Now that the 2013 elections are safely in the bag for the Aquino Administration and its expanded base of legislative catamites have been officially installed in office, it appears that the government now feels secure in discarding its last few remaining shreds of “anti-corruption” pretense. We could hope that two news items that popped up this week are not a sign of things to come for the second semester of the Aquino Era v2.0, but the official responses to them so far— offhand dismissal in the first case, and utter silence in the other —suggests that hope is probably as vain as it ever has been.
The big story, of course, was the allegation by The Daily Tribune last Saturday that a sister of the President, Maria Elena Aquino-Cruz—who is better-known by the now-possibly unironic nickname “Ballsy”—and her husband Eldon Cruz attempted to extort between $2 million and $20 million from the Czech light rail manufacturer Inekon “as advance ‘facilitation fees’ to insure the award of the new MRT-3 [Metro Rail Transit-3] to Inekon company.” The unnamed (of course) source of the story also fingered Pete Prado, a former official of the Cory Aquino-era Department of Transportation and Communications, and Steve Psinakis, a son-in-law of the late Eugenio Lopez Sr., as part of the Aquino-Cruz group rebuffed by the Czech firm.
The Aquino-Cruz story immediately brought comparisons to the 2007 ZTE-NBN scandal that hounded—and for which the current President Benigno Aquino 3rd continues to hound—former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband Mike Arroyo. While the current scandal is based on allegations that are no more substantial than those brought against the Arroyos six years ago, the difference in reactions between the two presidents is telling: In the ZTE-NBN mess, Arroyo swiftly canceled the entire deal, explaining that even though there was not in fact any misbehavior involved, the appearance or suggestion of impropriety could not be overlooked. Naturally, Arroyo’s critics—the current President foremost among them, but only later when it became clear the big chair in Malacañang was within his reach—did not accept that explanation, which is why they have spent years moving Heaven and Earth in an unsuccessful effort to pin criminal charges on her for it. In the current scandal, however—and it should be stressed, for the sake of fairness, that it is one based on as-yet unsubstantiated allegations (just like the ZTE-NBN issue)—the last and only word coming from the Palace was delivered by Official Talking Person Abigail Valte, who said that the story “would not grab a single minute from the attention of the President,” and that it “obviously is a conjecture or fictionalized.”
Nor have any of the so-called “civil society” watchdogs against corruption indicated that they consider a possible case of high-level extortion involving the President’s relatives any sort of a problem; the only response of groups like the Black-and-White Movement and “anticorruption” activists like Running Priest Robert Reyes, Harvey Keh, Jun Lozada and Sen. Alan Cayetano has been deafening silence.
Silence has also been the response to the desperately reckless and increasingly embarrassing behavior of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) and its Chief Executive Officer Arnel Paciano Casanova over the agency’s squabble with the city of Taguig concerning the property where the SM Aura Premiere is located. Having apparently failed to bluff the city and SM into removing a competitive offense from what is considered territory of the Aquino-backing Ayala clan, Casanova has played what seems to be his own version of the extortion card, suggesting that Taguig, with the help of “advance” (there’s that word again) payments from SM, could “buy” the contested land for P5 billion. SM, of course, has correctly pointed out that the issue is a problem between the city of Taguig and the BCDA, and declined to comment further; the city government for their part has also yet to formally respond, but has repeatedly pointed out that they hold clear title to the property, its having been turned over not as some sort of conditional gift from the BCDA, but rather as settlement for an earlier land dispute between the two parties.
Casanova’s entire argument is that the provisions of the land transfer specified that the land should be used as a civic center and other noncommercial purposes, and that its reconfiguration as a mixed-use commercial-civic complex somehow robs Armed Forces veterans of the “value” they should share from the property. How that P5-billion value would have been better collected from noncommercial property (property which, it should be stressed again, no longer legally falls under BCDA purview in any way) is a question to which Casanova almost certainly doesn’t have an answer, at least not one that makes any sense at all.
The problem these kinds of scandals cause is one of image; one of President Aquino’s major theses is that the Philippines is performing better and is a more attractive place to invest because his administration is fighting corruption and bureaucratic misdoings. It is a theme he has shown an almost gleeful willingness to demonstrate by personally and very publicly berating agency staffs—and in some cases, groups of private citizens and businessmen. Yet by doing so, while remaining conventionally selective about which real or rumored corruption problems he considers important, all he has done has reinforce the image the Philippines has had for a long time, one where corruption remains a constant and will remain so as long as the leaders—whoever they are—continue to define it as something only done by “the other guys.” And now that he no longer has to worry about getting his party’s members or associates-of-convenience elected to office (and in a possible sign that the 2016 election is already being written off as the Binay or Marcos victory it is likely to be), the impression that is being given is that the gap between the rhetoric and reality is even less important than it was before. If there’s any consolation to be taken from this sad state of affairs, it’s that it at least has a time limit. Come 2016, things will at least be different. Maybe not any better, but at least different.