Monday, August 16, 2010

In search of closure

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

The Supreme Court is supposed to deliberate today on a critical issue: Whether or not to lift the restraining order it issued in 2005 against a decision by the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council placing 4,415 hectares of the estate under land reform.

The importance of the deliberations and the subsequent decision cannot be ignored. Whether the current administration likes it or not, regardless of what the Cojuangcos and their supporters think, Hacienda Luisita is the test case of agrarian reform in this country. And whether we like it or not, the case is a test as well of the inclinations of the Supreme Court. As it is, certain labor groups have already raised concern over the fact that the Court seemed to have prioritized the decision on a relatively minor labor dispute involving Central Azucarera de Tarlac (a sugar refinery belonging to the same Cojuangco group) over what they perceived as the more critical issue of whether Hacienda Luisita’s stock distribution option is legal or not.

If we are to believe the press releases from MalacaƱang, the President is keeping a hands-off policy on the Hacienda Luisita case. He was supposed to have motored all the way there during the weekend only for some badly needed rest. I am not saying that he went there to personally get involved in the current machinations that the Hacienda Luisita management is doing to circumvent the implementation of real and honest-to-goodness agrarian reform but it’s really unimaginable to think that his sisters and cousins have not consulted him on their action plans. This entire pretense at dedma (dead malice) is stretching credulity too far.

First, it is difficult to imagine how the President can be emotionally detached from something that threatens to send his whole clan’s business interests to the ground. Country may rank very high in his priorities, but family cannot be a poor second. Second, Hacienda Luisita has profound meaning to the Cojuangcos— the fact that he himself has to motor all the way there to “recharge” his energies is more than enough proof of what the Hacienda means to him and his family. It is obvious they don’t want to break up the Hacienda into parts nor do they want to give up control of the Hacienda.

Third, having a hacienda is still the symbol of social elitism in our culture. It’s the most concrete validation of one’s social standing in Philippine society. The President may want to project this image that he is a simple person, but we know that he is a hacendero at heart and it shows in his bearing.

Fourth, the Cojuangcos do have a business model for the hacienda that, if successful, could be beneficial to all stakeholders although it would still be in violation of the basic principle and purpose of agrarian reform.

So excuse me, but I don’t think people are buying all this crap about how Benigno Simeon C. Aquino is a disinterested person in the Hacienda Luisita case. Let’s not quibble about how it is his elder sister Ballsy Aquino Cruz who represents his side of the family in the affairs of the hacienda because we all know how closely-knit siblings operate in our culture. The Aquino siblings aren’t exactly the Ilusorios or the Aguirres.

So let me say this in no uncertain terms: The President cannot detach himself from the Hacienda Luisita case. It’s futile to even attempt to dissociate from the issue because in the minds of the people, the link between Hacienda Luisita and himself is vivid and unmistakable.

But I do agree with the observations made by some Cabinet secretaries that the Hacienda Luisita case is not a make-or-break issue of this Aquino administration. The fact that it didn’t affect his campaign for the presidency—and boy, did Manny Villar and company try to make it an issue —is more than enough proof of the kind of weight people assign to the agrarian reform as a political issue.

The simple truth is that most of us simply pay lip service to agrarian reform. Sure, we all talk about how nice it would be if rich landowners would distribute land to their farmers. Of course we all empathize with the plight of the workers at Hacienda Luisita or in some other similar haciendas, many of whom subsist on less than fifty pesos a day on wages. There’s a part of us that believes social justice is an important determinant of economic progress.

But deep down inside we also feel a little empathy with the landowners for a number of reasons. Some of these landowners treat their farmers like family—they send the farmers’ children to school, provide for the medical needs of the farmers, etc. Oh I know it smacks of feudalism; but there are cases when it seems the better option. We’ve also heard stories—many of them unverified—of how farmers squandered or mismanaged the land they received from a land reform program. Some of us know quite a number of landowners whose forebears worked hard to acquire the lands their family owns and treat their farms as if their lives and their destinies are intertwined.

For Filipinos, land is not just property —it is the embodiment of who they are and what they stand for. Small wonder really that many will kill just to make sure their lands do not go to other people’s hands.

We’re not talking yet of the even more complicated dynamics of the relationship that binds landowners and tenants, one where servitude and utang na loob and unqualified respect are prized. These, and many more, explain why land reform is a concept that looks good on paper but is difficult to implement in this country.

Obviously, agrarian reform was not a strategic component of Aquino’s platform during the campaign. And as I said, there’s a certain degree of ambivalence bordering on apathy among the middle class when it comes to agrarian reform. I presume that the bright boys in the Palace have already allocated a certain amount of political capital on the agrarian reform issue.

Seventy percent of the farmers in the Hacienda supposedly voted last week to uphold the stock distribution option—a decision that remains incomprehensible to many. In addition, the whole exercise had been declared suspect by many because of its very convenient timing (it was conducted barely days prior to today’s deliberations at the Supreme Court). And then there’s the small matter of the number of farmer beneficiaries ballooning almost two-fold in a few year’s time.

So it is possible that the farmers will get royally s**ewed once again and it looks like those responsible will get away with it once again. But given the fact that the farmers are fighting for a right that is most basic, I am sure it will not be the end of it. The struggle will continue. But there’s also the distinct possibility that the farmers will finally get the ruling that they deserve. This doesn’t mean they will get their land—or at least what they think is rightfully theirs—anytime soon. The rich and the powerful in this country can always find creative ways to circumvent the law as it has done in past.

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