Time to exhale

The most insulting attempt at drawing the contrast between Gloria and Cory happened two days after the latter’s burial.

President Arroyo signed the law for the nth extension of the agrarian reform program on August 7. Party-lister Rissa Hontiveros quickly dared Gloria to distribute to farmers the Arroyos’ 1,000 hectares of agricultural land in Negros Occidental. This would be “the real barometer of her sincerity,” Hontiveros said.

Around that time, Migs Zubiri’s spin from a few days earlier had not died down—that the Senate prioritized the approval of that expanded land reform law “as tribute [to] and respect” for Cory Aquino, “who made it her flagship program during her administration.”

Cory being honored for land reform? What plunged these people into collective amnesia?

If there was anybody to blame for defeating genuine land reform, then it had to be Corazon Cojuangco Aquino. If there’s anything by which we should measure any president’s sincerity about land reform, then it had to be by his or her resolve to distribute the Cojuangcos’ Hacienda Luisita to farmers.

Because Hacienda Luisita—that roughly 6,500-hectare expanse that’s reportedly the second biggest contiguous piece of agricultural land in the country—actually belongs to the Filipino people.

According to published research and reports, the Spanish owners of the Tarlac estate and the azucarera wanted to sell in 1957. Then President Ramon Magsaysay, afraid that his political rivals from the Visayas would acquire these, asked Jose Cojuangco Sr., father of Cory, to beat other buyers to it. The offer was coursed through Ninoy Aquino, Cory’s husband, who was very close to Magsaysay.

The old man Cojuangco didn’t have to shell out his own money. The Central Bank of the Philippines and the Government Service Insurance System provided the money—$2.12 million for the azucarera, and P3.98 million for the land. It was taxpayers’ money; it was pension money of government employees.

The release of the money was tied to a well-documented condition that the lands would be distributed to farmers within 10 years.

President Carlos Garcia, to whom Ninoy was also very close, aided this deal after he assumed the presidency in 1957 upon Magsaysay’s death. Hacienda Luisita was placed in the Cojuangcos’ hands by 1958.

On the eve of the 10th year, the government inquired about the progress of the land distribution. Cory’s mother, Doña Demetria (of the Sumulong clan of Rizal), stood her ground. Using technicalities (“tenants” are different from “farm laborers”) and questioning the wording of the resolutions that released the money (there was no mention of “farm workers”), she said no condition existed that would merit putting up her family’s land for distribution.

In 1980, the Marcos government filed a case to finally take back the land that the government clearly owned. In December 1985, a Manila court ruled that Hacienda Luisita had to be distributed to the farmers.

Before the court order could be enforced, however, Cory was swept to power within two months. She named her family’s lawyer in the Luisita case, Sedfrey Ordoñez, as the solicitor general. So there he was with the unenviable task of being the government’s chief lawyer who was supposed to work for the recovery of the hacienda, from the private clients who used to pay him to keep the same property out of government’s reach.

 

CORY OWES US, TOO

A year into her presidency, which we credit for bringing back democracy in this country, 13 farmers who were marching toward Malacañang to demand genuine agrarian reform were killed by police and soldiers.

The following year, in 1988, Cory signed Republic Act 6657, the comprehensive agrarian reform law. It allows owners of agricultural lands to keep only up to 5 hectares for themselves, and an additional 3 hectares for each child who is older than 15 years and is personally cultivating the land. Everything in excess of that should be divided among the farmers who have been tilling the land.

So what was the president to do?

Cory’s law provides landowners an alternative scheme, where they instead give the farmers shares of stocks in the companies managing the lands, and therefore share in their earnings.

The lands, precious lands, therefore remain with the landowners. As for the earnings, the law lists down several ways the landowners can say they didn’t earn enough and have nothing to distribute. The Cojuangcos many years later would, in fact, invoke that the business was losing.

It was “the first time in agrarian history,” Bulatlat.com noted a few years ago, that land reform didn’t involve farmers actually owning the lands they were tilling.

She seemed bent on keeping it that way.

I remember senior journalists who covered Cory Aquino recounting that whenever they questioned her on any policy decision or any other matter, she would refer them to her Cabinet officials or advisers for the answers. But when it came to agrarian reform issues, they swear, Cory could, and would, answer anything and everything—“No matter how we phrased and re-phrased the questions,” one former Palace reporter said.

Anyway, majority of the farmers were persuaded to agree to the stock distribution option. (What did we expect when the Cory-appointed governor and mayors were there to “help” explain the options to them?)

During the term of Fidel Ramos, who owes his presidency to Cory, practically half of Hacienda Luisita’s area was subject to rezoning for commercial and industrial use. Later, 500 hectares were actually approved for conversion from agricultural classification, exempting them from land reform. It was 1995, and the governor of Tarlac was Margarita Cojuangco, wife of Cory’s brother Peping.

During Joseph Estrada’s time, I distinctly remember that Cory was slow in joining civil society’s calls for his resignation. That was, until somebody whispered to Erap (it was probably his agrarian reform secretary, Boy Morales, who is a Tarlaqueño) that he should probably look into distributing Luisita to boost his popularity.

In 2004, Cory was not ready to condemn Gloria Arroyo for her and her family’s reported excesses and excessive compromises (and Kris endorsed Gloria, remember?). That year, the government had sent cops and soldiers to Luisita to break up the rally of striking farm workers. Fourteen were killed.

In 2005, because Gloria practically admitted cheating in the presidential elections, Cory called on her to resign. The next thing we knew, the agrarian reform department issued an order revoking the stock distribution in Luisita. The case is pending with the Supreme Court.

 

CONTRASTING LEGACIES

This is one reason I can’t honestly join the yellow crowd in exalting the virtues of Cory Aquino. This is why I won’t have any of those “Kris or Noynoy for President in Whatever Year” trial balloons that they released on Cory’s burial day.

What I saw when Cory was buried was a chance for us, as a people, to finally exorcise the illusion being painted by her allies that leadership in this country’s fight (for whatever that is now) is a monopoly of Ninoy’s and Cory’s family, that their intentions for the country are always better than yours and mine.

If for one second we will think straight and ask: Which was clearly funded by taxpayers’ money—Gloria’s 2 dinners in the US whose exaggerated cost estimates congressmen have claimed paying for, or Cory’s 6,500-hectare farm and sugar mill that were bought by central bank dollar reserves and government pension fund? We’d go for Hacienda Luisita, hands down.

And if we had to judge between 2 evils: Who’s more virtuous—Gloria feasting on steak, lobster, caviar, and wine for a few days while some of us are getting hungry or were mourning a former president’s death; or Cory using her power and influence to keep her family’s hold on government-funded lands that should have been given to farmers more than 40 years ago? We’d surely go for the lucky, fine-dining “bitch.”

I had always feared the day would come when I’d look at Gloria just a bit more kindly. No thanks to people who inflict their double standards on the public, that day has come.

Because this game that they started, of comparing the 2 woman presidents, reminded me of the other, not so pretty things that Cory represented.

Cory, out of “honor,” refused to repudiate the debts that dictator Ferdinand Marcos left behind. For the next 2 decades, the government had to allocate less for poverty alleviation and economic development because around half of its yearly budget had to go to debt repayments. In Gloria’s watch, the government finished paying those old foreign debts.

Cory’s administration plunged us into 6- to 8-hour brownouts daily on its last year. Gloria’s government is trying to take over Meralco, and hopefully get the convolutedly explained “systems loss” item out of our outrageously high electric bills. Gloria’s administration has also tapped indigenous sources of energy; Cory’s brownouts gave good business to her trade secretary Joe Concepcion’s generator business.

Cory passed away without anybody suggesting that she be brought home to Tarlac so her kababayan could bid her farewell (just like they did, overwhelmingly, to Ninoy in 1983). Maybe the memories of farmers killed—and the un-honored ownership of Hacienda Luisita—are still fresh in the minds of her province mates.

Gloria, for her part, has gone home to Pampanga 21 times these past months. And you know what? Her kabalen embrace her.

As for us non-Gloria-loving do-gooders, we can only eat our heart out. No matter how loud the noise we create at this time about her expensive dinners and insincere land reform, it seems it remains that way—a noise. Because there is such a thing as timing for these accusations to stick.

And now is not the time. Not for me. I’m still busy exhaling Cory.

(P.S.: Rissa Hontiveros, who spoke of insincere land reform as if Gloria Arroyo was the most guilty of it, was later announced as one of the senatorial candidates of the Liberal Party for 2010. Noynoy Aquino of the Hacienda Luisita family was there to applaud the announcement.)

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Give me (and Gloria) a break

I assure you that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is not among my favorite people. She’s lucky, though (I vote Joey Salceda’s “lucky bitch” for Quote of the Decade), that I’m not particularly fond either of many of those who criticize her. Happily, that results to what I’d like to believe are balanced views of the goings-on in this country.

Especially these days.

These days, when some people who think they are clever are juxtaposing Gloria’s “sinfulness” (a direct quote from a text message that circulated almost 2 weeks ago) with Cory Aquino’s perceived saintliness.

Bringing out the supposed stark contrast between the 2 woman presidents would be beneficial to politicians. It’s 9 months before the presidential elections, the season when kingmakers get a crack at installing their puppets or themselves. Surely, they would welcome anything that can weaken an incumbent who, to their consternation, just refuses to be a lame duck and may just be able to install a friendly successor, if not re-install herself.

I’m convinced that those opposed to the President can, and will, do anything to cast her in a worse light (she’s been in a bad light to begin with, remember?). And that may include carrying out an operation to specifically watch for Gloria’s blunders in the United States so they can magnify them back home. And link it in every possible way to Cory.

I’m not saying that it’s alright for Gloria and her coterie of congressmen and hangers-on to spend thousands of dollars in DC and Manhattan restaurants. I’m not saying either that the media should let it pass. I’m just suspicious about the keen interest that we have suddenly displayed in the President’s activities.

Four days before Gloria’s meeting with Barack Obama, the Washington Times ran an editorial echoing her local critics’ beef—that the attention the US president was according her was a way of affirming Gloria and all the alleged corruption, poor governance, and human rights violations that she represents.

Then on August 7, the New York Post’s gossip section reported that Gloria and her group spent $20,000 on a dinner at Le Cirque in New York, as if not minding “the economic downturn.” Four days later, it had a followup that their item created a “firestorm in her homeland, where memories of Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection are still fresh.” It quoted Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay estimating that the amount spent on that NY dinner could have fed “3,000 hungry families with three square meals.”

The following day, the Washington Post’s own gossip section said Gloria had an expensive dinner in Washington, DC, too, days before the NY dinner. The dinner at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse reportedly cost $15,000, including tip.

Now, come on, the American press didn’t condemn Gloria for wholesale, systematic cheating in the 2004 presidential elections. They’ve not lifted a finger to investigate her family’s undeclared assets in California. They’ve not even called for an audit of how her administration spends all sorts of assistance that they extend her country from the taxes paid by the people of the United States of America.

Then they suddenly cared about the expensive meals she had in their soil? (When the media finally got the sense to verify the reports with the restaurants involved, they were told by the managers that, sorry, the dinners didn’t cost as much as the reports had them.)

Where were they when Filipinos wanted an honest to goodness watchdog, on much bigger issues about our Chief Executive, in a foreign country where our investigative journalists’ reach was limited?

Back home, Gloria and her group have been criticized, aside from possibly spending taxpayers’ money on those dinners, for seemingly celebrating Cory Aquino’s death. The Bobby Van’s dinner supposedly happened hours after Cory passed away, and critics expected Gloria to mourn with the country by foregoing a lavish dinner.

But the dinner also came hours after Gloria’s meeting with Obama. We’re asking her not to celebrate that meeting as a sign of respect for Cory?

Wait there. We have 23 senators, around 200 congressmen, and some 1,700 governors and mayors. Did we honestly believe they all went into some sort of fasting before their PRs typed up their press statements condoling with Cory’s family? (Come to think of it, are we assuming they all grieved her passing away?)

Isn’t Jejomar Binay, the New York Post hero, also accused of amassing tremendous wealth illegally, that his family’s lavish lifestyle is a regular topic in Makati coffee shops?

Did Kris Aquino ever care about the 3,000 hungry families that Binay was talking about whenever she casually talked in showbiz interviews how much she spends on the most inane things?

Didn’t Kris Aquino stay at some point at the penthouse of the most expensive condominium in the Philippines because it was Gloria Arroyo’s payment for Kris’s endorsement of her presidential bid in 2004?

Who’s saying that Filipinos still condemn Imelda Marcos for her shoe collection? We were very excited when she started selling custom jewelry that she herself designs!

And didn’t an international magazine say many years ago that Kris Aquino, given her attitude and lifestyle, ironically reminded us of Imelda?

Where was this interest to get down to the details of Gloria’s overseas trips when it could still make a difference? She’s been in power for 9 years and nobody bothered to make her account for the hotel accommodations and the dinners she had in those 50 foreign trips before this latest one in the US. Now, on her last year in office, we suddenly wanted her to be transparent with what she spent on at every turn? It’s asking Gloria too much after we let her get away with these crimes in almost a decade.

And weren’t we, as a people, more interested in finding out whether our President lied about having enhanced breasts, than whether she’s gone to some parts of the world to build up her secret bank accounts?

I need some air. Our collective hypocrisy is choking me.

The last of yellow ribbons

About two weeks before former President Corazon Aquino’s death, when her friends and allies started holding healing Mass for her, another journalist wondered, “If peace really awaits Cory in the afterlife, why wouldn’t they let her go?”

I didn’t say, it’s because they love her and it’s instinctive for people to pray for somebody they love. It would have encouraged my colleague to start an argument.

So I told him what I really thought: “Because they have political fortunes and careers to protect.”

“Many of them,” I said,  “are nothings and accidents of history who acquired some quote-unquote value because of their association with Cory and Ninoy. Now, without a Cory to ride on, they are afraid they won’t get any farther.”

Without a Cory whom people believe to be incorruptible, her Kamag-anak Inc. wouldn’t have a buffer for their economic interests.

Without a Cory whom people consider credible, her political allies and civil society clique wouldn’t be able to sustain their projection of moral ascendancy over whoever they fancied to bring down.

If you want to stretch it further: Were it not for Cory, Noynoy would’ve been just another inarticulate bachelor; Kris would’ve been just another tactless unwed mother. Not a senator; not a well-paid TV host.

“Now,” my colleague said, “it makes sense.”

DELUSIONS

Of course it makes sense.

It makes sense for them to try to squeeze Cory dry for whatever’s left of her political capital. Even in her death.

Wear yellow ribbons, her partisans urged the public.

When the response was less than enthusiastic, they started distributing these for free. In the last few days, if your car got caught in traffic around Makati, strangers would pop up beside your window and hand you giveaway ribbons, urging you to tie them around your car antenna or side mirror. I mean, why shove yellow ribbons toward people who weren’t looking for them? Who’s paying?

This is so like 1983 and 1986, it’s giving us goose bumps, they said in interviews.

I say they deserve to get boils all over their body for trying to fool themselves and us. If they were really around when Filipinos stirred from their silent rebellion when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, and if they were really involved when people heeded the call of Cardinal Vidal (he was the first to make the call, not Cardinal Sin) for them to protect the soldiers who had defected from Ferdinand Marcos, then they would know that Cory’s wake and funeral were far from being reminiscent of 1983 and 1986.

When Ninoy was buried in 1983, two million joined the cortege. When Cory was brought to the memorial park today, a combined 150,000 were reported to have either marched or watched on the side streets. What law in mathematics states that 7.5% is the same as 100%?

When people went to Edsa and stayed there for four days to force the dictator to leave Malacañang in 1986, their number was estimated to have peaked at four million. I didn’t know that 4,000,000 and 150,000 had the same number of zeroes?

So why the delusion?

Maybe it’s their consuming desire to have President Arroyo ousted, or their desperation to preserve their perceived powerbroker status for the 2010 elections.

So at the slightest sign of people lining up to pay their last respects for President Cory, they got excited. If the crowds swelled up, maybe all this could serve as a dry run for any attempt to unseat, or at least unsettle, Gloria. If remembrances from Cory (and Ninoy)—yellow ribbons, Laban sign, confetti, “Bayan Ko”—would acquire a new appeal, maybe this can be sustained until the next presidential elections. (Tarpaulins, posters, and TV ads of politicians against a Cory backdrop are flashing in front of me!)

MEDIA TRIES MAGIC

Shamefully, the media was very much a party to this misrepresentation. They started with reports that yellow ribbons were lining the streets of Metro Manila as a show of support for President Aquino who was confined at the Makati Medical Center. “Metro Manila” turned out to be a major street each in just two cities. Even then, I didn’t see them “lining” those pathetic streets.

At Cory’s wake and funeral, TV reporters kept on saying “punong puno ng tao” (jam-packed) and “like 1983, like Edsa 1,” as if reading from a teleprompter or cue cards sent down by network executives. It was almost mechanical.

And every time they said “punong puno” or “dumadagsa ang mga tao” (people are flocking or flooding), the footages taken by their own cameras showed otherwise. (Newsbreak has a detailed article on exaggerated reports on the crowd size.)

A much younger colleague gave me a bewildered look after one reporter said the Manila Cathedral was “punong puno” with sympathizers who wanted a last glimpse of Cory last Monday, as the camera showed a chapel with rows of seats still waiting to be occupied. The media had redefined “punong puno” and “dagsa.”

It seemed to me that the media got bored with covering prospective “people power” revolts that went pffft in recent years that they took it upon themselves to make this one event an exciting coverage.

“Cory magic is back,” bannered the Inquirer print edition Tuesday. What Cory magic? Their online story the night before that said there were 120,000 mourners who either marched on the streets or watched on the sidelines as Cory’s remains were transferred from La Salle Greenhills to the Manila Cathedral.

ABS-CBN Online was worse (apologies to friends I respect and love who are working there). At the rate they were posting a Cory story in every section, you’d think the world stopped for ABS when she died. Cory embraced Muslim faith, Cory had a special relationship with Joma, NDF has a lot to thank Cory for, Manny Pangilinan was touched by Cory’s humility, An orchid has been named after Cory, Willie Revillame honors Cory, Ai-ai de las Alas remembers Cory, Manny Pacquiao says Cory is like Mommy Dionesia, Zsa Zsa Padilla breaks down during Cory rehearsal, Charice fails to see Cory, and yes, of course, Star Magic mourns Cory’s death.

ABS-CBN, the network, was most zealous, actually. (They started the “punong puno” thing, for one.) Aside from the fact that they were assigned by the Aquino family to coordinate the broadcast pool for the wake and the funeral (read: international networks would have to buy videos from them), we very well know that the Lopezes who own the network owe Cory a lot.

Cory, when she became president, helped the Lopezes get ABS-CBN and Meralco back. From what you’d hear in business circles, however, it seems Cory returned to the Lopezes more than what Marcos got from them, on a silver platter. So when, in a company-wide tribute to Cory, Gabby Lopez talked about how grateful they were to Cory for helping them get their businesses back, it gave goose bumps to some. (Why does Cory’s death give us goose bumps in strange ways?)

In fact, during the funeral, I thought I saw ABS pull out live footages of spots where the crowd was not impressive, and instead replayed shots of bigger congregations. (Shades of Namfrel quick count circa 2004, releasing in succession only the figures from areas where President Arroyo was ahead and sparingly from FPJ bailiwicks, to create the impression that Arroyo was winning.)

And did the anchors and reporters really have to wear yellow and black? And Cory button pins? All of them?

I had to blink several times to wake up from this journalistic nightmare titled “Daily Express Resurrected.”

But back to the numbers.

In February this year, a survey by the Social Weather Stations showed that 55% of respondents in Metro Manila had “much trust” for Cory. Fifty-five percent of the capital region’s population is 6.35 million.

If we’d insist that 120,000 (on Monday) or 150,000 (Wednesday) sympathizers “braving the rains” (another favorite phrase of reporters covering the Cory funeral) is overwhelming, then I think it means Cory’s 6.35-million-karat magic has tragically faded.

And we may have seen the last of those yellow ribbons.