MANILA, Philippines – After being attacked for taking the cudgels for Marcos crony Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco Jr, presidential bet Grace Poe and running mate Francis Escudero are now blaming the Liberal Party (LP) for the non-release of the decades-long funds.
The tandem – both senators – said that if the bill that was meant to create a fund for coconut farmers remained stuck in the Senate, the ruling party is to blame for it. After all, the Senate is headed by LP stalwart Senate President Franklin Drilon, they said.
“Bakit hindi nya tanungin yung Senate President na ka-partido nya? Bakit kami ang tatanungin nya? Bakit di tanungin ang liderato ng Senado?,” Escudero said, referring to administration senatorial bet Francis Pangilinan, former presidential adviser on food security and agriculture, who said that Poe and Escudero "should be able to explain why [the bill] was stuck there.”
(Why not ask the Senate President, who is his party mate? Why ask us? Why not ask the Senate leadership?)
Poe said the same in a press conference in Malabon on Thursday, March 10: “Ang dapat sisihin natin ay kabagalan din ng liderato dito para ipasa ang batas para dyan.” (We should blame the slow pace of the leadership for the failure to pass the bill.)
But the LP shot back, singling out Poe for not doing anything to push the bill in her capacity as vice chairperson of the Senate's agricultural committee.
"Bilang Vice-Chair ng Agricultural Committee, dapat ipaliwanag ni Senadora Poe bakit hindi pa rin naipasa ang bill sa Senado at bakit hindi man lang siya co-author nito. Madali kasing magsabi na kakampi ka ng isang sektor. Ang mahirap, yung gumawa ng totoong trabaho para makatulong ng tunay sa kanila," said Ibarra Gutierrez, spokesman of LP presidential candidate Manuel Roxas II.
(As Vice-Chair of the Agricultural committee, Senator Poe should explain why the measure was not passed in the Senate and why she was not even a co-author of it. It's so easy to say you are an ally of a certain sector. But the issue is whether one has done actual work to help them.)
Danding and 2016
What triggered this open warfare over a decades-long issue affecting coconut farmers? One man: Danding Cojuangco, whose political party, the Nationalist People's Coalition, is supporting the Poe-Escudero tandem for the May 2016 elections.
For a long time, Cojuangco was the estranged uncle of President Aquino until 2010, when the businessman surprisingly backed Aquino's presidential bid.
The 2016 presidential race is a different story.
Before the NPC endorsed Poe's candidacy, she met with Cojuangco, according to an Inquirer report last March 2. "It was a good meeting," the Inquirer quoted Poe as saying. "He was very kind and soft-spoken," Poe added.
Beyond NPC, there's another Cojuangco ally who's supporting the Poe-Escudero pair: SMC boss Ramon S Ang, who lends his aircraft to them for use in sorties.
Asked in a recent campaign stop in Quezon, host to thousands of coconut farmers, about the coco levy fund issue, Poe said Cojuangco has already returned the money to the government and it's the government that has to settle the issue. (READ: Poe, Escudero: Gov't, not Danding, should settle coco levy issue)
Critics jumped in, noting how she failed to mention that Cojuangco is primarily to blame for the legal disputes that delayed the release of the funds to the beneficiaries.
Prolonged legal battle
The Philippine government brought Cojuangco to court after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution over allegations he used the taxes paid by coconut farmers to set up his own businesses such as the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) and San Miguel Corporation (SMC).
Government thus sought to sequester Cojuangco's shares in SMC and UCPB to give the money to coconut farmers.
Cojuangco resisted this in a prolonged legal battle that spanned for more than two decades but which finally ended in December 2014, when the Supreme Court ruled with finality that Cojuangco's shares in SMC should be given to the farmers.
This forced Cojuangco to give to the national treasury the equivalent of his shares in SMC, roughly P71 billion. But the money could not be released to beneficiaries in the absence of a mechanism for it.
Besides, according to the Coconut Industry Reform Movement (COIR), what Poe and Escudero are saying about the return of the Cojuangco shares to government represents just a “portion” of the business mogul's investments in SMC.
“Some 4% of [these shares], worth more than P17B, still remain in the possession of San Miguel Corporation which Cojuangco had refused to turn over to government," COIR executive director Joey Faustino said in a statement Thursday.
Stuck in Senate, court
The SC ruling paved the way for the crafting of a bill that would create a trust fund for the farmers. President Benigno Aquino III certified it as urgent. The bill passed the House but got stuck at the Senate.
At the same time, Aquino issued two executive orders (EOs) for the inventory of the funds and their subsequent distribution.
A coconut farmers' group asked the Supreme Court to declare the move unconstitutional, saying the President should have waited for a court order before issuing the EOs.
COIR's Faustino said the group, Confederation of Coconut Farmers Organizations of the Philippines (Cocofed), is "a Danding Cojuangco-related group of big business and landowners who lorded over the coco levy funds under the dictatorship."
In July 2014, responding to Cocofed's petition, the Court temporarily stopped the EOs.
Panglinan, who was then Aquino's agriculture adviser, said it made no sense to go to court again given the litigious history of the coco levy fund.
“EOs 179 and 180 were meant to ensure that the coco levy funds are used judiciously. The unending legal disputes and the prolonging of the same are part of the problem,” he said then. Opposing the use of the fund is easy but it represents the old ways of doing things, a thing of the past, Pangilinan added then.
Last Thursday, Escudero insisted that the LP and the Aquino administration bungled in issuing the EOs.
“Yung ginawa nya na Executive Orders sana, na-TRO ng Korte Suprema kasi mali. Kung may kasalanan man, kung may dapat singilan man, siya at yung kanyang mga kapartido at kaalyado sa Liberal Party siguro. Masyado nang namumulitika ang katukayo ko kung kaming 2 lang ang ituturo nya,” he added, again referring to Pangilinan.
(Those Executive Orders he did were stopped by the Supreme Court because they were wrong. If there's anyone who has sinned, if there's anyone who should be held accountable, it's him and his allies and party mates in the Liberal Party. My namesake seems to be politicking if he would just point at us.)
But COIR's Faustino said the issue is not as simple as that.
"There were more than 200 cases filed by the Presidential Commission on Good Government against Cojuangco and other cronies involved in the coconut levy scam. After almost 30 years, only three of these cases had seen finality in courts," according to him.
"Such is the reason why the Cojuangco camp had not stopped from forging political compromises with each passing administration. In short, the coco levy issue is far from being settled." – with reports from Camille Elemia and Bea Cupin/Rappler.com