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[OPINION] From oligarchs to nation-builders

Tony La Viña

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[OPINION] From oligarchs to nation-builders
'The Lopezes’ commitment to public service – and nation-building – is what cements its transformation from an oligarch to a nation-builder'

Once the image is clear to us of what an oligarch is, as opposed to a legitimate business – as discussed in the first part of this series – we can now discuss the seeming dichotomy between oligarchy and nation-building.

Are they rigid blocks that will never complement each other?

The incompatibility between an oligarch and a nation-builder, as the former emits selfishness while the latter radiates selflessness, forces us to think of binary opposites, which supposes that a choice can be made only between the two. Moreover, a dichotomy creates an illusion of choices and an illusion of choosing. One is forced to think as if the choices are restricted between A and B. How about C, D, or E? How about the possibility of change? Of A transforming into B, or B into A?

Once a choice has been made, the dichotomy merely creates space for an eventual condemnation, let us say, of the oligarchs. It seems impossible to do it any other way once the person has already chosen his fate as an oligarch. Change is simply not a choice. To do away from being an oligarch is not an option. It begs the question, is condemnation the only way to move forward? We disagree.

Alternative to the oligarch-nation-builder dichotomy

A spectrum, instead of a dichotomy, where an oligarch and a nation-builder belong, is a conducive narrative for transformation.

Unlike a dichotomy, a spectrum is a continuum – thus, not restricted to an “A or B” mindset, but allows for “from A to B” or “from B to A.” With its free-flowing nature comes the potential that an oligarch may transform into a nation-builder, however remote that possibility is. The converse may also be true. At this point, we just need to recognize that it is not impossible.

If we then consider a spectrum, there must be a common ground – or line – on which an oligarch and a nation-builder tread; possibly the crux of change. It suffices for now that both have the potential to create an impact on the national consciousness. When an oligarch dominates an industry or region to the point of abuse, then those affected will live with and make known the struggle. On the other hand, when a nation-builder uplifts the marginalized and protects the vulnerable, then those will carry on to tell the story of greatness and generosity.

Lopezes as oligarchs

The roots of the alleged oligarchy of the Lopezes may be traced to the brothers, Eugenio “Eñing” Lopez, Sr. and Fernando “Nanding” Lopez, Sr. Although the Lopez family was prominent and owned vast business ventures in Iloilo, it may be said that both Eñing and Nanding were the visionaries in the family that brought them from a local business player to the national spotlight: Eñing as businessman and Nanding as politician – the very elements of a potential oligarchy.

Involved in various industries, Eñing engaged with transportation (land and air transportation), energy (MERALCO), mass media (Manila Chronicle and ABS-CBN Corporation), and agriculture (sugar), among others. His vast business assets and undeniable national influence enabled him to meddle in national, and perhaps local, politics.

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Coupled with his brother’s economic dominance, Nanding is known in Philippine history as the only person who was able to serve as Vice President of two different Presidents, Elpidio Quirino (1949-1953) and Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1973).

History was a witness to how their affair with Marcos turned out. It started sweet, as seen from Nanding’s selection as Marcos’ running mate and eventual Vice Presidency. Eñing definitely supported his brother by pouring money into the campaign. But it ended with a falling out; Marcos detaining Eugenio “Geny” Lopez, Jr., Eñing’s son, and offering the father his son’s liberty if only he sold his companies to Marcos and his cronies, and Marcos removing the position of Vice President to ease Nanding out of his government. Stripped of economic and political influence, members of the Lopez family were either exiled or detained. Interestingly, Marcos branded the Lopez family as an “oligarch.”

The fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the return of the Lopezes to revive their businesses in the post-EDSA Philippines is the turning point: from oligarchs to nation-builders.

Lopezes transformed to nation-builders

Geny Lopez, and later his son, Eugenio “Gabby” Lopez III, are at the forefront of making nation-builders out of the oligarchy that their family once was. Currently, the Lopez Holdings Corporation has interests in 4 major industries: power and energy (First Gen), multimedia communications (ABS-CBN and Sky Cable), property development (Rockwell Land and First Philippine Industrial Park), and manufacturing (First Philec).

Politics dropped. The post-EDSA Lopezes had a firm resolve: no more politics. There is no Lopez who occupied any significant government position, except for Gina Lopez who we will talk about below. They learned it the hard way when Marcos’ caprices made them powerless, as if their whole lives’ works depended on a single man – which should not be the case. Perhaps, there was a consciousness that economic and political powers combined is a disaster waiting to happen, a bedrock of corruption.

Corporatized. A vision for transparency and accountability took numerous Lopez companies, such as First Gen, ABS-CBN, and Rockwell, to become publicly listed. It is as if one is opening the doors of his business to be scrutinized and of course to be invested on by anyone. Not only did such a move bring trust back to the Lopezes’ style of management, but it also drove innovation. Most importantly, good corporate governance pushes the Lopezes to make management decisions that are beneficial not only to their stockholders, but to their stakeholders.

In the service of the Filipino. The Lopezes’ commitment to public service – and nation-building – is what cements its transformation from an oligarch to a nation-builder. The list is endless: ABS-CBN’s informative reporting, regional programming, entertainment, TFC, Sky Cable’s internet, First Gen’s renewable energy, Rockwell’s communities, First Pacific Industrial Park’s employment, Bantay-Bata 163’s rescued children; Sagip Kapamilya’s disaster response; Bantay Kalikasan’s Ilog Pasig and La Mesa. All of these were done not for publicity, but because a core value public service must be the top priority in their business.

Notable also are the Lopezes’ passion for environmental protection in the persons of Oscar Lopez, who founded a center that supports science-driven technology in building resilient communities, and Gina Lopez, who, despite being an Environment Secretary in Duterte’s government, with no strings attached actively closed irresponsible mining in the country until she was eased out by the mining lobby.

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The Lopezes have proven that a transformation from an oligarch to a nation-builder is indeed not impossible.

However, while we know the traditional oligarchs as businessmen turned politicians or who fund political parties and propaganda like what the Lopezes used to be, present day oligarchs do not anymore take this form. Today, we see oligarchs in the politicians, particularly the political dynasties, who use, and worse, coerce legitimate businesses to consolidate power.

The next and final part of the series looks into how, in closing down ABS-CBN, Duterte dismantled a nation-builder – not, as what he says, an oligarch. –

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