This was my column yesterday at the Manila Standard Today. Sorry for the late post, I've been holed up in Cebu since Sunday.
Ten million dollars in commission just to “back off” from the deal. That’s almost half a billion Philippine pesos. Imagine what you can do with that kind of money.
Heck, I am not sure I am going to earn that much money in my whole lifetime even if I work 24 hours a day. Sure, I could probably earn that kind of money if—hypothetically, of course—I could form a company that would have no compunction about using influence to corner government contracts. But then, I don’t have parents who walk the corridors of power. And I probably would have to screw everyone in the process and I am not sure I have the gumption for that kind of complication.
But that’s just the point, I guess. Ordinary people like you and me don’t get opportunities to earn half a billion pesos to just back off from one deal. Nor do we get the pleasure of being able to sneer at the offer and say “thanks but no thanks, I’d rather take all of you and this stinking deal down.”
Of course, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that half a billion pesos was a piddling compared to the total booty at stake; that someone got greedy and wanted the whole lot instead of just half a billion pesos. It is possible that for people who are used to high-stakes wheeling and dealing, half a billion pesos is loose change.
As long as we are talking possibilities, let’s also consider another one. It is possible that money is not the issue here; or at least not anymore. I know that this is difficult to believe given the general cynicism over anything political in our country. It’s been quite a long time since the words honor, moral courage, even honesty, were descriptions one could use on a living politician.
Senator Joker Arroyo has a point, indeed, when he described the whole ZTE scandal as merely “a quarrel among fixers who, with the landscape getting clear, could not agree on the division of spoils.” That may be true; but moral dilemmas beg the question of what, or in this case, who, is the lesser evil.
So it really all boils down to who is more credible and, consequently, whose story we feel is more believable.
I don’t know Joey de Venecia. Until this whole sordid mess unraveled before our eyes, I haven’t heard about him. Truth to tell, I wasn’t even aware that the Speaker of the House of Representatives had a previous marriage, or had children from that marriage.
So all that muck that the administration is heaping on Joey de Venecia does not do anything to make me change my perception of the guy since quite frankly, he simply does not have the kind of public track record that make all those accusations believable.
It is even possible that Joey de Venecia has used his relationship with his father to corner government contracts in the past or to cover the fact that his company is undercapitalized for the ZTE deal (the paid-up capital of his company is only P25 million, not even a tenth of the total cost of the deal). These things are par for the course in this country. The point is that this is the first time that his name has surfaced in the national consciousness and there’s just no context with which to make a harsh judgment on the man. He gets the benefit of the doubt, particularly because the people on the other side of the shameful mess are beginning to resemble a gallery of rogues.
Oh please, Benjamin Abalos is not exactly an exalted public figure in this country. Every single time he appears on television to defend himself, his demeanor resembles someone who is sinking in deep waters, furiously flailing around.
Leandro Mendoza and the other retired generals who occupy government positions after their tours of duty in the military aren’t exactly endearing to the public eye either. The military in this country has not been able to shed its fearsome image even despite the fact that it has been almost two decades since the Marcos dictatorship. No sir, it takes more than a change in uniforms to break public image.
Is anyone out there buying Abalos’ futile exercises in logical acrobatics? He says that the fact that his meetings with Joey de Venecia happened in the places that he (Abalos) frequents only indicates that it was De Venecia who was pursuing him. What kind of defense is that? To begin with, didn’t someone already say that the meetings were mere cosmic phenomena; that the cast of characters in this sordid tale of bribery just happened to be in the same places at the same time? Besides, any sociology major can easily tell us that “seniority” is a major factor that influences the conduct of social interactions in our country. Of course De Venecia will defer to Abalos in matters of where, how, and when meetings are conducted.
And then now comes the rumor that Commission on Higher Education Chairman Romulo Neri was offered P200 million to approve the deal (he was National Economic and Development Authority director-general at the time the deal was being finalized). The offer was allegedly made by Abalos himself. That’s significantly less than what was offered to De Venecia, but still a hell of a lot of money to pay for one signature. Exactly how many signatures and initials are on that missing contract? How much did each signature cost?
If the issue is going to be decided on the basis of the public image of the parties involved, there is just no way that the administration is going to win this fight. The comparison is a no-brainer.
As if in an effort to tilt public perception a bit in its favor, the administration has been desperately trying to impugn De Venecia’s credibility. The desperation has been evident in the way they even had to trundle presidential daughter Luli Arroyo, the only one so far among the Arroyos with a spotless public record, into the forefront of the battlefield. Presumably, the intent was to pit daughter against son, in this case, an “ideal” daughter versus a “profligate” son.
Unfortunately, the script was awful and the presidential daughter came out like a fishwife spoiling for a fight. Bad idea, very baaad idea. Not only did they not accomplish anything in terms of demolishing Joey de Venecia’s credibility, they tarnished the presidential daughter’s “I’m above it all” image.
All of these may seem water under the bridge with the suspension of the ZTE deal giving a whole new dimension to the admonition “back off.” The administration people are now saying people should back off already because the suspension has effectively brought closure to the whole stinking mess.
All’s well that ends well? I don’t think so.
The amount of money that is being bandied around and being offered as bribe is appalling beyond words (which is why I’ve used it as the main peg for this column —it’s something people can relate with). But damn it, it’s not just the money!
What really gets my goat about this ZTE mess is that it happened after this administration has already gotten what it wanted, which is the chance to redeem itself.