In Context

The Republic of the Philippines is a chain of 7,107 islands in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, covering an area of 115,830 square miles in Southeast Asia. The country is divided into three areas: Luzon to the north, Visayas in the center and Mindanao to the south. Manila, the capital city where Paco attended culinary school, is located in Luzon. Cebu, the home of the Larrañaga and Chiong families, is located in central Visayas. The archipelago was formed by volcanic activity, and is mostly mountainous with areas of coastal lowlands. With 20 active volcanoes, the Philippines is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is thus prone to seismic activity. The country's tropical climate also makes it susceptible to typhoons.

The Philippines has a population of 98 million (2012 estimate). More than 150 native languages and dialects are spoken in the Philippines, and there are four principal languages: Cebuano, spoken in Visayas; Tagalog, spoken around Manila; Ilocano, spoken in northern Luzon; and Maranao, spoken in Mindanao. To establish national unity, the government promotes the use of Filipino, based on Tagalog, as the national language, and it is taught all over the country. English is also an official language of the country, and many speak it as a second language. The Philippines has one of the highest literacy rates of developing countries, with over 93 percent of the population over 10 years of age able to read. The gender gap is significantly close with regard to health and education.

Due to over 400 years of Spanish and American rule, more than 90 percent of the population is Christian. A small Muslim population also exists, around 4.6 percent, concentrated in central and western Mindanao. Some smaller forest tribes still live in the more remote areas of Mindanao.

With a gross domestic product per capita of $2,370 in 2011, economic growth in the Philippines has averaged 5 percent over the past year, with a 7.6 percent growth rate in 2010, the highest in 20 years. Since the global financial crisis and recession, efforts have been made to develop programs that boost infrastructure, and as a result the economy has been relatively stable and resilient.

The Philippines is a representative democracy modeled after the U.S. system of government. Under the 1987 constitution, ratified under the Corazon Aquino administration, a government was established with three branches--the executive, with a president limited to one six-year term; a bicameral legislature; and an independent judiciary. The senate consists of 24 members who serve six-year terms; half of them are elected every three years. The House of Representatives is made up of 285 members, 229 of whom represent single-member districts. Party-list representatives, or party representatives elected at large, occupy the remaining 56 seats. Representatives serve three-year terms and a maximum of three consecutive terms. Under the constitution, the number of members of the House of Representatives is limited to 250. However, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allows additional party members to sit in, if they attained the required number of votes.

Some of the major issues affecting the political climate of the country are corruption, cronyism and nepotism. There are several families at the forefront of society, and they hold a large share of both political power and economic wealth. The incumbent president, Benigno Aquino III, ran on an anti-corruption platform. He took office in June 2010. Under his administration, a Truth Commission was established. This body, led by former Supreme Court chief justice Hilario Davide, Jr., was formed to investigate charges of corruption, election rigging and human rights abuses during the previous administration under Gloria Arroyo. As of the end of 2011, Arroyo had been placed on house arrest pending trial, and the chief justice she had appointed to the Supreme Court had been impeached and found guilty of corruption. The next presidential election is slated for May 2016.

The Supreme Court of the Philippines is composed of 15 justices, appointed by the president with recommendations from the judicial and bar council. The justices serve on the court until they reach the age of 70. Other courts include the Court of Appeals, and the Sandiganbayan ("People's Advocate"), a special court for cases involving corruption of government officials. While the Philippines has adopted a legal framework similar to that of the United States, it has not implemented a jury system. A judge hears the case and issues a ruling. In Paco Larrañaga's case, it was Judge Martin Ocampo who heard the evidence and adjourned the court for three months to write his decision.

As a result of massive case backlogs and low salaries, the legal system is fraught with inefficiencies and corruption. Only one percent of the national budget is allocated to the judiciary, so very often judges and lawyers become dependent on local politicians for resources, which allows political influence to trickle in. This culture of impunity has made the Philippines one of the most dangerous places for employees in the court system. Since 1999, at least 12 judges have been killed, and the perpetrators remain unpunished.

Caption: A scene from 'Give Up Tomorrow'
» Election Guide. "Philippines."
» Freedom House. "Philippines."
» Reuters. "Philippines' Aquino Sets Up 'Truth Commission.'" June 29, 2010.
» U.S. Department of State. "Background Note: Philippines."
» The World Bank. "GDP Per Capita."
» The World Bank. "Philippines Overview."