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She Vowed to Aid Poor--but Legally : Squatter Invasions Pose Test of Aquino Promises

Times Staff Writer

“She will give it to us,” Lena Domingo insisted, pointing to a patch of ground. It was about 40 square yards, staked out and bounded with white tape--a squatter’s claim.

A few miles away, in the courtyard of an unfinished low-income housing project, Alejandro Avila said, “We appeal to the president for the chance to occupy these apartments.” In fact, Avila had joined a squatter invasion here two weeks earlier.

In his office nearby, Herminio Aquino, who now runs the Philippine ministry that deals with public housing, said: “We’re trying to stop it from growing. We can’t let it spread.”

Since early March, an explosion of squatter invasions has rocked Manila and other cities. What triggered the outbreak is debated, but the result has put President Corazon Aquino in an uncomfortable political spot.

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She took office in late February as a champion of the poor, and in the cities, the poor want affordable homes of their own. But she has sworn to uphold the law, and the law forbids squatting on private or government land.

“A statement from Cory (the president) would help,” Herminio Aquino, who is not related to the president, told a reporter. “Everybody’s getting anxious about this thing.”

He said he doubts that the president will order forcible eviction of the squatters, because of the political impact of such a move. But he said the invasions are nonetheless illegal, and he called it “land-grabbing.”

“We are suspicious that this was orchestrated,” he said, adding that it may have been done to embarrass the president.

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But the roots of the outbreak are hard to track. At three squatter sites in Pasig, just outside Manila, the people said there was no orchestrated plan for the takeovers. Yet the timing suggests otherwise.

At the housing project where Avila joined the invasion, a security guard was asked when the people moved in. “It was March 10, at 7:30 in the evening,” he said. “In half an hour, all 300 units were filled.”

The only incident, the guard recalled, occurred when a family tried to occupy an apartment at the same time another family was entering through another door.

Housing Need Pressing

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Whether the invasions were coordinated or simply a product of word of mouth, they are the result of a pressing need for housing for the urban poor. At the field where Lena Domingo has staked out her claim, 27-year-old Sam Viray, a father of three and a sometime electrician, said he makes about $45 a month and his family lives in a rented room that takes half his earnings.

Viray hopes the government will build apartments on the field, which belongs to the province of Rizal, and rent them to the squatters. “I need a 100-peso apartment,” he said--about $5 a month.

A month into her term, Aquino faces a multitude of problems, but many of them are political and of little direct concern to the poor: recovering the hidden assets of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, persuading the country’s Communist insurgents to lay down their weapons, paying the Philippines’ enormous foreign debt. These are problems worked out behind closed doors in government offices.

Squatters are a visible problem, and an old one here. Marcos tried to solve the problem by bulldozing squatter shacks and trucking the occupants to public housing, often far from the city and from available work.

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Marcos Program

Marcos’ wife, Imelda, through the Ministry of Human Settlements, began a program of housing for the poor in Manila, which she called Bliss projects. But the rent, about 600 pesos a month ($30), was too high for the truly poor.

As a result, the Bliss occupants have been middle-class Manilans, and many are people with some sort of government connection. The Bliss units were allocated by lottery. What the squatters of Pasig want is a first-come, first-served allocation.

At Valle Verde, a private development across a narrow street from the squatters’ field in Pasig, workmen last week were stringing concertina wire along the top of the compound walls.

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Bernardino Belacho, who manages a section of the Valle Verde homes, said, “We are hopeful that these people will be made to move.” He said the Valle Verde residents, who have invested an average of $75,000 in home and lot, are worried about security with about 3,000 poor people camped in the open field across the street.

Joblessness a Factor

E.R. Caruncho, 30, the mayor of Pasig, outlined the problems of the poor there: “Unemployment here is nearly 50%. Stanford Microsystems--that’s a U.S.-owned semiconductor company--recently shut down its factory here. That was more than 7,000 jobs. So what do the workers do? They use people power, the right to squat.”

Caruncho, a Marcos supporter who says he no longer supports the Marcoses, has been ordered by the Aquino government to give up his office. He will turn it over to a caretaker administrator in early April.

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“Ferdinand Marcos was the greatest grafter of all time,” the mayor said. “He makes Duvalier, Somoza, all those Central Americans look like peanuts.”

Caruncho said the squatter invasions in Pasig are aimed at properties somehow identified with the Marcos Bliss projects or land purportedly owned by Jose Y. Campos, a longtime associate of the former president.

“Unless you treat them with iron hands, you cannot get rid of them,” Caruncho said, noting that he had dealt with squatters in the past on his own properties. “You push them out and they come back. It’s like a seesaw.”

Petitions to Government

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At the squatters’ field, spokesmen understand the problems and the legalities. They are writing petitions to various departments of the new government asking for a meeting. They say they are squatting on either Marcos-connected land or on government property and that Aquino will let them stay there.

The people are not building, just establishing a presence. The field looks like a mining camp. On each taped plot stands a stake with the name of the claimant: “Robles and Talavera Property,” or simply “Suarez.”

The squatters keep rented rooms in nearby barrios, bringing food and water into the camp. But the cloth-and-corrugated-steel sunshades that they have put up on their plots are taking on a more permanent look.

They deny that there are any professional squatters among them, but the Aquino government is suspicious.

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“Do not be enticed by promises of agitators who claim that under the new government you have acquired the right to illegally occupy these vacant properties,” Joey Lina, chief administrator of the Metro Manila Commission, has warned the squatters.

Whatever led to the invasions, Aquino has a problem.

“All we want is for Cory to listen to our need for the lands,” Lena Domingo said. “She will give it to us.”

And if the government chooses instead to remove the squatters? At the occupied Bliss project, Avila said that even “if she sends police, I think we will not go out.”

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