Centrist Democracy Political Institute - Items filtered by date: October 2022
Wednesday, 26 October 2022 07:22

The gatekeeper and the talking head

First of 2 parts

IN light of the sacking of Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez and Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles, a portent in presidential politics reared its ugly head marring the newly elected president's smooth accession to power. This peculiar frame of mind was established earlier when a presidential candidate must rely on a special group of his own people with special skills — to win the presidency.

In the Philippines' perverted traditional political environment, where the tools of the trade must necessarily include the use of "guns, goons and gold" to win these high-stakes contests, the advantage lies on this clique of political operators possessed of amoral scruples. This elemental expertise to win elections is in fact a double-edged sword for the candidate who must bank on these competencies making him paradoxically vulnerable.

These are the people the president-elect had relied on for months during the campaign period. Some of them go back a long way, possessing no particular political skills short of being childhood friends, schoolmates, tsokaran, kabarkada, hangers-on and gofers. Upon winning the election, they claim their prerogatives — entitlements for the choice cuts in a menu of government largesse, the spoils of war. They aim for the top chops — Cabinet posts and sinecures. This is expected as these people have delivered on their expertise: win the election at whatever cost and thus claim their prize, and the devil takes the hindmost.

Winning election vs running a country

What is rarely understood is that the dexterity required to win an election is dissimilar in some ways and even in conflict with the capabilities needed to run a government. The former skills are ephemeral and brutish while the latter are more permanent and need a certain sophistication. The immediate concern of any incoming presidency is to discern the type of personal organizational structure that suits him and distinguishes who among his subalterns possess the right qualifications, experience and more importantly the rectitude for his administration to succeed.

Looking decades back, past presidents mistakenly allowed through sheer inertia the accession to important offices of people who during the campaign had the privilege of propinquity, to himself, the spouse and immediate relatives lending their ears irrespective of their suitability or qualifications for the position. While imbibing in the euphoria of an election victory, they invariably routinely reward these subalterns. Some presidents have been serendipitous, installing their campaign operators to a fit in sensitive positions in the bureaucracy and many did well.

Different team to run govt

This was perhaps BBM's failure when at the outset he installed as his executive secretary, his spokesman and a coterie of friends whose qualifications and political acuity are at best dubious. The top position of executive secretary in the Philippine context has undergone drastic changes from the time of Marcos perè when he abolished it and, in its stead, emplaced two senior executive assistants. But it was subsequently reinstated and has evolved to a prestigious standing among the inner circle of power, second only to the president — thus the sobriquet "Little President." In this lamented episode, Rodriguez took the title quite literally, in a fit of megalomania, drafting in fact a special order granting him "a free hand to act as president" (Catherine Valente, TMT, Sept. 18, 2022).

Many who occupied this exalted space brought with them their solid reputation for political perspicacity, organizational and management skills prior to warming the seat. Others grew in the office. To name a few, the first executive secretary Jorge Vargas was handpicked by President Manuel Quezon, followed by Manuel Roxas who became the Republic's fifth president. President Ramon Magsaysay's Fred Ruiz Castro became Supreme Court justice; Rafael Salas and Alex Melchor under Ferdinand Marcos Sr. were management gurus. Presidents Cory's Joker Arroyo; FVR's Teofisto Guingona Jr; Ronaldo Zamora and Ed Angara of President Estrada; Albert Romulo and Ed Ermita of GMA — all were already men of stature.

Sadly, others squeezed through the cracks with shady pretentious repute. I have not met Rodriguez or Angeles and know nothing of their qualifications, excepting their inclusion in BBM's inner circle. But in the few weeks they were in the limelight speaking and acting for and on behalf of the president, and in his absence, one couldn't help being uncomfortable with this nagging feeling that both may have been connected through their umbilical cord of deceit.

Rodriguez was earlier involved in that anomalous attempt at sugar importation, leaving Agriculture undersecretary Sebastian twisting in the wind defenseless at a Senate hearing, the ES denying giving him a written authority to sign for the President in the latter's capacity as concurrent Secretary of Agriculture. As it turned out, Rodriquez really did sign the grant of authority. Spokesman Angeles knew the undersecretary had that authority under the memorandum of designation issued by Rodriguez, yet she corroborated her ES' statements and covered for him "lying through her teeth" (The Manila Times, Mauro Gia Samonte).

But Trixie Angeles had it coming when the new executive secretary, former Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin, turned out to be one of the justices who concurred in the Supreme Court decision slapping a three-year suspension on Angeles for violation of Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Bersamin was not going to be caught in the same room as Angeles. She had to go!

Vetting mechanism

These episodes earlier in BBM's administration just simply show the haphazard, lazy, and perhaps trusting nature of the young Marcos. He should have vetted these people thoroughly, including those he allowed in as holdovers from the Deegong's old structure — before endorsing them to the Commission on Appointments.

A vetting mechanism needs to be immediately installed — peopled by persons with expertise on each facet of governance and the workings of the bureaucracy, preferably persons known for their integrity, expertise and competence outside of the President's immediate circle — not necessarily from the campaign organization.

Putting in the right people to sensitive positions in government is a high art considering the systemic infirmities of our unitary-presidential type, where the fallible system is prone to corruption, regulatory capture and manipulation by traditional politicians and their allies in the oligarchy.

If this current administration sticks to the appearance that BBM's is in some ways a continuity of the Deegong's, he could still have picked old hands who did excellent jobs for counsel. Sonny Dominguez is one, except perhaps for his tiff with Senator Imee correcting her on the fictitious rice exportation during her Dad's regime; and ES Medialdea who could have held over temporarily until BBM's vetting process kicked in.

Duterte had good and proven people who could have been tapped like Art Tugade, point man of the Build, Build, Build program; and former Cabinet secretaries — Gilbert Teodoro, Raffy Alunan and Manny Piñol. BBM did well with Bersamin (executive secretary), Ben Diokno (Finance secretary), and Delfin Lorenzana (BCDA chairman), among others.

At this juncture, after the debacle with Vic and Trixie, I would recommend a book, The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple (Crown Publishing 2017), describing the choice of chiefs of staff — a position Vic Rodriguez salivated for while being sacked.

Next week, Nov. 2, 2022: Gatekeepers, PH version

Published in LML Polettiques
Wednesday, 19 October 2022 09:59

A shady legacy: POGO

Last of 2 parts

QUITE recently, President BBM was mulling over the possibility of declaring POGO illegal. Although quite tentative, it's an observation of alarming developments in the country.

To refresh our memory, POGO (Philippine offshore gaming operations) was an offshoot of former President Duterte's rapprochement with China. POGO immigration to the country accelerated perhaps as a dividend of the bromance with Xi Jinping. With this new regimen of refocusing toward China from our traditional relationship with America, Chinese visitors are expected to increase presence here. Our government, following Duterte's lead hopes to attract more investments and more importantly compete with Macao and Singapore as a gambling hub for moneyed Chinese visitors and gamblers.

But to put this in proper perspective, and to be fair to the Deegong, China has long exported gambling to the country since perhaps the time China has been trading with local natives, even before the Spanish colonization. It has been recorded that when Magellan came to the islands, bets were already placed by natives on cockfights. In fact, the first recorded cockfight in China was in 517 BC and it's being transported to the islands is not a remote possibility.

Gambling enthusiasts and their defenders within government have made a case of sanctioning what has been pervasive in the country for centuries since the time before we even became a nation. The numbers game, jueteng, and its derivatives have penetrated deep into the fiber and psyche of the Filipino that they can't simply be stopped. The best that government can do is to liberate them from the shady peripheral activities and the twilight zone of legitimacy, skirting our laws and shine the light of public scrutiny and enforce a certain type of discipline; allow, tolerate but regulate.

Pagcor's birth

Thus, Marcos père created the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) "...cloaking it with the authority and power to authorize, license and regulate games of chance, games of cards, and games of numbers." More importantly, Pagcor was to "serve as an additional source of revenue to fund various socio-civic projects such as flood control programs, beautification, sewage projects, and other public services." Further, it aims to "minimize, if not totally eradicate, the evils, malpractices and corruptions that normally are found prevalent in the conduct and operation of gambling clubs and casinos without direct government involvement." (PD 1067-A and RA 7922)

So far, so good!


But this is not just about gambling in general. It is about POGO in particular, that has proliferated in the country consonant to the Deegong's newfound relations with China in this ongoing bromance. This online platform caters mainly to the mainland Chinese — satisfying their compulsive craving for gambling. This type of online operation is illegal and prohibited in China under threat of capital punishment, something that the Chinese understand and respect. But not here in the Philippines, their base, from which they serve online Chinese gamblers offshore.

Upside — money coming in

Duterte's allowing expansion in Manila of POGO at the start of his regime injected a massive dose of gambling money and its downstream effects on property rentals, restaurants, transportation and induced a mini real estate boom with the banks getting into the act with funds lent liberally to builders, unmindful of a possible bubble.

What egged on Duterte was the money POGO gambling was bringing in for the country. In the ensuing Duterte years, POGO brought in a staggering P551 billion yearly revenues to the economy. But we had some voices on the sidelines, not of dissent but a warning. Former Finance secretary Sonny Dominguez had been declaring that POGOs and their workers were evading taxes. Budget chief Diokno himself warned that there was incalculable social cost that POGO imposed on Philippine society. But the Deegong dismissed these remarks from his Cabinet, in effect encouraging the industry. As in the Pharmally corruption episodes, the president turned a blind eye and stubbornly defended his Chinese friends.

The pandemic

Then the s**t hit the fan! Covid-19 came and wrought havoc on all these. POGO revenues plummeted to P3.9 billion in 2021, from P7.2 billion in 2020 and continued to slide further toward the end of the Deegong's term. But what was appalling were the practices of POGOs that now came to light. These were the attendant social cost that had reached staggering proportions. Witness a spate of headlines in the mass and social media:

"Cases of kidnapping targeting workers of POGO firms have increased by 25 percent on Sept. 9, 2022, from 36 kidnapping cases in 2021, according to the Philippine National Police Anti-Kidnapping Group (PNP-AKG)." (Philippine Star)

"PNP's Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) arrested five POGO workers, four of them Chinese, following an operation to rescue a Chinese woman who was abducted on September 14 in Pasay City. The five are now in custody facing charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention, robbery extortion and possession of firearms and live ammunition without a license."

"The suspects were identified as members of the Zi criminal group, a syndicate linked to kidnappings and illegal detention of POGO employees in the southern part of Metro Manila, according to a February report of the PNP Directorate for Intelligence. The syndicate is one of "more than five groups" involved in Pogo kidnappings, based on police intelligence.

Kidnapping, extortion and prostitution reared their ugly heads. Chinese syndicates began to openly dominate the crime scene — abetted by the dark gambling money greasing the wheels of the police, bureaucracy and justice system.

Still, we have voices from the bureaucracy and the general populace reluctantly arguing that "anyway, these are just crimes done by Chinese against the Chinese!" How shortsighted and stupid these arguments are. All crimes impact society. And we are now deep in it!

Police protecting POGO bosses

Now it has just been revealed in a Senate hearing that 300 policemen were seconded to POGO bosses as bodyguards, including their "extended families." What is unbelievable is that this was tolerated both by the PNP chief himself, Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr., and his direct boss, Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos. This bodyguard/protection racket must have been lucrative to our police security system as Abalos directed his miniosn to stop the practice only after the Senate questioned its legality. These two public servants never did understand that this breeds corruption and are ignorant of their priorities. These incompetents give BBM's first 100 days a black eye.

BBM needs his own legacy

BBM, with his ambivalent position on the sordid legacy of the past president — Pharmally and now POGO — has laid himself vulnerable to being regarded as simply a continuation of the Deegong. The danger of his being branded as a weak heir may gain traction — and the tragedy is — heir not to FM but to Duterte!

Maybe the wrong heir was installed; perhaps an heiress would have been preferable, who declared in no uncertain terms that:

"If we cannot regulate [POGOs], then we better stop them. There are now abductions and killings," Sen. Imee Marcos said. "What's happening is already sordid and gruesome. They've been here for years, and obviously, we could not regulate them."

Published in LML Polettiques
Wednesday, 12 October 2022 17:27

A shady legacy: Pharmally

First of 2 parts

FORMER president Duterte left office with accomplishments his constituency can be proud of. The much-touted Build, Build, Build (Triple Build!) program was one of those successes that ushered in his "Golden Age of Infrastructure" — an unprecedented increased spending in infrastructure surpassing even the two decades of Ferdinand and Imelda's building spree. Partly to decongest the capital region, it was meant to disperse and encourage economic growth and reduce poverty all over. On top of this, the Deegong initiated liberal economic improvements, particularly a comprehensive tax reform program. The Deegong's own data boast providing almost 10 million jobs in the six years that he was in power.

At the outset, the Deegong introduced a predictable foreign policy scheme reflecting his personal disdain for America, veering away from the traditional lapdog relations, and opened up an entente cordiale with China. Two years into his administration, he declared that China plays a crucial role in his Triple Build! program, intimating that, "I just simply love Xi Jinping. He understands my problem, and he's willing to help. And I would like to say thank you, China." His economic managers and budget officials estimated the cost of this program at around P9 trillion ($180 billion) over six years.

The target was set at 75 flagship projects, which included airports, railways, roads and bridges, seaports, etc. Among those that Duterte wanted funded was the Subic-Clark railway project costing $940 million, the biggest government-to-government project to be bankrolled by China. But the one Duterte is particularly proud of is the Davao City-Island Garden City of Samal $400 million bridge — that has been promised since time immemorial by countless Philippine administrations after World War 2. Whether Xi Jinping has stuck to his promise or not is no longer the Deegong's concern. Duterte is now enjoying his retirement in Davao and may still cross the Davao-Samal bridge soon, surely a feather in his cap. His legacy is largely intact awaiting history's judgment.

Flawed legacy

His rapprochement and bromance with China certainly yielded these nice dividends but along with these were those that may blemish his cherished legacy: POGO and Pharmally. First, the latter, considered as one of the biggest corruption occurrences that personally stained Duterte's reputation as a president who will not tolerate corruption — even "a whiff of it" — has remained unresolved. After several lengthy Senate blue ribbon committee (BRC) hearings by erstwhile chairman, the then-senator Dick Gordon, his bete noire, 11 other senators, mostly the President's allies, refused to sign the findings, relegating the same to BRC limbo. But up in the air was Malacañang's role in this sordid affair. Emerging from the hearing was Malacañang seen to be complicit, not simply naïve. This could be gleaned from the vehemence of the Deegong's attack on Gordon and his dogged defense of his Chinese friends. This brings to mind how enamored our Duterte is with China. God forbid, if China holds the Deegong by the balls and by inference, we Filipinos.

The Chinese connection

To review, what came out in the hearing was a series of shocking testimonies proving that the undercapitalized (P625,000 paid-up) Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp. bagged P8.68 billion in government contracts with zero track record. The paper trail led to financial transactions that indicated the Chinese perpetrators along with their local business partners and bureaucrats may also have been conduits of drug money laundered through these transactions. These executives, owners and facilitators, starting with Duterte's "economic adviser" Michael Yang, a shadowy mainland Chinese figure known by many labels — consultant, facilitator, bagman, pagador or locally, as bugaw (pimp), depending on the package offered and bought — have gotten away scot-free.

What is unconscionable is that the BRC hearing has established that with the acquiescence of then Health secretary Francisco Duque 3rd, undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao facilitated the allegedly irregular release of P42 billion (and more) for personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement, including the anomalous fund transfers from the Department of Health (DoH) to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM).

At the center of this maelstrom is Lao, a well-placed lawyer within Duterte's circle, a presidential appointee to various sensitive government positions, landing as DoH undersecretary and finally ensconced at the PS-DBM, is reportedly a stooge of Sen. Christopher Lawrence "Bong" Go, who has denied it. At the hearings, he admitted that no due diligence was conducted on Pharmally, negligently awarding billions to a practically "unknown company" and requiring only a casual background check on the incorporators and executives who turned out to be fugitives from justice (from China and Taiwan) — is simply irresponsible and may even be criminal.

Marcos crafting own legacy

Now the ball is in BBM's court. In his SONA last July 25, he proposed 19 bills for Congress to consider giving direction to his cabinet on where to bring his government. But on a very crucial point, he never did mention any anti-corruption initiatives. In fact, subsequent to his SONA, he signed Executive Order 1 abolishing among others the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC). This was altogether not unwelcome as the PACC was a bureaucracy that fell short of its mandate to enable President Duterte to investigate corruption in the bureaucracy.

Still, at the start of BBM's watch, his profound silence on how he was going to confront corruption and its attendant ills to the bureaucracy and to the country has a chilling effect — considering that graft and corruption, rent-seeking and regulatory capture were once major issues of his father's martial law regime.

We can only hope that his reticence is not a signal that the shady acts of his predecessor's people are being condoned. He doesn't owe the Deegong any favors; he didn't even support his candidacy short of allowing his daughter to run under him. This time, he can prevail upon his Department of Justice to revisit the Senate's BRC findings and by its own volition investigate the Pharmally corruption. It is imperative that the biggest anomaly in the past administration — making it more egregious as it happened during the pandemic — be given closure. BBM and the Filipino people cannot countenance these Chinese miscreants and their allies in the bureaucracy and in the highest echelons of government. They need to be brought to justice and this perversion resolved.

This is not racial, going after the Chinese businessmen. Many of these Chinese personalities have their own criminal cases in the mainland and in Taiwan. BBM will be doing them a favor. This is not also political, as names of past Cabinet members and even a member of the Senate have been dragged into the muck. And more importantly, BBM will telegraph to the citizenry, in his second 100 days, that he possesses the political will to do what is right for the country.

The Pharmally anomaly is a cut-and-dried case. The dozen or so Senate BRC hearings contain evidence that could burn the scoundrels and even perhaps clear the past president — or burn him.

Next week, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022: POGO


Published in LML Polettiques
Thursday, 06 October 2022 19:21

Ukraine war redux

SIX months ago, I wrote a piece on Ukraine predicting a quick defeat, after Russia launched its attack on February 24: "In the coming days Putin will unveil his endgame. Thousands will be dead and those that fled the cities are the lucky ones. Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv and Odesa will be reduced to rubble, proverbially comparable to when Tokyo and Japanese cities were firebombed, systematically killing civilians toward the end of World War 2."

I was terribly wrong! It's now been 223 days — and counting, and the conflict drags on with no end in sight. But I was spot on when I anticipated that:

"America will not shed blood for Ukraine. No 'boots on the ground'! With its NATO allies, the US will simply arm Ukraine, encourage it to resist, and Russian and Ukraine boys will die. Victims all for a surrogate war for democracy. Not a drop of American blood spilled. But this act by America and NATO using Eastern Europeans to butcher each other is pushing Putin into a corner. Putin will not allow Russian boys to die in hordes in a protracted war with Ukraine. Putin has alternatives at his disposal, one of which is almost unthinkable. But as a superb poker player, Putin has gone 'all-in' and put his nuclear options into play. But nuclear war will not happen. Putin understands only too well the theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD)."

In any case, this war has left in its wake the lament of those that are affected the most — Ukrainian and Russian mothers!

Sanctions — who loses

Aside from the armaments of conventional war boosting Ukraine's arsenal, the West has imposed economic sanctions as a calibrated alternative response to military intervention. The strategy of economic sanctions has always been the penultimate weapon of America and her allies. In conflicts past, it partly worked in the wake of the 1990 Kuwait invasion by Saddam Hussein. But the incalculable damage to the Iraqi civilian population was disproportionate to the harm it did to Saddam and his government.

Sanctions were also applied by the West when Putin annexed Ukraine's Crimea in 2014. Both Russia and the Western countries suffered — though the Russian populace suffered more. These sanctions did not prevent Russian adventurism nor the subsequent invasion of Ukraine. After the 2014 Crimea occupation, Russia must have anticipated Western allied sanctions as a consequence of its current invasion — planning long in advance and preparing for it. This time, not only have the actual protagonists suffered but the effects of the sanctions have spilled over, a global collateral damage — oil, gasoline, food, and agricultural products have become scarce, causing severe inflation. Experts are predicting a global economic recession. And for what?

"The idea is that sanctions cause economic damage and coerce the target to change its objectionable course of action. Although economic sanctions are widely used, their effectiveness is often debated. Recent research on sanctions has generally concluded that economic sanctions seldom change behavior, especially those aimed at disrupting military interventions. If national security is viewed as being at stake, sanctions simply aren't sufficiently costly." (Sylvanus Afersorgbor, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada)

Who wins

Now US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his visit to Ukraine just announced the latest tranche of a $2.2 billion foreign military financing package for Ukraine and 18 other countries deemed at risk of future Russian aggression. The latest package includes $675 million to be shipped shortly in arms, supplies and ammunition. Another $1 to $2 billion comes in the form of US grants and loans that will enable countries to purchase weapons and defense equipment made in the US. Now things are becoming clearer as to the motivations and direction the war is going. If conspiracy theorists were to be believed — and the evidence to this is overwhelming, the military-industrial complex are the primary beneficiaries. And we can all draw our own conclusions.


American global military might is a given. Since the Second World War America assumed a world-dominant position never before seen in the annals of the rise and fall of empires. The symbiosis between its economic and military components is directed toward serving each other's vested interest — one twin obtaining war weapons, the other paid to supply them. The armed forces of the US and the defense contractors, all orchestrated by the Pentagon, need the enabling participation of a complicit US Congress forming a three-sided triangle — now aptly called the military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC).

US military aid to Ukraine since the invasion is now estimated at $15.2 billion. Weapons sent to Ukraine are drones, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and perhaps fighter planes soon. So far, Javelin, Brimstone and other anti-tank weapons, as well as 16,000 artillery rounds have been delivered. Another set of weapons pledged or already sent include "...72 155mm howitzers, 72 vehicles to tow them, 144,000 rounds of ammunition, and more than 120 Phoenix Ghost tactical drones recently developed by the US Air Force specifically to address Ukraine's needs."

These Javelin missiles jointly made by America's Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Technologies and the British/Swedish-made NLAW missiles are particularly effective as accordingly, they have destroyed 5,000 to 6,800 Russian tanks. And anti-aircraft Stinger missile systems manufactured by Raytheon have practically cleared the skies over Ukraine of Russian Mig jet fighters.

America even sent the deadly High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (Himars), a technologically advanced weapons system that took out more than 100 "high value" Russian targets. These could turn the tide for Ukraine.

And Ukraine is asking for more and more weapons as the US is more than willing to deliver. Supplies and weapons components are drastically affected by supply-chain concerns complicating any ramp-up of production. The US Congress obliged by legislating an additional $52 billion for US chipmakers to expand operations. The business of war for America's MICC has never been so good.

US presidents' wars

American administrations, from many of us looking in, whatever their political shade — the conservative GOP or the liberal Democrats — share a commonality, an ethos harking back to their history and character — "the individualistic gunslinger cowboy of the western frontier." This archetype has been collectively transliterated to the world stage allowing America to assume its role as the world's primus inter pares, resulting in America waging a total of 102 wars and bush fires and low-intensity conflicts during the 20th and 21st centuries, inclusive of the major ones since 1900: World War 1, World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the two Gulf wars. They have even pompously designated their wars with their presidents. Johnson's Vietnam war, the Bush pere Gulf War, Dubya Bush's Iraq war segueing into America's longest — the Afghanistan war which was also attributed to Obama winding the war down.

Thus, it could be argued that the Ukraine war, initiated by Putin, may be serendipitous to American hegemony and the benefit of the MICC. In one sense, this could be construed as Biden's war, coated of course with the traditional mantra of the preservation of Freedom, Liberty and Democracy.

So, is Ukraine winning? Who cares? Business is good!


Published in LML Polettiques