09/23/2004, 00.00
PHILIPPINES
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With its debt sky high the government gets into gambling, Archbishop Cruz says

by Sonny Evangelista

Manila (AsiaNews) – Mgr Oscar Cruz, Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan, is critical of the flippant attitude with which the Arroyo government is tackling the country's worsening economic crisis. "Public coffers are empty," the Bishop said. "The government is destitute, people are impoverished and the citizenry is restless. Plus, people are asking serious questions and want some answers. Some are even making angry pronouncements," he added. And yet, according to the Archbishop, there "there is one big social liability that the government seems to consider as sacrosanct, untouchable, even praiseworthy: licensing gambling establishments".

With the economy in bad shape and the national debt at a record 6 trillion pesos (about US$ 110 billion), the Philippines might experience an Argentina-style economic meltdown unless stringent measures are taken in time. Under these circumstances, President Arroyo is asking a population already struggling with rising consumer prices and taxes to make further sacrifices.

Her words however sound hollow to the many groups complaining about the high salaries enjoyed by presidential appointees to unprofitable government-owned and government–controlled corporations whose losses inevitably add to the overall national debt.

And despite it all, the government keeps hiring more public servants and piling up new bureaucratic structures (and debts). Recently, President Arroyo appointed two well-known figures to high government positions: Melo Robles, spokesperson for the 6-million strong charismatic group El Shaddai, and former senator Ramon Revilla, a man not known for his political activism. For many observers both appointments are payment for services the two rendered during the last presidential election.

On top of all this, while several five-star Manila hotels have opened gambling casinos and numerous small internet cafés with on-line gambling have suddenly mushroomed in the capital, the government plans to set up a 'Presidential Commission on Values Formation' for the "purpose of inculcating values such as honesty, modesty, integrity and good work ethics in the government bureaucracy."

No wonder that Archbishop Cruz cannot mince his words. "The government appears bent on capitalizing on people's gambling addiction to get funds it sadly misspent and now badly wants," he said. "Practically all other public corporations are suffering big financial losses except for the corporation supervising gambling." This, he added, "is clearly a futile attempt at doing something right with something that is wrong."

Last but not least, the floating casino brought to Manila by Macau's gambling king, Stanley Ho, is being repaired and prepared for more gambling. Not even under the previous Estrada administration did the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation grant it a permit to operate. But now, "the present government seems to be in favour," the Archbishop complained adding that "it would be interesting to see who will be present at the casino's inauguration."

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