Festering Sore

by Juan L. Mercado

 “The evil that men do lives after them”. Mark Antony  points out in the play “Julius Caesar”.  That led  Senator Joker Arroyo  to strafe last week’s  Supreme Court decision on a coconut levy scam that festered since 1973, as  “too obscure, too late and too little” 
 
Voting  11-0, the tribunal affirmed the Anti-Graft court’s  2004  decision: A 24-percent block of San Miguel Corporation shares be awarded to  government, as trustee for plundered coconut farmers.
 
Ferdinand Marcos imposed Presidential Decree 276 over 39 years ago. It decreed that “coco levies” were owned by  cronies  “in their private capacities.” Taxes became individual loot, by stroke of a dictator’s pen.

If PD 276 is not scrubbed as unconstitutional,  “Marcos found a legal and valid way to steal”, wrote then columnist Antonio Carpio. This levy criticism led  Caprio, now a high court justice, to inhibit from the new decision.
 
Similar decrees girded the “New Society’s” en grande looting.  Marcos divvied up agriculture among camp followers. Florendos got bananas and Roberto Benedicto oversaw sugar.  Eduardo Cojuangco emerged as coconut czar.
 
The 24-percent block was part of a 47-percent slab of “ill-gotten wealth”  the Presidential Commission on Good Government  sequestered  after People Power One. Fudging how coco levy funds were misused has a sordid history,
 
In August 1998 thus, Ricardo Cardinal Vidal presented to President Joseph Estrada a memo from the Catholic Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference, it said.  Abuse of state power” wrung those monies from small impoverished farmers. The cash should be returned. 
 
People Power II booted out Erap. By then, the levy had breached P100 billion mark. People have killed for less.
 
Who are the faceless principals behind 14 holding companies that snapped up 31 percent of SMC shares under martial law?, asked Magsaysay Awardee and then PCGG chair Haydee Yorac. Today,  Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, says the Tuesday court decision strengthened a plunder case they filed against these officials.
 
Shares owned by 14 companies, bought with the levy, are “owned by government,” Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro and Anti-Graft court associates ruled in May 2004. “(They’re) held in trust for all coconut farmers”.

“Coconut levy funds are prima facie public funds,” the Supreme  Court unequivocally stated for the first time ever. In  “Republic vs. Cocofed”  penned by then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, the tribunal allowed sequestered shares should be voted by the PCGG, “pending the final determination of who were their legal owners.
 
Shares purchased with coco-levy funds  were also, on it’s face, government-owned. Thus, Cojuangco surrendered  control of United  Coconut Planters Bank to government.
 
Coco levies were dipped into for purchase of SMC shares. Nonetheless, Cojunagco “legally acquired the 20 percent block”, ruled  today’s Supreme Court . He pocketed  16.2 million San Miguel Corporation shares, jacking his SMC stake to P37 billion, some estimate.
 
“That’s the joke of the century,” snapped then Justice Conchita Carpio Morales. Cojuangco siphoned coco levy ’ funds which the Court majority turned a blind eye to. Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno agreed and wrote a scathing dissent.
 
Cojuangco’s stake in SMC was “built on the sweat of coconut farmers”, Justice Sereno wrote.  By a scheme of “corporate layering and multi-level loan transactions”, he diverted  “public funds.”   “Prescription, laches or estoppel will not bar future action to recover unlawfully acquired property by public officials or dummies.”
 
“When the time comes… (perhaps through newly discovered evidence or another justifiable reason), the opportunity to revisit the ruling of this Court may present itself. (Then) Philippine history may have a chance to be redeemed in part.”
 
It has been 23 years since Marcos died  from lupus in Hawaii, age 72. His embalmed corpse has been displayed, ala Mao Ze Dong and Vladimir Lenin, in a Batac masoleum since 1983. A  family commiittment to President Fidel Ramos  that the cadaver would be interred within a week after returm was never kept.
 
“The evil that  men do lives after them”. Over three decades of  coco levy litigation saw thousands of small  farmers go to their graves clutching worthless coco levy  stock certificates. “Did the coco farmers benefit from the levy imposed on them 35 years ago?,” Joker Arroyo asked.  Not at all. Zero”. 
 
The court ruling was unclear over how coconut farmers, could benefit, Arroyo said.  “Why did it take such a long  long time? Someone in the past five and present administrations owe the coconut farmers, who grew  tired and weary, old and dead, an explanation.” 
 
Accountability requires an explanation. But it also demands restitution.  “I give half of my possessions to the poor,” tax collector  Zacchaeus  pledged, recalls former  Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president Angel Lagdameo. “And if I cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
 
PCGG Chairman Andres Bautista thinks the court’s unanimous vote will free up funds to rehabilitate ‘the industry and alleviate the plight of farmers” establish a multi-agency trust fund by an executive order, Euclides Forbes, current PCA administrator suggests. 
 
President Aquino will step down in 2016.  Can he correct decisively an evil that men did, but which still  “lives after them”?
 
(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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