At Large

Standing by his President

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He can’t wait to leave government service. Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras says that as soon as he turns over to President Aquino all remaining “deliverables,” before P-Noy’s term comes to an end in 2016, he hopes he will walk away from his post and return to the private sector.

The only reason he joined the government in the first place, he tells members of the press at the “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel,” is that “my President asked me to and I believe in the President.” Of the so-called “3 Ks” to whom P-Noy turns to for advice, company and appointments, Almendras belongs to the “kaklase” (classmate), being part of what is fast becoming the legendary (or notorious) “Class of ’81” at the Ateneo.

Not that government service is all that unrewarding. Almendras remembers talking with a former Cabinet official and agreeing with him that one rewarding thing about serving in government is “going home at night and knowing that you did something good for the country.”

Almendras left the Department of Energy—where, he says, he made himself “a lot of enemies”—to accede to P-Noy’s wish to have a Cabinet secretary, or rather, to be technical about it, revive the Cabinet Assistance System (CAS). A creation of the Cory Aquino administration, the CAS was meant to speed up and better coordinate interdepartment or cluster concerns agreed upon during Cabinet meetings. The problem, he says, is that department secretaries are already extremely busy with their own concerns and yet so many problems need to be addressed by departments working in coordination with one another. “When an issue is not given top priority, it tends to fall between the chairs,” when, presumably, not one Cabinet member takes primary responsibility for it. This is when the Cabinet secretary steps in, making sure common concerns are addressed and there is proper coordination among the different secretaries.

* * *

What about his relationship with Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa? “I am working well with him, our roles are very clear,” Almendras replies, making clear that there is no bad blood between the two of them, and that Ochoa remains “the little President.”

One trait about P-Noy that he appreciates, says Almendras, is that the President does not “shoot from the hip.” “He always studies issues before opening his mouth. For example, the gun ban issue. It would have been so easy for him to support the ban (and perhaps earn more brownie points), but instead he asked for data about the most effective way to reduce the number of guns and bring down criminality. And apparently he found that a gun ban was not the most effective way of addressing the problem.”

Also, he adds, P-Noy has kept the same set of friends he had even before he entered Malacañang, or even before “Tita” Cory took office. “He is loyal and true,” says Almendras, and apparently keeps his word. “He has kept every promise he made to a woman,” says the secretary, “all his exes still love him.”

Almendras also tells of a foreign leader who came from a meeting with P-Noy and remarked, after the meeting, that “I haven’t met anyone as sincere as your President.”

* * *

To illustrate the strength of P-Noy’s loyalty to his friends, Almendras says that on the issue of suspending Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia, he was “far out of the loop” of decision-making, since his sister, Vice Gov. Agnes Almendras Magpale, was expected to take over as acting governor.

This hasn’t stopped critics from insinuating, though, that Almendras used his closeness to the President to promote his sister’s interests. “(The late) Jesse Robredo had already decided on the case,” Almendras points out, and besides which his sister has long been in Cebu politics, racking up a record as the topnotcher provincial board member for many elections, and properly taking over as vice governor upon the death of  Gregorio Sanchez Jr.

Also, says Almendras, “my sister is the eldest child and I am the youngest,” his way perhaps of pointing out that Magpale didn’t need his help to rise in Cebu politics.

Though his late uncle Alejandro, who migrated to Davao from their native Cebu, was a long-term senator, Almendras says his family (perhaps with the exceptions of his sister and uncle) was never one to get involved in politics. But his father, he points out, “highly valued integrity and being upright, he taught us the value of hard work.” In fact, he says, his sister has said that once a TRO is issued by a court ordering her to step down as OIC governor, “she will not stay one second longer.”

* * *

Which is why, he says, “I hope 2016 will not be the deadline” for ending his stint in government, which he hopes will come earlier.

“And it isn’t just the money,” he hastens to add, referring to the great dip in income that he and his family had to endure when he left the private sector.

Before joining the P-Noy Cabinet, Almendras had been president of Manila Water, “setting the stage for the expansion and growth of the company,” as his brief CV says. Before that, he had been CEO of Cebu Holdings, among other posts, as part of the Ayala Group. Before then, at the relatively young age of 37, he was the president of City Savings Bank, the biggest thrift bank in Cebu.

So our present Cabinet secretary is no stranger to hard work, heavy responsibilities or even politics—public or corporate. But what counts heaviest in his favor in his present post is his friendship with his principal, the President. It is a friendship that not only dates back to their student days, but has also withstood

P-Noy’s and his family’s political persecution, social ostracizing, and even physical threats. It is a journey, it seems, that not only the Cojuangco-Aquinos withstood, but also anyone who chose to befriend them and stand by them.

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