Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Can we still rise from the morass?

What exactly are we, the people, entitled to know about the President’s state of health whenever he or she goes for a medical check or is actually sick? This need not be extensively debated. The Constitution says it; it is not contingent upon public curiosity or presidential discretion or taste.

Section 12 of Article VII provides: “In case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The Members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines shall not be denied access to the President during such illness.”

“In case of serious illness” is the operative clause. At anytime the healthiest president could undergo some medical tests or actually get sick. He or she is not mandated by law to keep the nation posted on any minor ailment. In actual practice, however, a medical bulletin is normally issued to keep the public informed through the press. If any procedure was performed, there is usually a brief statement about it and then the usual words about the President having been given a clean bill of health.

When is a president’s illness deemed serious? If and when there is a fair chance of dying or developing some longterm complications or being permanently disabled. If the President suffers a stroke or heart attack, or tests positive for cancer and is consequently confined, physically incapacitated and no longer able to perform nomal bodily functions, then even a mere layman would know his or her illness is serious.

When that happens, Sec. 12 begins to operate. The public must be told about the true state of the President’s health. No one may bar the Secretaries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, the National Security Adviser and the AFP Chief of Staff from having access to the President, just in case any member of his family or circle of close friends should want to hide the gravity of his or her serious illness from the public and his or her immediate successor, the Vice President.

In the final years of President Ferdinand Marcos, the Cabinet and the public remained in the dark amid thick rumors that the strongman had fallen seriously ill and had secretly undergone a kidney transplant. As columnist for a morning daily at the time, having resigned from the Cabinet where I had served as information minister for ten years, I learned about the transplant and wrote about it. Sources close to Marcos confirmed this much later, after his fall from power in 1986, but not while he was in office.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution obviously had that situation in mind when they introduced the previously quoted Sec. 12. Under Sec. 11 (same Article) they also provided that “whenever a majority of all the Members of the Cabinet transmit to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of his office as Acting President.”

Such is the grave implication of serious presidential illness to the stability of the Constitution that it may not, at any time, be kept hidden from the public. The following questions may now be asked:

1. Is Mrs. Arroyo suffering from any serious sickness which Malacanang has tried to hide or is trying to hide from the Cabinet or the public?

2. Is she bedridden or incapacitated?

3. Were the tests conducted on her at the Asian Hospital related to any major complaint, and have the results been kept secret?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then we must hold her accountable to the public. It appears, however, the answer is in the negative. The heat of the controversy seems to focus rather on the report that as a much younger woman, Mrs. Arroyo had a breast implant performed on herself in the eighties. The old technology had begun to falter, and repair had to be done. It was as simple as that. It was a simple cosmetic procedure to correct something that by no stretch of the imagination could be called a disease.

Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesmen were stupid enough to try to dispute the mercilessly detailed scoop by our columnist-friend Jarius Bondoc, thereby adding to the frenzy of the text-messaging that had gone around the world. No real national interest or national security issue has been clarified by the sharp focus on this incident. But many of us seem convinced they could change the status quo just by talking to death about the hair growth that had reportedly been shaved off the presidential groin and armpits.

This kind of stuff diminishes us. We have to rise from the morass. As critics and political adversaries, it may be easy enough for us to exploit details that attack Arroyo’s feminine self-esteem rather than her politics. But our duty to Christian charity advises us against it; noblesse oblige. Our duty, it seems to me, is to elevate the public debate by segregating the serious health issue from this “woman thing” which we do not begrudge other women we truly admire and everybody else. As someone who has tried since 2001 to make Mrs. Arroyo accountable for the worst degradations in our politics I would not want it said that where I had failed to dent her political armor with fundamental questions about constitutional legitimacy and moral integrity, I finally succeeded by talking simply about her ruptured silicon and armpits.

I would not know how to defend myself from that.

Reactions to http//
8 July 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Will the U.S. intervene in the 2010 elections?

At the US July Fourth reception on July 2 Ambassador Kristie Kenney was asked pointblank if her government would be “concerned” over a “postponement” of the 2010 Philippine elections. The question contained a hypothesis rather than a fact, and a potential headline written into it. Mrs. Kenney answered “yes” and that gave Philippine Star a brilliant scoop which it proudly bannered the next day---“US: No to ‘no-el’,” (the last word, for “no elections”).

This was fully congruent with Kenney’s prepared text where she said, “one of the values that we share with our American friends is a fierce commitment to electoral democracy and the institution of suffrage.” Elections are a good way of renewing democracy, she added. Over the years various U.S. institutions have made it a point to observe the periodic conduct or misconduct of Philippine elections.

But the subject here was “postponement” of elections. Given the unanswered questions at the Commission on Elections about automated voting, the move in Congress to propose a shift to parliamentary government, and the various scenarios being dreamed up by various parties for 2010, a postponement of the elections could not, in principle, be completely ruled out. Even without those problems a postponement remains a possibility, no matter how remote. What would happen, for example, if and when a major natural calamity should occur on election day and people are no longer able to venture outside their homes? Certainly no elections could be held; they would be automatically postponed.

So it is possible. But probable? That’s another story altogether. “Possibility” has never been the same as “probability.” And despite fears of a possible failure of elections, no one has actually proposed or is proposing a postponement. So its possibility is purely speculative and hypothetical as of now, and it was a purely hypothetical question that was put to Kenney. A diplomat of lesser spunk would probably have declined: “I’m sorry, I don’t answer hypothetical questions.” But Kenney obviously thought it best to send a clear signal to those who may be planning mischief to do away with the 2010 elections.

Now we have it in black and white. The US would be “concerned” if the elections were postponed, and there are various ways of making such concern felt by the parties involved. It is a warning to all ---not just to the Arroyo administration but to everyone else who may be planning to supplant the elections with their own schemes. No doubt Kenney’s words have a positive impact on the thinking of many Filipinos. They may now feel a little more confident that the elections would be held as scheduled, despite the absence of any prospect for real change or any truly worthy candidates for the highest office. But we cannot misread her words to mean the U.S. will “intervene to ensure clean and free elections.” The U.S. will react accordingly if we mess up our electoral process, but they will not tell us how to conduct our sovereign business.

How would all this affect those who want to see parliamentary elections rather than presidential ones in 2010? They do not want the elections postponed; they simply want the form of government changed. Of course the idea is strongly opposed by many, this writer included, and we are convinced we are right. But what happens if and when, despite our strongest opposition, the Supreme Court ultimately upholds what we believe is an unconstitutional way of proposing constitutional amendments, and the people do not rise in protest but remain apathetic?

Once more, this is hypothetical, it may or may not happen at all. But having already answered one hypothetical question, could not the ambassador tell us now how Washington would react to it? Of course, we would respect her silence if she decides she has already said enough or more than enough on the subject.

I am a great Kenney fan, particularly for her public diplomacy skills. You see her wholesome face in public billboards in Palawan, Visayas and Mindanao, and she is not much less visible than my friend Sen. Dick Gordon in highly publicized humanitarian operations. But something about her non-verbal idiom, as recorded by the Star, invites careful decoding.

In the four-column center photo below the Star’s July 3 headline, Kenney is flanked by the Air Force Chief Lt. Gen. Oscar Rabena and Navy commander Vice Admiral Ferdinand Golez. She is sparkling in her evening dress, and the flag officers are resplendent in their gala uniforms. But Kenney’s left hand is shown resting gently on Vice Admiral Golez’s strong right shoulder. What was it doing there?

Not having gone to a finishing school for diplomats, most readers will not know what to make of it. I have tried to understand international diplomacy most of my life, and I do not know what it means. Could the good ambassador or the Department of Foreign Affairs please enlighten us on it? It feels good to be able to think that if things fell apart, we could always rely on the US to help us pick up the pieces. But as a 111-year-old republic, we should by now be able to stand on our own instead of expecting our former colonial master to sort out our sovereign affairs for us. Even the U.S. may have no need for such subservience.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The jewels of Imelda Marcos

Imelda Romualdez Marcos is now eighty years old. She has lost little of her charm; the political rubbishing she has received since her husband Ferdinand fell from power and died has failed to dent her self-confidence. She still thinks of doing things for the poor as though she had never left her job in human settlements. She has learned to look beyond her critics and believes she has found peace. Watch her move inside a shopping mall or wet market, and you’ll see people reaching out to touch her. Watch those who have set themselves above her: no one at all seems to mind them. Not even the New York Times minds talking about her in lieu of her country or its government.

While court cases have piled up against the Marcos estate (of which Imelda is the executor), none of them has moved, purportedly for lack of evidence. In the only celebrated case that ever went to trial in New York City in 1990, the now legendary Rudolph Giuliani did his best to convict the accused, and she literally spat blood in open court, but after a seemingly interminable trial, Imelda won an acquittal that stunned her critics and supporters alike. Her biggest and toughest battle, however, has always been in the media where the cruelest caricature and cliches about her persist. Negative press opinion terrifies state prosecutors, judges and justices from confessing openly that sufficient evidence does not exist against her in any of her cases, and that, however terrible or unacceptable it may appear, the law seems to favor her side.

Nothing illustrates this better than the case of her jewelry which the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) had carted away when Marcos fell in 1986 and those seized by the US government when the Marcoses arrived in Hawaii and subsequently turned over to the PCGG by the US government. Who owns these jewelry is a question of law rather than of political opinion, but the PCGG seems inclined to act on the basis of what the editorials and columnists would say rather than on the basis of what the law actually says.

When Cory Aquino proclaimed a revolutionary government in 1986, she could have confiscated all the Marcos properties and declared them forfeit to the state. This is what successful revolutions usually do. But she never did. Instead, she decreed that all questionable Marcos assets be simply sequestered or frozen until they were declared by a competent court to have been ill-gotten. Thus any question about the ultimate ownership of any sequestered asset must be resolved according to a specific constitutional process.

Under the Constitution, the PCGG had 18 months from February 7, 1987, or until August 7, 1989, to sequester and freeze assets believed to have been ill-gotten, upon a showing of a prima facie case. If the assets had been sequestered or frozen before February 7, 1987, judicial action to declare them ill-gotten and forfeit to the state should have taken place within six months from that date. If the assets had been sequestered or frozen after that date, such action should have been commenced within six months from the sequestration or freezing of the same. If no such action had been commenced during the said period, the sequestration or freeze order was deemed automatically lifted.

No court has pronounced the Imelda jewelry ill-gotten. Neither has any forfeiture proceeding been initiated anywhere during the prescribed period. Thus Imelda’s ownership of the jewels stands uncontested, no matter how we may feel about it. No less than the irrepressible Secretary Raul Gonzales has said as much, before he was shifted from the Department of Justice to the Malacanang legal office. If the PCGG could show no legal basis for holding on to the jewels, it should return them to their rightful owner, he said. Why then does the PCGG tenaciously cling on to them despite such authoritative prodding, and the owner’s own repeated demands for their immediate return? One can only speculate.

The PCGG is apparently scared to do what is legally right but which the old enemies of Marcos may not be prepared to accept. After all, it took many of them a long time to accept the fact that the communists, as Marcos had said from the very start, rather than Marcos himself, as the victims had claimed, had thrown the grenade at Plaza Miranda that nearly wiped out the entire opposition in 1971. They were not prepared to see that Marcos was innocent of the heinous crime which they had led themselves and the rest of the nation to believe had been his handiwork. Something similar could be happening here, again.

Having made the world believe that everything the Marcoses had was ill-gotten, the PCGG does not have what it takes to admit it has no right to the jewels. They have apparently calculated that regardless of what the law says, the people are not likely to march for Imelda if her rights were violated, whereas the PCGG commissioners could be in real trouble if they fail to consider the sentiments of the old enemies of Marcos. So it would be safer to be constitutionally wrong but politically correct. But no society endures which sacrifices the law to personal vendetta or political correctness.