Wednesday, November 30, 2011

De Lima's dilemma

By Winston A. Marbella

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has responded to a complaint filed by the lawyers of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband to cite her for contempt for disobeying a Temporary Restraining Order of the Supreme Court suspending the effectivity of a department circular placing the Arroyos on a watch-list order to keep them from leaving the country.

In one part of her reply, De Lima said, “As with any formal charge, the same should have contained the particular factual allegations constituting the alleged contumacious acts being charged against respondent.”

As I vaguely recall it, I think this has something to do with the well-televised attempt of the Arroyos to depart the airport, which immigration officials prevented on express orders of De Lima, also reported extensively on television.  But this reality does not exist in De Lima's legal mind.

In another part of her reply, De Lima adroitly makes the stunning assertion, “The language of the TRO may be couched as to state it is effective immediately but, still, it would only be so from and upon service to the party concerned.”

Nice try.  We owe it to the eminent constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J., to reduce to understandable language what would normally take lawyers thousands of words -- and a legal dictionary to boot -- to explain.  In the lucid mind of Fr. Bernas, the facts of the complicated constitutional issues in the aborted travel plans of the Arroyos are pretty simple and straightforward.

Writes the good father:  “The first thing I would ask is:  Where is the President in all these?

“A basic constitutional doctrine is that the judgment of a department secretary is presumed to be the judgment of the President unless the President expressly reprobates it.  The President has not done so.  We must therefore conclude that, right or wrong, this is what he wants to happen....

Facts of the case

“I believe that the facts are clear enough.  A travel ban was imposed on GMA under the form of a 'watch-list order.'  In effect, it is a 'hold-departure order.'

“The lawyers of GMA petitioned the Supreme Court to order the ban lifted.  The petition was argued en banc (the whole court)  and the Supreme Court spokesperson tells us that among the issues discussed by the justices were the right to travel, the right to life(,) and the presumption of innocence.

“In the end, the high court decided to issue a temporary restraining order, or TRO, directing executive officials concerned to allow GMA to travel 'effective immediately and continuing until further orders from this court.'

“What this means is that only the court, and nobody else, can lift this order.  And those ordered by the court must obey ¨C if they recognize that we are under the rule of law. 

“On Tuesday night, GMA attempted to board a flight to Singapore.  On orders of superior authority, GMA was not allowed to depart and had to spend the night at St. Luke's Medical Center-Global City.


“What was the reason given by executive officials?  They argued, eloquently and ad nauseam, that, since they had not yet received the written order, prudence and wisdom presented them allowing the flight....

“I find the official reason pharisaical adherence to the letter of the law....  (H)owever, it becomes evident that the nonreception of the official copy of the TRO was not the real reason.  The justice secretary simply does not want to lift the ban....

“The order of the Supreme Court that the TRO is 'effective immediately and continuing until further orders from this court' means nothing to her.

“Where in the world are we today!!!

Wonder of wonders

“The justice secretary seems to be insisting now that a TRO is not effective once a petition for reconsideration is filed....

“The view that a motion for reconsideration will stop the implementation of a TRO can make any TRO absolutely useless!  Wonders will never cease.

“What I seem to be sensing in all these is that anger and hatred of GMA has taken over and reason seems to be consigned to the sidelines.  That this seems to affect even the highest executive authorities (i.e., the justice secretary and the President) is a sad, sad thing.”

In a surprise departure from the legal points, Fr. Bernas likened the case to the last Pacquiao-Marquez fight: “Of course, this is not a joking matter because of the fundamental issues involved.  But in the face of the intransigence of executive officials, I cannot help but make a comparison between their actuations and those of Juan Manuel Marquez.  Neither one can accept a referee's decision graciously.”

Another planet

Another erudite constitutionalist, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, said this new theory of law being espoused by the justice secretary makes her want to go to another planet where things are more predictable.  She said the episode made her want to kill herself or, better yet, another person.

Sen. Joker Arroyo wasn't joking when he said the entire episode was stupid.

The justices are more obliging.  They are indulging the justice secretary.  They will hear her arguments.  They are giving her a day in court.  They are cutting her enough slack to make more lucid her remarkable theory on when a TRO becomes executory.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Senator Santiago's beautiful mind

By Winston A. Marbella

Clarity of thought is not genetic.  It comes from a beautiful mind honed by years of diligent work.  One such mind is demonstrated to us by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago when the confluence of complex events, particularly emotional ones, muddles our thinking process.

Take the case of the constitutional issues provoked by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's attempt to assert her constitutional right to travel.  This right is granted to every citizen except when it endangers national security, public safety or public health, not one of which was involved when Justice Secretary Leila de Lima disallowed her travel in spite of a Temporary Restraining Order issued by the Supreme Court.

De Lima's deliberate disobedience of the Court is based on a department circular which allows the secretary of justice to put people on a watch-list order, which has the same effect as a hold-departure order issued by a court.  

Arroyo's lawyers have challenged the constitutionality of the department circular on watch-list orders.  Senator Santiago believes likewise, so she has filed a bill allowing only courts of law to issue hold-departure orders (to be brief about it).

In the running debate on the Arroyo cases, many other constitutional rights have dragged into the discussion.  This is all to the good, for it allows citizens to examine the basic precepts on which rest our constitutional democracy.  Among these freedoms guaranteed citizens are: presumption of innocence, burden of proof, due process, equal protection, freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, the right to unimpeded travel.  These rights are granted to citizens principally to limit the awesome powers of a State predisposed to tyrannical abuses, among other reasons.

Right to bail

Among these important rights is the right to bail so that a citizen may be granted liberty while his case is being tried in court.  This right, as with most other rights, has a limitation: It may be withheld in capital offense when the evidence of guild is strong.  In this case the accused stays in a detention center determined by the judge.

Passionate opinions are now being expressed that Mrs. Arroyo, of all people, must not be allowed hospital or house arrest but must be sent directly to a detention facility like any other accused person.

Like a laser beam, Senator Santiago cuts through the legal maze and jargon with a simple suggestion: Mrs. Arroyo's lawyers should petition for a bail hearing.  Then we will be spared the circus spectacle of a tug of war over Mrs. Arroyo in her wheel chair: hospital, house or jail.

Senator Santiago was a former judge of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.  She cites Rule 114 of Section 8 of the Rules of Court:  In a bail hearing, “the prosecution has the burden of showing that the evidence of guilt is strong.”  

She continues:

“The grant or denial of bail in capital offenses or similar cases hinges on the issue of whether or not the evidence of guilt is strong.  The determination of whether or not the evidence of guilt is strong, being a matter of judicial discretion, remains with the judge.”

She adds: “After the bail hearing, the judge should spell out at least a resume of the evidence on which its order granting or denying bail is based.  Otherwise the order (granting or denying bail) is voidable.”

She said a bail hearing was mandatory because “All persons in the custody of the court shall be admitted to bail as a matter of right.  But even if the charge is punishable by (life imprisonment), bail, although no longer a matter of right, is still a matter of discretion on the part of the judge.”

Simple and elegant

Senator Santiago, as usual, has come up with a simple and elegant solution to the interminable legal wranglings that are now happening.  Her erudition is not a matter of accident.  She has a beautiful mind and she does her homework.  Her bright and shining moments will be missed dearly in the Senate.

Secretary De Lima will have big shoes to fill if and when her time comes to run for the Senate.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The glory and misery of being Manny Pacquiao*

*Republished as part of a Manny Pacquiao retrospective.

By Winston A. Marbella

Manny Pacquiao must be feeling miserable these days.

After eking out a decision over Juan Manuel Marquez, he was booed and pelted with cups with ice cubes at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

He cancelled a scheduled concert after the fight, which he did not skip after being battered with body punches in his previous fight with Antonio Margarito.

Half the Filipinos who watched the live television coverage thought the Mexican won.

When he arrived in Manila after a brief rest in Los Angeles, he cancelled a scheduled motorcade.  He must have sensed something amiss at the cold airport reception he got.

But he would not miss the traditional Mass at the Shrine of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo.

The reception he got in Sarangani province was joyous, as usual.  They love him unconditionally in the province he represents in Congress.

Manny is at the crossroads of deciding what to do with the rest of his life.  He said he would discuss his future plans with his family.

Several colleagues in Congress have said publicly he should concentrate on being a boxer or a congressman.  He has to choose.  He is reaching a point when straddling two careers is taking its toll.

It was clear during his last fight he had difficulty concentrating.  We do not know why.  All we know is that fighters, even the best in the world, have their off days.

Because of his lackluster performance, he has lost the honorific pound-for-pound title to Floyd Mayweather, Jr.  Mayweather Sr. said Manny should go back to the amateur ranks.  Promoters are working on a lucrative “fight of the century” to settle all scores.  It could be the richest in the history of boxing.

It was clear from his countenance that Manny feels the pain of rejection by his fans.  But that is the nature of celebrity.  Your adoring fans could just as quickly turn to your most vicious critics.

In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway had a chance to define the concept of courage.  He wrote:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to break them to kill them, so of course it kills them.  The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.  But those it cannot break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Manny Pacquiao need not make excuses for what he has accomplished.  Very few people can even dream of anything close.  He can fight Mayweather, or he may not.  He may choose to retire now and continue serving his constituents.

He has said he wants to give to his constituents the same chances he has found.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  

One can certainly do worse than Manny Pacquiao in misery.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Payback time in blood land

By Winston A. Marbella

HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac City . For Virginia Paligutan, 80, the day began at 2 a.m. on Thursday, November 24. She was to take public transportation to Manila to personally hear the expected announcement of the Supreme Court finally granting her and thousands of other farmers title to the land they have tilled for decades.

She stood with hundreds of other farm workers outside the Supreme Court to hear the announcement.  It was the first mass action she had attended in her life.  She wanted to hear it for her son Valentino, who had been retrenched from the vast Hacienda Luisita owned by the Cojuangco family, following a labor unrest arising from a stock distribution plan proposed in place of land distribution mandated by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) of 1988.

Valentino had gone to the hills to join the New People's Army.  Valentino, 52, was killed in a firefight with government troops in 2005.

Upon hearing the good news at the Supreme Court, Virginia's quest was over.  “My child,” she said, “we have won.”

“This is not for me,” said the grandmother of 13 children. Including three of Valentino's under her care.  “I am already old,” she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Over at the hacienda, farmers spilled out to the streets to celebrate.  “Everybody was dancing,” Virginia said.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision (14-0) mandates the Department of Agrarian Reform to parcel out close to 5,000 hectares to more than 6,000 farmers...  Each will get 7,806 square meters.

Hacienda Luisita sprawls across parts of Tarlac City and the towns of Concepcion and La Paz in the province of Tarlac in Central Luzon, famous for its vast agricultural lands.  The region is called the Rice Granary of the Philippines in history books.

Bloody dispute

In 1958, the Cojuangcos acquired the estate and a sugar mill from its Spanish owners partly through government loans on condition the land would be distributed to farmers under President Ramon Magsaysay's social justice program.

On June 10, 1988, President Corazon Aquino promulgated the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which called for the redistribution of agricultural lands, including Hacienda Luisita, to landless tenant farmers.

Earlier, in January 1987, or seven months into her term, a demonstration outside Malacanang turned bloody.  Thirteen demonstrators were killed by government troops in what has been called the Mendiola massacre.

On August 23, 1988,  Hacienda Luisita was incorporated, allowing the distribution of shares of stock to tenant farmers instead of land.

A strike led to a violent dispersal of protestors by police and military forces on Nov. 16, 2004, leaving at least seven workers killed. At least seven more union workers, including an Aglipayan priest and bishop, were killed in subsequent violent incidents.

In 2006, the Department of Agrarian Reform revoked the stock distribution plan.  Hacienda Luisita took the dispute to court.

'Celebrate with joy'

“I thought I would die without seeing this victory,” said Anita Flores, 65, who has been tilling the land since 1963.  Many have died fighting for their right to own a piece of land in Luisita.  I am happy because I will have something to leave to my grandchildren, and they can say that this land is the product of their grandmother's struggle.”

“We celebrate with joy the decision,” said the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

A spokesperson of Hacienda Luisita, Tony Ligon, said: “I am not saying that they (hacienda owners) are happy.  But they respect it (the decision).  We shall abide by it.”

“It's not an hacienda anymore,” he said.  It will be owned by individuals.  They can plant whatever they want.”

The decision put an end to a decades-long dispute emblematic of the country's feudal land ownership system.  An estimated million more hectares of agricultural lands fall under the coverage of the CARP, with only two more years remaining for distribution.

President Magsaysay believed land reform was a key factor in his anti-insurgency program to quell peasant unrest in the region, hotbed of the communist rebellion.

“I did not even own a pot of soil before,” said Virginia Paligutan, as she wept for her son Valentino, who had given up his life for a piece of this land.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

'You can't handle the truth!'

By Winston A. Marbella

In the climactic courtroom scene of “A Few Good Men” (also a novel), an abusive, demented and dangerous military officer under court martial, masterfully played by Jack Nicholson, browbeats from the witness stand (!) an uppity junior officer with the temerity to cross-examine him, realistically played by Tom Cruise.

Sensing he has gotten the upper hand, Nicholson barks at Cruise the memorable line: “YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

This climactic moment comes to mind whenever the news media ask for an update on the Freedom of Information Act, a priority campaign promise of President Aquino.

The spokespersons put on their best tone and state, without blinking: “THAT IS NOT PART OF OUR PRIORITIES.”

This is the answer they give when asked why they have not made the Freedom of Information Act a part of their legislative priority measures:  "THAT IS NOT PART OF OUR PRIORITIES.”


During the presidential campaign of 2010, the Freedom of Information Act was clearly a priority in the list of things then Senator Aquino promised the voters.

What have happened since then to force a change of mind?

The best (or worst) explanation we've heard so far comes from Manolo Quezon, former newspaper columnist who is now an undersecretary in the President's information corps, during a television interview.  I will summarize Quezon's carefully constructed explanation in plain English:


In the context of A Few Good Men, this is what it means: “YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

Freedom of disinformation?

Among other things, the Freedom of Information Act will allow reporters (or citizens) to examine documents pertaining to official government actions, especially contracts.

The FOI bill was approved by the bicameral conference committee of Congress and ratified by the Senate. Only the House ratification was needed to have it signed by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.  But the congressional sessions ended.  The new Congress will have to repeat the process, but its sense is clear: This is a priority measure

The measure seeks to give media and ordinary citizens broader rights to demand full transparency in all state matters that should be a public concern. The public right to information was enshrined in the Constitution 23 years ago. 

If signed into law, the FOI bill will make available to the people all public records in print, sound or visual form. 

The bill seeks to mandate all government agencies to upload all contracts or transactions on the Web, which proponents expect to lessen corruption in the bureaucracy. 

Public scrutiny 

The measure requires government agencies to make available to the public “scrutiny, copying and reproduction, all information pertaining to official acts, transactions as well as government research data used as basis for policy development regardless of their physical form or format in which they are contained and by whom they were made.” 

Besides upholding the right of the people to information, the proposed law promotes the state policy of “full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest” as enshrined in Article II, Section 28 of the Constitution (Declaration of Principles and State Policies) and Article 3, Section 7 (Bill of Rights). 

If the government agency decides to deny any request for information, in whole or in part, it shall within seven days from the receipt of the request, notify the person making the request if such denial in writing or through electronic means. 

Denial of access to information shall be appealable to the agency concerned 15 days from the notice of denial, but the Office of the Ombudsman can be asked to resolve the appeal in 60 days. 

Ready for the truth?

A penalty of imprisonment of one to six months, not less than one month but not more than six months awaits those who would violate the proposed legislation. 

The bill sets out clearly defined and reasonable exceptions, including matters dealing with national defense and security, ongoing foreign affairs negotiations, trade secrets, drafts of executive orders and personal information. 

To guard against government abuse of these exceptions, the proposed law says an agency should specify the public interest sought to be protected by the nondisclosure of information. It further provides:

- There is a legal presumption in favor of access to information. 

- Those who request information have the opportunity to show that the public interest in the disclosure outweighs the harm to the public interest sought to be prevented by the exceptions. 

- Any public officer or employee claiming an exception under the act faces criminal liability if it is shown that the claim is manifestly devoid of factual basis.

The question worth asking now is:  If we are not ready to pore over government contracts, when will we be ready?  And who is to say when we are?  The government or the news media?

We have a right to know, with or without the Freedom of Information Act.
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What a difference a year makes

By Winston A. Marbella

Heading toward the Christmas season last year, President Aquino indulged himself in a luxury rarely given a busy President: In a moment of candor during conversation with reporters covering Malacanang, he wore his heart out on his sleeve. 

But it had nothing to do with his love life, which he had vowed to keep secret and personal.

Instead it had to do with his official life as Chief Executive, and what he perceives as a personal affront on his crusade to fulfill a campaign promise---to rid government of corruption----by a Supreme Court he accuses of being loyal to his predecessor because most of them had been appointed by her, as the conventional logic goes.

Allocation of powers

On the surface that seemed like a sweeping accusation.  After all ours is a government of laws and not of men.  And while the Supreme Court has indeed produced justices who have kowtowed to the appointing power, it has also sired men and women of independent minds whose legal erudition stands among the best and the brightest in the world.

In any case, the argument is made that, by law, all Supreme Court justices---indeed all judges---are appointed by the President with the concurrence, of course, of Congress. 

That is the system we have chosen for ourselves---a complex interplay of separation of powers and check and balance.  It is hard to make it work, but it is nevertheless the best we can devise out of the long experience of the world's functioning democracies.  

Other structures may seem more efficient, and the fact that the wheels of justice seem to grind ever so slowly at times has induced us to throw up our arms in sheer exasperation.  But it is still the best system we can devise, despite its imperfections, to insure the fair and impartial dispensation of justice to every man.  

And as long as men remain mortals, we still will have to make the system work to the best of our ability in an imperfect world where the better angels of our human nature do not always prevail.

It is almost impossible to accept the proposition that in the twilight of their brilliant careers the justices would throw everything away and invite the calumny and ignominy that flawed decisions would heap upon them---just as it is unimaginable to accept the notion that Mr. Aquino is motivated only by the siren song of a demagogue unable to move the institutions of this democracy along the straight path he promised the people.

Sloppy stalemate

The more sober voices of society---senators, congressmen, bishops and civic groups---have called for a stop to the vicious political accusations against the justices. Many have suggested it may be best for Malacanang to examine whether in fact the constitutional stalemate it seems to be courting is not merely the result of sloppy legal staff work.

There seems to be enough evidence over the past 17 months of this administration to suggest that shoddy work and ineptitude may be the culprit.

Continued assaults on the justices as political pawns will eventually tarnish not only their personal reputations but also the institution of the judiciary, a co-equal if not equally powerful branch of government.

Legally tricky

When the President had his heart-to-heart talk with reporters last year, he had just suffered a setback in the hands of the Supreme Court.  All that has changed now, because the court has rendered as lawful his decision to postpone the elections in the autonomous region in Mindanao.

The mood was different last year. The legally complex ruling (9-5) thrashing as unconstitutional President Aquino’s first executive order creating a Truth Commission to investigate graft and corruption “scandals” in the previous administration had far-reaching consequences on the country’s jurisprudence, experts said.

In the aftermath of the controversial ruling, the three main pillars of our constitutional government---the executive, legislative and judicial branches---were rocked with political issues that struck at the core of our democratic beliefs, shook the foundations of our institutions, and set the tone and trajectory of how the Aquino presidency intended to translate its immense popularity into effective governance.

The highly incendiary and political accusations that the landmark ruling ignited last year threatened to leave both the judiciary and the presidency as fallen idols with diminished public esteem, and, unless sober discourse was restored, as stalemated institutions that could be weakened irreparably by the conflict.

The same prospects have emerged in the vociferous issues arising from the various charges being filed against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the administration's attempt to hold her accountable for her actions during her presidency.

Equal protection clause

In the face of current contentious legal cases that strike at the root of basic precepts, it may be wise to review last year's celebrated case. 

The majority decision itself rested on a constitutional precept no less important than separation of powers and check and balance: equal protection of the law granted to all citizens by the Constitution.

The 46-page majority resolution, penned by Associate Justice Jose Mendoza, took pains to explain that the court was not encroaching on the powers of the executive branch but was “simply making sure that any act of government is done in consonance with the authorities and rights allocated to it by the Constitution.”

News about the court’s decision was announced to the media by spokesperson Gleo Guerra, who said: “The majority, among others, held that EO 1 violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution in as much as it singles out for investigation the reports of graft and corruption in the previous administration.”

The majority ruling said: “That the previous administration was picked out was deliberate and intentional and can be gleaned from the fact that it was underscored at least three times in the assailed executive order.  Equal protection clause is violated by purposeful and intentional discrimination.”

It added”  “Not to include past administrations similarly situated constitute(s) arbitrariness which the equal protection clause cannot sanction.  Such discriminating differentiation clearly reverberates to label the commission as a vehicle for vindictiveness and selective retribution.”

Diminished presidency

Dissenting, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio described the ruling as a “severe case of judicial overreach that made the incumbent President a diminished executive.”  He called the ruling “an affront to a coequal branch of government” in a dissenting opinion that was only two pages short of the majority view.

House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman, a close ally of former President Arroyo who had taken the executive order to court, called it a “signal triumph of the rule of law.”  The ruling “struck down incursions by the President into the realm of legislative authority and protected the sanctity of civil liberties.”

In a nationally televised address, President Aquino slammed the high court as pretending to be deaf and blind and vowed to pursue his campaign promise to go after graft and corruption in government.  Asked what he intended to do next in light of the ruling, he said it seemed to him that the next best step was to amend the executive order, implying it did have legal defects in form if not substance.

The current case of electoral sabotage filed against Mrs. Arroyo takes another approach. 

‘Payment of gratitude’

As in last year's case, the President's lawyers made comments bordering on being contemptuous of the court.  The government’s chief lawyer, Solicitor General Anselmo Cadiz, called the ruling a “payment of gratitude” by the justices appointed by Mrs. Arroyo.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said: “The voting by the members of the court on political questions, namely, on the actions of the Aquino administration on the previous administration, readily shows that the lines which now divide decision-making in the court are principally political and no longer doctrinal.”

They had no such problems with the recent favorable court ruling upholding the President's power to postpone the ARMM elections.

Enrile backs court

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile agreed with the court. “I also entertained some doubts about the validity of the creation of the Truth Commission,” he said.  “The President can’t create an office like that, in my opinion, and then appropriate money for it.”  The Constitution allocates the power of the purse to Congress.

Ranking officials of the influential Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines urged Mr. Aquino to explore “using other means to discover the truth,” including beefing up his  legal staff which has been described as “incompetent” by critics.

The Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution, crafted by a commission created by President Cory Aquino’s revolutionary government after the 1985 People Power revolt, provides: “No person was shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be deprived of equal protection of the laws.”

Respecting institutions

The so-called equal protection clause traces its roots to the 14th amendment to the American Constitution, which was adopted in the 1935 Philippine Constitution.

Reacting to the political responses from Malacanang against the justices, senators and Catholic bishops cautioned the parties to temper their language lest the people begin to lose respect in both the presidency and judiciary as respectable institutions. 

Ironically, the judicial rebuff came only a day after an opinion survey was made public that gave Mr. Aquino a 79 percent public approval rating.

Leveraging popularity

How Mr. Aquino moves to convert his continuing popularity to effective governance deserves watching.  A direct connection between popularity and effective government has eluded the four presidents before him, including his mother.

President Cory, whose death to cancer on Aug. 1, 2009, catapulted Mr. Aquino to the presidency, had also struggled with the elusive task of transforming her immense popularity into effective governance.

President Cory was extremely popular, and is now widely regarded as having been necessary for democratic restoration but largely ineffective as chief executive.

Luckily for the country, she was succeeded by the more politically adroit Fidel V. Ramos, whose term resuscitated the economy to struggling Asian tiger status.  Ramos was a minority president, having won only 23 percent of the popular vote in a six-sided election.

The folk hero and movie actor Joseph Ejercito Estrada was extremely popular: Many Filipinos would have gladly taken a bullet for him, to use the perversely distorted current measure of presidential loyalty. 

Cut short

But he was ousted by a patently illegal coup condoned by an acquiescent Supreme Court, so it is hard to fairly judge how he would have fared as president given more constitutional time.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was definitely not anybody’s paragon of presidential popularity, but she took pride in keeping the ship of state on an even keel. Confidential diplomatic communication leaked over the Internet recently showed that certain countries admired her stabilizing rule 

She did not intend to be popular but effective, she said many times, setting aside the notion of representative government needing popular support to succeed.

No direct link

In recent history the country has racked up many examples of presidential popularity and effectiveness that do not correlate.  Perhaps winning an election takes an entirely different skills set from running a country. 

Maybe, as many have suggested, including bishops and senators, the President has to surround himself with alter egos with different skills sets, who can help him run the country, not hinder him.

But it takes judgment and courage to do that, plus a keen sense of what works effectively in government---skills that may vary widely from those that win elections and draw cheering crowds on the campaign trail.

In the current legal cases the President says he is merely seeking to fulfill a campaign promise to send the crooks to jail.  He is showing he is willing to push the constitutional envelop.

How he handles the legally and politically tricky cases against Mrs. Arroyo will determine how far he is willing to go to seek justice without trampling on the constitutional rights of the accused: due process, presumption of innocence, and other hallowed precepts.

Unless a constitutional balance is found, we may end up with a diminished presidency and a tarnished judiciary, the worst of both worlds for two of our most important institutions.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Barack's trek: A Sixties odyssey

By Winston A. Marbella

Barack Obama's trek to the White House began even before he was born. It began in many places in many different times, and the stars had to conspire to trigger a confluence of events that would propel his odyssey to the presidency.  Then those early events had to converge in one powerful force that would define history.  There was one that began in Manila.

Historic changes come in many ways.  Some burst upon us as part of political revolutions, sweeping everything in their path.  Others are more subtle, creeping slowly but inevitably.  Whatever their form, they all begin in defining moments, at times barely discernible but equally historic in their impact. 

Bobby Kennedy in Manila

Two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, one such moment happened to Robert F. Kennedy in a school called the Philippine Women's University along Taft Avenue in Manila.

RFK had visited the girls' school to fulfill a promise made by the late president. The girls had sung a song they had composed for his slain brother.  RFK was visibly moved by the gesture.

It is impossible to chart precisely when a person makes up his mind to run for the presidency of the United States.  He would not declare for the presidency until March of 1968, but it was likely that it was in the girls' school on Taft Avenue that the idea first crossed Robert F. Kennedy's mind.

RFK challenged Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination.  His campaign TERLUDE captured the imagination of the youth.  He fought against the war in Vietnam, poverty, and injustice.  After a stunning victory in the California primary, he was felled by an assassin's bullets as he exited through a hotel basement after delivering his victory speech.  

Then history took over. The anti-war movement gained momentum and the student revolution engulfed the nation, forcing Johnson eventually to withdraw from seeking reelection.  The rest is history.


In February of 2007, some 21 months before the United States presidential elections, Barack Obama was going to have a late-night stopover in San Francisco airport.  He asked a friend to arrange a meeting with Marc Andreessen, a founder of Netscape and a board member of Facebook, the social networking company, to discuss an idea Obama had had in his mind for some time.  

Obama wondered if it would be possible, considering the communication capabilities and massive data base of social networking, to harness the technology for his campaign.  His instincts were right.  The Internet provided the technological spark that ignited his volunteer army to organize locally, raise more than $600 million in political contributions, fight smear campaigns, and register millions of new Democratic voters.  The rest is history.

Historic changes come to us in many ways.  Some come as tidal waves.  Others creep up slowly.  But whatever their form, they begin as defining moments. There is the Robert F. Kennedy kind. And then there is the Barack Obama way...

La Dolce Vita

At around the time Barack Obama was beginning to grow in his mother's womb; three other events were beginning to take shape that together would converge, in less than 50 years, into a confluence of change that would sweep him to the White House.

As with most other events of historical import, these forces congealed almost by accident – and it would take men of considerable skill and talent first to notice them, and then to turn them into social forces that would change our lives forever.

The first of these revolutionary ideas began to take shape in the mind of Federico Fellini in 1958.  It was then that the Italian filmmaker started developing the concept for a film that would change the trajectory of modern cinema, “La Dolce Vita.”

The film, shot in black and white when color was the preferred medium, ran two minutes short of three hours.  But length was not its most endearing feature.

“La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life)” starred Marcelo Mastroianni as a young reporter writing about the escapades of a decadent nobility, an emerging class of nouveau riche, a bevy of ambitious starlets, and other interesting life forms that populated the sidewalk cafes along Rome's trendy Via Venetto.  Through seven loosely connected episodes, we follow the journalist Marcello as he watches the girls go by even as he struggles to find meaning in his own life.

Seeking to spice up her bored life, a rich woman played by Anouk Aimee picks up Marcello in her Cadillac and takes him to a run-down house of a prostitute where she thought it would be more exciting to make love.  In another scene that shocked audiences at the time, Sylvia, a statuesque blonde bombshell played by Anita Ekberg, takes Marcello on a midnight dip in the Fontana Trevi, immortalized in yet another movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

Traditional values
The film foreshadowed the breaking down of traditional conventions in the Sixties and rewrote our vocabulary as well.  The phrase dolce vita easily became part of the world's lingua franca and would evolve decades later into Ricky Martin's “Livin' la Vida Loca,” or living the crazy life.

In the film, Marcello was supported in his journalistic pursuits by a sidekick photographer named Paparazzo, whose surname in its plural form in Italian would later become emblematic of the hordes of photo journalists who make a living out of selling images of not-so-rich-and-famous celebrities on the rise or on the wane.

The film foretold the coming cult of celebrity that shadows society now.  It was shot in 1959 and premiered in 1960, one year ahead of another film that would show another facet of the revolutionary movements of the decade.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

In 1961, Hollywood svreened its romanticized version of Truman Capote's novella which was part of his 1958 "Breakfast at Tiffany;s: A Short Novel and Three Stories."  Capote had wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role of Holly Golightly, a Texas runaway who makes it big in New York living a freewheeling lifestyle, a sort of La Dolce Vita, American style.

Instead, in one of those flights of fancy that worked remarkably well at the box office, the Hollywood moguls picked Audrey Hepburn to play the part that made it fashionable to wear a tiara while dressed in pearls and a black Givenchy gown, having coffee and a Danish at Tiffany's along New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue after a night out in the city that never sleeps.

The movie glossed over the stark realism of Capote's story, a single woman who feeds off her sugar dads to live la vida loca of the great American dream. Henry Mancini's Oscar-winning rendition of the movie's theme, “Moonriver,” contributed to the film's popularity, but that is not its greatest achievement.  Rather, like Fellini's masterpiece, Capote's “Tiffany's” elevated celebrity to a new level of consciousness.

Composite woman
Capote's Holly Golightly was an idealized composite of his favorite stylish women – not the lovely creatures of Via Veneto – but the cream of American celebrity, like Gloria Vanderbilt.  “Tiffany's” success also added a glittering layer to Capote's personal lifestyle; suddenly, he was the toast of Manhattan literati, hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

To add more clamor to his growing glamor, Capote threw, in 1966, a masked ball in New York City's famed Plaza Hotel in honor of Washington Post owner and publishes Katherine Graham.  The guests included the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Frank Sinatra and wife Mia Farrow, and another literary lion, Norman Mailer.

Literati mingled with celebrity to give birth to a new species – glitterati.

The two films that introduced the socially transforming decade of the 60s had begun as concepts in an earlier decade.  They reflected a gathering social upheaval that would transform our culture as well as our politics forever...

American Camelot

It was also in 1958 that a young senator from Massachusetts, having completed his first term, won reelection in a landslide victory that would spark bigger dreams.  That year, John F. Kennedy started working on running for the American presidency in 1960.  On January 20, 1961, he was sworn in as the first Catholic president of the United States, breaking political and religious conventions.

On February 2, 1961, 13 days after Kennedy's inaugural, Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr., a graduate student from Kenya, got married in Hawaii.  Ann, 18, was three months pregnant, and Barack Obama Jr. would soon be born.

Federico Fellini's “La Dolce Vita” had shocked the world; movie fans of Truman Capote's “Breakfast at Tiffany's” were singing “Moonriver;” and John F. Kennedy was less than a month old in the White House.  But the social revolutions the three visionaries spawned would converge in less than half a century into a mandate for change for Barack Obama.

Decade of discontent

The Sixties were a decade of discontent and seething social ferment.  When Obama's white mother and black father were married, multiracial marriages were still illegal in the American South.  Although their marriage raised a few eyebrows, it was at least tolerated – if not condoned – in Hawaii.  Hawaii, after all, was a melting pot of native Polynesians, Filipino and Japanese immigrants, and mainland Americans.

Still, the American Deep South was segregated.  Buses had separated sections for black and white.  Restaurants were separate, even toilets.  Martin Luther King Jr. was still to deliver his famous “I have a dream” speech at the historic Civil Rights March in Washington D.C. In 1963 John F. Kennedy was still defining the horizons of the New Frontier.  And America was still to land its first man on the moon.

But the campuses were beginning to brew an anti-war sentiment that would inhibit Lyndon B. Johnson from seeking a second term as President, as it would stop another Republican, John McCain, from becoming President in 2009.

Literati to glitterati

The great social themes of Fellini and Capote – Cafe Society, paparazzi and its soul mates, celebrity, literati and its present twin, glitterati – came to full bloom in Jack and Jackie Kennedy's American Camelot.  John F. Kennedy first came to national attention as a freshman senator who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage.” He put together literati and glitterati with an easy grace.  Some fifty years later, the same ingredients would conspire to spark Obama's celebrated run for the White House.  It all began with two books.

Setting aside a thin bio data, Obama's 15-minutes of fame got off to a roaring start with literati.  The first book, “Dreams From my Father,” spoke of his biracial upbringing without a father.  The second, “The Audacity of Hope,” was more predictive of his future.  Audacity sired hope.  Hope galvanized a dream.  A dream ignited change.

Obama's debut as literati gave him instant glitterati.  More than any other presidential candidate, save perhaps Jack Kennedy, Obama embraced celebrity with an easy grace.  Midway through his campaign, Obama had to dial down the emotional intensity of his speeches lest he be type-cast, his advisors worried, as a “mere” celebrity.

Literati gave him a grand entrance to glitterati.  His few tentative steps on the road to the White House were ignored by a fawning national media that would not tolerate lesser crimes by a fumbling Sarah Palin.

Instinctively, Obama knew the historical roots of the social upheavals that would take him to the White House.  It was written in his DNA.

But first he had an election to win.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Gloria in Excelsis: A political saga

By Winston A. Marbella

     Armed with organizational wizardry and the sophisticated technological tools of the digital age -- Facebook, Twitter, Google maps, and computer-generated voter profiles -- Barack Obama's volunteer army in the American presidential elections of 2008 organized themselves into self-led guerrilla groups with a single-minded purpose: to do everything necessary to get every single vote. They worked like the well-crafted parts of a Swiss watch, with very little margin for error.  In the elections of 2004, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo -- fighting for her political life -- did something close.  Only she did not have a Swiss watch; she had only old-fashioned technology, a dash of good old Filipino ingenuity, and a lot of elbow grease.  The results were the same and she had fun to boot.  On November 18, election sabotage charges, a non-bailable offense, were filed in court.  She has been placed under arrest..

FOR ALL THE DRAMA and romance that hand-to-hand combat brings to the epic struggle of presidential elections, mano a mano duels would hardly suffice now to ensure victory.  For all the political genius that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo brought to the biggest fight of her life in the elections of 2004, genius alone would not have been enough to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

What Gloria Arroyo did was nothing short of a miracle.  She put together old political workers and armed them with the new technologies of poll surveys and television commercials.  Then she set them loose to do their worst or their best.

If for nothing more, the elections of 2004 introduced a new way of doing old things and it worked sufficiently well.  Her machine reshaped the political process, redrew the architecture of victory, and thereby altered the way political campaigns would be waged in the future.

Lessons from beer

Either by design or divine inspiration, her communication strategists, many of whom were in their forties or fifties, remembered the creative geniuses that had crafted the memorable and highly successful San Miguel beer ads of the 70s.  Miracle of miracles, they were still around, some freelancing, others running their own little creative shops, and many more just enjoying their retirement.

Politics was a nice new thing they could enjoy doing.  But the task was more daunting than anything they had done before for any commercial product.  They had to sell a political product very few people believed in and who was at the bottom of the popularity charts.

But before the creative guys could go to work, the marketing strategists had to evaluate the political market and break it down to its component parts, or market segments, defined according to their socioeconomic demographics, or better yet, their psychographic profiles.  What messages would appeal to different segments of the electorate?  What did each segment consider as the important issues to address?  Did their opinions reflect the whole population’s, or were there regional preferences?

From this mass of data would emerge the “differentiation” strategy, or what would make one candidate different from the others.  And then would follow the “positioning” strategy, or how best to communicate the candidate's uniqueness to make her win.  Then and only then could the creative guys get to work on the concept of the commercial and other election materials (leaflets, posters, print ads, radio spots) to achieve unity of message for maximum impact.  

And after this still would follow the tedious market tests to check if all of the messages resonated with the target audiences: focus group discussions, pretests, post-tests, and the other mumbo jumbo of image makers and hidden persuaders.

Differentiating uniqueness

The first TV commercial broke on the weekend of Valentine's Day.  It showed the president amid a sea of Philippine flags; then in an ocean of international flags when she addressed the United Nations General Assembly, with Kofi Annan on his perch behind the speaker; then images of the president with U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, sheiks from Arabia in their flowing white robes.

The not-so-subliminal message was that this is what it takes to be president.  It was a blatant challenge to all pretenders to the throne: actor, police chief, politician, religious leader.  It was cheeky, brash, and sassy.  Many people did not like it, including some of the president's men.  Way above the target market, the masa, they chorused.  The fact that Joe Concepcion liked it and he told the president so only served to reinforce the notion that the commercial was elitist.

Those who work in the creative parts of business marketing, advertising, communication, and other creative types have a private joke that there are three jobs in the world to which every John Doe would qualify.  These jobs are marketing director, advertising manager, and public relations expert.  Add political strategist.

After the opening salvo followed the celebrity endorsers like Kris Aquino, now finally to appeal to the masa.  Then would come a cross section of typical housewives and men-in-the-street (if one could find typical) to trigger the bandwagon effect, so the plan went.  

If the marketing strategists and creative guys had nailed it, then they could let the political machine take over and convert this swarming mass of loyal fans into actual votes come election.  But before that would be the targeting of the communication materials to the correct segments of the voting population.

This is media drudgery, the stuff creative guys and political strategists hate to do.  Fortunately, computers can do the job better.  The TV and radio programs have all been dissected to their precise viewer profiles.  Now it was just a matter of matching message to target market via the correct media that reach them.  

But how many times do you need to bombard the hapless voter with your commercials before you reach “conversion” point, or worse, boredom, and get mercilessly zapped by the remote control?   This is where the art of the craft merges with the science.

Miracle workers

The details were overwhelming.  There were enough details to make anybody lose his mind.  The miracle of it all was that all this frenetic activity actually worked to produce victory at the end.  In the elections of 2004 Gloria Arroyo was blessed with many miracles: some from science, others from art, many from the imagination and creativity of campaign strategists, which somehow combined, by some strange alchemy, to extract victory from sure defeat.

When everything goes well together, miracles can and do - happen.  Athletes know instinctively when they are “in the zone.”  It happens when teams work in perfect harmony.  Such moments produce championship crowns.  Individual athletes can have such moments also, as when marathon runners, almost dying from exhaustion, get a second wind, a sudden kick of adrenaline, and fatigue disappears miraculously.  That’s when they enter the mystical, magical world of . . . the zone.

Enter Defensor

The Arroyo campaign had many such magical moments in 2004.  Its only major worry was whether the candidate could hold up under the pressure and somehow get to the finish line with her equanimity intact and her campaign team sane.  This was how the concept of a Mike Defensor, her chief of staff, saved the day.

Perceptive campaign workers had noticed that when Defensor was around, the president managed to get through the most hectic of days with her famous temper in check.  There was an easygoing manner to Defensor that somehow defused tensions, got everybody relaxed, and made the tasks at hand seem so easy to do.  So they conspired to have him around all the time, particularly toward the homestretch of the campaign, the most critical moment when things were likely to break apart, the moment of truth.

It is hard to figure out how this chemistry happens.  Of course Defensor grew up near the Arroyo's home in La Vista; he even played basketball with the Arroyo children.  Of course the president was also his godmother many times over.  But most of all he had a sense of humor that appealed to the president, and that, more than any other skill, counted most toward the end of the campaign, when nerves were frayed and tempers volcanic. 

On a particularly muggy day, they were on their way to a town hall meeting, a clever campaign device that the political operatives had minted when they noticed that the president performed best with smaller crowds.  Let the actor Fernando Poe deal with the bussed big crowds of political rallies, they said, but this president would work a smaller crowd of archetypal citizens handpicked by local officials to discuss, intimately in small groups, issues of great import.  

Perhaps more than any single innovation in the campaign, the town hall meeting reshaped the political architecture because it pleased the not-so-secret ingredient of the elections: the local government officials.  They would carry the day for the administration and emerge - from a series of carefully crafted town hall meetings - with a landslide of victories, almost 90 percent of all elective posts, the momentum of which would carry them through another election, the one in 2007.  

The machine

In a sense, the die was cast in the landslide victory of the Lakas-CMD machine in 2004, while nobody was looking, because the entire nation was mesmerized by the heroic mano a mano duel being fought between Arroyo and Poe.  The 2004 campaign was the dry run for this new political strategy, and it would work even greater wonders in 2007.  But that is another story.  Meantime, the Gloria Macapagal machine had the elections of 2004 to win.

With Mike Defensor around, everybody on the campaign trail was in high spirits.  The poll surveys, which were coming now in rapid succession, showed that the dead heat had been shattered, and Gloria Arroyo was pulling away at the homestretch.  The candidates had rounded the final bend, the finish line was in sight, and Gloria Arroyo was pulling away from the pack.  The shouting would soon be over, and the counting, too.

More than anybody else, Mike Defensor was beginning to enjoy his own jokes.  Everybody was having a good time, most of all, and most importantly, the president.  They were having the time of their lives in the summer of 2004.  Mike Defensor had no inkling that he was depleting his own political capital at a horrendous rate, and that he would have none to spare when it was his time to run for the Senate in the elections of 2007.  But nobody could have seen that coming, not even with a crystal ball.  The moment was delirious, and it was to be enjoyed while it lasted.

Everyone was... in the zone.

Humor medicine
Anybody who saw Defensor's performance that day would have sworn that the job had been cut out for him, for he was doing it so brilliantly. It had been a long and almost boring campaign and they were headed for another one of those meetings that one would not mind skipping, unless one were president and running to secure an electoral mandate for an office one had merely occupied by force of succession, a legal construct that the Supreme Court had so forcefully engineered.

Traveling with the president, Defensor was in top form.  He was telling good stories.  He was entertaining her.  He was actually making her laugh. Those who were privileged to witness this phenomenon know that when things do not happen according to plan it could be very difficult to get her mind off the detail that was not remembered, or remembered but not done well, or done but not to her satisfaction.

In short, Defensor had to do something close to a miracle - something like Moses parting the Red Sea - to make her laugh.  And that day he made her laugh uproariously.


Arroyo's campaign gained momentum, slowly but surely.  There must have been something they were doing right.  In the middle of the campaign, after Raul Roco's audacious attempt had run out of steam, Arroyo and Poe came within each other's reach, plus or minus three percent, the margin of error of the poll surveys.  For weeks they hung together in a statistical tie, neither one gaining substantial ground to break away from the other.  

Then Poe's media advertising sputtered to a halt. Aides would say later they had run out of gas and were running on fumes toward the final two weeks of the campaign.  

Arroyo stormed to the finish and, as the exit polls would have it, was pulling away at the end.  Nonpartisan experts like the respected pollster Mercy Abad predicted on national TV that based on the trends established by independent exit polls - surveys taken after voters had cast their ballots - Arroyo would have easily won by a landslide.  

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had gamely taken on all comers, mano a mano, as they say in the ancestral language of her husband which she speaks fluently, and had beaten them all hands down.  She would later say she had beaten them “fair and square.”  

The elections of 2004 were over, but the more enduring judgment of history was just beginning.

Earlier Gloria Arroyo had said that she possessed only modest ambitions she did not want to be a great president, she just wanted to be a good one.  Her enduring tragedy is not that she had not wanted to be a great president, but that she had wanted merely to be a good one. 

History will render the final verdict on her continuing political saga.