In late May 2015, Judy Araneta-Roxas hosted a grand party at the sprawling old family home in Bacolod City, Negros. Her impressive 250-strong guest list included congressmen, local mayors, the owners of sugar operations in Bacolod and Bago, and their board members. The party celebrated what her son, Manuel “Mar” Roxas, then Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), had just done for the sugar industry. Mar had succeeded in ensuring that the industry remained exempt from a 12% tax that was to be levied on raw sugar.
But there was also something else on her mind. She used the occasion to make it publicly known that, even though it was still some months away before the official announcement, her son would be running for president. The significance of this declaration was not lost on Negros’ sugar barons. A few days later, a grand dinner was held in Judy’s honor at the home of Enrique Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters, which only the island’s very wealthiest attended. That evening, Judy made her thoughts explicit: “Please do not forget my son. Can you imagine if a Negrense is in Malacañang, what can come to us in Negros?”
Judy Araneta-Roxas is a formidable matriarch with keen political instincts. She was a vocal supporter of the political campaigns of her late husband, Senator and Liberal Party leader Gerry Roxas, who harbored his own presidential ambitions before his premature death from cancer in 1982, and her other son Gerardo “Dinggoy”, a congressman for Capiz who died in 1993, aged 32, also from cancer. About Mar she has been remarkably low-key, keeping quiet over his alleged incompetent handling of the disasters that befell the country in 2013 (the earthquake in the Visayas and Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), his cavalier response to the bloody Zamboanga siege of the same year, when fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in their bid to take control of Zamboanga City, clashed with government forces; and his astounding ignorance of Oplan Exodus, the military operation against Muslim insurgents that resulted in the Mamasapano massacre of 44 special action force (SAF) troopers in January 2015.
But, as in the past, Judy knows when to trumpet her family’s achievements. Retention of a sugar tax exemption is a big deal. If it had been implemented, it would have amounted to a P200 tax on every 50kg of sugar produced. No wonder the sugar planter federations were grateful. No wonder she threw a big party.
We may well ask what the price of Mar’s intervention is. How much revenue was lost? How was the shortfall made good? What budgets or programs are to be cut as a consequence? Economists can probably come up with the revealing figures. As for Judy’s dinner speech question, she essentially asked Negros elites to think about what would happen if one of their own became president. Historians can offer a pretty good answer.
Mar Roxas comes from a long and illustrious line of politicians, business entrepreneurs and industrialists. However it is his grandfather, Manuel A. Roxas (1892-1948), to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance, who is the most famous. Roxas patriarch was the first president of a newly independent Philippine republic. He was an elite, pro-American politician. During the war, he collaborated with the Japanese as well as aided American forces. At war’s end, while his fellow upper-class collaborationists were interned on a penal colony awaiting their trials for treason, Manuel received preferential treatment. General MacArthur had singled him out as a key member of the elite who would work with Washington. Waving aside formal procedure, MacArthur gave him his personal pardon, effectively launching his presidential bid. Negros sugar millers generously backed his candidacy. Notable financiers were Enrique Montilla and his long-time ally, the wealthy J. Amado Araneta, the father of Judy Araneta-Roxas.
Roxas clinched victory in April 1946, defeating the incumbent, Sergio Osmeña, whom MacArthur disliked. Upon his election, he granted clemency to elite collaborators who immediately assumed high government positions.
The country at the time lay devastated and traumatized from the war. Manila was in ruins and there was widespread hunger, impoverishment, and disease. Peasant discontent was on the rise. One of the first priorities of the Roxas administration was the rehabilitation of the sugar industry.
Leaning heavily on the counsel of J. Amado Araneta, Roxas promised state financing to and consolidation of the Negros milling companies, including the merging of small Spanish owned mills. An estimated P6.5million in reconstruction and development funds was needed to restore Negros’ Binalbagan and Isabela sugar centrals to pre-war capacity and expand operations. By the following year, the President made good on his promises and rewarded his campaign backers. The Negros mills received the funds and swiftly became operational, paving the way for Negros elites to reap the profits of the sugar boom in the 1960s. Enrique Montilla was personally granted a 46% share of the merged companies. Spanish firms were awarded 18% stock. This apportioning made the government a minority shareholder of the soon-to-be lucrative sugar centrals. Montilla, who went on to receive further reconstruction assistance from the government to the tune of P5million, was also made the Liberal Party leader in southern Negros.
Manuel Roxas died suddenly in 1948, cutting short a presidency that lasted only for two years. In that time, his economic programs and political alliances clearly favored the sugar industry. Seven decades later, his grandson secured a tax exemption for the sugar industry and nurses a plan to merge the provinces of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental. His mother has rallied the sugar bloc to support her son’s presidential bid. Addressing the roomful of Negros big shots, she urged: “Mar has the same vision for Negros as you do, and in a higher post, he will be able to help Negros more.”
Oligarchy, rule by the few, is characterized by self-regarding and self-perpetuating elites who, through generations, seem to pursue, almost pathologically, personal aggrandizement. Although the signs suggest otherwise, Mar Roxas can still prove history wrong.