Presidents of our life: Some reminiscences

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First installment
Preface
We are not writing history, only brief recollections of significant events during the interim period of Philippine presidents, but only from the Third Republic to the Fifth (from Pres. Manuel A. Roxas to Pres. Rodrigo R. Duterte). The First Republic (revolutionary government of the Tejeros Assembly under Spanish rule) of President Emilio Aguinaldo and vice president Mariano C. Trias, the Commonwealth period (American occupation) of Pres. Manuel L. Quezon and Vice President Sergio S. Osmena, Sr., and the Second Republic (Japanese occupation) of President Jose P. Laurel, Sr. and Vice President Benigno Aquino, Sr. and Ramon Avanceña are beyond our political consciousness and comprehension. We feel it of value, however, to preserve in our memory some interesting and memorable vignettes on the life of our Presidents on their way to power, which can enliven an otherwise tedious political narrative in the future.

Manuel Roxas
The sudden death of Pres. Manuel Roxas (pronounced Rok-sas back then, by many in the provinces) of the Liberal Wing (sic) of the Nacionalista Party made VP Elpidio Quirino President for the remainde of their term. Pres. Roxas was “the last President of the Commonwealth and the first President of the Republic.” (The Roxas-Quirino team won against the Sergio Osmena, Sr.-Eulogio Rodriguez team of the Nacionalista Party in the 1946 elections.)

Elpidio Quirino
Quirino ran for reelection in 1949, with Fernando H. Lopez as his running mate, and won in the first presidential election when “the birds and the bees in Mindanao voted,” as alleged by the losing Nacionalista Party candidates Jose P. Laurel (Japanese occupation President) and Jose Avelino of the Liberal Wing of the Nacionalista Party. The Quirino-Lopez government was accused of massive graft and corruption, such as Pres. Quirino’s possession of an expensive bed and bedpan (arinola), worth the “gargantuan” sum of P500, and of other “incredible anomalies.” That was the time the words “graft and corruption” first entered the political vocabulary of the Philippines, which sorely became a persistent idiom in Philippine politics from then on.

Ramon Magsaysay
The art of political cunning was already in bloom at that time, and for sweet revenge the Nacionalista Party courted the popular no-nonsense and courageous Secretary of National Defense named Ramon Magsaysay to leave the Quirino cabinet. (Magsaysay was a World War II guerilla and a “mere mechanic” who was elected congressman of Zambales, and from his seat in the House of Representatives, was drafted by Pres. Quirino to be the Secretary of National Defense.) The NP offer: “Break away from the unpopular Quirino government and be proclaimed the NP candidate for president.” Magsaysay was won over — and won overwhelmingly in the following presidential election with Carlos Garcia of Bohol as vice president. His victory was acclaimed as a “glorious dawn of a clean and honest government” — the stock-phrase of a people longing for an honest and brave leader. Pres. Ramon Magsaysay, then fondly called “My Guy,” became the idol of the common man. His unforgettable credo was “Those who have less in life should have more in law.”

Pres. Ramon Magsaysay unfortunately died in a plane crash on Mt. Manung Cebu in March 1957; his untimely death made VP Carlos Garcia President for the remaining years of their term.

Carlos P. Garcia
Garcia ran for President and won, but his running mate, Rep. Jose Laurel Jr. of Batangas, lost to Rep. Dio Macapagal of Pampanga, running mate of defeated LP bet Jose Yulo; the other candidates who lost were Manuel Manahan, Claro M. Recto, Antonio Quirino (brother of Pres. Quirino) and Valentin de los Santos. Those were the golden years in Philippine politics when only two esteemed traditional political parties existed; years after that (till now) saw the birth of a thousand-and-one “parties” – pretenders – mainly for profit and/or political expedience. NP Pres. Garcia (whose “Filipino First Policy” only recently was copied by Donald Trump of the US with his “America First” declaration) rebuffed LP VP Macapagal without any presidential appointment, consigning him as “a do-nothing vice president.”

Diosdado Macapagal
The “jobless spare tire,” however, did not take it sitting down; he self-employed himself by campaigning for President every day during his four-year term as vice president; by land, sea and air he covered 6,999 of the 7,000 islands in the archipelago. Presidential elections came and understandably the Macapagal-Pelaez tandem (Sen. Emmanuel Pelaez of Mindanao) won hand in against the re-electionist Pres. Carlos Garcia and Sen. Gil Puyat, his running mate. (Pres. DU30 please take note: Where is VP Leni Robredo campaigning today?)

With the Liberal Party in harness, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos, LP president, was elected senate president, happier yet with the thought that Pres. Macapagal as he himself promised, shall be a one-term president; “Iginuhit ng tadhana (written in the stars) susunod nang presidente si Marcos (Marcos is the next president).”

Pres. “Kong Dadong” Macapagal, “the poor boy from Lubao” earned respect and admiration for his “simple living” policy and for his honesty and compassion for the poor; he built the first high-rise “condominium for the poor,” which he called “tenement housing,” lowered the price of rice to P1.00 a ganta (pricing per kilo was not yet practiced then), built the Pan Philippine Highway from Aparri to Sorsogon in the Bicol region and other “accomplishments.”


It is a known fact that the Philippine economy during his watch was at par with, if not better than those of Japan, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries. His most historic achievements were: (1) bringing to the attention of the world the Philippine claim for North Borneo (Sabah), which historically belonged to the Philippines (Sabah is rich in natural resources and found to have unlimited high-grade fossil fuel and natural gas); it lies within the Sulu—North Borneo sultanate but through subtle undiplomatic cunning was claimed by Malaysia as its own, making it one of the richest countries in the world today; (2) the change in the date of Philippine Independence from July 4 to June 12, “the date this country declared its independence from Spain.” Pres. Kong Dadong was hailed as: “incorruptible, a true nationalist and the most honest President.”

With politics being the art of nasty maneuvers and deception, Macapagal announced near the end of his term that he was going to run for re-election. Prized position collided with burning ambition and alter much recrimination and acrimony, Marcos resigned from the LP and went to Amang Rodriquez, the “grand old man of the opposition Nacionalista Party,” and told him the whole story; then he said, “As the biggest catch of the NP you can now proclaim me your candidate for President,” to which Amang riposted, “No, you enter your name in the convention first and if you win, you are our candidate.” Political titans slugged it out in that now historic convention: Senate Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, Sen. Gil Puyat, VP Emmanuel Pelaez (who also bolted the LP earlier), and former VP Fernando Lopez of the “filthy rich Lopez family.” As expected money flowed and afier the usual “pomp and circumstance,” the event ended with Marcos — the compleat politician familiar with the “mobster method” — winning and garnering 777 delegate votes. (The number 7 incidentally is the favorite number of most strongmen in history).

Ferdinand E. Marcos
National elections came and, as “written in the stars,” Marcos the “World War II hero,” with Fernando Lopez as his VP, won against “the poor (hero) boy of Lubao” with running mate Gerardo Roxas. (Who was it who said, “Vengeance is mine!?”) From an unimpeachable source it is said that Macapagal was double-crossed by one of his Cabinet members, who, by stealthy means, helped Marcos win in Mindanao. When one of Macapagal’s closest friends tried to convince him that they could still salvage the situation and reverse the result by under-handed political maneuver, Macapagal was said to have yelled at his friend: “I’d rather lose with honor than win with shame!”

Like it or not, Marcos has brought this country into the political consciousness of the world with his “democratic authoritarianism,” timely in its controversial concept when the communist rebellion was at its height in this part of the world. During his second term Marcos declared martial law, and the war against the communists—and the oligarchs—started; Congress was abolished, together with the Judiciary and all constitutionally mandated government agencies. The Marcos “democratic authoritarianism”—dictatorship if you please—has begun. Not very long after, “cronyism” was born, and condoned.

An important part of the checkered years in this country’s history was when Marcos’ “our country shall be great again” article of faith (also used by copycat Trump of the US with his “America shall be great again”) was launched with grandiose plans for progress under the aegis of martial law; one-man rule without checks and balances arguably makes things happen quickly—the absolute ruler can run the oval faster without competitors and impediments and thereby, reach the finish line swiftly without any hitch. With no Congress to withhold funds, no auditors and pesky political peeping toms to contend with, “projects for country and people” suddenly dotted the skyline of the once vacant landscape of the “Marcos country.”

The Marcos revolutionary mandates and infrastructures were understandably reviled by a people nurtured by democratic processes but eventually proven vital and useful: more roads and bridges (with many contracts vitiated with corruption), sectoral representation—the forerunner of today’s party list—focus on Philippine arts and culture, with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theater, Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) and the University of Life (ULTRA), the launching of Green Revolution, the resurrection of Barangay authority, the construction of hospitals with modern medical equipment and services, such as the Heart Center, Lung Center, Kidney Center, Children’s Hospital, the consolidation of all towns and cities around Manila christened as Metropolitan Manila, the construction of the Light Rail Transit (LRT), the establishment of a Philippine car program, which initially manufactured Sakbayan, Harabas, Cimarron, Tamaraw, Fiera, etc., setting-up copper and steel production plants, coconut oleochemical development, shipbuilding project, export of rice for the first time, the extension of the Pan Philippine Highway—renamed Maharlika Highway—to Mindanao, the construction of San Juanico Bridge, the longest bridge in the country linking Visayas and Mindanao, etc.

The most vital accomplishment of the Marcos government, recognized by the US was the imprisonment of top communist rebels and the exile (or escape) of top Muslim secessionists to the Middle East. Progressive or otherwise, people detest the fact that dictators, due perhaps to human frailty, succumb to the avid thought of holding on to absolute power as long as possible. They say, “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Martial Law, declared with good intentions ostensibly, was used as the easy passage toward the glowing pit of “wild abandon,” arrogance, extravagance, degradation and abuse. (Who was it who said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?)

When voices of dissent started to be heard, Marcos, “the master of legalese” saw to it that opposition is suppressed, but silently; they thought it smart to allow top oppositionist Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr. who was in incarceration with a heart condition, to go to the US “for humanitarian and medical reasons.” Repressed in his own country but not in America, Ninoy’s attacks persisted. On his return he was assassinated. That was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” To depreciate the massive public condemnation of Ninoy’s murder and to prove his staying power, Marcos called for a “snap election,” which he naturally “won,” to the consternation of the people.

“People power” never “before seen anywhere in the world, started to unfold at Epifanio de los Santos Ave. (EDSA), which suddenly exploded into a stupendous people’s revolution with the break-away of two of Marcos’ trusted allies, Defense Sec. Juan Ponce Enrile and Gen. Fidel V. Ramos (a Marcos cousin), who joined “the outcry of a disgruntled people.” There are a million-in-one stories about that historic event and its leading actors which are better left for more serious political pundits to reveal; for now we can only picture the episode on the ground as the scene unfolded.

With the aid of the US government, which had “praised Marcos as a friendly ally,” the Marcoses were “rescued and flown to Hawaii, USA,” not to Paoay, Ilocos Norte.

Eddie Ilarde is a former senator, freelance writer and independent radio-TV host and producer. This three-time Lifetime Achievement Awardee for radio-TV is heard over DZBB 594 kHz AM radio every Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. You may send him letters through PO Box 107 Makati City 1222.

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