Monday, September 5, 2016

Enop op Erap*

Looking at the last fifty years of the history of the Philippines, I think it must be very difficult for Filipinos to avoid being conservative, since the days before the election of Ferdinand Marcos as president in 1965 look like a lost Golden Age. It was a time when one Philippine peso was equal to one dollar. It was a time when the population of the small country (with a total land area the size of New Mexico) was half what it is today. It was a time of surprising prosperity for what was then known as a Third World Country.

Even if progress is defined as two steps up, one step back, for the Philippines every step forward seems to be nullified by another backward. Since the Marcos presidency degenerated into dictatorship in the '70s, the Philippines has always seemed to teeter between genuine democracy and authoritarianism.

Provincial politics in the Philippines has always been about one province being ruled by one family. Challenges to the ruling family were usually met with violence. And since all of it has gone on far from the center of power in Manila and far from the eyes of the press and the world, no one really cared.

The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was previously the mayor of a sprawling city on the southern coast of the southernmost island of Mindinao. He ruled the town like Judge Roy Bean ruled Texas west of the Pecos. There was a smoking ban. A fireworks ban. And a ban on illegal drugs so absolute that organized death squads were reportedly patrolling the city's streets. But because Davao is very far from Manila, no one bothered to do anything about Duterte's reign of terror on his town.

President Duterte has been in office just shy of two months and has already turned this small, poor nation on its ear. This is just about what he promised he would do when he campaigned for the job - what his supporters hoped he would do and everyone else doubted or feared. He is seventy-one years old and walks with a shambling, unsteady gait. Whether he survives his six-year term, given the high mortality rate of Filipino men his age (and younger) may or may not surprise anyone. What will become of the country when he has finished his "mission" is in even greater doubt. With the number of "extra-judicial killings" (a Filipino-coined term for summary citizen executions) approaching two thousand and the already shaky economy showing signs of unease, the next several months will certainly be a very bumpy road to the "drug-free" Philippines that Duterte has promised to deliver by Christmas.

Duterte stated recently that of all the Philippine presidents since independence first from Spanish colonial rule and then American territorial administration, Ferdinand Marcos, according to his way of thinking, was the best. However much such a bold claim might shock and dismay most foreign onlookers, it makes perfect sense if you recall that Marcos was the first so-called Man of the People to be elected Philippine president. Winning the election last May by a near-landslide, Duterte is decidedly in the Marcos tradition, defying the privileged class of oligarchs who have ruled these islands so selfishly.

It was those oligarchs who were restored to power when Marcos was succeeded by Corazon Aquino, wife of the murdered Benigno Aquino, Jr. (murdered by Marcos), and daughter of the wealthy and powerful Cojuanco family. Aquino was followed in 1992 by former general Fidel Ramos, whose term was, if nothing else, without incident. Then came the election of Joseph Estrada, a Philippine movie star, in 1998. The facts of his abortive term as president are now shrouded in a cloud of legal silence. No one now speaks about what happened just two years into his term since, by the rules, they can't. Philippine history books will always have to gloss over the years 2000-2001, despite the historical facts that a Second People Power bloodless coup swept Estrada out of power and inserted a tiny woman, his vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in his place.

Joseph Ejercito Estrada, affectionately known as "Erap" ("Pare" - or "father" spelled backwards) to his devoted fans, was the surprising victor of the 1998 presidential election. In his action films he played heavies, when he was the villain, and a tough but suave "babaero" (ladies man) when he was the hero. In real life he was married but enjoyed the company of mistresses, as is customary in this macho country. When he announced his candidacy, the Roman Catholic church would not endorse him because he had four children by women other than his wife. He also enjoyed gambling, but wasn't very lucky, as his debts would later prove. He had an obsession wih a popular but illegal game called "jueteng," which still goes on despite its prohibition.

Two years after assuming office, reports began to surface indicating an enormous surge, around 1000%, in Estrada's personal assets.(1) People close to him were talking about the many houses that had been built around Manila - at public expense - for Estrada's many mistresses. When the Philippine Supreme Court finally discovered there was actual fire where before there was only smoke, and the value of the peso against the U.S. dollar sank to a record low, a motion to impeach Estrada gathered momentum.

When the Supreme Court declared itself "hung," failing to produce the proper majority to impeach Estrada, protestors in great numbers took to the streets and demanded Estrada's removal from office. Only when the Philippine Army changed their allegiance to the side of the protestors was Estrada convinced it was time to step down. While he never actually resigned, he quietly ceded his title to his vice-president.

A trial was begun, charging Estrada with perjury (lying about his total assets) and the curious crime of "plunder" (of which, heretofore, only 18th Century pirates were guilty). When the trial got underway, the death penalty in the Philippines was the penalty for several capitol offenses, one of which was plunder. Signalling that some behind-the-scenes deals had been made, one of the new President Arroyo's first actions upon taking office was to repeal the country's death penalty. This made it possible, it seems obvious to me, for the Philippine Congress to find Estrada guilty as charged. After serving six years under house arrest in one of his palatial vacation homes, President Arroyo then did what no one really expected, except for the most cynical observers: she granted Estrada an Executive Pardon.

What exactly does such a pardon signify? It means that the crimes Estrada was conviction of committing, the amassing of stolen wealth, never happened. It meant that Estrada was not only a free man again, but that every one of his rights as a citizen were restored to him - including the right to run for public office.(2) Since a Philippine president is only allowed to serve one six-year term, and because his term was mysteriously interrupted, Estrada entered his name once again in the presidential race of 2010. He came in 3rd. But he ran for the office of Mayor of Manila in 2013 - and won. How frustrating it must have been to run against him without being legally able to mention the facts of his impeachment, his departure from office, and his conviction for plunder, an offense once punishable by death.

Two steps up. Two steps back.

*"Enop op Erap" was scrawled on a protestor's placard in 2001. "Enough of Erap".

(1) According to the 2004 Global Transparency Report, Estrada is ranked 10th on the list of the world's most corrupt leaders, having embezzled between $78M to $80M - and in only two years. Ferdinand Marcos is ranked 2nd on the list, and is credited with stealing five to ten billion dollars in his twenty-one years in office.
(2) Even if he tacitly promised on his release not to run for public office again.

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