Profiles in corruption: The Cory legacy Featured

Second of a series

THE first part of this series on the riveting Philippine corruption tales portrayed the stark display of naked power by President Noynoy Aquino when their Cojuangco family heirloom, their crown jewel, the Hacienda Luisita, was threatened and sold for a pittance upon the decision of Chief Justice Corona's Supreme Court. But this egregious act was further exacerbated by corrupt senators blatantly selling their votes to impeach Corona. As to the participation of some lawmakers in the pork barrel scam, Art Aguilar, a Harvard colleague, had to remind me that "the Supreme Court ruled the DAP unconstitutional, yet no senator was sanctioned ... no CoA disallowance! Meantime CoA [is] running after govt employees who got peanuts as allowances and separation pay." How true! There is nothing the Filipino can do about this unless President BBM uses the remaining years of his watch to revisit and correct similar anomalies inflicted on the country by all administrations before him. As to Cory Aquino, Ferdinand's nemesis, perhaps BBM's greatest legacy he leaves behind in an attempt to restore his father's image is to put in proper perspective her own.

PCGG

Upon her assumption to power, President Cory's first act was to promulgate Executive Order 1, creating the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) under the slogan "Nakaw na yaman, ibalik sa bayan," tasked to recover the ill-gotten wealth that the Marcoses, relatives and their cronies in the oligarchy amassed over two decades.

The PCGG was the Cory government's leading-edge instrument, given a free hand to investigate and pursue cases in court, sequestrations, and compromise settlements with the Marcos family, their cronies, and the oligarchs whose assets appear in their names. They were entrusted with negotiating with foreign governments and banks to facilitate the recovery of Marcos assets abroad. And they took over the boards of these sequestered companies, many of which were milked with profligate travel allowances and unliquidated cash advances. These companies have gone bankrupt.

But the recovery process of the ill-gotten wealth was itself marred by anomalies and corruption. President Cory, who was a politician's wife but not one herself, was thoroughly unfamiliar with the arcana of governance and the pragmatism of political compromise, admitting that she was a "mere housewife" and solely concerned with restoring the democracy that was lost during the Marcos regime. Although President Cory was never personally corrupt, her naïveté allowed an environment where corrupt cronies and oligarchs proliferated, manipulated and soiled her saintly image.

She, therefore, relied on the advice of the members of the transitory disinherited elite, the class she was born into, and appointed many of them to sensitive positions in government. More tragically, she depended on the "Kamag-anak Inc." for guidance on how to govern and recover the Marcos loot. It is believed that much of this ill-gotten wealth was siphoned off to these people. She let loose the foxes on the chicken coop.

And there were questionable compromises and directives. Foremost of which is the return of assets of the pre-martial law elite families, resurrecting the old oligarchy. The Lopezes got back Meralco and ABS-CBN, the sale of Philippine Airlines to her nephews, and the return of the PLDT to the Cojuangco relatives. And a festering issue was a reported 38 sequestered companies of Kokoy Romualdez (Imelda's brother) worth billions allegedly sold to President Cory's brother-in-law Ricardo "Baby" Lopa for $250,000, days after Marcos fled the country (Seth Mydans, The New York Times, Oct. 17, 1988). In his defense, Lopa intimated that the Marcos family had seized the companies from him when Ferdinand came to power 20 years earlier. This could be true, but Cory, the paragon of morality, should have acted like Calpurnia, Cesar's wife — above reproach.

CARP, anti-feudal instrument

But the issue that impacted heavily on the populist image of President Cory was her flagship Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) that was meant to address our feudal land ownership. Cory was enamored with what South Korea, Taiwan and China did in the 1950s and 1960s to liberate the landless, particularly the farmers and the rural sector, from the shackles of poverty towards the path of economic development. The Philippine version of CARP was likewise fashioned to redistribute agricultural land to farmers and provide them with support services to ensure their productivity and welfare. This necessitated the breaking up of large estates, some of which dated back to the Spanish encomienda and were awarded to a multitude of small farmers, appropriately compensating the landowners.

In the 19th century, Japan's Meiji Restoration redistributed land from feudal lords to small farmers, which led to increased agricultural productivity, rural development, and the growth of a strong agricultural sector and eventual industrialization that even propelled Japan's economy to underpin a war and its "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere."

These successes were in total contrast with the Philippine CARP implementation, which was disfigured by anomalies and corruption, hindering its effectiveness and leading to discontent among farmers. There were unreasonable delays in actual land distribution to the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs), bogged down by bureaucratic red tape and non-cooperation by the landowners themselves. The bureaucracy, government officials, the middlemen and the landowners colluded to manipulate land valuation.

CARP perversions

To hold on to their estates, owners sought exemptions from CARP rushing conversion of huge swaths of these productive agricultural lands to non-agricultural or commercial and residential purposes, precipitating an inordinate spike in real estate development, housing subdivisions and new town centers — displacing thousands of tenants and farmers, driving them to city slums looking for alternative work.

And those ARBs lucky enough to be new owners of plots suffer from a lack of government support services, unable to fully utilize the land they received due to a lack of necessary infrastructure, credit and technical assistance. This resulted in low productivity and limited economic benefits for the beneficiaries and their eventual destitution.

What is unconscionable was the introduction of the stock distribution option (SDO), an alternative to actual land distribution allowing landowners to incorporate their holdings and distribute shares of corporate stocks to agricultural workers instead of transferring actual land ownership to them. This scheme circumvented land redistribution and maintained landowner corporate control over agricultural resources. Farmers were coerced or deceived into accepting the SDO, leading to continued landlessness and exploitation.

In effect, this undermined the core principle of CARP of distributing land to the landless, emancipating them from the shackles of a feudal system that bred more poverty, deprivation and social injustice. SDO perpetuated the dominance of landowners over the agricultural sector.

The effect on the farmers and the body politic was instantaneous, sparking widespread protests and resistance from farmers' organizations and agrarian reform advocates, and the motley allies of Cory hammered out against the martial law regime that inspired the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986.

This anomalous scheme, evasion of CARP on a grand scale exempting her family's Hacienda Luisita, had the full backing of President Cory. The erosion of the dreams and promises of EDSA and the betrayal of the Filipino perhaps started from this point on.

Looking back, Ferdinand and Cory were faces of the same coin, manipulated by the eventual beneficiary — the oligarchy.

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