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book review Politics

Hot Money, Warm Bodies January 29, 2007 Friday

Hot Money, Warm Bodies: The Downfall of Philippine President Estrada
by Greg Hutchinson and Ellen Tordesillas
Rating: starstarstarstarstar

At this point, People Power 2's instrumental role in bringing down Estrada for plunder is a matter of public record. My interest in reading this book however, was to know the 'behind the scenes' that brought about the downfall of ex-president Joseph 'Erap' Estrada. Was there a hidden puppet master pulling all the strings? What back-door deals were brokered? Who were the key players? Was there a conspiracy?

Erap in a Nutshell
Estrada's story is not unlike a typical Filipino movie plot with all the trappings of rags-to-riches sentimentality. As a former actor, Estrada played the role to a T - struggling high school drop-out charms his way into the movies with his good looks and eventually leaves showbiz for a life in politics. With his guts, common touch and street smarts, he muscles his way to being city mayor, then senator, then vice-president and finally, landing the top job in the country with an overwhelming majority.

He has a regular cabinet, but keeps an alternative midnight cabinet filled-in by his drinking buddies bingeing on $500/bottle french wines. These 'buddies' are the quintessential characters of a rogue's gallery - tax evaders, estafadors, ex-cons and economic saboteurs. One noted member remarked that at 4 am, everybody, the president included, were drunk - he was the only remaining sober element. Needless to say, he was sacked not long after making that public remark. Along Estrada's journey into politics, he housed a string of mistresses in lavish mansions, thanks to the non-complaining taxpayers.

He would have gotten away being a corrupt politician (like all the others who came before him), but an altercation with his jueteng (an illegal numbers game, commonly regarded as "poor man's opium") bagman put him as defendant in an impeachment trial. With 11 of the 21 senators voting 'no' on opening an envelope believed to contain more damaging information against Estrada, the public was outraged and launched a spontaneous rally at the EDSA Shrine that became popularly known as People Power 2. With the military defecting wholesale to the Arroyo camp, Estrada's destiny was sealed. Then-vice-president Arroyo was sworn into office and Estrada literally took the backdoor exit out of Malacañang Palace. He was subsequently arrested, finger-printed and a mug-shot taken of him. This humiliation infuriated his supporters, who then rallied en mass, which controversially became EDSA 3. Proponents of People Power dismis EDSA 3 as a misguided gathering of the uneducated and the ignorant. To date, Estrada is under house arrest awaiting trial for his plunder cases.

A Cultural Thing
In Philippine society, it's typical for a popular celebrity (basketball player, actor, model, etc.) to eventually move on to the more lucrative realm of politics. But a drunken high school drop-out with a string of high-living mistresses making president? Welcome to Philippine politics.

The Players
The book revealed unknown but perhaps not surprising facts about the key players - some out in the open, some cloaked and some with daggers in hand.

Chavit Singson - an institution in Ilocos politics and survivor of several attempts on his life (one of which was allegedly from President Estrada), he catalyzed the whole downfall with his exposé that as the president's jueteng bagman, he handed over P400M in jueteng money to the president, in a twice monthly delivery. He was star witness during the impeachment trial. Notwithstanding that he was the second man within the jueteng hierarchy, he was never charged of a crime and continued his tenure as governor for Ilocus Sur.

Ex-President Fidel Ramos - sly deal-maker and aspiring president-for-life, Fidel Ramos launched a campaign to destabilize the presidency of Estrada. With a shadow cabinet composed of influential political power brokers, he strategized on discrediting Estrada's cabinet, one-by-one, in alphabetical order (yes, from A to Z).

Robert Sobrepeña - not necessarily a household name, but he's the Fil-Estate industrialist who gets the president hammered, sexed-out and wasted on the eve of important international meetings. Result? A president who fails to show up to his commitment, and derails major economic initiatives to the embarrassment of his representatives who were left picking up the pieces. Was this part of a conspiracy to embarrass the president?

Armed Forces Chief Angelo Reyes - an inscrutable soldier who orchestrated the wholesale (unlike the piece-meal defection in the 1986 People Power that resulted in several failed coup attempts) defection of the military to the Arroyo camp along constitutional lines.

Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan - the mentor and the protegé. If you believe Enrile's contention that he voted against the opening of the envelope to 'protect the constitution', there's a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like you to buy. They supported Estrada up to the 11th hour, not as a matter of conviction, but in exchange for political appointments to juicy government positions.

Clarissa Ocampo - the senior vice president at the Equitable-PCIBank who defied presidential wrath by revealing in her damaging court testimony, that the owner of the P500 million bank account, Jose Velarde, was none other than the president himself. At the impeachment trial, she was perhaps the illuminating candle of probity and integrity in a room full of liars, cheats and thieves.

People Power - despite what the credit grabbers claim, the real heroes were the outraged people who saw the dismal failure of the justice system and took it upon themselves to text everyone in their phone list to rally at the EDSA Shrine. It was a spontaneous swarming that took everyone off-guard.

Writing Style
The book was adequately researched and narrated on a play-by-play basis - the whistle-blowing by Chavit Singson that started it all, Estrada cronies, the mistresses, the impeachment trial, the text brigade that massed people into People Power 2 and the backlash of Estrada's arrest leading to the infamous EDSA 3. Statistics were liberally used to underscore the economic totem-pole ranking of the swelling tide of people who played a role at the EDSA Shrine - detractors, supporters and opponents.

Ending Thoughts
After finishing the book, the lingering thought I had was the brazenness of it all - millions in kickbacks thrown around like monopoly money, lavish mansions to his mistresses, all-night gambling with his cronies with stakes running in the millions, etc. Estrada actually flaunted his crass thievery and wreckless lifestyle in front of everybody as if to say he's untouchable. He called it 'transparency' which he took on as political capital.

Given all the damaging revelation about Estrada's presidency, I cannot fathom why on God's green earth, EDSA 3 came to be. The guy is a drunk, a thief and a liar...and hundreds of thousands rallied in support of him? Granted, it's the poorly educated and economically disadvantaged Boom Tarat crowd, but has society driven them to resignation that there is no better replacement for a rogue to run the country? That the presidency of the country is not a question of who is best qualified to govern, but a question of which is the lesser evil?

Let's not forget the infamous 11 senators who voted against opening the mysterious envelope. By choosing to withhold evidence that may implicate a thief for a president, they revealed their political agenda. Self-gain outweighed the search for truth and justice. Where are they now? You would think they'd been dishonorably discharged from their exalted posts. NO. They're still the incumbent senators.

I applaud the Filipino people for their resolve in bringing down a corrupt presidency but I am left bothered by a few thoughts - why would a critical mass rally in support of a known plunderer. I'm also wondering why the 11 senators are still at their post like nothing happened. Business as usual? Perhaps we need to take focus on a deeper and more fundamental problem. What we have is an under-funded and mismanaged educational system that cranks out, assembly line fashion, a generation of Boom Tarat constituents like well oiled machinery. This electorate sprays movie screens using their automatic assault rifles when their favorite movie star is beaten up by the villains. They also represent the majority with numbers sufficient to put the likes of Estrada to high office. The social elite of course, wouldn't have it any other way. I even suspect that keeping the general public ignorant is part of the grand design. For as long as the status quo is sustained, this elite can do whatever they wish, whenever they wish it.

--- TheLoneRider

Political Statements by TheLoneRider

January 29, 2007

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