With their guns silent for now, communist rebels in the Philippines have declared an ``economic war'' against the Aquino government. ``We need to show who can provide the better deal for the peasants - Aquino or the CPP [Communist Party of the Philippines],'' says a communist leader who, oddly enough, doubles as a government agricultural agent.
In the nearly one year since Corazon Aquino rose to power, the rebels have made special efforts to boost incomes in villages under their control or influence (where about 17 percent of the 56 million Filipinos live).
Their economic ``ammunition'' includes land reform, snail farms, fish ponds, cooperatives, and other efforts - even restrictions on gambling, drinking, and deforestation.
During the 60-day cease-fire with the government, which began Dec. 10 and which may be extended, the CPP, party leaders say, has tried to highlight its economic ``successes,'' for several reasons:
The communists need to retain the loyalty of their organized peasants and guerrillas in the face of a popular, reform-oriented Aquino government trying to bring economic benefits to the countryside.
``Many people are asking us, `Why are you fighting Cory?' It's hard to explain. So we must show them a better way,'' says Jaime Lanoy, party secretary for the southeast region of Mindanao Island.
By displaying ``positive'' economic projects, the communists hope to attract more ``middle forces'' (intellectuals, church leaders, small business men), while trying to rid themselves of a ``warmonger'' image.
The party wants to show peasants that their problems did not end with the flight of Ferdinand Marcos, as some Aquino supporters contend, but that the capitalist system is at fault.
This accounts for the CPP's rejection of Mrs. Aquino's draft constitution, which goes before voters Feb. 2. But many of the CPP's leftist fronts take a ``critical yes'' stand in order to not lose any more ground with the ``middle forces.''
The communists hope to ``out-reform'' Aquino in the public mind, perhaps forcing her to take radical rather than moderate measures, such as on land reform. This, they hope, will incite reaction from the landed elite, and begin the ``class struggle'' deemed necessary for a communist revolution. This process they call ``the cutting edge.''
The party is preparing for renewed warfare within two years and wants to establish a ``war economy'' in its areas. By boosting productivity, the communists hope to improve the marginal suplus of food and income to help support the guerrillas in the CPP-led New People's Army.
But a wide disparity exists between the party's rhetoric on economic projects and what actually happens, based on this reporter's three weeks of living in three CPP-run villages on three islands (Samar, Panay, Mindanao).
Many peasants under rebel rule say their life is no better or worse than in other villages. And in many cases, new rules have complicated their lives.
If the communists are to prove their point, it would be on Samar Island, the most advanced and most consolidated area of communist control in the Philippines. It is the third-largest island in the archipelago, perhaps the most impoverished, and has double the party membership rate of any other island.
Of all the major islands, Samar is the one most racked by Pacific typhoons, most economically neglected, most rebellious throughout Filipino history, and most difficult to traverse and till. The rebellion has grown so fast here that the national party leadership had to restrain them from 1980 to 1983.
Since the 1970s, the party has set up shadow governments in about 1,000 villages on Samar, putting the poorest peasants in authority. Usually, the most significant moves by peasant associations is to order wage hikes for landless farm workers and an increase in the share of crops for tenant farmers.
Then the problems start. Here are some examples from a number of villages: In many cases, richer peasants stopped hiring laborers. Also, having tasted the power of raising their crop share, tenant farmers asked for even more. Cheating on payments increased.
The party tried to form small farm collectives, taking several acres of land from an absentee landlord and arranging for peasants to work the land together. But most of the crop goes to running the party or New People's Army and, as a result, labor participation is low.
When many peasant associations ordered a steep drop in interest rates on loans from richer peasants, the loans dried up.
When the local party leaders began a special farm tax on peasants, they had difficulty collecting. Under orders from higher up, the peasants' leaders had to give half of the tax revenues to the party. The other half went for emergency loans to peasants. In one village, no loans were ever repaid. And now peasant leaders are demanding that 80 percent of the tax revenue remain in the village.
In several villages, consumer cooperatives were formed, helping peasants buy basic items at cheaper prices. But the savings per family amount to only about 10 cents a week.
Such problems alienate richer peasants, fail to raise productivity, and often prevent real increases in income, party leaders admit.
Last year, the party began to set up ``social economic teams'' on Samar, made up of college-educated agronomists, social workers, and economists, some from the University of the Philippines with connections to West European private development groups, such as a Dutch organic-farming institute.
The teams' goal is to achieve a ``breakthrough'' in the peasant's age-old methods of agriculture by 1988. ``A majority of our farmers on Samar do not even know how to plow,'' says Samar's party secretary, who calls himself Elio. ``So it is very difficult to achieve self-reliance.''
The teams rely on farmers picking up new ideas from CPP-run model farms, which try new crops and new techniques. They also promote such ideas as snail farms and water-buffalo breeding. Also, such teams help peasants organize against middleman produce buyers.
So far, say model-farm supervisors, very few peasants have tried new crops or techniques. ``Peasants are too conservative and unwilling to risk the old methods,'' says a Mindanao CPP leader. ``Our analysis shows the farmer doesn't make any more money'' with new techniques.''
Land reform is rare in CPP villages, although peasants are encouraged to take over idle lands of absentee landlords. On Samar, the party gives promissory notes to landlords if their lands are taken, promising to pay them ``just compensation'' once the CPP gets enough money.
``Right now, land reform means just preventing land-grabbing and allowing farmers to take public lands,'' says party secretary Lanoy. ``Anything more than that would go against the balance of forces. We must not frustrate the middle forces. Their contribution to the economy - such as management ability - would be jeopardized.''