BY MARC JAYSON CAYABYAB AND GIAN C. GERONIMO
Ed Mora has been drying coconut meat to make copra since he was 10, helping his father tend their six-hectare plantation in Quezon province. Thirty years later, he is fighting for the fruits of their labor on the streets of Manila.
On the 40th anniversary of Martial Law, Mora, 54, is leading a farmers’ protest in front of the Supreme Court demanding their fair share of the coconut levy fund.
The coco levy originated in the 1970s when President Ferdinand Marcos and people around him decided to tax coconut farmers, promising them the money will be used to develop the coconut industry and they would have a share in the investments.
Farmers and their supporters pointed to Eduardo Cojuangco, chairman of conglomerate San Miguel Corporation (SMC), as the main beneficiary of the funds.
Mora started pursuing the coco levy fund when he was 24 and a Kabataang Barangay chairman. He said he conscienticized farmers and youths – through discussion and cultural performances – about how Marcos and his cronies stole from the coco levy.
Mora said his family was harassed by military officers during the “zoning” of his barangay: a military official told his 17-year-old brother to climb a coconut tree and get a fruit. The soldier supposedly placed the coconut on his brother’s back and struck open the fruit with a bolo.
Though his brother was not hurt in the incident, Mora said it traumatized his family. “Kung dumaplis yung itak, e ‘di biyak rin likuran niya,” Mora said.
According to a lawyer of the coconut farmers, proceeds from the levy were used to buy the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), which would give farmers shares instead of money. But the bank was purportedly used by Cojuangco, also known as Danding, then a UCPB director, to acquire a significant stake in food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp.
“(The levy) was used as a pretext that the stocks were for the farmers. But in fact it was manipulated by Cojuangco to cover up on how the funds are being channeled,” Atty. Jae Dela Cruz of the Coalition of Coconut Farmers in Quezon asserted.
Cojuangco effectively got himself rich with the coco levy funds, the lawyer said.
“Malaking bahagi ng kanyang yaman ay galing sa coco levy,” Dela Cruz alleged.
However, the Supreme Court on April 12, 2011 ruled that Cojuangco’s 20-percent SMC stake is not part of the coco levy funds and does not belong to the Philippine government. The ruling also said that it was not proven that Cojuangco was a crony of Marcos.
“Did Cojuangco breach his ‘fiduciary duties’ as an officer and member of the Board of Directors of the UCPB? Did his acquisition and holding of the contested SMC shares come under a constructive trust in favor of the Republic? The answers to these queries are in the negative,” the SC ruled.
“The Court declares that the block of shares in San Miguel Corporation in the names of respondents Cojuangco, et al…. is the exclusive property of Cojuangco, et al. as registered owners,” the high court added.
The coconut levy fund is seen as a manifestation of “crony capitalism,” or a system “where the power of government is used for the personal interests of those in the ruling elite,” economist Sonny Africa of research center Ibon Foundation said.
“The more important feature of cronyism is the brazen use of state power for personal interests,” Africa added.
According to US-based National Bureau of Economic Research, among the listed alleged Marcos cronies were: Roberto Benedicto, known as Marcos’ sugar czar; Benjamin Romualdez, who controlled Manila Electric Company; Herminio Disini, who headed the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant; Rodolfo Cuenca of the Galleon Shipping Corp.; and notably, Cojuangco, who was president of the UCPB.
Cojuangco controlled or had substantial shares in around 70 firms, Benedicto in some 50 firms, while Romualdez controlled or had substantial shares in around 50 firms and Disini in 51 firms, the research center noted.
To economist and senior vice president of the University of Asia and the Pacific Bernard Villegas, these alleged cronies were partly responsible for the negative impact of the Marcos regime on the country.
Villegas attributed the term “crony capitalism” in the Philippines to the late Jaime V. Ongpin, who opposed Marcos before becoming finance minister during the administration of then President Corazon Aquino.
To Villegas, the economy during the Martial Law years started favorably, with 1972 to 1976 as benchmarks.
However, from 1980 until 1986 – the year Marcos was toppled in a People Power revolution led by Mrs. Aquino – things started taking a turn for the worse, Villegas said.
“A lot of decisions were made by those around him,” Villegas noted.
He mentioned private entrepreneurs who “took advantage of their closeness to Marcos,” supposedly including Benedicto in the sugar industry, and Cojuangco in the coconut industry.
Individuals wielded “too much power over the economy,” and their decisions were aimed to promote their own interests, Villegas said.
In a 2011 discussion paper, economist Gerardo Sicat, professor emeritus of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, said despite the controversies involving the Marcos administration – including allegations of crony capitalism – the government then still left a “sizable economic legacy.”
“But in Marcos’s case, history was written for him by those who pulled him down from power. Silenced, much of his achievements got relegated to the background and the version of events that were made to survive were the grave sins that he was accused of – among others, plunder, corruption, crony capitalism, nepotism, human rights abuses,” Sicat said.
Sicat argues crony capitalism was not exclusive to Marcos.
“It was a syndrome that could be traced to all the presidents. It might have become more patently obvious in the case of Marcos because of his long rule and the absolute power that he exercised under martial rule,” he said.
Economist Africa also agreed that crony capitalism continues after Marcos. “If you want to know how crony capitalism exists now, it’s exactly how San Miguel empire (started) – it started on large funds from the coco levy funds.”
He noted a more “accurate” analysis on crony capitalism is its persistence even 40 years after Martial Law. “Dapat (the cronies) should account for how those interests accumulated. (We usually see crony capitalism) in isolation of its multiplier effect,” he added
Hope in Sereno
Forty years since Martial Law was decreed on Sept. 21, 1972, and almost three decades after the farmer Mora started his fight for his share of the coco levy, farmers are still protesting and hoping.
On Thursday, farmers trooped to the high court seeking a reversal of the SC ruling in favor of Cojuangco, hoping for a court that is more fair and just under recently appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
“Hindi namang nag-co-copra si Cojuangco, eh. Papaano mapupunta sa kanya?” Mora asked.
For farmers and their supporters, Sereno opens a window of opportunity to re-examine the case, even though the ruling was final and executory.
Sereno was one of four associate justices who decided against the ruling to grant Cojuangco the 20 percent equity in SMC. In her dissenting opinion, she wrote: “… it is unbelievable that the fallacy that the two of them were not close associates, and that respondent did not enjoy considerable privileges during the deposed President’s administration could be proposed now.”
“The fact that Sereno was one of the four justices creates a window that should be explored,” lawyer Dela Cruz said.
After journeying from their grove of coconut trees in Quezon to the streets of Manila, Mora reflects on a struggle that has consumed more than half of his life.
“Baka hindi na nga ako makinabang. Baka yung mga susunod na kabataan na lang,” Mora said laughing.
“Sabi sa ‘kin ng pamilya ko, ‘Bakit hindi ka na umalis dyan?’ Sabi ko… ‘Hindi ko na kakayaning iwanan ito. Ito yung buhay na talagang hindi ko tatalikuran’.” — VS/HS, GMA News