Frank Carbon sat at the western end of the restaurant’s left wing when this reporter arrived.
We were exchanging the usual pleasantries when he took off his face mask.
Gray. Of shuriken design.
He took a shot of his espresso and asked for his favorite, cheese ensaymada, at Felicia’s, the pastry shop partly owned by Andrew Montelibano, scion of a prominent and once very powerful hacendado (plantation owner) clan.
“Wala gid subong, sir (We don’t have it now, sir),” the pleasant and portly waiter said as this reporter ordered brewed coffee.
No cream. No sugar.
Frank is 70 and had seen a lot of turbulent times, those economic crises that most of us had just read in the books or seen in the news.
Frank lived in and through those hard times – like the 80s sugar crisis when export prices for the US quota bottomed out to 25 American cents.
Or the 1997 financial crisis, and the US recession in the early 21st century.
And now this one, the first in the second decade of the 21st century prompted by a pandemic.
Frank just had his power nap. Still sprightly and lucid, he does not look the 70 summers that he is and usually ends his sentences with a smile or sometimes a smile and a chuckle.
“The private sector is anemic,” he says and just like any anemic patient, what local businesses need now, he adds “is infusion of money.”
From the government. And fast.
Frank’s office is just above Felicia’s, on the same building owned by the Montelibano family, a third of the original sugar bloc that was both a political and economic power that took root in the monocrop economy of Negros island.
Some scholars say the sugar industry was a decisive force that shaped the economy of the country.
And swayed Philippine politics, like the habagat winds that bend sugarcane stalks in the late months of the year.
“November to April was the peak labor season: workers had to cut cane, make sugar, and put down a new crop simultaneously,” American historian John Larkin writes in his book Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society.
“Basta gaaso ang simboryo maayo ang kabuhi sang tawo (When the chimneys are smoking, our life gets better),” is how common folk living in places with sugar centrals that dot this island of four million.
November is the start of sugarcane harvesting and milling, the tailend of a production process of the sweet reed upon which fortunes were built.
These months fall under the tiempo suerte or time of plenty after long lean months or the tiempo muerto, a dead season when work slows down in the fields as everyone waits for the most pampered grass to grow.
And yield its sweetness to the mills.
The tiempo suerte is usually felt in the haciendas or plantations through better viands, when meat goes back to the table for the ordinary laborers.
And money circulates more or gains “more velocity” in economics jargon.
Now, however, even when the harvests begin and the mills reopen the economy in the province’s trading and political capital remains sluggish.
Like a groggy boxer hit by a one-two punch.
“It is sluggish because consumers have no purchasing power,” Frank says.
In simple speak, people have no money.
Take the wait staff of Felicia’s, for example.
Fidel (not his real name) is the portly waiter who knows patrons – from the hacendado to the obreros – by their first names.
He is one of the lucky few who still have a job.
Even if he works only three times a week.
On any given day, Felicia’s only has three workers in this branch – the cashier, the cook, and the waiter – who are on duty for a week, after which a different crew takes over.
It used to have 16 workers on the floor.
“Even the cook waits on tables, too when he or she is not cooking,” Frank says about his conversation with Fidel.
Sans debates on the merits of a capitalist economy, Frank says it is the duty of the private sector to generate jobs for employment while government takes care of peace and order and other requirements for an ideal climate that promotes and encourages businesses to operate.
The quarantine restrictions caused by the pandemic, however, threatens to bleed the private sector dry.
Like a leech on a feeding frenzy.
Just across Felicia’s is the L’Fisher Hotel, the first upscale hotel to have been built post the Marcos dictatorship.
Through its halls passed movers and shakers of Philippine society, from presidents to billionaires.
“It is ready to operate again,” Frank says as he pointed at the hotel, the owner of which is a member of the Metro Bacolod Chamber of Commerce and Industry that Frank heads as chief executive officer.
Quarantine restrictions, however, prevent leisure travel.
This affects hotels and, most of all, ferry companies, among which is Weesam Express that Frank manages.
When leisure travel is not allowed, ferry companies are uncertain about resuming trips and hotels that feed on the movement of leisure travellers are denied clients.
A symbiotic relationship viciously cut off by a virus.
Frank and businessmen-members of MBCCI hope that as the private sector flounders, government can step in to pump prime the economy, a formula that has worked during wars and recessions.
Simply because in moments of crisis, only government has the spending and borrowing capacities.
“It has the money to spend and the credit standing for it to borrow,” he adds.
For indeed, no bank will easily lend money to a business in the midst of a crisis.
In a nutshell, Frank and MBCCI propose measures to help revive the economy: 1) the lifting of the ban on leisurely travel, 2) a common regionwide quarantine status with exceptions for areas that still have high confirmed cases, 3) loans to micro, small and medium enterprises.
Frank points out that resuming inter-island travel in Western Visayas that is composed of three islands – Negros, Guimaras and Panay on which are six provinces – will immediately bring back the lost 20 to 30 percent of income.
Loans and infusions, on the other hand, are hoped to bring back staggering micro, small and medium enterprises back to their feet.
Seven out of 10 businesses in the city after all are MSMEs, Frank adds.
Things look bleak now, Frank admits but there is hope though.
“We just have to work hard.”
Asked about what he thinks is the worst that might happen, Frank suddenly looked sullen and his chuckle is muted.
“I don’t want to think about it,” he says as he fidgets at his half-empty demittase.
A breakdown in peace and order? No money to buy food?
Possibilities, he says.
Frank Carbon gets a shot of espresso to keep him going in the afternoons.
Perhaps that, too is what the economy needs.