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Independence Day 2023 Series: National Identity and Modern Nationalism

Year after year in the past century and a quarter, the themes for Independence Day celebrations varied slightly from freedom, healing, strong bonds, thanksgiving, national identity, nationalism and about the future. These themes can probably be summed up with the word “aspirations.” Webster defines the word as “a strong desire to achieve something high or great.”

The revolutionaries who revolted against Spain aspired for a free Philippines, for a national identity that the rest of the world would recognize. Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo and company thought that they had achieved precisely that, thus the Malolos Declaration of Independence. The question though is whether the Philippines was truly free at the time and if such independence was recognized by the world?

The short answer is “no” because the Spaniards literally were still in control of Las Islas Filipinas until the United States intervened. Perhaps Aguinaldo’s declaration was a call for Filipinos to rise up against the invaders and seek freedom for themselves.

A short timeline will make sense. The Philippine Revolution began in August 1896. Jose Rizal was shot by a firing squad on December 30, 1896. Andres Bonifacio (Magdiwang) and Emilio Aguinaldo (Magdalo) had a falling out. The Tejeros Convention in March 22, 1897 was an attempt to unite these factions, but it turned out to be a pissing contest and an election marked by vote shaving (dagdag-bawas) in favor of Aguinaldo. Katipunan Supremo/Presidente Bonifacio declared the proceedings null and void.

Still, Aguinaldo declared himself president the next day and took his oath of office before a Catholic priest who was under the authority of the Vatican in Rome. Bonifacio accused Aguinaldo and company of treasonous acts by conniving with the enemy. While at a meeting in Cavite, Aguinaldo interrupted Bonifacio’s meeting and asked Bonifacio to support his government but the latter refused.

By April 1897, Aguinaldo’s revolutionary government was well in place. He had Bonifacio and his brother arrested, tried for treason and executed the following month. Bonifacio’s wife was raped by a fellow Tagalog who betrayed him. Bonifacio lost in the power struggle, but karma is a bitch. In a few months, Aguinaldo surrendered to the Spanish authorities.

The Pact of Biak-na-Bato was a testament that the Filipinos were badly losing to the Spaniards. The 1897 pact contained the terms of surrender that Aguinaldo himself negotiated for P800,000 Mexican pesos and exile to Hongkong. While in exile in Hongkong, Aguinaldo established a Junta with him as the rebellion leader in absentia and officially established relations with Australia, Germany and the United States.

Meanwhile, the United States officially declared war with Spain in April 1898 upon the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Bay, Cuba. The Americans accused Spain’s Navy of sinking it. Spain denied it and that the American ship had trouble and sank on its own. American president William McKinley authorized deployment of the USS Olympia under the command of Admiral George Dewey along with its fleet of newer ships to the Philippines to destroy the aging battleships of the Spanish Armada.

According to Aguinaldo’s memoirs, a US Navy lieutenant approached him in Hongkong and offered to work together against the Spaniards in return for Philippine liberation. Aguinaldo’s account indicated that a promise was made to grant independence to the Philippines after his collaboration to defeat the Spaniards. Aguinaldo then boarded the USS McCulloch bound for Manila.

Adm. Dewey sank the Spanish armada in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1st but could not engage the enemy forces in Manila. Upon arrival in the Philippines on May 19, 1898, Aguinaldo declared a Dictatorial Government with him as the dictator. He then made the Declaration of Independence on June 12, 1898, at his house in Kawit, Cavite and over a week later, issued a decree replacing the form of government to revolutionary. Again, he made himself the revolutionary president.

German and British ships sailed near Manila (in case they had to evacuate their citizens from the Philippines). While Adm. Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet, they, however, could not dock in Manila because the United States did not have boots on the ground for months and could not invade Manila. The U.S. troops finally arrived, joined forces with Aguinaldo’s revolutionaries, attacked and captured Manila on August 13, 1898.

By December, the Treaty of Paris was signed officially ending the Spanish-American War and paved the way for Cuba’s independence. Guam and Puerto Rico were trophies of the war that the U.S. won from Spain. There was a little complication in the Philippines’ situation because Manila surrendered after the armistice was already declared and therefore, could not be claimed by the U.S. as part of the conquest.

This is an important point. Had Spain stuck to their argument, the next step would have been the granting of independence to the Philippines much like Cuba. For $20 million, however, Spain relented and sold the Philippines to the United States. Aguinaldo’s revolutionary government was not recognized by the Americans as legit and installed its own government officials instead. The Americans became the next colonizer, to Aguinaldo’s consternation.

The Americans wanted the Philippines for many military and economic reasons. So, it came up with unbelievable justifications to start its empire building: to “Christianize” the Filipinos (as in Protestants) although most of them were already Christians having been baptized Roman Catholics, and that the Philippines were not ready to self-govern and needed to be educated in the American image. The Americans were aware of the factionalism between Bonifacio and Aguinaldo.

Aguinaldo was clearly not happy and led his revolutionaries once more, to war. This time, with the Americans. The war lasted for three years from 1899 to 1901 when Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans and into the spring of 1902. No foreign power came to support Aguinaldo’s government. It was a brutal war that cost nearly half-a-million Filipinos but what followed resulted in the Filipino identity being completely modified.

The American teachers arrived in 1904, held the first Philippine elected assembly, granted commonwealth status in 1935, was invaded by Japan in 1941, Filipinos joined forces with the Americans to defeat the Japanese in 1944. It was granted full Independence on July 4, 1946, but American influence in the country stayed for another 50 years and to this day.

The American bases in the Philippines were shuttered in 1991, despite then President Corazon Aquino’s plea to keep the bases, when the Philippine Senate voted not to renew the bases agreement. Her son President Benigno Aquino III in 2010 and welcomed the American troops back through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014.

In a nutshell, Filipinos are still working on having their own identity and to be truly free. Thus, the yearly Independence Day is part and parcel, a continuing effort to achieve unity through modern nationalism. It seems the aspirations of the revolutionaries in the 19th century have dissipated primarily due to the American conversion of Filipinos into its image. (To be continued)


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