A Tree in Arid Souls

by Juan L. Mercado

Greed is a shabby thread that runs thru Holy Thursday’s fabric. “What are you willing to give me if I turn him over to you ?”, Judas  haggled with the high priests. “They paid  him 30 pieces of silver”.

The physician in Luke spotted a psychological detail:  “From then on, Judas kept looking for an opportunity to hand  him over, without creating a disturbance.”

Thirty pieces of silver became a universal symbol of cupidity.  This mercenary quid-pro-quo taints much of our  national life  today. You see it everywhere: from Jose Velarde’s bank account, Abu Sayyaf’s insatiable appetite for  ransom to Joc-Joc Bolante’s fertilizer scam.

“Greed  is a tree that grows in arid  souls”, the Ilocano axiom says. Newsweek underscored that truth, this Holy Week, by  publishing, it’s “11 Greediest Persons of All Time” list. Iscariot didn’t make it. But two women  did: Empress Dowager Cixi and Imelda Marcos.

In  a starving  China, Cixi  dined,  we’re told, with golden chopsticks at 150-course dinners. Imelda took “$5-million shopping sprees to New York and Rome, reportedly owned the world’s largest collections of gems and 3,000 pairs of shoes,” (Wrong. Only 1,060 pairs, she says.)

Newsweek’  “honor roll” list includes, among others:  Mongolian warlord  Genghis  Khan , Roman general  Marcus Licinius  Crassus, Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff and Pope Sixtus IV.  Did  Michaelangelo have Sixtus IV in mind when painting the “Last  Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel? He depicted there a pontiff in hades.

“Put yourself in Imelda’s shoes,” the Observer once suggested.  How would you react? Imelda’s loyalists leapt in to say their heroine “was only greedy in giving.” Avarice, retort her critics. The 79-year old widow  zippered her lips.   

That’s not always been the case. “If you know how rich you  are, you are not rich, she told Inquirerin March 1998. “But me — I am not aware of the extent of my wealth. That’s how rich we are.”.

Imelda pledged to give $800 million to hard-up  Filipinos —  if she became president. Hindi siya nagi-isa. Judas slobbered over aromatic nard used to anoint the Master. “Why was this oil not sold for 300 days wages and given to the poor?”.

Judas “said this, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief,” John wrote. “He  held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.”

The poor, in any case, never saw Imelda’s $800 million then. She limped in fifth in a seven-way presidential race.  Fidel Ramos squeaked thru.  Decades later, she’s still pledging to share Marcos’ wealth.

“People say I’m touched in the head”, she told Time magazine just after the Southern Leyte landslide. But the Marcos foundation would unload it’s millions — finally. “I’ll come up with a project that will wipe out poverty here in two years.”

Marcos funds are stashed in five’account groups’ abroad, the Supreme Court has noted. These are (a) Azio-Verso-Vibur Foundation; (b) Xandy-Wintrop: Charis-Scolari-Valamo-Spinus- Avertina Foundation ( c);Trinidad-Rayby-Palmy Foundation accounts; (d) Rosalys-Aguamina Foundation; and (e) Maler Foundation accounts.

None supported a single project here. They’re like Erap’s  Muslim Youth Foundation that never had scholars. Courts  wrung every centavo Filipinos got from the Marcoses : $638 million from shell foundations to $36.4 million that a US district court,in Hawaii, ordered go to martial law victims.

The Newsweek list holds up sorry examples. But men will learn at no other school. And locals have proven quick studies. Yet, “he who is greedy is always in want,” Horace  wrote..

With  martial  law  bayonets,  Eduardo  Cojuangco  squeezed  levies from defenseless coconut farmers.  Kickbacks  in the ZTE broadband scandal  ballooned   from 20% to 60%.. “Back off”, ex-commissioner Benjamin Abalos & Co. told  whistleblower Rodolfo “Jun” Lozada. Cupidity of local officials, over potentials of sand and  gravel  contract s torpedoed an P80-billion shipyard project for Misamis Oriental.

“Jose Velarde” account bloated from one peso to  P3,233,104,173 in a year. It dwindled when the impeachment against  Joseph Estrada started. Jose Velarde and Joseph Estrada were one and the same person, the Anti-Graft  Court found.  Did Erap gag? “The  greedy choke easily”, say Boholano and Hilongo proverbs.

In 2000, Abu Sayyaf  pegged it’s “board and lodging” rate for 30  Basilan hostages at 180 sacks of rice, medicine, canned goods — plus  cell phones they  fancied. When they hostaged  ABS-CBN’s Ces Drilon and team, rates had bolted into the millions. Negotiators sliced into the loot.

Can you tell a country that  bags top slots in lists like Transparency International’s dossierof “World’s Most Corrupt Leaders” and, now Newsweek’s  grasping eleven?

Yes. It’s one where the affluent few buy ever larger locks, raise higher the walls of gated enclaves and withdraw from the needy. “Self  worth  becomes net worth,” as a banker puts it.

“Government by quid-pro-quo is a blind alley,”  Cebu Daily News said in a Holy Thursday issue.. “It leads, as Judas discovered, to burial in a potter’s field.”.

Newsweek’s list is no reason to give up  There was, after all, only one Judas – but eleven others who, despite  their flaws, ultimately stood by what is decent.

( E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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