,000+ % inflation between May 2017 and May 2018. By any economic measure from currency valuation, fiscal debt, financial risk from international creditors, cash reserves, and basic goods and services – Venezuela is in crisis.

In addition, Maduro has blocked aid shipments of medical supplies to the country, deepening the crisis to include access to health care and medicine. Indicators of overall health show a dark landscape: a rise in infant mortality rate by 30% in 2016 and a 76% increase in malarial infections.

Not waiting for an iPhone release

Not surprisingly, this has resulted in significant migration out of Venezuela to escape the economic collapse, with an estimated 4 million Venezuelans departing for the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, the U.S. and other countries; often illegally.

The Venezuelan congress or unicameral Constituent Assembly reformed by President Maduro in 2017 to be a legislative body with supportive members (the democratically elected congress had been full of opposition representatives since 2015) had recently voted in July 2017 to follow the decree by President Maduro that the Congress had the power to amend the constitution, pass laws, and sack government employees and remove institutions – a powerful role that puts more power into Maduro’s hands.

Empty shelves

A move by the Assembly in 2017 to appoint judges to replace those they deemed illegally appointed during the previous Assembly in 2015 was rejected by pro-Maduro socialist party (PSUV) appointed judges and the nominee judges have been exiled or imprisoned in the time since. This effective grip-tightening on three branches of government along with the silencing of the opposition through control of media and opposition leadership has marched the Maduro government closer to dictatorship.

Surprisingly, despite his abysmal economic record and decreased quality of life for venezolanos Maduro won reelection once again in May 2018 to keep his job. Many point to the disorganization of the opposition party movimiento unidad democratica or MUD along with the prevention of opposition leaders from running as to Maduro’s reelection, but fear was also cited as a driving factor. Many Venezuelans reported receiving government handouts near polling stations, presumably for a positive vote for Maduro, and other fishy ballot security measures that had international observers calling the elections undemocratic.

Hyperinflated cherries

So Maduro has presided over a plummeting economy, increasingly has consolidated his power by removing opposition leaders from his midst and shoring up his support from the other branches of government, and has used fear or intimidation as a method for retaining power in unfair/unfree elections. The clouds over the purpose behind the drone attack are beginning to lift.

This was all over a month ago.

New Revelations

On September 8th, the New York Times reported that officials from the Trump administration had met with dissidents within the Venezuelan military who were bent on removing Maduro through a coup. The report detailed how after several hesitant meetings, administration officials agreed to listen to the dissidents’ plan and possibly offer support, but never fully agreed to provide financial or physical backing.

While the U.S. did not participate officially in a coup plan, the news of these meetings are likely to fuel Maduro’s insistence of outside influence that is attempting to remove him. In addition, the individuals listed as participants in the meeting have records of possible human rights abuses and connections to armed groups including FARC – a group the U.S. considers a terror organization. Needless to say, the meeting does not help the already unflattering American reputation in Latin America.

Venezuelan Economic Life-Blood

While it seems that Nicolas Maduro is the culprit behind the tumult that is now striking back at him, the seeds for Venezuela’s economic collapse had been planted many years prior.

Venezuela sits on one of the world’s richest deposits of oil reserves (read: fossilizedvenezuela-oil-map marine organisms) and was one of the original founders of OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. For decades following its first oil wells in 1912, Venezuela benefited economically from its oil resources and was a relatively wealthy country with a per capita GDP* higher than Brazil’s and even approaching the U.S. level in the 1960s.

The management of its Black Gold along with global oil prices explain a great deal as to how Venezuela’s economic collapse progressed. The decline and collapse of the Venezuelan economy can be tied to its oil industry from the following key developments:

  • Nationalization of its major oil company: PDVSA in 1976
    • Started by President Carlos Andres Perez to control its resource and use its oil wealth to develop the country further.
    • This led the nationalized company to be more directly tied to whoever was leading the country politically and more closely aligned with the country’s economic outlook
  • Lack of investment and research in the industry
    • During the oil booms with high prices in the early to mid 2000s, other countries continued to invest in oil extraction methods and outputs but Venezuela did not –
    • This was especially onerous due to Venezuela’s higher levels of heavy crude oil deposits which require more effort to refine – something that had to be outsourced because of the lack of oil infrastructure.
  • Appointment of inexperienced or crony officials to lead the national oil company
    • Following the oil strikes of 2002 after then president Hugo Chavez began to fire high level PDVSA managers, Chavez then purged the company of human capital – 18,000 oil workers received pink slips
    • Pay for oil workers slipped and there was political pressure to support the Chavez government.
  • Overreliance on oil as a main economic driver
    • Lack of diversification has led to oil revenue and since then foreign debt from China and Russia covering all of government spending and a transition to importing basic goods such as agricultural products and even gasoline!
    • When oil prices decreased, as they have several times, the Venezuelan economy suffered with today’s crisis marking the final outcome of a long downward spiral.Venezuela breaks ties with Exxon

Each of these, which are profiled in further detail from other sources (listed below) has helped to bring about a crisis in which hyperinflation presides and lack of basic food and medical supplies have become staples.

So given the extreme humanitarian situation in Venezuela and the throttling of democratic processes by the Maduro government, does the recent revelation of U.S. contact with rebellious Venezuelan military officials indicate American intervention is around the corner?

*Per capita GDP is an average measure and is a flawed statistic of average wealth because if some individuals have high levels of income, this throws off the overall average.

American Regime Change in “Its Backyard”

Nicolas Maduro and many of his countrymen may indeed harbor such thoughts of American intervention. In several instances in the 20th century, the American government has directed or been behind regime changes in Latin America. In many of these instances in America’s imperial history, it has left a lasting stain on the reputation of the United States in the region. The interventions often removed democratically elected governments and replaced them with American-business friendly leaders who often were dictatorial and have been main drivers of economic malaise and restriction of democratic norms to the present.

  • Cuba
    • Direct American military rule after uprisings in 1906 that arose – lasting 3 years
    • American support for authoritarian strongman Fulgencio Batista and his crackdown on the Communist Party, suspension of the constitution and other political liberties. He also conducted a coup and cancelled the 1952 congressional elections that spurred the Cuban revolution in 1959 led by Fidel Castro.
  • Guatemala3333-e1465310022697
    • The removal of Jacobo Arbenz, a democratically elected president who nationalized industries to control domestic resources.
  • Honduras
    • The removal of  Miguel Davila in 1912 for nationalizing agricultural land held by foreign banana planters (United Fruit, of the U.S.)
    • Using the Honduran military and its bases to launch its anti-Sandinista or Contra war in 1981.
  • Nicaragua
    • After attempting to regulate American business, President Jose Santos Zelaya was forced from power in 1909 by surrounding American naval vessels and support of small scale militias.
    • The backing of the Contra rebels by the Reagan administration through the covert and illegal shipment of Iranian arms to fight the Castro-aligned Sandinista rebels against the Nicaraguan dictatorship of the Somoza family.
  • Chile

    The popularly elected Allende

    • The coup that took over and toppled the presidency of the democratically elected Salvador Allende. The coup was perpetrated by a military general Agustin Pinochet who installed a brutal dictatorship that was responsible for decades of repression and  thousands of disappearances of political dissidents.

While there are several other instances of meddling, support of non-democratic ideals, and direct U.S. military intervention in Latin America, these previous examples lend serious weight to many ideas of American intervention.

Venezuela’s Future

With the economy in ruins and an increasingly authoritarian, but vulnerable president, what will become of Venezuela’s future?  The cracks in the military armor for support for Maduro are beginning to show, but it is not clear if a change in power is on the horizon – nor if that would solve the crisis.

The news of American officials visiting with anti-Maduro Venezuelan military officials is a worrying wrinkle to the fabric of the story. The Trump administration has made wind of military intervention in Venezuela a possibility, and this remains a wild-card. With the attention so far paid to dissidents with planned violence or a bloody take-over, the political future is bleak indeed for both Venezuela and America’s already tarnished Latin image. If the attention, however, was to forge better relations with opposition parties and other international and regional groups to revert back to more democratic processes, then there is a better chance to enact political change peacefully.

Economically, since the Venezuelan economy (and its debt) is so tied to its oil, an extreme overhaul of the industry and how it is managed and run is long overdue – this must (despite it being anathema to the Chavista model) include assistance and investment from foreign enterprises. This, while difficult to reverse after decades of antagonism and distrust, would likely be welcomed by the private oil sector as a chance to help stabilize the company that sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves and begin to reverse decades of decline.


The ghost of Hugo looms over Venezuela’s future

Outside of oil, the Maduro government must find ways to invest in other sectors of the economy to hedge against the decline in oil prices and revenue. Adding some stability to these sectors may encourage other areas to stabilize and offer a chance for international loans to become available once again to help provide the basics for Venezuelans as they recover.

None of this will be possible of course if the Maduro government continues to turn inward and grows more and more distrustful and authoritarian – that path would only lead to greater chances of a violent revolution and possible installation of corrupt or even more authoritarian military leaders.

Until the next flying drone scare,

Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:

How Venezuela Struck It Poor


Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow! America’s Century of Regime Change. Times Books, Henry Holt and Co. 2006, New York.













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What’s the Deal With Suppression and Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar?

Hello All,untitled4

Welcome to another edition of ‘What’s the Deal’, the blog that has yet to cross the mighty Irawaddy.

In this post, we re-examine familiar terrain in Myanmar (which was covered back in 2012) in regards to relations between the central Burmese dominated central government and minority populations within Myanmar. Specifically, we’ll look at the well publicized refugee outpouring from Western Myanmar into Bangladesh of the Muslim ethnic group known as the Rohingya due to cultural repression, burning of villages, shooting of civilians and a state of affairs that has been deemed to be outright ethnic cleansing by the United States and others.

We’ll analyze what this might mean for Myanmar’s political leadership under the popular Aung San Suu Kyi and discuss whether the dark shadow of Myanmar’s military is beginning to creep back into the picture.

The Current:

Last week, Pope Francis visited Myanmar in an attempt to begin a dialogue of finding a solution  to the Rohyinga problem.


Francis and Myamar’s civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Only he didn’t say Rohyinga (at least not publicly) while on his diplomatic mission. Merely saying the name of the group of people who have been forcibly displaced after facing years of repression, violence, and culture shredding immediately begets responses from Myanmar officials of “There is no such thing as Rohyinga” an example of the efforts by the Burmese controlled majority attempting to eliminate the ethnic group from the culture and history of Myanmar.

The pontiff pointed out that using the word would have ended any hope of negotiation or discussion from the get-go, but due to the extreme humanitarian crisis that has emerged, his removal of the word has drawn criticism from some as he returned to the Vatican.

Myanmar military forces known as the Tatmadaw, which are made up from the primarily Buddhist majority Burmese have performed what many are calling ethnic cleansing and “appalling acts of barbarity” in driving over 624,000 ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim group from northern Rahkine state into neighboring Bangladesh. The catalyst for the military’s most recent actions was the August 25 attacks by a militant separatist group known as ARSA killing 12 members of the security forces during the fighting.  Previous attacks in other areas, such as in October 2016 also contributed to rising tension between government forces and Rohingya.


The Razing of Rohingya Villages

The attacks have triggered a reprisal from the military in an effort to find the shadowy militant group and in the process has uprooted entire communities and local cultures. Not only have violence and atrocities been executed against Rohingya Muslims, most of whom were innocent civilians, but anti-Rohingya push by the government has shifted the cultural norms as neighborhoods that were once mixed with Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims now see individual acts of repression and violence by Buddhist vigilante groups that are not prevented or encouraged by security forces.

Population data analyzed by the International Crisis Group suggests that over 85% of Rohingya have fled their homes from three major townships in Rakhine state in only 12 months. Since the August attacks, the Myanmar government has blocked access to Rakhine state for most humanitarian aid groups making delivering food aid or health care extremely challenging and complicating the task of reaching refugees or rebuilding any sense of community.


The long march to Bangladesh

In the meantime, the huge influx of refugees into Bangladesh has created enormous issues in a country that is not exactly equipped to handle such numbers of people (let alone its own population). Refugee camps near the Bangladesh / Myanmar border are in appalling conditions and are attempting to accommodate such numbers from the recent events on top of thousands of Rohingya who had fled in previous years.  Organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) are working to help prevent public health emergencies and help provide basic sanitation and water access.

So to break it down quickly:

  • hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim people have been forced to flee their homeland in Myanmar in a only a few months
  • The military and Buddhist vigilante groups razed homes, businesses, committed crimes against humanity in an effort to drive out the Rohingya
  • Myanmar’s military initiated this response in retaliation to terror attacks by the militant Rohingya group ARSA attacked patrol groups and targeted some Buddhist civilian locations.
  • The refugee crisis has reached a peak and likely will be sustained as Rohingya civilians are unlikely to return / be allowed to repatriate to a place that would be unwelcoming or unsafe.

Let’s try to learn the historical strife of the Rohingya people in Myanmar to help us grapple with the causes behind the crisis outside of the ARSA attacks.

A Historical Connection – Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh

It was not simply a single terror attack that brought upon the ethnic violence and “cleansing” we are seeing in Rakhine state of Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims that have forced their departure into neighboring Bangladesh. There is a long history of conflict over Rohingya’s place within the country now known as Myanmar and seeking refuge across the border in Bangladesh.


Rohingya: a muslim people of the land between modern day Bangladesh and Myanmar

The Rohingya are people with ancestral ties to the Mughal, Bengali, Moorish, and other peoples that historically have lived in the coastal region along the area now bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. They practice a Sufi-influenced form of Sunni Islam, have their own language (rohingya, which is similar to Bengali) and many of their own unique cultural practices. They also number at the present, the largest group of stateless people in the world, meaning that no country consider the Rohingya part of their citizenry.

Some trace the Rohingya ancestry within Rakhine state of Myanmar (the name Rohingya is traced from the old name for Rakhine, Rohang, or Arakan and “gya” from, both from the Rohingya dialect) back to the 15th century. This was during the time of the Arakan Kingdom which presided over the modern day Rakhine region at that time while also later ruled by Indian and Burmese kingdoms from Bagan and later under the British colonial empire as part of the Indian Colony.


Sherman tank Brigade made of Indian troops as part of the British forces in Burma

During the Japanese invasion during World War II, the Burmese initially took sides with the invading forces while the Rohingya and other groups sided with the British colonial forces. The Burmese ended up switching sides towards the end of the war to defeat the Japanese. Following independence for the countries of Indian subcontinent from the British (including India and Burma), the Burmese government did not recognize the Rohingya as full citizens.

Following the military coup in Burma in 1962 and the long  dictatorship that followed, the Rohingya were stripped of any citizenship including the 1982 Citizenship Act denying them full rights, a law limiting access to health care and education, and enforced a two – child limit and denied inter-faith marriages.

Modern Exclusion and The Road to the Refugee Crisis

Given their connection to peoples to the west, it fuels the current government contention and the popular majority Burmese belief that the Rohingya are outsiders or illegal immigrants who are not historically part of Rakhine state or Myanmar and arrived during the British colonial era.

It may seem like the refugee crisis is new, but it has been a persistent struggle since the 1970s. Indeed, the discriminatory laws mentioned above that did not include the Rohingya as part of Myanmar pushed thousands over the border into newly independent Bangladesh in the 1970s forcing refugee camps to be formed. These same refugee camps persist and are struggling to accommodate the newest influx of Rohingya refugees today. A 2008 UNHCR Report detailed the problems following the refugee migrations in 1978 and 1991 into Bangladesh but also into several other countries of South East Asia. untitled

The conditions of the camps as most refugee camps were very poor and the numbers of Rohingya increasing each year. For example, from 2006 – 2010, number of refugees increased by 1,325 and 1,437 from the Kutupalong and Nayapara camp respectfully. Not only were the refugee numbers increasing before the latest influx and repatriation efforts to Myanmar were shown to have little effect. For example, the grand total of repatriation submissions to various countries including Myanmar from 2006 – 2010 totaled 1,997 while the number of actual departures was much fewer, a measly 920.

Now with much larger numbers exiting Myanmar, a regional solution must be adopted, perhaps with the collective wisdom of the ASEAN (association of south east Asian nations).

Conclusion:  Continued Statelessness

Though Myanmar does recognize around 135 different ethnic groups as part of their citizenry, the Rohingya do not make the list. This is an interesting fact given that the Myanmar military has been fighting militant groups from the Karen and Kachin groups for decades – a situation which was profiled in a previous blog. Since the reforms in 2011 from military dictatorship and the return of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to legislative power the international community has opened up avenues of economic growth and investment that were long overdue in the impoverished and oppressive military junta that ruled from 1962 before the recent reform era.

Following Suu Kyi’s election and the government reform in 2012, violence against Rohingya following a rape and murder of a Buddhist sparked revenge attacks and a further crackdown against Rohingya, forcing thousands to begin migrating away from Rakhine. Since then neither she, nor pressure from the international community has been able to stop the military’s crackdown nor the official Myanmar government’s position of the Rohingya as non-existent entities of the state.

The intensification also spurred the growth of militia groups such as ARSA to defend and attack the military. The group has received praise from such groups as Al-Qaeda and ISIS for its efforts to fight for the Muslim Rohingya’s existence in its homeland – a situation which does not help the Rohingya’s stateless position amongst the international community. Though ARSA has commitments to only fighting the Tatmadaw, several instances of attacks against civilians have been documented which of course only fuel the anti-Rohingya flames.

As far as Ms. Suu Kyi is concerned, many have called for her Nobel Peace Prize to be taken away for her silence on the forced removal of Rohingya. Her official response to the crisis, in addition to cancelling a UN General Assembly meeting, was to say that “a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interests of terrorists.”

While this has been the official response, it is difficult to say whether or not this is actually her stated position. Given the Buddhist majority that elected her, however, it is not a politically savvy move to support the Rohingya plight. Furthermore, the actual power the military has in making government decisions and enforcing them is unknown, but given the historical power of the military junta over the country, it may not be too big of a stretch to say that Suu Kyi’s position is influenced by the military.untitled3

In addition, the frightening campaign against the Rohingya is very similar to efforts by the Hutus in Rwanda to cite reasons for violence against Tutsis, to label them as outsiders. Just like in Rwanda, the Rohingya who stay are likely to experience persecution, violence, or worse and so are forcibly removed.

Solutions are hard to conceive at this point with Myanmar choosing not to recognize the problem and the diaspora of the Rohingya facing difficulties in repatriation or migration to new countries. At the present, they still remain bogged down in refugee camps as they have for decades, stuck in statelessness.

Until the next forced migration,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


Sources and Further Reads:


Beech, Hannah. “‘No Such Thing as Rohingya’: Myanmar Erases a History.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/02/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-denial-history.html?ref=oembed.

Cumming-bruce, Nick. “Myanmar’s Rohingya Actions May Be Genocide, U.N. Official Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, December 5, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-genocide-un.html?ref=oembed.

Mohdin, Aamna. “A Brief History of the Word.” Quartz. Quartz, October 2, 2017. https://qz.com/1092313/a-brief-history-of-the-word-rohingya-at-the-heart-of-a-humanitarian-crisis/.

“Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Enters a Dangerous New Phase.” Crisis Group, December 7, 2017. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/292-myanmars-rohingya-crisis-enters-dangerous-new-phase.

Specia, Megan. “The Rohingya in Myanmar: How Years of Strife Grew Into a Crisis.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 13, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-muslim.html?ref=oembed.

Staff, Al Jazeera. “Myanmar: Who Are the Rohingya?” Asia Pacific | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, November 30, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/08/rohingya-muslims-170831065142812.html.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “States of Denial: A Review of UNHCR’s Response to the Protracted Situation of Stateless Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh. Esther Kiragu, Angela Li Rosi, Tim Morris, December 2011.” UNHCR, n.d. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/research/evalreports/4ee754c19/states-denial-review-unhcrs-response-protracted-situation-stateless-rohingya.html?query=largest stateless group.

“What Forces Are Fueling Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis?” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis.




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RE-UPDATED POST – What’s the Deal With Pre-Existing Conditions – AHCA Redux

Hello All, another update on the health care legislation,

This past week (5/4/2017), the House of Representatives passed the updated American Health Care Act (AHCA), a bill that is the latest in the many-part series of repealing and replacing the current health care law, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or “Obamacare.”

the group that benefits from the bill celebrates its passage

The previous version of the AHCA back in March, which was the first effort by the new administration to repeal the current law, did not even make it to a vote due to the public pushback along with a less than favorable CBO accounting score (see this post for more on that version).

The updated version that passed is intended to win over more “fiscally conservative” Republican sponsors (who were dismayed at the amount of coverage still offered by the new bill) along with the “Freedom Caucus” members of the House who have made their primary effort to repeal the current law (ACA).  The new AHCA promises to also make sure all pre-existing conditions are still covered while pleasing the needed votes in the House.  So, all the boxes checked right?

The problem is (and this is a big problem), the bill was never introduced to the House floor for debate* (it was just debated within a committee prior to the vote). This means that most House members did not even read the full text of the bill before voting on it. The quick turn vote basically turned it into a party line vote (all democrats opposed with 20 Republicans joining the dissent, for a very narrow majority passage). In addition, because insufficient time was given for the CBO to “score” the bill, representatives and the public were not able to see what type of impact the bill would have on the Federal budget or on the overall impact of the bill on the health care market.

*”Normally, ample time is given for the submission of the reports and they are accorded serious consideration.” – https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/How+Our+Laws+Are+Made+-+Learn+About+the+Legislative+Process#HowOurLawsAreMade-LearnAbouttheLegislativeProcess-ConsiderationbyCommittee

Pre-Existing Conditions Protections – Subject to Elimination

Thin ice on these high risk pools

In an effort to decrease rising health costs for consumers and businesses (the biggest flaw with the ACA) the new bill copies many of the previous efforts by eliminating the expansion of Medicaid and by creating “high risk pools” to help people with health issues to be able to afford health insurance while at the same time eliminating the federal requirements for insurers for charging higher premiums for pre-existing conditions.

An amendment by Thomas McArthur seems to keep the pre-existing condition protections in place by giving states the option of mandating insurers to not charge higher premiums. This, however, would be a return to a pre-ACA health care landscape discussed in the original post by this name.

Prior to the ACA, states were free to put these requirements in place for insurers, but just as now they had little incentive to do so because the costs were not sustainable without an individual mandate or subsidies payed for by taxes on wealthier Americans. Both the mandate and subsidies would be eliminated or phased out in the coming years and the high risk pools would be insufficient to cover those in need.

High Risk Pools – Pre ACA 

The basic idea for high risk pools is to mitigate the inequitable spending of health care by the population. Most high cost enrollees are a small proportion but account for a large amount of health care costs. So all types of enrollees help pay for the larger costs of the small high cost group with help from subsidies. In the past the high risk pools insulated healthier people from high health costs which encouraged them to purchase insurance.

As mentioned earlier, prior to the ACA, insurers could exclude people with pre-existing conditions or charge them higher premiums. Beginning in 1976, states had made high risk pools available as a source of insurance for individuals who may have been excluded by insurance groups for pre-existing conditions or if they had lost group health plan coverage per the 1996 HIPAA Law.

Most pools adopted standards that limited possible enrollment, leaving some eligible enrollees from having insurance, making premiums unaffordable, or making having insurance unattractive such as:

  • Higher premiums above the market rate
  • Exclusion periods of 6 – 12 months for preexisting conditions
  • Lifetime limits on covered services
  • High deductibles

Each of these was eliminated by the ACA. Limiting enrollment was a goal for states to make the high risk pools affordable for the states to fund even with Federal grants and state tax subsidies helping to foot the bill. Federal government subsidies needed to cover the losses within the high risk pools cost $1 billion per year prior to 2010 – and this was with limited enrollment.

For the states where the high risk pool was well funded, such as in Maryland, the pools could theoretically provide a working model. If high risk pools are to adequately cover people with preexisting conditions as the newly House – passed AHCA contends, it will need a lot of funding. Unfortunately, the bill would fall short with funding*, with only $13 billion annually provided for high risk pools. As stated earlier, the new amendment would give states the option of whether to mandate to insurers whether preexisitng conditions are still covered – bringing us back to a health care landscape that replicates the pre-ACA setting.

Well said, The Onion


Given the changes in Medicaid, tax cuts (elimination of subsidies), inadequate funding for high risk pools, and more, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Diabetes Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Hospital Association, the Catholic Hospital Association, the March of Dimes, AARP, and others — all oppose the bill.

Until the next repeal and replace attempt,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

*For subsidies to cover 68 percent of enrollees’ premium costs, as ACA tax credits do now in the individual market exchanges, the government would have to put up $32.7 billion annually. And even after applying that subsidy, high-cost consumers would still owe $10,000 annually toward premiums

Sources and Further Reads:

CBO Analysis: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3516452/CBO-Health-Care-Cost-Estimates.pdf

American Health Care Act Bill HR 277 text 





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UPDATED POST: “What’s the Deal With ‘Pre-Existing Conditions'”

Hello All, a brief-er post for you –

Due to the arrival of the newly touted bill through the house to replace the Affordable Care Act, called the American Health Care Act, a quick update should be added as an addendum to the previous post.

Expected uninsured increases 2017 – 2026

Last week, Republicans in the House of Representatives put forth a new bill (HR 277) designed to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”). The new bill’s release was likely in response to the public’s disapproval of Congress’s attempts to dismantle the current health care law and its laudable elements without a formal replacement.

The bill’s objectives are to save the Federal Government money (reduce the deficit) and to provide cheaper health care for Americans. As of now, the bill has been introduced and passed through an initial committee within the House. The bill still needs to be passed by both houses of Congress and then signed by the President before it can become law and replace the ACA.

Speaker Ryan introducing HR 277

On Monday 3/13, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the score-keeper for legislation, released its analysis of how the new bill would affect health care costs, the Federal Budget, and the numbers of insured Americans. In its analysis, the CBO found that the American Health Care Act would:

  • The bill would save the Federal government $337 Billion (from 2017 – 2026)
  • The bill would eliminate certain taxes that affect high income earners such as the surtax on high income earners investment income, the Hospital Insurance payroll tax for high earners, and delaying an excise tax for high earner’s plans.
  • By 2020, 48 million Americans would be uninsured in health care, with that number rising to 52 million people by 2026 (roughly, 19 % of the population – under current law, about 10 % of the population is uninsured, which is projected to remain the same through 2026). This is an increase of uninsured of 24 million Americans.
    • the biggest reasons for the decrease in coverage would be the decrease in Medicaid spending and loss of certain health care subsidies
  • The cost of non-group health care plans would on average increase, but with a specific Patient Stability fund, rates would level out by 2020.
  • By 2026, premiums are expected to be 20 – 25 % lower for younger, healthier people, but about 20 – 25 % higher for older folks (age 64+)

So to sum up, the bill would save the Federal government money, but would increase the number of uninsured and leave higher health care costs for older and sicker folks while decreasing taxes (from the ACA) for wealthier people.

Sources and Further Reads:

CBO Analysis: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3516452/CBO-Health-Care-Cost-Estimates.pdf

American Health Care Act Bill HR 277 text 


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What’s the Deal With “Pre-Existing Conditions”?

Hello all,aca

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that has a very, very big HSA.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the possibility of Congressional and Presidential “Plans” to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, ACA, or more commonly called “Obamacare”) and discuss the possible outcomes of such actions.

Included in this edition are talks on what is at stake to be lost by the public including a return to previous health insurance practices that restricted access for millions of Americans based on a “pre-existing condition.”

See, I told you I read it

See, I told you I read it

Previous posts at “WTD” have looked at many parts of the ACA, aka “Obamacare,” here, here, here, and here.  But now with a new administration that campaigned on eliminating health care reform, a post should be made that discusses what stands to be lost (or what needs to be replaced) if the ACA is actually repealed.

What Works and What is Popular (not necessarily the same)

Since its passage in 2010 and its initial implementation in 2014 the ACA has had three major impacts on health care that most people generally accept as positive:

  • increasing available coverage to the general public (mainly through expansion of Medicaid)
  • Allowing young adults to stay on parents’ plans until they are 26 – especially helpful during the recession*
  • Eliminating discriminatory insurance practices such as excluding coverage or biasing coverage based on pre-existing conditions (like having certain illnesses, or simply being a woman).

    It says here that since you're a woman, it is going to cost twice as much

    It says here that since you’re a woman, it is going to cost twice as much

These impacts have led to the expansion of health care coverage for more than 20 million Americans since 2014 and more importantly have opened the door to specific groups to have vital health care including the sick, impoverished, and more women overall.

Some of the more unpopular parts of the law that are attacked most frequently have to do with what allows the law to function:

  • the individual mandate (the requirement of having health insurance or to pay a penalty)
  • The requirement that all employers and insurance plans to allow access to birth control and abortion services (very controversial)
  • The state based Health Insurance Exchanges (marketplaces) that allow individuals to purchase insurance aren’t available everywhere and require many working pieces. (if state governments chose not to set up an exchange, the Feds set up one for them anyways)
*Including me!

Repeal and Replace?

President Trump and Republican allies in Congress have talked and made extensive efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and have more recently proposed certain ideas for replacing the health care law. Prior legislative and judicial efforts at repeal during the Obama administration strictly focused on repealing the law and not on replacing the law with any alternative. During the election and under the new administration, the constituents of lawmakers (both Republican and Democratic) have been vocal in their support of the above mentioned elements of the law and so lawmakers have spoken of and have written outlines of plans.

Newly appointed HHS secretary Tom Price, readily awaiting his turn to dismantle his cabinet department

Newly appointed HHS secretary Tom Price, readily awaiting his turn to dismantle his cabinet department

Four major plans to replace the ACA have been proposed since the beginning of 2015 including from House Speaker Paul Ryan, newly appointed HHS secretary and Senator Tom Price, Senator Bill Cassidy, and Senator Rand Paul. Here are the highlights (though not all) from each:

  • Paul Ryan: “A Better Way”
    • Eliminate the individual mandate, repeal private market rules and standards for benefits, keep some rules such as eliminating preexisting conditions and allowing patients to stay on parents plan until age 26, convert Medicaid expansion funding to a block grant.
  • Tom Price: “Empowering Patients First”
    • Eliminate the law entirely, no individual mandate, preexisting conditions can apply, insurers must allow continuing coverage (“grandfathering in”), state high risk pools for low income and the sick to purchase insurance in.
  • Rand Paul: “Obamacare Replacement Act
    • Repeal most major ACA market rules such as coverage standards and preexisting exclusion periods, but retain dependent coverage til 26 and retain medicaid expansion.
  • Bill Cassidy: “Patient Freedom Act
    • States have the option of keeping the rules of the ACA, medicaid expansion is not repealed. Some private market rules kept overall including dependent age 26, prohibitions on discrimination based on sex, race, age, or disability. (most rules of ACA are retained if states choose)

Close analysis of the repeal plans show that the promise of keeping the popular parts of the law (dependent age 26, elimination of preexisting conditions, etc..) will not be easy or possible to keep.

Prior to the ACA – A Chilling Reminder

pre-ACA was as H-A-F

pre-ACA was as H-A-F

Before the healthcare law was passed in 2010, the landscape of insurance markets, affordable access to basic care, and the probability of an individual having health insurance was very different. Having access to health care be priced in a market economy instead of universally guaranteed is one of the starkest contrasts between America and most industrialized countries. The culture of belief in universal health care (or lack there of) was certainly most evident prior to the ACA.

Because covering the cost of expensive medicines, surgical procedures, and testing for sick people is expensive, individuals with long term illnesses, severe disabilities, and other preexisting conditions were charged much more for health care than healthy people. Often folks in poorer health are also poor – so health insurance was often unaffordable even when group plans through employers are available – though having insurance through an employer is a much rarer commodity than it used to be especially for low-income folks who may work multiple jobs. Having to pay for a procedure, medication, or just a PCP annual check-up could be an enormous expense for someone without insurance often leading to endless rounds of monthly payments, cash advances, collection agencies and debt collections. A person without insurance could have had to choose whether to see the doctor and risk financial ruin, or to save money.

These issues, as described above, felt by low income folks, but also included women – who as was described earlier – were charged more for insurance simply because of their gender – known as the gender rating. Insurance rates were higher because women generally use health care more when they are younger compared to men. This is a preventative behavior measure. Men use health care more when they are older and have accumulated more health issues – leading to higher cost health care procedures, and arguably, a shorter life span. Women also have unique health needs such as trips to OB/GYN doctors, fertility clinics, family planning medicine, and pregnancy. In addition to rejecting insurance applicants for being a survivor of domestic violence, charging women more for the same care (even when the man was as smoker), insurance plans intentionally excluded health  needs such as  maternity care from their plans.

Hard to put yourself in their shoes, when it's the Pharma Bro

Advocate for the Devil: Hard to put yourself in their shoes, when it’s the Pharma Bro

From the insurance business industry’s perspective (I’m playing devil’s advocate in case you couldn’t tell) it made perfect business sense to discriminate against people with preexisting conditions – it was not profitable to provide insurance to sick people. In the end though, it was all consumers who ended up footing the bill.

Though the insurance market may not be universally guaranteed, emergency rooms at public hospitals must provide care to people in need even when they do not have insurance. When folks used that care (such as a sick child, mother, or homeless person) it was the county who footed the bill resulting in higher local taxes for everyone. This is one of the reasons why the ACA insisted on an individual mandate (like the one built for the Massachusetts state health care law) – if everyone pays into the pot, including healthy people, then you have a financial pool from which to help cover sicker folks.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation review, 27% of adult Americans under age 65* or approximately 52 million people have a preexisting condition that under pre-ACA rules would likely leave them uninsurable.

*a conservative estimate

The PPACA – A Flawed Model that is Working (for the moment)

The PPACA is not a model law by any means – there are several flaws with the legislation since its inception in 2010 and rollout in 2014 – not to mention the many stumbles by the Obama administration during its roll out (such as the ill prepared healthcare.gov or lack of marketing) – including the very high rise in cost for health plans that have priced some people out of the market. This is a serious issue and should be considered in editing the original legislation as it pertains to providing health care in the long run.

A rising issue

A rising issue

It should be noted, however, that the extreme opposition to the law from many states and Congress have severely impeded the law’s successful implementation and have been part of the issue that has led to higher costs for all. The refusal of many states to set up market exchanges forced the Federal government to cover them – the continuous barrage of “repeal” acts that were never going to be passed hurt the viability of a successful market and repelled some insurers from participating – and the intense legal battles that made it to the supreme court also hurt the laws successful chances and led to the issues with the law we see today.

The protections and changes to the industry that have protected consumers and allowed many people to access health care for the first time are too big of steps to ignore or to eliminate – evidenced by the adversarial town hall meetings that lawmakers have faced in their districts. Unfortunately for the Republican side, in order to keep a lot of the health care laws popular items, the unpopular items (read: the mandate) seem to be quite necessary to fund the process.

Creating a Repeal and Replacement Plan is a dangerous business, especially when there is no plan

Sources and Further Reads:









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What’s the Deal With Executive Orders on Immigration?

Hello all,

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal” the blog that is seeing the highest readership of any blog ever! [citation needed]

Campaign soundbites = Presidential policy (so far)

Campaign soundbites = Presidential policy (so far)

In this week’s post we’ll discuss President Donald Trump*’s latest executive order halting immigration from 7 different countries that are predominantly Muslim. The public criticism and protest of the order has been widespread and large as many people feel that the order is the first step on the way to Trump’s promised “Muslim Registry” from the campaign trail.

Following the public backlash, the White House issued a press release on the executive order intending to clarify and justify the action. Trump cited a previous halting of immigrants by President Obama as legitimate reasoning for the action which is intended to “protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry.”

Since it has been issued, a lower federal court and a ninth circuit federal appeals court have prevented the order from being enforced by the Executive Branch, so at the moment, the order is blocked by the Judicial system though Mr. Trump has promised to fight the block all the way to the Supreme Court.

There have been many well-written briefs on the legal grounds, strategic folly, incoherence, and poor implementation. This blog will focus instead on the historical precedents on executive orders in the realm of immigration.

….Wait, there already was research and analysis done on this in the one week since the order by a group of respected historians at the University of Minnesota? …Dang.  Well, let’s write one anyways!

*yes, he actually is the President of the United States – kind of like when Doc Brown won’t believe Marty when he tells him that in 1985 Ronald Reagan is President of the U.S. – except much worse.

Historical Presidential Actions on Limiting Immigration

not a total ban from Iraq

not a total ban from Iraq

Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, his justification based on Obama’s order – “my policy is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months” – does not hold up to scrutiny. First off, refugees do not travel on visas and secondly, the executive order from 2011 from President Obama was not a complete ban – it was a narrow more intense vetting of refugees and those applying for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs).  In addition, the Obama order was grounded in a specific threat from intelligence information that included the arrest of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky and was an organized process that involved the intelligence and defense departments – not a direct order from an inexperienced White House staff.

This is not very “similar” to what the Trump order implements which is a near-total ban on immigrants with the exception of diplomats.

Have other presidents taken a similar draconian approach to banning immigration from certain countries or regions?

The answer, in the long and often exclusionary history of the United States is yes, with both the Executive Branch and Congress playing a role in excluding and enforcing draconian immigration laws and quotas. Instead of listing every single law or order that was put forth, we’ll highlight a few that exemplify the ban on certain immigrants – something that resonates with Trump’s executive order which suggests a ban on Muslims given his rhetoric and the countries involved but that does not explicitly say religion.

Exclusion – An American Tradition in Congress

The closed gate - the U.S. has explicitly denied entry to some before

The closed gate – the U.S. has explicitly denied entry to some before

The exclusion of certain immigrants by laws passed by Congress and signed by the President in the U.S. is well known, from the Alien and Seditions Acts of 1798 passed during President John Adam’s administration (which restricted migrants to the U.S. based on political beliefs) to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880 which excluded all Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. for longer than 90 days, to the Immigration Act of 1917 and 1924 which more broadly restricted migrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone”* to the introduction of literacy tests and immigration quotas to limit the total number of immigrants.

The quotas were based on current U.S. population, which meant that the quotas favored allowing more migrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe than Southern and Eastern Europeans. Interestingly, Congress has also sought to prevent immigration based on religion, though of course not explicitly. A good example of this is the Wagner – Rogers Act of 1939 which sought to admit 20,000 Jewish children from Germany. Congress prevented its passage but then passed a bill admitting British children endangered by German attacks. Congress has also passed bills allowing immigrants that were in the national interest – such as scientists and professors.

quota chart 1925 - 27

quota chart 1925 – 27

Finally, the case of the U.S. and Philippines (examined here)  by the Tydings-McDuffie Act changed the status of Filipinos from official U.S. citizens to aliens and created a quota of 50 Filipino immigrants admitted / year.

Exclusion has less commonly been a tradition from the pen of the White House and the Executive Order (although Presidents have signed draconian immigration laws). A 1952 law that overrode President Truman’s veto gave the President power to block immigrants or prevent full citizenship to whose political beliefs were “detrimental to the U.S.” – clearly a measure directed at Communists or Fascists. From the 1980 Refugee Act, the President gained powers to control numbers of refugees admitted to the U.S. but the Executive Branch has more commonly focused on increasing the inclusion of immigrants such as when President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration Act which banned discrimination of immigration based on sex, religion, nationality, race, and background.

President Johnson at Liberty Island to sign the Immigration Act

President Johnson at Liberty Island to sign the Immigration Act

Any quotas set by the President since the 1980 Refugee Act have been made in consultation with Congress – except for Mr. Trumps. The one area where the Executive Branch has been top in line in preventing or restricting  migrants has been since 9/11  when the responsibility of immigration moved to the Department of Homeland Security. The huge increase in intelligence from the “war on terror” along with the Patriot Act gave the Executive Branch and newly swollen intelligence agencies new powers that disproportionately affected Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims.

*Interestingly this included barring migrants and refugees from Syria (which the current executive order includes as under the ban)

Conclusion: A Dangerous Precedent, Mr. President

Mr. Trump’s order is new in its sweeping effect (only diplomats excluded from the 7 country ban) and in its lack of accountability and participation from the Legislative Branch. The claims made by the President in the order such as the pressing need for national defense against terrorism, the similarity to President Obama’s executive order, and the exclusion of immigrants from specific countries do not hold up to scrutiny, or even some basic reading. On the count of the last point (exclusion from specific country), the order breaches the law (1965 Immigration Act – which prevents discrimination of immigrants based on national origin). Given Mr. Trump’s statement during the campaign and after winning about instituting a “Muslim Ban” this executive order comes close to doing this (which would violate the Constitution) – but does so without explicitly saying it.

The order, though currently blocked, is a dangerous step for the Trump Administration because it likely is counterproductive in reducing terrorist acts, prevents many qualified professionals such as scientists from Iran or professors from Sudan from entering the country – not to mention the splitting of families with dual citizenship and in general putting America under a very negative lens from the international community.

Until the next controversial executive order,*

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

*won’t be long

Sources and Further Reads:







Sorry, Mr. President: The Obama Administration Did Nothing Similar to Your Immigration Ban


Posted in Elections, Politics, Revolution/Political Uprising, U.S. | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the Deal With an Authoritarian in Manila?

Hello All!

The Filipino Archipelago

The Philippine Archipelago

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows the difference between archipelagos and atoll formation (thanks, Darwin).

In this edition, we’ll discuss the fascinating and irascible new Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte and his new stance on Pacific relations with both China and the United States. We’ll examine if there is a possible connection between Filipino-U.S. historical relations and Duterte’s posturing for his country.

The Current: Popular and Unpredictable

In a recent speech and meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping back in the fall, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted the Philippines and United States to push toward splitting ties, a big blow to the United States’ “pivot” to Asia and the 100+ year alliance between the two countries. Following this, Duterte said he wanted the alliance to continue, but just to have U.S. troops based in the Philippines out. This severing of relations now seems to be tempered even further after significant briefings on the military alliance and the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in Washington, D.C.

Xi meets Rodrigo

Xi meets Rodrigo

Duterte is extremely controversial internationally, calling President Obama a “son of a whore,” comparing himself to Adolph Hitler in his quest to rid his country of drug dealers and hustlers, but also confusing, saying that “God warned him off swearing,” and then proceeding to curse a reporter investigating the anti-drug campaign.

His back and forth and unpredictable actions along with his populist flavor that brought him to the highest office in the island nation have had some people calling him the “Filipino Donald Trump”, referencing the unpredictable political style peppered with many invectives and offensive comments made by the United States’ president elect.

another victim of extra-judicial killing

another victim of extra-judicial killing

Last week, the New York Times issued a photojournalist account of the strong anti-drug crackdown that has been violent and brutal in its extrajudicial killing of drug kingpins and accused drug users – a total of 3,500 estimated people have been killed. The Anti-drug crusade was a campaign promise by President Duterte prior to his election and received popular support from many Filipinos whose lives have been deeply impacted by the drug trade. Indeed, many Filipinos wrote in to the Times to support the President and the crackdown saying their fear from kingpins and for their general safety is greatly reduced.

The case of the of the drug crackdown is an interesting one as it shows an unwavering popular support of a strongman whose “popular cause”  violates international law (he has been indicted by the ICC) and the Filipino constitution. Their support could come from a feeling of inaction by the preceding government of Benigno Aquino and the stigma from a feeling of high levels of corruption.

Duterte's plays the strong security role

Duterte’s plays the strong security role

To understand the popular support of Duterte and his large shift against the U.S., let’s explore historical relations and the more recent political history of the archipelago nation.

From One Colonial Landlord to Another

The American “acquisition” of the Philippines following the Spanish – American War in 1898 via the Treaty of Paris was no mere handover of the reins of colonial power from a has-been (Spain) to the strengthening newby (U.S.). During the initial war, the U.S. Navy secured control around the islands by pummeling the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay allowing a resistance / independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo to declare an independent Philippines on July 12, 1898. As U.S. ground forces took Manila, they promptly excluded Aguinaldo from the negotiation talks with the Spanish (ignoring the independence declaration) and took 400 years of brutal colonial rule and simply changed hands to a new imperial power.*

Aguinaldo as the stoic leader

Aguinaldo as the stoic leader – of the continuing resistance

The resistance movement that followed proceeded to last almost 4 more years and cost the lives of 4,374 American soldiers and 36,000 Filipino soldiers and civilians. The resistance was particularly brutal as the Filipinos (who were outnumbered and outgunned) used guerrilla hit and run tactics – which were responded in kind by ruthless American repercussions. The war became a matter for moral debate in the U.S. as the atrocities on both sides became known. Finally on July 4, 1902, newly sworn in President Theodore Roosevelt declared the resistance resolved as most fighters had been captured or killed and Aguinaldo had acquiesced to the Philippine becoming an American colony.

*Interestingly, the Philippines were unknown to most Americans upon defeating the Spanish including President McKinley himself who infamously could not find the islands on a map. McKinley struggled with what to do with the Philippines after defeating the Spanish – wavering between granting independence and semi-autonomy – but then ultimately decided to maintain American colonial control as it was in America’s business interest. A devout man, McKinley may have been divinely inspired to “christianize” the Filipino islanders as an impetus, but this doesn’t seem relevant since most Filipinos were already Catholic after 400 years of Spanish dominion.

Filipino – U.S Relations:  An Ocean Apart, Yet an Omnipresence

America's first imperial president

America’s first imperial president

The U.S. stance on overseeing the Philippines was officially titled “Benevolent Assimilation” – based on a proclamation by then President William McKinley to set up a civilian government under U.S. control that would bring religious freedom, set up judicial systems, secure private property, and upgrade transport and civilian systems “for” the Philippines. All this, was of course, decided without the consent of the 7,107 islands of 7 million disparate, mainly impoverished peoples within the “nation” which contain hundreds of distinct ethnic groups.

The installed civilian government was overwhelmingly in favor of independence led by the Nationalist Party (following the movement led by Aguinaldo) – but this demand was ignored by the U.S. for decades until 1934 when the U.S. Congress approved a proposal with the Tydings-McDuffie Act (Philippine Independence Act) of 1934 to grant independence within 10 years. This was delayed a couple of years by the end of World War II, but then was realized for the Philippines in 1946.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Subic Bay Naval Station

Despite allowing the Philippines to lead its own government after 1946, the United States maintained two major military bases: Subic Bay and Clark in order to maintain a strategic presence in the region. Following the second world war, General Dwight Eisenhower recommended that these bases be transferred to Filipino control but was overruled.

Eisenhower saw that the bases would be a sore spot for most Filipinos – the bases would be come to seen as continuing American imperialism and control – despite bringing in money for the local economy*. The bases became an even more vital to U.S. interests following the escalation of the Vietnam conflict under the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965. The bases were finally relinquished to the Philippine government in 1992.

From this short history of U.S. – Filipino relations, we should take away the following:

  • Instead of allowing self-determination and independence following a centuries long colonization by Spain, the U.S. imposed their dominance to use the Philippines as an outpost colony in the Pacific. 
  • The Philippine War was the initial stepping stone for an enlarged American global presence in the Pacific
  • While the war quickly faded from memory in the U.S., in the Philippines it is remembered for its bloody years and the fomenting of subsequent decades of continuing imperial control by a foreign power.
*the same phenomenon could be applied  to the Okinawan islands south of Japan that came under American military control at the end of WWII and thereafter was an air force base for the United States. The pushback by the Okinawans (a distinct group native to the islands) following economic repression and crimes perpetrated by U.S. servicemen, has made both Japan and the U.S. consider the social cost of maintaining military bases around the world.

The Philippines Since Independence

Between independence and 1965 Filipino governments had peacefully transferred and saw high levels of economic growth but had suffered from internal uprisings and corruption and graft – all while social problems among most Filipinos remained. In 1965, the election of Ferdinand Marcos brought forth a period of authoritarianism, corruption and repression that may help explain the interesting connection to Duterte’s government.

Marcos was elected to two four year terms, but during his tenure, his indifference to the injustices experienced by most Filipinos touched off armed rebellions. In response, in 1971 Marcos declared martial law, suspended Congress and the constitution, cancelled the upcoming presidential election and ordered mass arrests of opposition figures. Using his enlarged power for the next 16 years, Marcos ran a series of protected monopolies through the government to steal billions of dollars – enriching himself at the expense of his people.

Marcos increases power

Marcos increases power

While Marcos repelled all sitting U.S. Presidents through his corruption and repression, the U.S. government continued to give billions in military aid – likely because of the continued need for the military bases and a presence in southeast Asia. The U.S. was able to proctor the release from prison of the main opposition leader, Benigno Aquino in 1980, who came to the U.S. for medical treatment following a heart attack while awaiting a death sentence by a military commission. Upon his return to Manila in 1983, Aquino was assassinated by a military squad soon after landing.

Aquino’s assassination touched off a huge rancor of protests from opposition groups and the majority of Filipinos who were tired of the corruption, intimidation, and repression at the hands of an authoritarian. Hoping to weaken the growing protest movement, Marcos called for an election on February 7, 1986, in which he claimed victory – but which only served to spark more protests as the results showed that Aquino was the winner and the election was clearly tampered with. The increased protests combined with the turn of 2 major military figures against Marcos forced his hand. The U.S. remained by his side until February 25th, when he escaped in exile to Guam and then to Hawaii until his death three years later.*

the widowed Corazon Aquino

the widowed Corazon Aquino

Taking the mantle of leadership was the widow of Benigno Aquino, Corazon Aquino. While difficult social and economic issues continued, she restored democracy and ended the term of U.S. ownership of the two major Naval bases at Clark and Subic Bay in 1992. The Aquino’s son, Benigno III, was elected president in 2010 and stayed in office until this past year 2015 with the election of Duterte.

The independent period of time of the Philippines shows:

  • The rise of the authoritarian Marcos led to extreme corruption, repression of freedoms, and a reduction in the pace of economic growth and prosperity.
  • The U.S. supported the Marcos dictatorship in order to maintain their military bases on the Philippoines – at the expense of democracy and economic
*Marcos made his escape in an American chopper to an American territory (Guam) and then to the U.S. itself. The U.S. was complicit in helping the dictator escape – just as they were implicit in their complacency to allow Marcos to impose his ruthless authoritarian government.

The Rise of Duterte: The Return of Authoritarianism?

The election of President Duterte in the Philippines at first look seems like an aberration. Many economic factors* indicating significant growth and stability during the Aquino III administration made many political scientists figure that a continuity candidate from the government establishment would continue the gains made by Aquino. In addition, on the foreign policy side, the increased aggression from China in the South China Sea would seem to warrant closer relations with the United States and its policy of freedom of navigation.

Duterte on the stump in Davao

Duterte on the stump in Davao

Throughout the electoral campaign process, however, it was the political outsider touting strong security (law and order), tough talk on drugs, departure from close relations to the U.S., and anti-corruption that eventually would prevail. Duterte’s message and political record on these issues from his time as mayor of the city of Davao on Mindanao island struck a chord with the majority of Filipinos – many of whom did not see the gains made by the country as a whole – Filipinos who experienced the brunt of Typhoon Haiyan, extreme poverty**, and whose urban communities experience the wrath of the drug trade, child labor, and even sex slavery.

Perhaps the violence against Filipino fishermen and the recent concessions by China have convinced many Filipinos that the direction of the future is a rising China and not the U.S. who many consider to still be the imperial power. The continuing memory of the United States as imperial overlord (from historical relations) may have indeed influenced the rise of Duterte. Given these factors, both domestic and international, Duterte’s populist appeal is understandable – yet does not erase his detestable behavior and brutal actions since he took office.160705-philippines-drugs-0424_6511015396fe9f74410fe81789a2b863-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Duterte has certainly carried over his local crackdown on drugs from Mindanao over to the national sphere vowing to “kill criminals” including drug users and addicts. The crackdown on drugs has been called “state sanctioned killing” by Amnesty International as multiple reports allege that the police and military have been complicit in the extrajudicial killings. Major scandals from his mayoral days including charges of financial corruption and conflict of interest in addition to charges of human rights abuses.

The candidate with essentially no foreign policy or national governing experience has many hornets nests to handle including the challenge of China as an aggressor in the South China Sea (see previous posts for background), the long running war between minority Muslim rebels and the state within the Philippines, and major free trade agreements to consider. Finally, Duterte has controversially given former dictator Marcos an official burial in Manila’s cemetery of heroes, something that every sitting Filipino president has publicly refused to do.  Interestingly, this received quite a backlash from the public and from public figures such as his Vice President.

Did the arguments for Duterte justify his election? Corruption was already being tackled (although not completely eliminated) under the outgoing Aquino administration. And what of drugs – are they not an issue? The drug “menace” and the numbers related to drug users, actors, and dealers have been inflated. Duterte had claimed that there were 3.7 million drug addicts that Duterte said, “must be slaughtered.” The number inflation though has not been seen as a problem according to officials it is worth it to “increase awareness” and community involvement. These high numbers, more dangerously, have provided the impetus to increase the violent crackdown.

*factors such as total economic growth of 6.5%, a stable inflation rate of 2%, and a low national debt. Factors that would likely continue should foreign investment and other influences remain.
** the population earning $1.90 / day or less increased from 12% to 13% from 2009 to 2012.

Conclusion: Prescient Connections

Cut from the same mould?

Cut from the same mold?

If these descriptions of a rise of the Filipino president sound familiar to readers it is because they are eerily similar to those ascribed to Mr. Trump, the president elect in the U.S. Interesting connections can also be made to recent elections around the world including Narendra Modi in India where an outsider to current political trends won through populist appeal – although the level of incompetence, brutality, and boisterous disregard for decency to other human beings is not on the same level as Duterte and Trump.

What can we take away from our discussion of historical relations and recent presidential elections?

  • The Filipino election of Rodrigo Duterte has a connection to a populist backlash to the status quo – a status that ultimately was also recognized in the United States’ own election.
  • The United States’s century long relationship with the Philippines has at times been tenuous – and the imperial feeling overhanging the Philippines has continued with the adoption of the military bases and the inaction against the dictator Marcos
  • Both Duterte and President elect Trump have little / no political experience, are brutish and disregard issues related to human rights, and have financial connections that should be labeled as corruption.

Despite the issues surrounding Duterte, he does remain very popular among Filipinos – likely for his attitude of sticking with a campaign promise – something that Mr. Trump will likely have trouble doing.

Until the next upset election, your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:








The Philippines’ vice president is passive-aggressively shaming Rodrigo Duterte on Twitter

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books, 2006.





Image link: http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/philippines/

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