These Arroyo men sympathize with Aquino, offer advice

MANILA, Philippines – They were government officials during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. They saw her popularity tumble down and watched her survive one crisis after another – until many of them disagreed with the President herself.

They see President Benigno Aquino III in a somewhat similar situation as Arroyo’s, sympathizing with him as he suffers the worst crisis to hit his administration. But they also told Rappler they are confident he can recover from the backlash of the death of 44 elite cops because of a “poorly planned” security operation. 

The mission that turned bloody in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, last January 25 was apparently reported directly to the President but kept a secret from the top echelon of the Philippine National Police and even the military.

Former Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr, former defense chief Avelino Cruz, former socioeconomic planning secretary Romulo Neri, and former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo believe Aquino can bounce back from the backlash of the tragedy in Maguindanao.

“He (Aquino) will get over this,” said De Venecia, who was Arroyo’s closest ally and staunchest defender until his son testified against Arroyo’s husband for allegedly earning kickbacks from a multi-million dollar government project.

“All presidents make wrong decisions. I think he will recover,” said Cruz, a member of the Hyatt 10 group of Cabinet members who resigned during the Arroyo presidency. He was asked to return to the Department of National Defense but he refused.

“I think history will judge him better. What Aquino has shown is that integrity is an indispensable quality as president. If he doesn’t have integrity, you will not have this growth rate. Some say he is not competent, but, to me, we have to count our blessings,” said Marcelo, who was among those who resigned after the Hyatt 10.

Rappler caught up with the former government officials at the launch of the book Endless Journey: A Memoir of retired General Jose Almonte, the national security adviser of President Fidel Ramos. Party mates at Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats, many of those who served Ramos also served Arroyo.

Make up for it, tell the truth

Asked if he could give Aquino advice so he can regain people’s trust, Cruz said the President should reveal what he really knew about the operation in the light of continuing debate on who was really responsible for the bloodiest security operation in the country’s recent history.

“I think, at the present circumstance, the call is for him to reveal the accurate facts as they happened,” he said. 

“There is search for truth, search for justice, and search for accountability. If those things are addressed by government, I think the government will be able to get back to its agenda,” Cruz added.

This was the call of Ramos in his speech at the book launch. It was echoed by former coup plotter, retired Marine Colonel Ariel Querubin.

“A commander is accountable for the actions – successes and failures – of his men. That is the essence of commandership. Huwag ka mag-blame. Akuin mo. Kung inako mo kasi at sinabi mo sana, ‘I take full responsibility. These people are accountable to me,’ tapos na," said Querubin. 

(Don’t pass the blame, own up to it. If you owned up to it early on and said, “I take full responsibility. These people are accountable to me,” then that would be the end of it.)

The Senate report on the incident will be helpful, Cruz said, if it will provide accurate facts and impose punishment on those who are accountable.

De Venecia said Aquino has the time to make up for the Mamasapano tragedy.

“He has only less than one year and a half to go, he has to make up. His achievements have been substantial, but there are lapses and failures. By and large, he is above ground, but he has to do more to really be a successful government before his term ends.” 

‘Aquino admin, economy safe from threats’

The good news is the former government officials do not see the crisis to be posing a serious threat to the Aquino administration or to the economy. 

Cruz, a former defense secretary, belittled the coup talks. “I think there is no chance of that happening. On the whole, the government has popular support. I’m not worried at all,” he said.

Querubin agreed. While disappointment with Aquino is widespread, he noted the absence of an acceptable alternative.

“’Yung military, nakita mo naman. ’Yung pulis, nakita mo kung paano nila protektahan ang Presidente. Sino sasama diyan? Kung ako presidente, bakit ako matatakot kung ang mga general at top brasses ng police at AFP kakampi ko?” Querubin said. 

(You’ve seen the military and the police, how they’ve been protecting the President. Who among them would join [a coup]? If I were the President, I wouldn’t be worried because the top brasses of the police and the AFP are on my side.)

Neri doesn't see the crisis threatening the economy either. “It’s a more emotional issue, but limited impact on economy,” he said, adding that the economy is doing well because of the continuing momentum of remittances from overseas Filipino workers and BPO centers that picked up in the Arroyo years.

Peace process, charter change 

But Cruz said the government should come up with a plan on how to approach the peace process, which has lost support because of the Mamasapano tragedy.

“We should see how this affects the peace process. We should focus now on what we should do in the peace process given these difficult challenges,” Cruz added.

De Venecia called on the public to support the process. "The peace agrement has to be maintained. Congress must pass it into law. People must ratify it. The new ARMM must come to pass and must be implemented to bring about a larger peace in Mindanao," De Venecia said.

This is where the federalists – a strong advocacy group in both the Ramos and Arroyo years – also chimed in. A federal system has long been contemplated as the solution to the calls for independence in Mindanao.

Neri was among those who blame the Mamasapano tragedy on the country’s political system. 

“Maybe, it’s partly our whole political system. One way to help resolve the issue is federalism with parliamentary [form of government]. To me, the problem is more systemic and structural. Whoever you put there will always have problems,” Neri said. 

“The presidential system puts all our burden in one person. But you cannot have gods or angels as president. We expect too much from a president. I think, at least, in a parliamentary system, the responsibility is shared. It’s more a collective leadership,” Neri added.

Moves to amend the Constitution, however, have always been seen as a ploy to extend a politician's term in office. Belatedly, Aquino joined this call to revise the fundamental law. –