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MANILA, Philippines – There is a storm brewing in Malacañang and caught up in its ferocious winds is Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr.
Recent days have been tough on Evasco after President Rodrigo Duterte, his good friend, fired his “loyal guard dog”, former undersecretary Halmen Valdez.
It was a blow to Evasco and a telltale sign of a power struggle inside the Palace between Evasco and the camp of Special Assistant to the President Bong Go.
If there is indeed a fight, Evasco has lost round one. Those in his camp are saddened but hardly surprised. They said he is “too decent” to play dirty, that he is a “silent worker” with no stomach for a public relations coup. He rarely gives media interviews.
What Evasco wants to do now, more than anything else, is to have a good chat with Duterte, a man he helped put in power, a man whose trust he has enjoyed for over 3 decades.
Who is Evasco? He is perhaps the busiest Cabinet official after being put in charge of 12 government agencies and given marching orders by Duterte to streamline his administration’s anti-poverty programs. Duterte signed an Executive Order that created two agencies under Evasco’s office to strengthen it.
When Vice President Leni Robredo resigned as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, it was Evasco who had to take on the job.
The Cabinet Secretary is swamped with work in Mabini Hall, able to see Duterte personally only during Cabinet meetings in Malacañang or events where both he and Duterte are invited.
Desperate to speak with Duterte, Evasco was once reduced to waiting for him at the airport at 1 am, important documents in hand. Even then, he only got to hand over the papers to Go.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time Duterte was more accessible, a time when squabbles and misunderstandings could be cleared up quickly, within the easy-to-navigate corridors of Davao City Hall where Evasco was the long-time mayor’s chief of staff.
Evasco is no doubt one of the most colorful characters in Duterte’s Cabinet. Duterte himself likes to introduce Evasco to his audience with a long story of how they met.
Evasco was one of two priests who had been arrested by the military for being among the top New People’s Army (NPA) leaders in Mindanao. Duterte, then a city prosecutor, was assigned to cases of communist rebels.
The communist rebel and prosecutor, both in their late 30s at the time, found themselves getting along quite well. In 1986, when the EDSA People Power Revolution toppled the Marcos dictatorship and put Corazon Aquino in power, all political prisoners were released.
Evasco had nowhere to go. He asked Duterte, who had been appointed officer-in-charge vice mayor, if he could work for city hall. Duterte found him a job.
In 1988, when Duterte decided to run for mayor, he handpicked Evasco as his campaign manager.
After an electoral victory Davao City would always remember, the new mayor Rody Duterte named Evasco his chief of staff.
Those in city hall were surprised, and them impressed, by Evasco’s high-level management skills. He tinkered with the city engineer’s office, separating it from the office of the city building official to decongest work load and speed up the issuance of building permits.
Evasco likes to say he honed his management skills as an NPA rebel, when he was in charge of organizing all throughout Mindanao.
Pat Ruiz, Evasco’s best friend who joined him in the communist underground movement, recalled how his stint as a rebel began.
65-year-old Ruiz, who hails from Tagbilaran, Bohol, remembers Evasco when he was still one of the young and “progressive” priests from nearby Maribojoc town. She was a student at the time. She and Evasco met as members of the same reform and farmers’ rights groups.
Evasco, who hung out with other progressive priests, was already passionate about linking the church to poor communities and basic sectors.
He had his first brush with trouble when he began criticizing corrupt government officials through his homilies.
“I attended some of his homilies. He would say he heard that a certain mayor had done this, that he thinks that there is something wrong with the construction of this bridge, and he would encourage the people to be vigilant,” Ruiz told Rappler.
Evasco’s criticisms ruffled enough feathers for the military to decide to put him under surveillance. Soon, he was being pursued. To cool things down, he decided to go to Manila sometime 1977 or 1978.
There, he was assigned to a parish in Quezon City. It was during his stay in Manila that Evasco was convinced to join the underground movement, said Ruiz. They would see each other at National Democratic Front meetings where the leadership spoke of the need to gain more support in Mindanao.
Around 1980 or 1981, Evasco was one of the first members to be sent to Mindanao to start organizing.
He was arrested twice and detained for his involvement in the communist-led underground movement. His second arrest happened in 1984, when he was officiating a wedding of comrades as a senior member of the Communist Party of the Philippines in Midsayap, North Cotabato.
According to Ruiz and other former communist rebels, during his detainment in Davao City, Evasco was heavily tortured.
“He was tortured. All the works of torture – water torture, electrocution. He already gave his life up on that occasion,” said Ruiz.
He remained imprisoned in Davao City for around 5 years, during which time he was visited in his cell by a self-assured and swaggering prosecutor named Rody Duterte.
By 2007, Evasco had spent 3 decades in Davao City and came to be known as the right-hand man of one of the country’s most controversial mayors.
Some soldiers assigned in Davao grew suspicious of Evasco because of his past as a communist. There were even those who suspected Duterte himself of being a communist at heart because of his close ties with Evasco.
But Evasco would leave all that behind, at least temporarily, when he decided to return to his hometown of Maribojoc in 2006 and run for mayor. The following year, he won against the powerful Relampagos clan of Bohol. He would win another two terms.
He is credited with raising Maribojoc from a 5th class municipality to a 4th class one, primarily because of his focus on basic services.
By the end of one of his terms, every household in the town was able to enjoy potable water in their kitchen. He championed free hospitalization, going around hospitals to make sure they devoted a certain number of beds to poor patients who were given medical care free of charge.
After encountering shortages in the town’s blood banks, he organized annual blood donations. When rabies became a problem, he introduced a dog population control program that included a system of accountability for dog owners.
At the program’s height, Maribojoc’s streets became devoid of dogs.
Under his mayorship, Maribojoc received many awards on local governance. In 2001, it was bestowed the Galing Pook award for its cadastral survey project which enabled 800 individuals to own titles to land they had been occupying for decades.
For two consecutive years, in 2010 and 2011, Maribojoc was conferred the Seal of Good Housekeeping by the Department of the Interior and Local Government under the late Secretary Jesse Robredo.
Evasco’s premium on process and procedure is credited for the efficiently-run municipality, but it also drew criticism.
In the wake of the 2013 Bohol earthquake, Evasco became the subject of news headlines after he drove away what was then called a Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) team that was distributing relief goods to Maribojoc residents.
In local media and social media, Evasco was accused of using the relief goods distribution system for political gain.
But Evasco responded, saying the opposite was true. He had driven away the Red Cross team because it refused to coordinate with the local government which already had a system for distributing goods. He accused them of using the relief goods to promote their chairman Richard Gordon, who had political ambitions.
Into the ‘snake pit’
The longtime Maribojoc mayor now finds himself in Malacañang where he takes on a national government position for the first time.
He is sharing the experience with his friend, Duterte, who, in a blink of an eye, went from being Davao City’s swashbuckling mayor to a Philippine president both idolized and vilified.
But the transition from municipal city hall to the Palace has not been easy for Evasco.
He had confided some of his frustrations to Ruiz, whom he still sees from time to time.
“He would share to us that only the President has changed, the culture of bureaucracy is still there. Change is hard. Some officials just want ‘business as usual,’” said Ruiz.
Sometime July, Evasco supposedly said, “Hirap lumangoy sa (It’s hard to swim through the) bureaucracy. I am adjusting. The paradigm is there, but the bureaucracy is a mechanism that delays change. Let’s wait. I am finding my way.”
Eventually, it appears Evasco got irked by the power play and personalities in Malacañang.
“He told me that it’s a snake pit, the corridors of power are a snake pit,” said Ruiz.
He was particularly disappointed when Duterte, out of the blue, fired his loyal foot soldier Halmen Valdez who served as his alternate in the NFA Council where things have been heating up for him of late.
Valdez had been standing up for him against NFA Administrator Jason Aquino who had blatantly disregarded NFA Council decisions, an affront to Evasco’s authority. Aquino is said to be close to Bong Go.
Aside from the divisive NFA issue, Evasco is smack in the middle of divisions within Duterte’s diverse Cabinet, composed of left-leaning officials, military, and economic advisers.
Despite being a former communist, he has steered clear of being identified with the left-leaning Cabinet members.
For instance, he did not join their joint call for Duterte to revive peace talks with the communists. He also refused to answer media queries about his position on peace talks or the heroes’ burial for Ferdinand Marcos.
Evasco, however, has been active in consolidating a movement called Kilusang Pagbabago, supposedly a vehicle to bring government services down to communities.
But some in the military suspect KP is Evasco’s strategy to bring the country closer to the extreme left.
Evasco, to begin with, was supposedly a hesitant appointee.
Back in May 2016, after Duterte said he was eyeing Evasco for the Cabinet Secretary post, the former Bohol mayor told media he would rather go back to his “easy life as a farmer.” Evasco has a large organic farm in Davao City.
Asked what could convince him to take on the job, he said he would wait for a conversation with Duterte.
“Mag-usap muna kami ni Mayor (I’ll talk with the Mayor first). If he wants me to help, I can suggest other things to help him,” Evasco said then.
Duterte, apparently, was able to convince his old friend.
Little did Evasco realize how soon power play could threaten the work of a government he envisioned, and how much bureaucracy could delay the reforms he wanted felt.
Will Evasco’s friendship with the President be enough to shield him from the Palace snake pit?
An uphill battle awaits the former NPA rebel, who is just now realizing how painful it can be to push for change when competing interests within Malacañang’s walls are among the strongest threats. – Rappler.com