CamSur: Among the poorest, with no new choices

Natashya Gutierrez
For 27 years under the Villafuertes, Camarines Sur has earned more money, but the inequalities remained large, with the poor seemed to be getting poorer

LRay Villafuerte's image via his official Facebook page

(Last of two parts. Read the first part: In Camarines Sur, it’s the Villafuertes’ show)

NAGA CITY, Philippines – There is a combination of reasons the people of Camarines Sur seem generally fine with having the Villafuertes run the province for nearly 3 decades.

“When you have a province conditioned by generations of patronage and dole out services, you really don’t experience much demands from people. They don’t demand the kind of services and leadership they deserve,” said political analyst Renee Gumba.

And not getting much demands from their constituents – who seem to elect them out of habit – leads to the lack of innovation among leaderships in localities and has stifled development, he said.

It didn’t help, Gumba said, that the exceptional leaders whom the province had produced didn’t live long enough. The longest-serving Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo and former 2nd district congressman and later senator Raul Roco both advocated good governance, and had done a lot for the province.

Gumba, who heads the Ateneo de Naga’s Institute of Politics, said the persistence of political dynasties in the province has had a negative impact on Camarines Sur’s socio-economic progress.

“Camarines Sur is basically marred by the presence of political families that have been in power for quite some time. All congressional districts have one identified family who has been in power already: Andaya for the first district, Villafuerte in the second – which was divided into two to accommodate Arroyo (so Villafuerte now rules the third, and Arroyo the second), Fuentebella in the fourth, and Alfelors in the fifth. These are the families that have been into politics since way, way back,” he told Rappler.

Fuentebella for instance, has been in power for over 100 years. In May, each of the clans are fielding a family member in their respective districts.

Gumba did not hesitate to recognize the contributions of the Villafuertes to the province, however.

The patriarch, Luis Villafuerte, harnessed and assisted the province’s many political leaders, and mentored them as emerging leaders, he said. While Luis ran against members of other political families in the past – and consistently won – he is now allied with the major families in all districts, except with his son and Leni Robredo, the wife of the late interior secretary, whom he openly despised.

Luis, as governor and later congressman, has been unparalleled in infrastructure projects built for Camarines Sur, Gumba said.

As for his son Governor LRay Villafuerte, who suceeded Luis at the capitol, Gumba was quick to say he would be remembered for his tourism projects, although “not so much on governance projects.” LRay has been the subject of several graft, corruption and plunder charges for alleged malversation of public funds.

Additionally, Gumba said that while the number of tourists has increased, it is important to look at the province through development indicators, such as the province’s per capita income as well as quality of life. These have barely improved in LRay’s 9 years in office.

Gumba’s concerns are founded. Despite the increase in tourism, income, and economy, the quality of life in the province remains virtually unchanged. Latest government statistics show a decrease in poverty incidence from the first quarter of 2006, when 47.7% of families were considered poor, to 45.4% in 2009 and to 43.1% in 2012.

The change would be insignificant across 9 years relative to the huge money coming into the province.

Additionally, the province’s Human Development Index (HDI), the most “widely accepted and cited measure” of development according to the United Nations Development Programme, has decreased under LRay’s term.

The HDI is a composite measure of health, education, and income, and paints a more complete picture of both social and economic progress. Camarines Sur’s HDI was 0.601 in 2000 when his father Luis was in power, but dropped to 0.511 in 2009, 5 years after LRay took the reins. The number was significantly lower than the 2009 national average of 0.64. 

The 2009 numbers are the government’s latest on HDI. That year, the income per capita was also lower than it was 9 years earlier, dropping from a 0.201 index in 2000 to 0.189 in 2009. The average income of families in Camarines Sur was P32,702 in 2009. This is extremely low, considering national figures showed that a family of 5 had to earn P84,984 to not be considered poor. 

The province was earning more money, but the inequalities remained large, with statistics showing the poor seemed to be getting poorer, while the rich was getting richer.

In the end, Gumba said it would be best if new people were in power, and not someone from the clan.

“I’d pray that they let the province go and seek out better alternatives for them also. It might also help the province to give other leaders a chance,” he said.

Gumba added that voters have “mixed reactions” toward the Villafuertes – with “some people saying they are disgusted by this predicament” of having to choose between a father and his grandson, while there are “other people who are saying they did well.”

There is, however, a “growing sentiment to look elsewhere and try other alternatives.”

Gumba remains optimistic. He said the province is rich not just in natural resources but in human resources as well. And while it will take some time to translate into actual change, he said there has been a shift in attitude and sentiment toward reform.

The shift in attitude was largely brought about by Robredo’s death. Robredo was praised by the nation after he died for his contributions to Naga.

For now, voters must choose between returning governor Luis Villauferte and his challenger, grandson Migz Villafurte – the old and the young, the longtime leader and the political neophyte.

There is one other candidate, Liberal Party bet and former Solicitor General Joel Cadiz, but he is inexperienced, has minimal resources compared to the Villafuertes, and is significantly unknown – with barely any chance in winning. Even Cadiz admits he is not entirely backed by his LP party mates in Camarines Sur.

After having seen the ways of the Villafuertes, and understanding their determination to cling to power, Gumba said he would not be surprised if the family feud is “one brilliant strategy to misuse opponents, opening up possibilities of families running against each other.”

He said Luis and LRay making up after the elections wouldn’t surprise him. After all, father and son have fought several times before, with Luis fielding candidates against his son – only to throw his support behind LRay at the last minute.

Whatever it takes

GIVEAWAYS. Gubernatorial candidate and 3rd district Rep Luis Villafuerte Sr tosses apples to graduates, his trademark give away. Photo by RAPPLER

But the Villafuertes will likely believe what they want to believe, regardless of statistics or changing sentiment.

On political dynasties, Luis said Congress has yet to define the term, and not one clan has been disqualified from elections in the history of the Philippines. He wondered if a family fighting could still be considered a dynasty. He told Rappler he’d be willing to give up his seat if he found someone as competent.

This is the same attitude he takes on in answering allegations. When asked why Camarines Sur remains one of the poorest in the country, Luis said it depends on the definition of poverty, and vowed to speak to National Statistics Coordination Board about the flaws in their measurements and definition. He said when he asks locals, they thank him for changing and improving their lives.

The drive to stay in power runs deep. Luis admitted he has people spying on his opponents’ campaigns.

Luis’s wife, Nelly Villafuerte – the fourth Villafuerte running for office in May – is venturing into politics after much prodding from her husband. She is challenging Leni Robredo for the position of 3rd district representative. Luis admitted he has his people listening in on all of Leni’s campaigns, as well as those of his son’s and grandson’s.

SPEAKING OUT. Leni Robredo says she is running for Congress in hopes to stop extending the Villafuerte political dynasty. Photo by RAPPLER/Adrian Portugal

“I have to keep track of everybody, because I’m organized down to precinct level. So whatever activity happens there, my standing instruction is to report,” Luis said.

He said he has campaigns and public meetings taped. With a smirk, he vowed to “play what [Leni] said,” to expose to the people “how crazy this girl is.” He said Leni is inexperienced, with no qualifications except being a widow – compared to his wife who served as undersecretary of the Department of Trade and Industry for former President Joseph Estrada.

In Leni’s campaign, aside from carrying the name of her husband, she has emphasized she will fight for change because Camarines Sur has not progressed under the Villafuertes.

In the latest survey conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres, Leni was far ahead of Nelly, with 78% of 600 respondents favoring Leni, and 16% preferring Nelly.

Luis, who has always been verbal about his disdain for the Robredos, didn’t hold back from slamming the late politician, whose death and influence resulted in public clamor for his wife Leni’s candidacy.

He said Robredo was dishonest and used his power to benefit himself, and said Leni’s failure to disclose details about her husband has forced him to tell the truth about him.

Luis had helped put Robredo into power, but like LRay, made decisions Luis disagreed with after he won, which drew Luis’ ire.

In an interview with Newsbreak, Robredo said he broke away when Villafuerte started sending him documents to sign. Robredo was one of the most awarded among Philippine local government leaders, with more than 140 awards and citations to his name. 

A July 2011 Princeton University case study by Michael Scharff said Robredo discovered Luis’s association with many of the illegal practices in the province, including the illegal numbers game jueteng.

Luis denied any involvement, and told Rappler it was solely “a police issue” which he had no control over when he was governor. He offered to take a lie detector test. Gumba told Rappler it is “impossible,” for a governor not to know who is in control, “unless [he] wants the police to control the province.”

But Luis remains adamant he is honest, and truthful, and that Jesse Robredo is the devil.

“[Jesse] was glorified like a saint but he’s a sinner. You think he’s in Heaven? He’s fornicating in Hell,” Luis said without flinching.

Of the same tree

SIMILAR TACTICS. Migz Villafuerte with his father and Gov LRay Villafuerte, campaigns like his father and grandfather, with grand theatrics. Screenshot from Gov LRay's YouTube account

Luis told Rappler he knows, from immediate reports, what LRay and Migz “did or what they gave away.”

Both LRay and Migz have refused to speak to Rappler despite months of interview requests. 

But a published letter from LRay to Kaya Natin’s Harvey Keh reveals his similarities in thought with his father. LRay too does not believe in NSCB’s way of measuring poverty. He too, like his father, is a Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines (TOYM) awardee and when criticized, will point to the title – even if both father and son received the recognition before they joined politics, for business-related fields. 

He too is unimpressed with Robredo’s rule of Naga, which he said “was only [for Jesse’s] personal accomplishment.” Incidentally, Robredo won the TOYM for government service when he was Mayor of Naga.

In an interview with Karen Davila in ANC’s Headstart, LRay said he does not go around with bodyguards and does not have enemies, but many are envious of him for his accomplishments. LRay insists the negative press about him are all politically motivated and media do not report the facts. He said he has not only continued his father’s legacy, but added to it. 

Migz, who has never held a political position in his life, is LRay’s bet to extend his projects. Migz, like his grandfather and father before him, enters a campaign and bring on the theatrics. He asks the ladies if they want a kiss. He dances in campaigns, and uses pop songs like “Call Me Maybe” as one of his campaign jingles, with tweaked lyrics. 

Twenty-seven years of Villafuerte rule later, Camarines Sur remains one of the country’s poorest provinces.

Twenty-seven years later, the choice remains the same: Villafuerte or Villafuerte? –

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