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PHILIPPINES: Former Marcos Associates Making a Comeback

Isagani de Castro

MANILA, Jul 17 1998 (IPS) - Philippine President Joseph Estrada’s election campaign promise was to help the poor, but two weeks into the presidency, he is perceived to be helping the elite instead.

Nobody doubts Estrada’s word that he would give priority to the masses, but people were surprised when he allowed right away the return to powerful economic positions of influential businessman Eduardo Cojuangco, a close associate of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

“A little over than a week in the highest post of the land, his (Estrada’s) vast powers have been used to further the interests of sectors other than the masses,” wrote Manila Times columnist Jigger Latoza.

This is slowly dissipating his political capital since it is inconsistent with his electoral promise that his priority will be helping the poor Filipino masses who gave him a 40 per cent mandate in the 11 May elections, say analysts.

One of Estrada’s political supporters, Cojuangco has regained control of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), the country’s largest food and beverage conglomerate. It is just a matter of time before he assumes control of other business interests that were likewise ordered seized in 1986.

Majority of SMC shares were sequestered by the government of President Corazon Aquino in 1986 on suspicion they were illegally acquired by Cojuangco through his close ties with Marcos.

Aquino and her successor, Fidel Ramos, allowed the original owners of SMC — the wealthy Soriano family — who owned less than

1986 tied last June 30.

When Estrada assumed the presidency, Soriano was left with no choice but to resign his post after it was clear that the SMC board would install Cojuangco as chairman and chief executive officer.

The Estrada administration has also announced plans to settle the 25.6 billion peso (625 million dollars) tax cases of Chinese- Filipino tycoon Lucio Tan, owner of the troubled flag carrier, Philippine Air Lines.

Tan, who also owns a bank, a cigarette and a beer company and other business, was also a close Marcos associate and a financial supporter of Estrada. Reports said the government was considering a 15 billion peso (375 million dollar) settlement.

The severe fiscal deficit amounting to 70 billion pesos (1.7 billion dollars) facing the Estrada government is providing the economic rationale for a settlement of the cases. President Estrada said selling government shares in sequestered companies will help bridge the deficit.

“It may be the most practical thing for a cash-strapped government to do. But I think it will be setting a very bad and dangerous precedent,” human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong told IPS. “It will reverse the judgement of history.”

Twelve years ago, a people power revolt toppled the 21-year Marcos regime and forced the Marcoses and their associates, among them Cojuangco, to flee the country. Some of these so-called Marcos cronies have since returned to the country.

Aquino established a Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to try to recover the billions of dollars alleged to have stolen by the Marcoses and their associates. The PCGG sequestered shares in over 500 large and profitable companies and the cases are now in the courts.

Now, President Estrada is bent on abolishing the PCGG saying “it has outlived its usefulness”. He said it was up to the courts to decide on the ownership of sequestered companies. A law will have to be passed by the legislature to abolish the PCGG.

“After 12 years, what have you got to show for it. Do you think you have anything really conclusive in the way of a settlement?” said Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora. “We have said this before, many times, we have to make sure the Marcos issue, the crony issue, these are all put away so that we can concentrate on much more important issues.”

Estrada said the nation has to find solutions to the budget deficit, a 45 billion dollar foreign debt, and a 700 billion peso (1.7 billion dollar) domestic debt. He also wants to use the proceeds from the settlements to support his pro-poor projects such as livelihood ventures, mass housing, and agricultural reforms toward food security.

Capulong said the return to power of the Marcos cronies began under Aquino where some Marcos cronies were granted immunity in exchange for evidence linking the Marcoses to the alleged ill- gotten wealth.

“The process of the accomodation of the elites is a historical phenomenon in the Philippines,” said Capulong. “This delivers the message that what we have had is the alternation of power of the different factions of the same elite in our society and not fundamental changes in society.”

“The elites alternate while the marginalized sectors of society continue to be powerless and disenfranchised economically and politically,” he said.

Jose Abueva, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of the Philippines, said the issue of the Marcos-crony wealth and justice is a “difficult balancing act” for the president.

“The Estrada presidency will have to overcome its Marcos- loyalist inclination and image,” Abueva said.

“As president, he is expected to govern by the impartial and impersonal rule of law, equality before the law, and justice for all, regardless of power, wealth, class or connection. This is one crucial area where President Estrada must prove worthy of the people’s trust and support. Otherwise, he will be a big disappointment.”

There is strong support toward a settlement of the Marcos and other crony cases as long as the accused are not granted immunity from criminal prosecution.

In the last Congress, 17 senators signed a resolution supporting a compromise settlement without immunity, which the Roman Catholic Church, which played a crucial role in the ouster of Marcos, supports.

“There has to be repentance and apology,” Abueva said. “It should not just be restitution. Otherwise, as a nation, we don’t learn. We’re just saying anybody can steal massively and he just returns a little, everything will be forgotten.”

“There is a very strong or overwhelming sentiment against a settlement that will contain immoral and illegal provisions,” Capulong said. But analysts doubt whether the Marcoses and their cronies would agree to such a settlement without immunity.

Armando Malay, dean of the UP Asian Center, said the return to power of the Marcoses is the “price we pay for the so-called bloodless revolution” in 1986. “Ours is such a democratic society that even the Marcoses and their minions, yesterday’s Public Enemy No. 1, have been fully rehabilitated today.”

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