Diosdado P. Macapagal

Diosdado P. Macapagal (1910-1997) was the fifth president of the Republic of the Philippines. He was instrumental in initiating and executing the Land Reform Code, which was designed to solve the centuries-old land tenancy problem, the principal cause of the Communist guerrilla movement in central Luzon.

Diosdado Macapagal was born on Sept. 28, 1910, the son of poor tenant farmers. In 1929 he entered the University of the Philippines, where he received an associate in arts degree in 1932. Meanwhile he worked part time with the Bureau of Lands.

Macapagal was constantly forced to interrupt his schooling for lack of funds. His brother-in-law Rogelio de la Rosa, with whom he acted in and produced Tagalog operettas, helped him continue his education. Macapagal entered the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, receiving his bachelor of laws degree in 1936, his master of laws degree in 1941, and doctor of laws degree in 1947. He also received a doctorate in economics in 1957.

Early Career and Government Service

In 1941 Macapagal worked as legal assistant to President Quezon and as professor of law in the University of Santo Tomas. A claim is made that he served as an intelligence agent for the guerrillas during the Japanese occupation, but this period of his life has not been well documented.

In 1946 Macapagal served as assistant and then as chief of the legal division in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1948 he was second secretary to the Philippine embassy in Washington and in 1949 became counselor on legal affairs and treatises in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1949 he was elected representative of the first district of Pampanga Province on the ticket of the Liberal party. In 1953 he was the only Liberal party member to win reelection.

Macapagal attained worldwide distinction in 1951, when, as chairman of the Philippine UN delegation, he conducted a debate with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Vishinsky. In November 1957 Macapagal was elected vice president, receiving 116,940 more votes than the total received by the elected president, Carlos P. Garcia. In December Macapagal became the titular head of the Liberal party. In spite of his rank as vice president and because he belonged to the opposition party, Macapagal was treated as a complete outsider; he was barred from Cabinet meetings and was assigned routine ceremonial duties. Consequently, Macapagal denounced the graft and corruption in the Garcia administration and toured the country campaigning for the next election.

On Jan. 21, 1961, Macapagal was chosen as Liberal party candidate for president. Rallying the masses in the villages and towns, he elaborated a familiar motif in his speeches: "I come from the poor…Let me reap for you the harvest of the poor. Let us break the chain of poverty…"

Performance as President

Macapagal became president on Nov. 14, 1961, defeating Garcia. In his inaugural statement he declared: "I shall be president not only of the rich but more so of the poor. We must help bridge the wide gap between the poor man and the man of wealth, not by pulling down the rich to his level as Communism desires, but by raising the poor towards the more abundant life." With his naivetéand paternalistic attitude, Macapagal vowed to open Malakanyang Palace, the presidential residence, to all the citizens. He canceled the inaugural ball and issued a decree forbidding any member of his family or of his wife's to participate in any business deals with the government. He dismissed corrupt officials and started court action against those who could not explain their sudden acquisition of wealth. He changed the date that Filipinos celebrate their independence to June 12 from July 4. In 1898, Filipino revolutionaries had declared independence from Spain on June 12; July 4 was the date the Philippines were declared independent by the United States after World War II.

Macapagal aimed to restore morality to public life by concentrating on the elevation of the living standard of the masses. Addressing Congress in 1962, he formulated the objectives of his socioeconomic programs as, first, the immediate restoration of economic stability; second, the alleviation of the common man's plight; and third, the establishment of a "dynamic basis for future growth." Unfortunately, Macapagal's friends in the oligarchy and the privileged minority in Congress and business soon began parading their lavish wealth in conspicuous parties, junkets, and anomalous deals.

On Jan. 21, 1962, Macapagal abolished the economic controls that had been in operation since 1948. He devalued the Philippine peso by setting its value according to the prevailing free market rate instead of by government direction. He lifted foreign exchange controls and reduced tariff rates on essential consumer goods. Seeking to remedy the problem of unemployment, he took steps to decentralize the economy and at the same time encourage commerce and industry in the provinces. He also proposed decentralization in government by investing greater power in provincial and local governments as a step essential to the growth of democratic institutions. He also suggested the establishment of eight regional legislatures with power to levy taxes.

Land Reform Program

To ameliorate the plight of the Filipino peasant in the face of vast population growth, Macapagal instituted a public land clearance program to make new farmlands available for immediate use. The product of his concern for the impoverished majority was the Land Reform Code of Aug. 8, 1963, which sought to replace the abusive and unjust tenancy system inherited from colonial times by the leasehold system, affording full government protection to the leaseholder. The positive result obtained in 1966 demonstrated the value of the land reform program in materially improving the local living conditions of the rural poor.

Foreign Policy

Macapagal's foreign policy displayed an eccentric course. On the one hand, he affirmed that he would never recognize Communist China despite what the United States or other nations might decide. On the other, he criticized in May 1962 the United States support of Laos neutralists as "a species of sophistry that can only weaken the defense of the free world."

In June 1962 Macapagal registered a claim of Philippine sovereignty over British North Borneo (Sabah). In July he proposed the establishment of a greater Malayan confederation which would supersede the British-sponsored plan for the Federation of Malaysia. This would be a step toward ultimate establishment of a Pan-Asian Union. Macapagal initiated the Manila Accord of July 31, 1963, signed by himself, President Sukarno of Indonesia, and Abdul Rahman of Malaya; on August 6 the three chiefs of state issued the Manila Declaration toward the establishment of Maphilindo, designed to set up closer ties between the three countries in their collective fight against neocolonialism. This plan broke up with the formation on Aug. 1, 1964, of the Federation of Malaysia by the Malayan and British governments.

Although Macapagal prided himself in being the "conscience of the common man," he failed in preventing his administration from being wrecked by the Stonehill scandal of 1962, which revealed massive government corruption and racketeering that involved almost the whole bureaucracy and Congress. Despite Macapagal's so-called incorruptibility, he failed to solve decisively the major social and economic problems of the nation. He lost his bid for re-election in 1965 to Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled for the next 20 years. However, Macapagal's political legacy lives on in his daughters, both of whom followed him into politics: Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is a Filipino senator, and Cielo Macapagal-Salgado is vice-governor of Pampanga, her father's home province. Macapagal also had two sons, Arturo and Diosdado, Jr.

He died in Manila on April 21, 1997 of heart failure. He was 86.

Further Reading on Diosdado P. Macapagal

The only official biography of Macapagal in print is Quentin J.Reynolds and Geoffrey Bocca, Macapagal, the Incorruptible (1965). For a just estimate of Macapagal's administration see Teodoro A. Agoncillo and Oscar Alfonso, A Short History of the Filipino People (1969).

Additional Biography Sources

"Diosdado Macapagal, ex-Philippine Leader," Newsday, April 23, 1997, p. 13.

Reuters News Service, April 21, 1997.

Macapagal, Diosdado, A Stone for the Edifice; Memoirs of a President, Quezon City, Philippines, Mac Publishing, c1968.