By Perry Diaz
The recent Supreme Court ruling that affirms Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco’s ownership of 20% of the shares of stock in San Miguel Corporation (SMC) dealt the coconut farmers a devastating setback. Indeed, after more than two decades of fighting to recover the coco levy funds that accumulated over time into tens of billions, the coconut farmers are back to square one.
The money the coconut farmers sweated for is lost only because the government didn’t do a decent job in recovering what the farmers truly believe was rightfully theirs; that is, money that originated from the coco levy funds they were forced to pay during the Marcos dictatorship and which were then used for the benefit of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos’ cronies. One of the few people who benefitted from the coco levy funds was Danding. Indeed, it can be said that Danding was — and still is – the biggest beneficiary of the coco levy funds.
Coco levy fund scam
According to Wikipedia, “The Coco Levy Fund Scam was a controversy in the 1970s and 80′s in the Philippines involving the former President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies. It is alleged that Marcos, Danding Cojuangco, Juan Ponce Enrile, and others conspired to tax coconut farmers, promising them the development of the coconut industry and a share of the investments, but on the contrary were used for personal profit particularly in the purchase of United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) and majority stake in San Miguel Corporation, to name a few.
“The issue has not died today, with coconut farmers fighting for justice against the forced taxation, and a share of the Coco Levy Funds’ investments. The Coco Levy Fund is estimated to have ballooned anywhere in the range of P100-150 billion in assets.”
Danding was the first president and chief executive officer of UCPB.
When the coconut levy was imposed in 1973 soon after Marcos declared martial law, coconut farmers were forced to pay an average of P60 for every 100 kilos of copra sold. According to the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), about P9.6 billion was collected from 1973 to 1982.
A special report, “How ‘coconut levy funds bought SMC shares’,” published in a major Manila newspaper last May 2011, details how the coco levy funds were funneled into various questionable “investment” entities controlled by Marcos’ cronies.
When Marcos was ousted in the People Power revolution of 1986, the revolutionary government of Cory Aquino stopped the collection of the coconut levy. Cory established the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG), which sequestered UPCB and other assets owned by Marcos and his cronies.
“King of Cronies”
Danding left the Philippines on February 25, 1986 with the Marcoses when they fled the country in a U.S. military plane bound for Hawaii where the Marcoses went to exile. Danding moved on and settled in Long Beach, California. In November 1989, he mysteriously showed up in Manila.
In January 1991, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on Danding, which says: “Under his friend and mentor, Ferdinand E. Marcos, Cojuangco amassed $1.5 billion in corporate assets through illegal monopolies and massive fraud, prosecutors say. And although it was never proved, President Corazon Aquino reportedly suspected her long-estranged cousin of a role in the 1983 assassination of her husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr.”
Cory ordered Danding — her first cousin — prosecuted but failed. The report further says: “Indeed, the 55-year-old burly billionaire, described by prosecutors as second only to Marcos in the systematic looting of the Philippines, appears positioned to regain much of what he lost when he fled with the disgraced dictator in the ‘people power’ uprising of February, 1986. His family, including his wife, two children, their spouses, and two grandchildren, returned to the country two days before Christmas when the government finally gave up its effort to deny them passports.”
Danding ran for president in 1992 against eight other candidates including Imelda Marcos and Fidel V. Ramos. Ramos won the election. Since then Danding concentrated his time and effort in an area that he’s good at – business. Through a series of business transactions he was able to gain ownership of 16.2 million shares of SMC stock. Eventually, he became SMC’s chairman of the board.
Supreme Court ruling
Last April 12, 2011, after 20 years of litigation, the Supreme Court, on a 7-4-4 vote, affirmed the Sandiganbayan’s 2007 decision that Danding’s 20% share in SMC was not part of the coco levy funds sequestered by the government. The high court dismissed the petition of PCGG, which sought the reversal of the Sandiganbayan ruling that favored Danding saying that the block of shares in San Miguel Corp. in the names of Cojuangco et al is the exclusive property of Cojuangco et al as registered owners.
The ruling was mostly based on the following: (1) The PCGG failed to furnish in “proper judicial proceedings the competent evidence proving who were close associates of President Marcos who had amassed assets and properties that would be rightly considered as ill-gotten wealth,” and (2) The PCGG failed to prove that Danding’s shares were “ill-gotten.”
However, in a dissenting opinion, then-Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales held that “the funds used to purchase the contested SMC shares, which were – as established during trial at the Sandiganbayan – sourced from loans obtained from the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) and the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) and the CIIF oil mills, were prima facie (on first appearance) public funds.”
On the issue of Danding’s association with Marcos, Carpio-Morales maintained that “saying that Cojuangco was not a subordinate or close associate of the Marcoses is ‘the biggest joke to hit the century’ especially with Cojuangco’s own personal admission that he left the Philippines with Marcos and family on February 25, 1986 on the Marcoses’ way to their exile in the United States following the first EDSA people power revolt.”
Consequently, the PCGG filed a motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court. Last June 20, 2011, the high court denied with “finality” the PCGG’s motion for reconsideration of its April 12 ruling. Once again, the government lost in trying to recover the money that originated from the controversial coco levy funds.
The fight continues…
But the PCGG hasn’t given up the fight yet. It claims that the first motion for reconsideration filed by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) was “weak” and is set to file a second motion for reconsideration to appeal the high court’s June 20 ruling.
This is a fight the coconut farmers could not afford to lose. If they lose, it would be beyond measurable amount. They would also lose their fate in the government, their trust in the judicial system, and their belief in “social justice.” And they would probably lose the meaning of life, too. After all, what is life without justice? Didn’t Ninoy Aquino give up his life so justice will prevail?
Indeed, no obstacle is insurmountable when fighting for justice.