IN THE UNITED STATES THE COMING OF THE AQUINO government seemed to make the Philippines into a success story. The evil Marcos was out, the saintly Cory was in, the worldwide march of democracy went on. All that was left was to argue about why we stuck with our tawdry pet dictator for so long, and to support Corazon Aquino as she danced around coup attempts and worked her way out of the problems the Marcoses had caused.
This view of the New Philippines is comforting. But after six weeks in the country I don’t think it’s very realistic. Americans would like to believe that the only colony we ever had—a country that modeled its institutions on ours and still cares deeply about its relations with the United States—is progressing under our wing. It’s not, for reasons that go far beyond what the Marcoses did or stole. The countries that surround the Philippines have become the world’s most famous showcases for the impact of culture on economic development. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore—all are short on natural resources, but all (as their officials never stop telling you) have clawed their way up through hard study and hard work. Unfortunately for its people, the Philippines illustrates the contrary: that culture can make a naturally rich country poor. There may be more miserable places to live in East Asia—Vietnam, Cambodia—but there are few others where the culture itself, rather than a communist political system, is the main barrier to development. The culture in question is Filipino, but it has been heavily shaped by nearly a hundred years of the “Fil-Am relationship.” The result is apparently the only non-communist society in East Asia in which the average living standard is going down.

Now a few disclaimers. Some things obviously have gotten better since Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the country at the end of February last year (though most Filipinos seem to think that the threats to the Aquino government—of which the worst was the bloody August coup attempt—imperil such progress as the country has made). Not so much money is being sucked out at the top. More people are free to say what they like about the government, without being thrown in jail. Not so many peasants are having their chickens stolen by underpaid soldiers foraging for food, although the soldiers, whose pay has been increased, are still woefully short on equipment and supplies.