Forget Pacquiao vs. Mayweather. For millions of Filipinos, the real match-ups that can uplift or dash their lives and living standards are the ones pitting the government against two destructive, deadly scourges: the Yolanda disaster and smuggling.
So rather than boxing promoter Bob Arum, import-squeezed workers and farmers, communities hit by contraband drugs and guns, and super-typhoon victims should be watching President Benigno Aquino 3rd and who he taps to rebuild calamity-hit Visayas and reform the Bureau of Customs.
One match-up is done: former senator and Philippine National Police chief Panfilo Lacson was named head of the Yolanda recovery task force, prompting many questions and comments about his qualifications and Aquino’s alleged political favor for him.
At BoC, meanwhile, Finance Undersecretary John Sevilla is now temporary officer-in-charge, but probably not the next commissioner. Many Customs watchers and insiders believe the next chief of the hugely corrupt agency inspecting and taxing imports could be one of two recently appointed deputy commissioners.
Tipped to succeed commissioner Ruffy Biazon, who quit after being charged over pork barrel anomalies when he was Parañaque congressman in 2007-10, are former armed forces chief Jessie Dellosa, who handles the BoC enforcement department; and trade expert and customs broker Agaton Teodoro Uvero, who handles the bureau’s assessment and operations coordinating group.
A political windfall for Lacson
Critics of the Lacson appointment cite his lack of credentials for the post-disaster rebuilding and rehabilitation, having minimal expertise in city planning, design and construction; economic development; or community and local government mobilization. His first directive to ensure accountability of recovery funds may reassure both aid donors and a graft-wary public, but fails to say anything about the upliftment plan or strategy, even though such a scheme was already presented to President Aquino.
Still, those who believe Lacson has been set up for a very public failure should think again. Starting from utter devastation, the situation in Yolanda-hit areas can only get better, with countless before-and-after photo-ops of flattened houses and buildings transformed into new homes and facilities. With a P14-billion supplemental budget coming, plus even bigger funds from donors here and abroad, the rehabilitation impact cannot but be spectacular, especially with nongovernment entities joining hands with state agencies. And many calamity experts will be keen to help the recovery task force, including those who may have misgivings about its head.
Lacson’s formidable public relations machinery, which totally deodorized him after months as a fugitive murder suspect, can ensure he gets credit for most rehab projects, even those he had nothing to do with. It will also shield him from fiascos and poor performance, which can be blamed on national agencies or local governments, both poor in PR. And expect an expose or two of recovery sleaze to burnish Lacson’s anti-graft image.
President Aquino, for his part, can be counted on to defend his appointee, as he always does, even one that may worry his Liberal Party. So those who think Lacson signed up for a losing proposition, which could spell his political demise in the next two and a half years, may be in for a surprise in 2016. The Yolanda rehabilitation may well project Lacson as a capable leader who gets things done and fights graft to boot—exactly what Filipinos want at the top of the country.
The right man for Customs
Longtime readers of this column probably know this writer’s choice for the next Customs commissioner. Back in 2010, when President Aquino was interviewing two men for the job, this column wrote in its second week of publication:
“Floated by President Benigno Aquino 3rd as his BoC commissioner, Guillermo Parayno Jr. raised hopes for a return to more upright and efficient days at the agency handling the flow of goods through our seaports and airports.
“With good reason: During his six years as Customs chief under President Fidel Ramos, the bureau improved from fifth-most corrupt government body to No. 25 or so in graft surveys, thanks in large part to the computerization of procedures he pioneered. President Gloria Arroyo wanted the PMA-trained former naval intelligence officer to do the same at the tax bureau, a promising endeavor cut short in less than a year by the Hyatt 10’s exit from the Cabinet.
“Even out of government, Parayno was busy improving customs systems as a much-sought after consultant of international development agencies for both Philippine and foreign programs to improve trade processes and technology. He also has a nominal interest in an information technology venture handling BoC computerization work as a subcontractor with Unisys, the main service supplier to the bureau.
“With those formidable qualifications to head the bureau again and enhance its collections and systems, law-abiding business people and anti-corruption groups were understandably dismayed that President Aquino has backed away from his reported inclination for Parayno to run Customs.”
Instead, two wrong men for the job, Lito Alvarez and Biazon, saw smuggling jump six-fold from past years to some $19 billion a year, based on International Monetary Fund data, and thousands of containers slip through sans inspection and taxes, probably including hidden firearms and narcotics. Predictably, farmers and firms cried foul over untaxed imports, and Metro Manila crime shot up 60 percent the year after the contraband surge. President Aquino himself finally admitted in his last State of the Nation Address the dismal BoC performance under his chosen chiefs, lamenting P200 billion in uncollected revenues, plus guns and drugs entering undetected.
Get it right this time, Mr. President
None of that would have happened under Parayno. Instead, the BoC would have rivaled the Bureau of Internal Revenue, ably piloted by his protégé Kim Henares, in boosting collections and fighting sleaze. Aquino should correct his mistake and put Parayno where the proven Customs reformer should have appointed back three years ago.
But if the President and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Parayno’s fellow Hyatt 10 protester, prefer one of the current deputy commissioners, Uvero seems the best choice, with solid customs expertise and broad support from the private sector, including the Port Users Confederation, where he was its longtime lawyer. (Disclosure: PUC’s chair emeritus is this writer’s mother.)
Parayno or Uvero, Mr. President. Please get it right this time, and give the nation one good reason to cheer this Christmas and New Year.