Joker Arroyo unedited: On Marcos debts, in defense of ‘trapos’
(The following is excerpted from an interview, “Joker Arroyo Looks Back,” that was published in the Feb. 24, 1991, issue of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine.)
It was a long chase that extended even to the turn of the year. The man simply refused to talk. He would give his famous shrug—and laugh. Then he softened a little. “Give me time,” he said, sounding neither weary nor impatient. And one day, he sounded more definite: “When I come back from abroad.” But we have to make it to the Edsa anniversary, we pleaded.
When our day finally comes (way past our deadline), he is still fussing over the things he had noted down on paper. There seems to be something he wants to focus on. When finally he breaks open, he makes sure he comes through loud and clear.
When President Corazon Aquino assumed office in 1986, Joker Arroyo, who was her legal counsel during the snap election, became her very first appointee. Nineteen months later he resigned. His critics say he was ousted. Since then, he has shunned interviews, TV appearances and speaking engagements, only coming out occasionally in print with articles on matters of public concern.
But on the fifth anniversary of the Edsa Revolution, Arroyo makes an exception and pours out his righteous indignation.
Where Cory was successful
“President Aquino’s concerns when she assumed office were forthright and uncluttered,” he begins. “She wanted, one, the reestablishment of our destroyed democratic institutions; two, the resolution of the communist insurgency; and three, the revival of our gasping economy. Corollary to these were the mitigation of the increasing poverty, crowbarring the imbedded corruption and the vindication of true nationalist goals.
“The government was successful in areas where the President had a direct hand, that is, in the reestablishment of our democratic institutions. Sad to say, government faltered where planning was delegated.
“The President took a direct hand in regaining the freedoms Mr. Marcos took away from us. This she did with precipitate speed and grit. In a little more than a year a new Constitution was ratified, a duly elected Congress was convened, an independent Supreme Court was in place. In short, the framework of a functioning representative democracy was at work. The Bill of Rights was resuscitated. Along with that was the inevitable return of an unrestricted, impatient ‘born-again’ press that would hound her administration. I must stress that President Aquino deserves historical credit for this great achievement.”
He dwells briefly on the insurgency and the military. “Mr. Marcos’ military campaign with all its human rights violations against the communists was a dismal failure. Then there was the Muslim secessionist movement in the south. Add to that twin problem a third and more vicious one —the disgruntled elements of various shades in the Armed Forces seeking her overthrow. But this, I say, is not of her own making, but a failure of the military to rein in those elements.”
Who’s to blame
Arroyo becomes agitated when it is suggested that on the eve of the sixth and last year of the first Aquino presidency, the people continue to suffer, that they expect some economic relief, and then perhaps the growth of the insurgency which feeds largely on poverty would be stemmed.
He goes back to the early days of the Aquino government. He singles out a bloc, a group of like-minded people, mostly from big business, often derisively referred to as “The Council of Trent,” people who, Arroyo says sarcastically, “enjoys the divine right of businessmen.”
It is on this group of people that Arroyo pins the economic woes of the country. Through much of the interview, he dwells on this group and their bearing on the economy.
“Let not their failure be considered the failure of the system of government,” he said.
Here then is Joker Arroyo unleashed and unedited (excerpts):
On the ‘Council of Trent’
This has not ceased to astonish me. In the formation of the Cory Cabinet, a bloc emerged. This bloc cornered the economic positions in the government.
This group opposed Sonny Belmonte’s appointment but relented if he would only be made general manager of the Government Service Insurance System. They intended to put a president over him. Cory made Sonny both president and general manager. The bloc recommended Winnie Monsod only as OIC of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) and she would be under probation. Imagine! Of course Cory did not agree to this anomalous arrangement and gave Winnie a permanent appointment.
On the nature of this bloc:
This group turned out to be the proconsuls of big business and was entrusted with the economic recovery of our country. They were later referred to as “The Council of Trent.” According to one journalist, this bloc, this clique, “is composed of nearly identical numbers of the Makati Business Club. Another journalist who knows what goes on behind closed doors said it was “allied to the Makati Business Club.”
Whenever some of the positions became vacant, the council recommended and filled them with their men. They have control of the economic, monetary and fiscal policies of the government. How many concurrent posts do the secretaries of finance and trade and industry hold? So many you cannot count them. They create problems, they create solutions and put in their own people. Then you have musical chairs.
On why he thinks the ‘Council’ should be blamed for the country’s economic woes
As the saying goes, the test [proof] of the pudding is in the eating. The success or failure of our economy was placed in their hands.
When [Ferdinand] Marcos became President, our foreign debt was roughly $500 million, the exchange rate was P4 to $1. Translated, our external debt was P2 billion. At the time Marcos started harnessing technocrats to help in government. By the time he fled 20 years later, our foreign debt stood at $26 billion and the exchange rate was P22 to $1. Translated, it would be roughly P572 billion.
You wonder, how did this happen? You don’t see where the P572 billion went. But it’s there for the Aquino government to pay. She has harnessed a new team to tackle it. Except for attacks on Marcos’ corruption and lamentations on our debts, there were no criticisms of Marcos’ policies. On the contrary, as days passed, it became obvious that our fiscal and monetary policies were a continuation of those of Marcos. The Aquino technocrats were no different from, no better than, the Marcos technocrats. They belong to the same school of thought.
Then the President [Aquino] went on official visits to the United States and Japan. She was then at the height of her popularity worldwide. Her name was a byword everywhere. Some members of the Cabinet pleaded that a political solution be made regarding our foreign debt, that it be taken up during her foreign trips, banking on tremendous goodwill. But what did our fiscal and monetary people say? “A debt is a debt, we will honor every cent we owe.” That, of course, is a banker’s approach to loans. And so it was that the President’s visits were simply goodwill visits. We asked for nothing, we did not try for anything.
What a grandiloquent stance for a poor debt-saddled country! Three years later we go on an embarrassing Philippine Aid Plan shopping. And that was even before the December 1989 coup try and before the 1990 calamities, the earthquake, Typhoon “Ruping,” etc. These people had absolutely no understanding of what government is all about!
On what he thinks the right approach should be
A government debt is not solely a fiscal and monetary problem. Everyone has to come in because this has a political dimension because the government’s effectiveness and staying power may depend on how this problem is resolved. It amazes me that the past practice of the Central Bank and finance [department] people of handling it by themselves and not consulting others continues.
Once, Winnie Monsod of Neda asked for a list of our creditors. The Central Bank refused, saying our creditors do not want it shown to anyone. Imagine, the director general of Neda, by constitutional mandate the country’s highest planning agency, barred from taking a peep at the creditors’ list! As if the Central Bank had its own fearsome index like the Catholic Church had centuries ago.
This is not to say we shouldn’t pay our debts. This is just to say that our finance and CB negotiators should try to understand what being in government is. This means consultation…
On big business vis-à-vis government
I have nothing against big businesses. They are necessary for nation-building. But I cannot help but disagree with their dominant role in government and their unhealthy attitudes which perhaps they are not even aware of.
Whenever the President calls for a conference, it is big business that she calls upon for advice. I don’t believe in the truism that what is good for big business is necessarily good for the country.
Asian Development Bank reports show that 83 percent of the labor force in manufacturing are employed by small and medium industries. So why is big business given a voice not commensurate to what they do in terms of employment opportunities? On the other hand, the small and medium businesses which provide the bigger employment are never asked. The small ones have no access to credit, while the big ones get a very big part of the loans. Yet it is the small borrowers who are the more faithful payers rather than the big ones.
On the unsung dollar earners
Take the case of the overseas contract workers. They are our single biggest dollar earners. President Aquino even called them unsung heroes during one of her foreign trips. When I was with the Philippine National Bank (as its chair), we submitted a plan to the Central Bank for the overseas workers to avail of the debt-to-equity program. PNB would sell to OCWs $500 notes which they could then redeem in the Philippines at double the value in pesos. $500, at P22 to $1 then, would be P11,000, but under the debt-to-equity would be P22,000.
The Central Bank denied the PNB’s proposal for a $10-million pilot project saying the OCWs might not use them for productive purposes. Returning OCWs who put up sari-sari stores aren’t productive? The CB only thinks in terms of department stores. Pump boats for fishermen aren’t productive? CB thinks only in terms of fishing vessels. CB doesn’t think in terms of tricycles but of transportation companies. Some OCWs were deprived of this scheme because their enterprises were small. But in the Petroscam, the biggest of the big businesses got all the debt-to-equity and relending facility availments. It agitates me when the disadvantaged are deprived of privileges.
In defense of ‘traditional politicians’
It is unfortunate that the term trapo (cleaning rag) was coined for traditional politicians. Yet it was the trapos who stood up to Marcos. Ninoy was the quintessential trapo. His entire life was geared towards becoming President. It eluded him—but he became a hero.
Tañada, Diokno, Salonga, Mitra, Rodrigo, Estrada-Kalaw—these senators who served for many terms were trapos. They never gave Marcos any quarter and they were all jailed for opposing him. Laurel, Padilla, Gonzales, Maceda, Osmeña, Cojuangco, Cuenco, Daza—trapos all—were reelected legislators and they refused to collaborate with Marcos. They were thrown into political oblivion while those who invented the term trapo were making money under Marcos or were employed by him.
Thought and dissent
“You know, all these things I say are, as a writer once said, meant to provoke thought and invite dissent,” Arroyo said.
“I am committed to let the Cory government succeed, to see that the Constitution will prevail and operate. It is childish to wish that the government and the institutions I have helped create be destroyed,” he said.
Did it pain him that President Cory let him go? “That I was relieved of three positions did not cause me even a pinprick. A man who accepts an appointive position must be prepared to leave the next day,” he said.
During those two years that he was “The Little President,” Arroyo said he resigned three times. He corrected the impression that for him to go, Finance Secretary Jaime Ongpin (who later took his own life) also had to go, or vice versa.
Joker Arroyo will go down in history as the first person to challenge Marcos’ imposition of martial law in 1972. Hours after Proclamation No. 1081, Arroyo raced to the Supreme Court to file a petition for habeas corpus contesting the constitutionality of the decree that would spell dictatorship. Arroyo filed the petition on behalf of many journalists and publishers (among them Teodoro Locsin Sr. of the Free Press and Chino Roces of the Manila Times) who were arrested without warrants and jailed without charges. Arroyo himself was thrown into a military stockade.
During the next 14 years until the Marcoses fled the country, this corporate lawyer turned human rights defender continued to chip away at the dictatorship. He defended, free of charge, hundreds of political prisoners. He was one of the founders of the Free Legal Assistance Group and Mabini, both composed of human rights lawyers. In the 1980s when the dictatorship and its military once again turned their ire on the press, particularly media women, Arroyo fought it out in court. (Arroyo was this writer’s defense counsel.)
Arroyo was at home both in the courts and in the streets. He had his dose of tear gas, truncheons and water cannons, even sustained a few wounds.
“The most rewarding years were those when we were after Marcos. Those water cannons could be painful, ha. They’d train the water on you from head down to the crotch. Then you see all the men in front going down on their knees. After a while I bought myself these hard supporters, the kind worn by baseball players. You have to suffer a bit to have commitment,” he recalled with a smile.
His Malacañang experiences probably wouldn’t compare to the streets, but he did get to collect a load of anecdotes, some of which are off the record. He admitted to having been wicked on the cunning: “Those lost documents? You know, I always had this paper shredder beside me. Suspicious transactions I fed to the shredder.”
He points to two backless Roman chairs with brass lion’s legs in his study. “When I was executive secretary, every day I saw to it that these chairs were so awkwardly arranged in front of my table. Whoever came to see me and sat there wouldn’t stay long.” He gives a wicked laugh. “I bought them when I left Malacañang,” he said.
In 1990, the Senate adopted Resolution 100 commending Arroyo for his “invaluable services to the Filipino people.” Arroyo was thrilled when he learned that the senators had made a deliberate effort to make the resolution fall on the number 100.
But his face turns almost beatific when reminded of the Philippine Bar Association’s “peer judgment” of him. Of how, in quiet ceremonies last year, the Most Distinguished Award for Justice was presented to the “man beholden to no one except to his country.”
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