Socialist Worker

Under the shadow of US imperialism

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2003

The Philippines archipelago, made up of over 7,000 islands, was “discovered” by the West in 1521 by the Spanish naval adventurer Ferdinand Magellan.

He named it after the Spanish king, Felipe. Spanish control was not secured until 1564.

In the 19th century an independence movement was established which erupted in revolt in 1896.

The US seized the Philippines in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War. This conflict was justified to the US population as war for liberation of colonial peoples from imperialism in Asia and the Caribbean.

The real motive was to secure a launchpad for economic expansion in Asia and for the military to gain bases to subjugate the region. This war signalled the formal beginning of the US as an imperialist power.

At the start of 1899 Filipino nationalist forces began a guerrilla war against the US which lasted for nearly three years.

During the war nearly 325,000 Filipino civilians died because of US revenge attacks and a deliberately created famine. Around 70,000 Filipino resistance fighters were killed and 4,300 US military forces.

US firms were freed up to plunder the Philippines market after the defeat of the resistance. Manufactured goods flooded into the country, holding back local development, and the economy was directed towards supplying raw materials for US industry.


After the Second World War national liberation movements swept the region. The US set up the Republic of the Philippines, which shifted power from the US colonial administrators to a puppet government headed by a section of the local elite which was prepared to cooperate with US firms.

The new constitution barred foreign firms from exploiting natural resources and land. But the US was exempted from this clause.

The US also kept the Clark airbase and the Subic Bay naval base, which were key strategic assets during the Cold War.

Independence brought no social changes. More than half the population were peasants and 20 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the most productive land. Landowners consistently gained more land as peasants were driven to bankruptcy by crippling debts.

A study of 110 US companies revealed that from 1956 to 1965 they invested $80 million in the Philippines, yet grasped $387 million in profits.

By the early 1970s an oligarchy of 400 families owned 90 percent of the national wealth.

Such gross inequality meant that the ruling class depended on US military support. In return the Philippines supported the US war against Vietnam and the 1965 coup in Indonesia.

In 1972 president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law as social unrest grew in the countryside over land reform, and in the cities over inequality. The US backed him to the hilt.

Martial law meant unbridled repression and murder of political opponents.

In 1983 opposition leader Bengino Aquino was murdered by Marcos’s forces at Manila airport.

As violence continued, a vast popular movement grew demanding elections and supporting Corazon Aquino, widow of the assassinated leader. Aquino called for civil disobedience after widespread fraud stopped her winning.

The minister of defence tried to smash the rebels but one million Aquino supporters surrounded his forces. The air force mutinied and refused to bomb the opposition.


The US realised Marcos was finished and whisked him into exile. Aquino’s regime brought very little change and continued the links with the US.

Ferdinand Ramos won the 1992 elections and instituted harsh austerity measures which won IMF support.

Big movements of workers and peasants protested over issues such as the 70 percent increase in rice prices in 1995, and the existence of mass child labour.

The unrest meant that Ramos lost the elections in 1998 and he was replaced by Joseph Estrada. He was quickly accused of corruption and, amid massive street mobilisations, he was driven from power and replaced by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in January 2001.

Arroyo has supported the US “war on terror” and employed US troops in operations against separatist rebels. Democracy continues to be very limited. The 200 wealthiest families hold 16,000 elected political positions in the country.

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