As Theresa May became the second “bloody difficult” woman Prime Minister of Britain (after Margaret Thatcher, who served from 1979 to 1990), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continued to surprise his countrymen with some of his appointments to the Cabinet and the sub-Cabinet.
May, who succeeded David Cameron in the aftermath of Brexit, the British decision to leave the European Union, which he had unsuccessfully campaigned against, has since begun the most extensive Cabinet reshuffle by any British Prime Minister in history. But there has been nothing as jaw-dropping as some of DU30’s appointments.
Nominees from the Left
DU30’s appointment of some members of the Left was the first to provoke controversy. It’s a question of process more than ideology. If there’s going to be a coalition with the CPP/NPA/NDF, so goes the query, shouldn’t there first be a peace agreement under which the rebels would agree to disarm, demobilize and be reintegrated into the body politic?
Since the people do not have a uniform view of the CPP/NPA/NDF, shouldn’t they be consulted on this society-changing decision, which was never raised as part of anybody’s platform during the last campaign? But even the objectors agree that the nominees from the Left are among the most focused among DU30’s appointees.
These include Cabinet Secretary Leoncio “Jun” Evasco Jr., who is tasked to oversee 12 critical agencies; Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano, three-term party-list congressman for the party list Anak Pawis from 2004 to 2013, and chairman of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, who promises land to the landless; and Social Welfare and Development Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, university professor and human rights crusader, who seeks to minister to the excluded and the needy.
Ka Paeng in action
Mariano is already trying to make his presence felt at Hacienda Luisita, the huge Cojuangco family estate which President Cory Cojuangco Aquino had exempted from land reform, but which the Supreme Court finally awarded to its tenant farmers in a decision that prompted Cory’s son, President B. S. Aquino 3rd, to have Chief Justice Renato Corona impeached and removed by a bribed Senate impeachment court.
However, Mariano’s agenda is not likely to be tested fully at Luisita. Its biggest protector has just stepped down from the presidency and is now facing a number of charges that could send him to jail, in place of his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom he had put there, but who could be released shortly. Mariano’s program is likely to be tested in Mindanao where large agricultural plantations are owned by people fiercely loyal to DU30. For obvious reasons, he may have to tread more gingerly.
Taguiwalo and CCT
For her part, Taguiwalo will be in charge, among other things, of the multi-billion conditional cash transfer program, which provides cash grants to extremely poor families for their health and nutrition and the education of their children. This measure is practised in many countries, including the United States, but Taguiwalo would be making her mark if she could show that the program really helps reduce extreme poverty rather than simply promote dependency.
Some fear that by putting billions in Taguiwalo’s hands, the government would be helping the Left strengthen its base. But the very fact that the World Bank and the IMF are known to openly endorse this program seems to assure others that there are enough controls to prevent it from being hijacked by any ideological group. We shall see later which view is correct.
Evasco most powerful
There is no question that Evasco, ex-priest, ex-rebel, and ex-mayor of Maribojoc, Bohol, is DU30’s closest, most trusted, and most politically astute Cabinet member. He is said to be the real brains and organizer of DU30’s presidential campaign. At the outset, he had reportedly expressed no interest in any Cabinet position, but he was much too valuable a resource to be left out. The first suggestion was that he be made Executive Secretary, but DU30 thought he needed a lawyer for the job, because of the enormous traffic of legal issues that crosses the President’s desk all the time. So he chose Salvador Mediaaldea, a childhood friend and classmate at San Beda Law College, instead.
Evasco settled for Cabinet secretary. This looked like an innocuous position, until Executive Order No. 1 saddled him with 12 agencies to supervise. These include the Cooperative Development Authority, Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Center, National Poverty Commission, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, National Food Authority, National Youth Commission, Presidential Action Center, Philippine Commission on Women, Philippine Coconut Authority, Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor, and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.
Thus, Vice President Leni Robredo who has been named Chairperson of HUDCC, a position B. S. Aquino 3rd had given his Vice President, Jejomar C. Binay, falls under Evasco’s “supervision.” This inserts an extra layer of authority between the Vice President as Cabinet member and the President, despite the fact that the former is the first in the line of presidential succession under the Constitution.
Enter Gina Lopez
But by far the most controversial appointment is that of the environmental activist Regina Paz “Gina” Lao Lopez, chairperson of the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Numerous editorials and columns have been written about this, but it seems the last word has not been said about it. How she got there remains the subject of high and low speculation.
In the beginning the DENR was mentioned among the Departments that would be given to the Left. This did not happen, and we don’t know why. Sources close to the President said that DU30 wanted “a retired general who couldn’t be bribed” for the job. When he couldn’t find any, he thought of personally handling it, even for just a short while. But then Gina Lopez appeared. I am not sure how the conversation went, but it reportedly ended with DU30 saying, “okay, kung gusto mo ikaw na (all right, if you want it, you take it.)” And she did.
Her first “edict”—-for that’s how it sounded—-was to end all mining activities, so as not to damage the environment. Calls for “responsible mining” were drowned by the statement that “no mining is responsible because all mining destroys the environment.” Indeed, even an innocent walk in the park alters the environment. DU30 was reportedly forced to tell the “bloody difficult woman,” “Gina, we are a government of laws. If they violate the law, shut them down, but not when they have done nothing illegal.”
A Cabinet crisis
This constituted DU30’s first Cabinet crisis. Not a single media organization has reported it as such, but why do I say, “crisis”? Because Gina Lopez seemed to believe (mistakenly) that having been named DENR Secretary, she had the right and the duty to define policy on mining and the environment for the Cabinet rather than simply lead in the formulation of Cabinet policy on mining and the environment and lead in implementing the Cabinet policy.
A Cabinet crisis exists when the members are deadlocked on an issue and no one will move to break the impasse. But a more unfortunate crisis could ensue if and when a major Cabinet member mistakes himself or herself for the entire Cabinet, and intimidates the rest of the Cabinet from opposing his or her views. In Gina Lopez’s case, no one seems to have the courage to cross swords with someone backed by the most powerful ABS-CBN TV network.
Mining law and the Cabinet
In passing the new Mining Act in 1995, the Congress and the Executive Department decided to revive a vital industry on the throes of death. It became my duty as chairman of the Senate committee on the environment and natural resources then to sponsor the measure and shepherd its passage in the Senate. I had no personal, political or financial interests in it; my only objective was to save thousands of families from possible starvation due to their possible loss of livelihood if all the mines closed. That was accomplished, and President Fidel V. Ramos gained all the credit for it.
We did not pass a perfect law. But it continues to be called one of the best mining laws, if not indeed the best mining law, in the world. All our minerals-endowed Asean neighbors, I am told, have copied or are copying it. Still there are no laws that cannot be misused or corrupted, and this law proves it. It has not prevented large-scale bureaucratic corruption, wanton destruction of the environment and the lives and culture of indigenous minorities. All the evils associated with irresponsibility and greed must now be expunged.
But whether or not mining—-and I mean responsible and sustainable mining—-will continue will have to be the decision of the entire Cabinet, not the solitary diktat of one Cabinet member. I will not argue in favor of, or against what Gina Lopez wants; she could still end being proved right, who knows, but the Cabinet must decide only after they have fully dissected and discussed the issue, and not the other way around. The conclusion must follow the discussion and not precede it. Only then could the government expect popular support for the position it takes.
RJ and Freddie Aguilar
Now, where Gina Lopez’s appointment tends to terrify, some of the latest appointments tend to leave us speechless. The rock, jazz and pop musician Ramon “RJ” Jacinto is reported to have been named presidential adviser on economic affairs and information technology, and folk singer Freddie Pascual Aguilar as chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (although this one is denied). These are talented performers, and I am a personal admirer of both, but nothing has prepared me for this.
At 71, RJ has so much more to give than the 80-year-old British pop singer Engelbert Humperdinck who recently thrilled Manila with his 1967 hit “Release me.” It would be unfair to induce him to give up his music so he could start telling us stories about his Midas touch in business. As for Freddie, I felt ten feet tall when I first heard his 1979 hit “Anak” while coming out of a bistro in Cologne where my wife and I had just been sitting next to the much younger Humperdinck. After Freddie performed at the Inaugural, I thought he would get his reward.
But the last time I checked, the President still had nothing to do with naming the NCCA chair, and Prof. Felipe M. de Leon, Jr. was still doing an excellent job of it. De Leon, an old friend, is the worthy son and namesake of the famous Filipino patriot and composer Prof. Felipe Padilla de Leon, who fathered a family of musical geniuses and musicians. One of his sons Bayani was my bosom friend and classmate at UST Faculty of Philosophy and Letters; a poet, fictionist and composer, he wrote poetry and operas while in New York for many years. He died recently after coming home from his self-imposed exile.
It seems a good season for pop singers. The 41-year-old Jimmy Bondoc, who had his last hit (“I believe”) in 2006, has been named PAGCOR’s AVP for Entertainment, while the 32-year-old Aiza Seguerra is rumored to soon become chair of the National Youth Commission. We may marvel about all these, but there was a time when the Roman Emperor thought he could make his horse a consul.