Peping Cojuangco: Laban pa rin

CYBER PROUST - Jojo G. Silvestre () - April 10, 2011 - 12:00am

On August 25, 1973, Ninoy Aquino wrote a long letter to his only son, Noynoy, then only 13 years old. It was a letter that would capture the attention of the Filipino people more than three decades later when its intended recipient ran for president, earning for him the sympathy of millions of voters who saw in his father’s words the passing of the torch of commitment and responsibility from one man of the family to the other of the succeeding generation. The letter bestowed credence to Noynoy as his father and mother’s true successor, the one deemed to continue their legacy of freedom, democracy and good governance.

In the letter, Ninoy wrote, too, of having “asked many of your uncles to help you along should the need arise, and I pray you will have the humility to drink from their fountain of experience.” Without mentioning their names, Ninoy was most likely referring to Noynoy’s Tito Len Oreta, Uncle Baby Lopa, Tito Butz Aquino, his mother’s eldest brother Uncle Pete and his mother’s younger brother, Uncle Joe or Peping. In effect, he had turned over to the young man’s uncles the responsibility of ensuring that his son got good advice and practical education. Ninoy had in mind the best combination of mentors possible, with each uncle advising his nephew on what he knew best.

How they did their part, through time, is not known to us. Perhaps the way P-Noy now runs his life and this country may be partly attributed to what he learned and imbibed from them.  Although, of course, that would depend on how good a protégé he is. How much, indeed, of Ninoy is in P-Noy, and which part of P-Noy points to his uncles’ examples and influence on the person and leader that he is today?

Unfinished Mission

On the night before Corazon C. Aquino died, her younger brother, Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, was in the hospital with her children and other family members. When it was time to go home, Peping stood by Cory’s bedside and said a little prayer for her. On his way out, he took another look at Cory. “I told Ballsy and her husband, Eldon, ‘You know, as she is lying there peacefully, she looks like she is already talking to God.’” Thus recalls Peping of his final glimpse at his sister whom he continues to “admire and respect for her guts to survive all the ordeals she went through in her life.”

Peping Cojuangco on being a presidential kamag-anak, first to his sister Cory Aquino and now to his nephew Noynoy Aquino: “I’ve always resented the fact that the one big vision that I had, which had to do with agriculture, will never be fulfilled because I am a kamag-anak. I still believe up to now that I can do a lot for agriculture because I grew up as a farmer.”

Cory Aquino died at 3:15 on the morning of the next day. At around seven o’clock, a close cousin of his wife, Tingting, called up and said that the former president got in touch with her at 4:30 in the morning.

Peping relates, “Cory, in her text message, was saying ‘Don’t just pray for me. Pray with me for the healing of the nation.’ She also said, ‘I can almost see heaven, I can even smell it. But I cannot go there until my final mission is complete.’”

Campaign Manager

Remembering how his sister lay peacefully in the hospital, and looking like she was already in heaven, Peping was shocked, and saw a connection between the blissful expression on his dying sister’s face and the message that he received that morning.

“Why was that message conveyed to me?” Peping wonders. “Whether it is true or not, I am putting these circumstances together, and I come to think that on numerous occasions, before and during the campaign and during the presidency of Cory, she would call me and give me an assignment. So I said that this might be a message that was purposely given to me as an assignment from my sister.”

Peping received varied assignments from Cory and her husband, Ninoy. He was her campaign manager when she ran during the snap presidential election in 1986. In 1978, Peping served as campaign manager for Ninoy who led the opposition party, LABAN (Lakas ng Bayan), during the election for assemblymen to the Interim Batasang Pambansa.  On April 6, 1978, the day before the election, the people of Metro Manila came out of their homes and, in the streets, staged a noise barrage in lieu of a miting de avance that the dictator, Marcos, did not allow. It was a deafening protest that, to many, was the opening salvo of the Filipino people in voicing out their protest against martial rule and its perpetrator Ferdinand and his muse Imelda. While sure-winner Ninoy Aquino did not make it, the opposition’s coming out in full force and arousing the people to express their righteous anger was as good a victory. As Peping shares in his book, Laban: His Story (2011), when he visited Ninoy in Fort Bonifacio after the election and apologized for the opposition’s “defeat,” Ninoy said, “No, Peping, we did not lose. We won. We woke up the people. We made them aware of what is happening and that’s it. That was the intention of this electoral exercise.”

Peping now looks back with fulfillment at having done his part to organize a group that, Ninoy envisioned, would “concentrate on letting people know me and what I am fighting for.”

Peping and Tingting Cojuangco in Malacañang during the Diosdado Macapagal administration: “We met in a party, then decided on a double date. Mon Tapales’s date was Tingting, while my date was her friend, Duday. I ended up talking with Tingting, while Mon was talking with Duday, my partner.”

Pinoy Patriots

Three decades and three years after, Peping sees himself tasked with a different mission, made manifest by the “message” of the late Cory Aquino asking for prayers and, implicitly, action for the healing of the nation.

When Noynoy Aquino found himself in a position to continue the work begun by his father and mother, initially by becoming the opposition candidate for president in response to the people’s clamor, Peping did not choose to join Noynoy’s party. Instead, he formed the Pinoy Patriots, a movement that he describes as “a parallel organization that campaigned for Noynoy without any coordination with the main campaign group. We originally called it Samahang Pagbabago but eventually, we named it Pinoy Patriots. We were quite instrumental in achieving or gaining the victory. Whether the people accept it or not, it doesn’t matter as far as we are concerned. We in the Pinoy Patriots know exactly what we did. We are happy that we are successful in doing our part in the election of Noynoy as president.”

Peping clarifies, “While we campaigned for Noynoy, the campaign’s thrust was really towards pagbabago or change. So, we adapted Noynoy’s battle cry, which was, ‘Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap.’” He counts among the key players of the movement his fellow members in the post-EDSA 8th Congress; his old group from Pampanga, the Aguman Ding Kapampangan, most of them successful Pampango professionals in various parts of the country; Volunteers for Integrity of Elections (VIE) who are retired and active officers of the AFP and the PNP committed to peaceful and credible elections; Tuloy Pinoy, young professionals, headed by Mikee, which maintains an active network all over the country; Citizens Crime Watch, Partido ng Magsasaka at Manggagawa and the original members of the Council for Philippine Affairs which Peping founded and led. According to Peping, “Pinoy Patriots believes that it’s not because we elected officials of the government that we should just rest on our laurels and watch them. Instead, we are actively engaged in efforts towards eradicating corruption by continuously monitoring the performance of government officials and ensuring that transactions are transparent. Governance should benefit the majority and not just a privileged few.” Heeding his late sister’s “call” was easy as Peping “got all kinds of cooperation and assistance from other people, encouraging me to proceed in what we are doing.”

Of Perfectly Round Fried Eggs, Mario And The La-Z-Boy

More than 15 years have passed since I last saw Peping Cojuangco. As his wife Tingting’s researcher and, on the side, companion to Mai Mai and China, and, occasionally, secretary to the man of the house himself, I used to work for this rich and famous family and had the privilege of having a close look at Peping Cojuangco, politician, sportsman and agriculturist, as well as husband to a glamorous wife and father to five good-looking girls.

Peping with Cory Aquino: “Cory, in her (last) text message, was saying ‘Don’t just pray for me. Pray with me for the healing of the nation.’”

I saw much of Cong, as his colleagues and staff call him, from breakfast all the way to dinner. For breakfast, he wanted his fried eggs, sunny side up, to be perfectly round, its yellow unbroken, which the cook, Ness, used to show off to me because “look, they are like the eggs served in McDonald’s, and Cong doesn’t want it any other way.” These came with fresh orange juice and a slice of papaya. He loved to eat arroz a la Cubana then and had the habit of mixing the fried eggs and ground beef together, along with the white rice, as children are wont to do with their viand and rice. My memories of those years include Cong happily playing a game on the television screen, his thumbs nimbly pressing the buttons of a gadget, occasionally laughing at his misses, or mistakes. I didn’t understand computer games then and I still don’t. I think he was playing Super Mario in its initial release. More often, though, it was a golf game and now and then, I would hear him exclaim “Bunker,” followed by laughter and the equivalent of a sigh. Another vivid memory is of Cong seated in a La-Z-Boy recliner which, wonder of wonders to me, was massaging him from the back of his head all the way down to his legs.

Sacred Heart Devotee

On Sundays, the whole family — Cong, Tingting and their five daughters, Liaa, Pin, Mikee, Mai Mai and China — went to church together. I noticed that they all dressed up appropriately, unlike others who attended Mass like they were going to the gym. Come First Friday, Cong, unfailingly, would hear Mass. As his driver of two decades, Roger, confirms, he has kept this holy practice come coup d’état, hectic campaign schedule or even typhoons. At the time of the interview, his aide, Boosie Apuan, was showing him an image of the Sacred Heart meant for enthronement at the stadium where Filipino athletes gather for the First Friday Mass, as Cong enjoins them to do.

Thankless Job

Peping Cojuangco started out early in politics. He was too young to even consider joining the political fray but his townsmen thought he was ready and 400 of them, as required by law, went to the local Commission on Election office and filed his certificate of candidacy for the position of councilor. He was a year or two short of the minimum age requirement but with the people’s acclamation, backed by their signatures, there was no way he could be accused of lying about his age. Even then, there was people power. He asked them, “What am I going to do as a councilor?” “They said, ‘We know that you could be of help to the community,’” Peping recalls. “‘Okay, it’s up to you guys if you think I could do something.’ So I got elected number one Councilor of Paniqui.”

That he should be asked to run for an elective post did not surprise the young Peping at all. “People told me early on there was no way I could avoid politics. On my father’s side, my grandfather and father were assemblymen, while on my mother’s side, her father, Juan Sumulong, was an opposition senator.”

Peping with Fidel Ramos: “I started playing golf when I was very young. My father would take me to Wack Wack.”

From the start, he knew what joining politics meant. Peping narrates, “One day, Ninoy, who was then running for mayor of Concepcion, and I were on our way to Manila. He asked me, ‘Why do you want to run for councilor? I replied, ‘The people think I can do something.’ And he said, ‘Remember this, when you enter public service, don’t think that becoming a councilor or mayor will lift your name or is something that will aggrandize your reputation. This will be a thankless job. Your role will be to serve the people.

“There was not much I could do as a councilor, even as I tried to be of help,” he admits. Two years after, the incumbent mayor ran for congressman, and the vice mayor took over the vacated mayor’s post, thus elevating Peping to vice mayor. Two years after, he became mayor. “I joined my policemen in their patrols. The number one troublemakers then were cattle rustlers, followed by drunkards who disturbed the peace in a quiet night. And I also took care of young couples that eloped. Either the parents came to complain and seek my assistance in getting their children back, or the ones who eloped came to ask me to convince their parents to allow them to marry. I was the mediator, I officiated in their civil wedding and I eventually became a sponsor when they married in church. As mayor, one was really the father of the town,” Peping recounts.

Youngest Congressman

It wasn’t long before he became president of the Mayors’ League. He recalls, “This time my fellow mayors asked me to run for congressman. ‘Why don’t you try your luck? If you win, you beat Congressman Roy who is a four-termer. If you lose, you don’t lose anything. You are defeated by a veteran.’ I said, ‘You guys are just pulling my leg. Let’s go around your municipalities, call your Tenientes del Barrio and I want them to attack Congressman Roy.’ Which they did. Congressman Roy, I heard later, was surprised. He was wondering why he was being singled out. Well, in the end, I did not have to run against him because he was chosen by the party to run for senator.”

PHILIPPINE STAR: How were your initial years in Congress?

JOSE COJUANGCO JR: Well, you know, when I first became congressman, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do in the House. The only one friend that I had was Congressman Jose Aldeguer. He was a good friend because he was a sabungero like me. Oy, turuan mo ako kung anong gagawin ko rito, ha? He asked me what kind of committee I wanted. I said, “Well, how about picking a committee for me that I would be at home with and is quite prestigious?”

Congressman Aldeguer was Speaker Pro Tempore. He said, “I’ve got the position for you. I will make you a member of the Commission on Appointments.” “What do I do there?” I asked. “You will approve the appointments made by the President.” So, I became a member of the Commission on Appointments. After a few weeks, we had a caucus. A few congressmen were complaining. “How can a young Congressman, a neophyte, be given such a prestigious position?” Feeling that these were directed towards me, I said, “Gentlemen, if you feel that I don’t deserve it, you can have the position.” I walked out of the caucus.

Peping surrounded by the women in his life — and their men: (Standing) Jojo Guingona with Pin, Noel and Liaa Bautista, Mikee and Dodot Jaworski with Rafael Jaworski; (middle row) China, Tingting, Peping, Mai Mai and Andrea Zini; (front row) Gabby Gonzalez (Jojo Guingona’s nephew), Pico Guingona, Robbie Jaworski, Ina Guingona, Alec Bautista, Martina Bautista

Congressman Villareal heard about it, and he sought me out. And we had a talk. He said, “Peping, you join me, and campaign for me to be Speaker. When I become Speaker, you can have your choice of committees.” I asked him, “How do I go about campaigning?” “First, you ask them what they want. And you promise them that you will give it to them. That simple.” I went around campaigning and they agreed to vote provided they get the committees they wanted. Then, we went through the process of electing the Speaker.  The incumbent Speaker then was Congressman Daniel Romualdez. It was very difficult because he was right there and it was viva voce. After the election, Congressman Villareal called me and said, “I want to take my oath of office before you.”  The tradition was the Speaker took his oath of office before the oldest member of the House.  This time, he took his oath of office before me, the youngest member. He next formed a steering committee to organize his chamber. In the steering committee were Justiniano Montano, Salipada Pendatun, Jovy Salonga, Gerry Roxas and myself. One day, we met at the Manila Hotel. As soon as we sat down, I brought out my list and showed it to them. “This is my list.” They asked, “What is that list?” I said, “These are the positions I promised the Congressmen.” “But there is no such thing,” they said. “The Speaker said I could campaign and promise committees.” They replied, “We can’t accept that.” “What do you want me to do?” I asked them. “We don’t know, but we can’t have something like this here.” So, I said, “Okay.”   Then, I walked out. Speaker Villareal called me again. “What happened?” “Sir, you promised me something. Apparently, you cannot carry it out. I can’t have the reputation of a young guy who can’t keep his promises. I think I will just resign. It’s no good being a Congressman when nobody has confidence in me.” “No, no, wait,” he said.  He took me again to the meeting place of the committee. “Listen,” he told them, “whatever Peping says is like I myself said it.” All of them were shocked. I made sure all the Congressmen got the committees I promised them. These were prestigious committees like Immigration, Reparation, Health, National Defense and other major committees. From that time on, I became the confidante of the Speaker. He would give me certain assignments and as we went along, people began to see how close I was to him. So they would come to me if they needed something that the Speaker refused.  I was the little Speaker and I enjoyed that kind of privilege.

I enjoyed his confidence because I never abused. If, every now and then, we traveled, and he’d send money to me, I’d return the money. I would say, “Mr. Speaker, kaya ko pa.” I never asked anything for myself, but I did ask on many occasions what my colleagues would like. We had a harmonious House of Representatives then. A year or two after, when I married Tingting, Speaker Villareal was our number one ninong.

Is it true you were one of those who crafted President Diosdado Macapagal’s Land Reform Code?

Sometime in 1962 or 1963, President Diosdado Macapagal called me to Malacañang. “Peping, I want you to be a member of the special committee to come up with a Land Reform Code.”  “Mr. President, how can that be? My family is one of the biggest landowners in the country.”  “That’s why I want you there,” he said. So I became a member of the Land Reform committee. And in the discussions, I cited certain facts from the point of view of the landowners.

What was the family stand on land reform then?

This is one area where Ninoy and I sat down and talked. What I was doing would mean, for our family, a loss of many hectares of agricultural land. “Paano ito?” I asked him. Sabi niya, “You know, at this point, something like this has to happen, if we don’t want to turn into a communist country. The problem in the rural areas is too serious already. This is necessary now, so I guess the family has to give up its rice lands.” And that was what happened. That’s one of the things that many people don’t understand. That because of that land reform code, the family lost close to 10,000 hectares of rice land.

Are you in touch with President Noynoy?

By texting most of the time.

What do you talk about?

Nothing really much. Some incidents every now and then that I would text him, and he would text back. But there really has not been that much communication with Noynoy in the past year.

What was the extent of your influence over Cory Aquino at the time she was president of the Philippines?

Well, I guess because of my having been the politician in the family, especially during the campaigns, I was the number one campaign manager of Cory. In many instances, I was called in to perform some special assignments.

There was a time when much was being said of the Kamag-anak Inc. People and the media were very critical of some presidential relatives who were using their supposed influence to get things done. In hindsight, what can you say about the talk?

Well, the Kamag-anak Inc. is not supposed to be involved... I keep saying that why is it that when we’re needed to throw out a dictator or to throw out somebody who should not be there, we are okay? Why is it that when they are already in power, the kamag-anaks are no longer okay? I think that’s very unfair, considering the fact that we have not enriched ourselves nor benefited from any of these. My witness, and they will verify what I am saying, is the Sycip, Gorres & Velayo (SGV), which has been our auditor for so many years. They will show you that ever since we got involved in this type of public service, whatever the Cojuangcos and Sons had had been reduced. Not increased.

Was there anything you would have wanted to do were it not for the fact that you were a presidential relative?

I’ve always resented the fact that the one big vision that I had, which had to do with agriculture, will never be fulfilled because I am a kamag-anak. I still believe up to now that I can do a lot for agriculture because I grew up as a farmer.

People say that you are the true political animal.

Truthfully, I don’t enjoy being in politics. I have done it for the fact that I thought I could be of service. It’s not like I’m dying to get a position. Except that at certain times, I think I would be instrumental in achieving something. That’s when I do it.

To go back to land reform, what was your stand by 1987?

By 1987, we saw the results of land reform. Both the land reform of Macapagal and Marcos’s PD 27 were not working. When we discussed these two laws again in the 8th Congress, we came up with agrarian reform, not land reform. The principle behind agrarian reform is the uplifting of the living conditions of the people tilling the land. Not necessarily land for the landless. And you can check the committee hearings. It also makes mention of the fact that landowners’ capital should be converted to industry. A lot of benefits should be given to the landowners who lost their land to land reform so that their capital will not go to waste. As you have probably seen by now, it has not happened like that.

Still the thrust of land reform, or of the secretaries of land reform has always been... their sign of success is having distributed so many thousands of hectares. They never take into account if they improved the lives of the people tilling the land. On one occasion, during the time of Ramos, I was able to convince Secretary Garilao to take a survey. I told him, “Why do you want to keep on distributing the land without really looking at the results?” He said, “Ikaw naman, Peping, of course, they will be happy. They will be better off because they are tilling their own land, they will work harder.” I said, “Why don’t you just check?” I know for a fact, because many of our tenants that did get their lands would come to our family and they would tell us, “Why can’t we just return it to the old practice, the way it was before?” Of course, we can’t do that now.

So, anyway, the survey said over 50 percent of land reform beneficiaries were worse off now than before, and only 18 percent had improved their lot. In that aspect alone, it showed that land reform was not successful. That’s why I introduced the bill creating the Agrarian Reform Communities. The only way that I saw that these people can improve themselves is by working as a unit in order to develop economic-sized farms. And it was approved but implemented not the way it was designed. In the law, each congressional district was to receive about P10 million to fund the agrarian reform communities. The amount was meant to be a seed money. But it wasn’t implemented that way.

How did Hacienda Luisita implement the Agrarian Reform Law?

When this was approved, my brother and sisters sat down to discuss what options we had for agrarian reform. I was the first one to voice out my opinion and take a stand. I said “If you ask me, I am for giving it up to land reform. I figure that if we get paid this kind of money, and with the interest earned from the bonds, it is worth more than we can ever earn.”

The operation of Luisita has always been more social than economic. The benefits that they were enjoying were not enjoyed by many other farms in the Philippines. Health care is one of them. When it was the turn of my eldest sister, Josephine, she said, “Peping, don’t forget what our father told us. It is our responsibility to take care of these people.” She was right. They have been good to us. During the height of the NPA and the communists, they could not touch us because the people in the hacienda protected our family.  During those years, my two daughters, Liaa and Josephine, went to school in Tarlac. I was never afraid for them because the people themselves secured us. So, in the end, our family decided to ask the people what they want.

How did you find out what the farmers wanted?

Initially, we had a signature campaign. Those in favor of the stock option, please sign, and 50 percent signed that. Some people said, “Well, how do we know the people themselves signed this?”  So, we decided to conduct a consensus. We went around from barangay to barangay. It was by raising of hands and 95 percent favored stock option. And then they said, “Of course, they raised their hands, they were afraid of the encargados.” In the end, upon the suggestion of then Secretary of Agrarian Reform, Miriam Defensor, it was decided that we do it by secret balloting, with the ballot boxes coming from the Comelec. Miriam Defensor oversaw the elections and the poll watchers were students and faculty of the University of the Philippines. As it turned out, 96 percent voted for stock option. That’s because of the fact that these people see the people around the hacienda who have their own land and are living worse than they who are living inside. And those who received their lands are actually working inside Hacienda Luisita, too, to earn a living.

In that unfortunate strike, of the 116 arrested strikers, only eight came from Hacienda Luisita. All the 108 arrested did not come from Luisita.  They were from Negros and everywhere else. 

Your father had a vision for the hacienda and the Cojuangco businesses. How much were you able to achieve?

Well, I guess you couldn’t carry out the whole thing, especially during Marcos’s time. We could have done a lot bigger not only in agriculture but in other aspects. At a certain point, we were in transportation, car dealership, bank, and a lot of other things that were taken away by Marcos.

Was it a difficult time?

Of course, it was. Those were the martial law years. We were not allowed to leave the country. I think it was only after so many years when I was able to leave the country and this was when Danding helped me get a pass to go to Australia.

Danding, at that time, was an enemy?

We were enemies in the sense that he was for Marcos, and that we ran against each other. But of course, that’s not blood.

Do you mean, all the while, all those years, you were in touch?

Sometimes, yes. Especially because we were in Australia. We were together.

How are you and Danding different from each other?

We are not different from each other. We are almost of the same age. I am only nine months older than Danding. We grew up together, we are both junior. We were like brothers. We were that close. It just so happened that he was for Marcos and I could never support Marcos because of one incident that happened to us. As members of the Commission on Appointments, then Senator Marcos was the Senate president. So, he calls me to the rostrum and says, “Peping, lakarin mong mag-adjourn , utos ni President Macapagal. You take care, find a way.” This was the time when Senator Almendras and Senator Antonino were fighting over the appointment of a certain fiscal in Davao. So, Marcos said, “Bahala ka na, utos ng Malacanang yan.” I asked the Nacionalistas how many votes they needed, because I was a Liberal. They said four or five. So, I talked to four guys. And they moved for adjournment. It was followed by a division of the House, and the ones I talked to voted for adjournment. So, the session was adjourned. After 30 minutes, the same four congressmen approached me and said, “Peping, sinubo mo kami. We were told we are going to be expelled by the party. We crossed party lines in voting for adjournment.” Marcos told them he did not tell me anything to that effect. So I took them to speaker Villareal.  Sabi ko, “Mr. Speaker, I asked these four to vote for adjournment because Senator Marcos said that was the instruction of Malacañang. Now he is denying it. What do I gain from the adjournment? I am not favoring anyone’s appointment, anyway. You know that I would do these things only if there are instructions from above.” Then, Villareal replied, “As long as I am President of the Liberal Party, you guys cannot be expelled.” That’s why, from that time on, I could not trust Marcos.

In the Cojuangco family, how are you regarded?

The eldest, Don Pedro, is the head of the family, he is the person to defer to. Basically I am the spoiled one. (Laughs)

What did you see in Tingting? Wasn’t she too young?

No. I don’t think so. Actually, we met in a party hosted by Nene Araneta. When that party ended, we decided on a double date. Mon Tapales’s date was Tingting, while my date was Tingting’s friend, Duday. Anyway, we went out on a double date. I ended up talking with Tingting, while Mon was talking with Duday, my partner. Funny, because the older Cojuangcos and the Manzanos, Tingting’s maternal family, were neighbors in Agno in Malate.  We were neighbors again when Tingting was born in Pasay.

When were you married?

I wasn’t married yet when I became Congressman. We were married in 1962. Our engagement was over six months but less than one year.

Why didn’t you let her finish college first?

I never thought of it.

She has evolved through the years. She has become a success. To what extent is she your creation?

Ah, no. It’s all her ambition, her drive. So, parang support lang ako.

How do you relate with your children? How is it like being father to five daughters?

Very well. I’m glad they are very, very close to each other. We are a closely-knit family. I’ve been very lucky in that they never gave me and Tingting any problem. They all turned out well.

Was it easy for you to let go of your children when they married?

No. I lost my hair. Sabay nagsabi si Liaa, my eldest, and Pin, the second one. Actually, I overheard them arguing. I asked what it was all about and they told me that they both wanted to get married. Pin was saying, “Jojo (Guingona) and I decided first on getting married.” And Liaa insisted that since she’s older, she should marry first. “What marriages are you talking about?” I was surprised. Nalaglag bigla ang buhok ko.

But with Mikee it was easy na.

No. Basta sa akin, “martial law” lahat yan when it came to their getting married.

You have always been interested in sports and gaming. Bowling, golf, horses, fighting cocks. How did you get started in each of these? And was it fighting cocks first?

I started during the Japanese Occupation. Kaya nga tinatali ako nuon eh. They literally tied me. Well, it was actually shoelace. Our tenants would send us chicken. It was by the tiklis. I would play around with the chickens, and I would match them off as in real cockfights. I got very interested in them. I would go to the tupadas, which would get raided by the Japanese. I could run fast by then. I was nine years old.

In the late 1950s, I went into cockfighting with my brother-in-law, Esting Teopaco. We got deeply involved. And we were very good at it, to the point that wherever we went, the cockpit would become quiet if we won. If we lost, the crowd would fall apart. That’s why we decided to get out of it because we were just there for the public relations, for the fun of it. We set that aside.  Actually, when I got into it, and my father saw that I was deeply involved already, he talked to me. He said, “You know, I am not stopping you. But let me tell you. Many of our rice lands in Pangasinan, Tarlac and Nueve Ecija used to be owned by sabungeros. If you want to return it to them, it is up to you.” Actually, I just enjoyed breeding. Those days, fighting cocks bred abroad were supposed to be more valuable. But I beat them. That, to me, was more prestigious. We got our chickens from abroad but I bred them here.

What about horse racing?

My other love is horse racing because when I was going to school in the States, some of my friends were interested in horse racing so we would go to the races. And I did quite well also. Because when I get into something, I put my heart into it. I study all aspects.

How well do you know your games and sports?

In cockfighting I know how to put the tari. Everything that it entails, what kind of knife and so forth. I still breed fighting cocks. In horse racing, I can tell a blacksmith how to put on the shoe of the horse. I know the blood analysis of a horse and I can determine if it is in good condition or if it needs something. I engaged jockey Francisco Fernando who was a real horseman. I learned a lot from him. So we were quite successful. We won quite a lot. I won almost all the big races during my time. I used to wake up early every day to be at San Lazaro at 6 a.m. I would spend half a day there.

What about golf?

I started playing golf when I was very young. My father would take me to Wack Wack. That was before the war. In the 1950s, I started playing golf with Esting and Toti Lopa. My brother had a small nine-hole golf course.

What has been your role in the family businesses?

My biggest role was in the Hacienda Luisita, at some point, especially after Ninoy was incarcerated.

What was your management style? Were you directly in touch with the planters?

Yes, yes, I’d be in the farm every day, at daytime. And I’d be at the central at night. And I changed a lot of things. For example, I brought in the Australian system of mechanized farming. The system increased our yield from around 60 tons per hectare to 86 tons per hectare. I hired retired mills superintendents from Australia and we modernized the central. But anyway, we renovated a lot of things. Even before the Australians came, we increased our average. A central was only averaging 3,000 to 3,500 tons a day. By the time we finished our renovations, we were averaging 6,000 to 6,500 tons a day. Without much expense. We could really safely say we were one of the best operations in the Philippines. It took care of lots of things at a time when our businesses were being taken away from us.

How was your father, Don Pepe, as a businessman?

A visionary. He had a good feel. More than anything else, his concern for the people was always there. How would this help the people? My father was the one who established the Paniqui Sugar Mills. This was established because the family had gathered so much sugar land already and the sugarcane was only being converted to panocha. So he toyed around with the idea of building a big panocha (muscovado) plant. He invited his classmate, Mr. Jose Tiglao, to help him build this plant. Then, Mr. Tiglao said, “Why build a panocha plant and not a sugar mill?” “Can we do it?” my father asked. “Kaya natin, Pepe.” So, they built the Paniqui Sugar Mills, which had the capacity of only one seventh of Central Azucarera de Tarlac, but they managed and it became successful. Then, he established the Philippine Bank of Commerce, the first Filipino-owned bank in the Philippines, and it was a partnership between the Cojuangcos, Jacintos and the Rufinos.

How was it like being a nephew of Dona Ysidra? Can you tell me about her?

Well, in the end, they used to play panguinge with her. She was really a businesswoman. And really hardworking. At five o’clock in the morning, you’d hear her shouting, “Oy, gising na kayo, tanghali na.” She should be sweeping the rice mill already.

Is it true that people would go to her to pawn their lands?

Yes, puro sangla. There was so much indebtedness to the Cojuangco family at that time that on interest payments alone in the loans, there was non-stop operation of all our rice mills in Central Luzon, in Tarlac, Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan. That’s why, at that time, when they opened the market in Divisoria, they would call up paniqui first. How much do you sell per kilo of rice? She was a businesswoman, maybe that is why she died an old single lady.

How about rumors that she was very close to a revolutionary general?

Well, there are lots of stories. I don’t know if they’re true or not. What’s the connection? The big thing was, for me, and that’s what I heard from the family, the establishment of the Panique Sugar Mill. That was the real boom. That’s how the family really accumulated its resources.

How about the Paniqui Rhum?

After the war, we ran out of cash, we had properties but no cash. One day, we invited to dinner the officers of the tank battalion who lived in our compound. Somebody from the central mixed some alcohol with burnt sugar to color it and put some essence in it, and served it to our guests. They asked, where do you buy this? Where do you sell this? That started the Paniqui Rhum. US army trucks lined up in the central to buy in barrels.

Let’s talk about your American education.

After the war, the family decided to go to the United States. When I arrived there, I was supposed to enter the sixth grade. I finished grade five here in La Salle. After I took the entrance exam, they elevated me to seventh grade. After my seventh grade, the four of us students in seventh grade were given a summer class in English and Math. And again, we skipped grade eight and we moved to first year. So I was able to catch up with my schoolmates here. After a year, my father came home to the Philippines. My mother stayed with us and then she decided to come back so I came back with her. I studied in Ateneo, where I barely passed. I had a difficult time because the system of studying was different. I managed to squeeze through. I started in Ateneo for my fourth year and I don’t know why my teacher at that time didn’t seem to like me. I told my parents if I stay here, we’ll just waste one year. Can I return to the States so I can finish my high school there? So I was sent back to the States where I finished my high school.

Believe me, education there was a lot different from the education I got here. Not because it’s the States, but because Loyola School was a finishing school. When I was elevated from seventh to eighth grade, we turned out to be 14 in the class. Because we were 14, they divided us into two sections, one with eight students and the other with six. It was almost personalized. We weren’t just taught the subjects. We were taught how to study the subjects. It was a fantastic education that I got there. After I graduated, I moved to Holy Cross College. Since my sisters were there, I thought I might just as well continue there. I was very lucky I had a very good education.

How did your American education affect you?

In Loyola School, the way our basketbball coach handled us developed our attitude towards whatever we did. Holy Cross was all about total education. Everybody’s minor in Holy Cross was philosophy; that’s why, for four years, we went through philosophy and theology. So, we learned to think.

What were you looking at, a career in business or politics?

Mostly in business and looking forward to farming. That’s always been my first love, that is why my thesis for my graduation was “The Living Wage.” I wanted to know what really is the right amount of compensation a worker should get. This is in accordance with the teachings of the Church.  The conclusion is just the same. You work hard and you get compensated. Share with the people who deserve it.

Was it during your American sojourn that you became interested in sports?

 Oh, yes. In high school in New York, I was a member of the basketball team. I was one of the stars. I was the point guard, plus the fact that I was a favorite of the coach. He saw that I was using my brains, not only my skills. On many occasions, he would say, “Joe, get the varsity team and practice them.” I was small but I was really good. I couldn’t shoot, that’s probably why I became a good point guard. I was a good passer, and I was also a good playmaker. I am very proud of that because the center of basketball was the New York and New Jersey area. During that time, almost all the best NCAA players of colleges came from that district. And our team won 16 games and lost one in our senior year.

What are your achievements as Philippine Olympic Committee president?

I led the Philippines to the first Southeast Asian Games Championship in 2005, the first time the Philippines has ever won the overall championship in Southeast Asia in its 23rd attempt. In the Asian games, in its 16th year we had the best medal haul in the last 40 years. In the next Southeast Asian games, 60 percent of our athletes who participated in those games won medals. That means you prepared a good team.  The reason we did not fare very well as far as gold medals were concerned was in many of the subjective sports, we were zero.

Is it true that you are the Lifetime Adviser of the Olympic Council of Asia? Do you have other sports-related titles?

Well, yes. I am the adviser of the present president of the Olympic Council of Asia, Sheik Akhmad Al Saba who is also Deputy Prime Minister of Kuwait. It’s more of an honorary title for someone whom they respect. But I am honorary president for life of the Southeast Asian Games Federation. It was a title given to me in 2006 or 2007. As far as I know, there are only two of us.

How is sports development under P-Noy?

For the first time, in the history of Philippine sports, a government body and the non-government body of sports are working hand in hand like a team. We are establishing new policies, like we are now requiring every National Sport Association to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission with a constitution and by-laws in compliance with the Olympic charter.  Also, we require every National Sports Association to submit their budget every year. Their budgets now are subject to the scrutiny of the committee and are then passed on to me and Philippine Sports Commission Chair Richie Garcia. The NSAs are given their money based on the schedule. The SGV has volunteered to audit each book of the NSAs. What will happen now is to show our people that we in sports are transparent. The Philippine Sports Commission displays in its website every transaction that it conducts. Again this is part and parcel of the reforms we were fighting for. I am proud to say that we are the first in this administration to do exactly that. I don’t think anybody can copy what we have been doing in sports.

We are now beginning to give our athletes maximum assistance to become a champion. In this new program that we are working on, every athlete will have to undergo physical examination.  Secondly, they will have to undertake a physical fitness program for the sport. Thirdly, they will be given the diet suitable for the sport. There will also be some kind of a stress management. It is the first time that this is going to happen to the athletes of the Philippines, and this will start in May.

How did Mikee become a champion?

Because of her dedication and her sacrifices. After shooting for television or movies up to three o’clock in the morning, she would drive over to Batangas to ride her horse. It was dedication and sheer will power, and love of the sports. I didn’t even help much in financing. She financed herself also. She just loved the sport.

Four of my five girls were members of the national team. Liaa was a member of the national team for bowling. Mikee for equestrian, Mai-Mai for football and China for indoor football. They played for the national team outside the country.

You’ve raised them well.

I always told them, if you are going for something, give everything you’ve got.

Did you and Tingting decide on how they were going to be raised up? Like “You take care of this and I take care of that?”

No. I am the disciplinarian. They weren’t bad. They weren’t spoiled.

How were you raised by your parents?

My mother was a disciplinarian. I was always reasoned out. Everything that they asked me to do, they gave me the reason.

Didn’t you go through a rebellious phase?

I would also do things that I wanted to do.

Who were your friends?

I belonged to a group, Al Ellas — La Salle backward. It was composed of people from Ateneo and La Salle. Esting Teopaco, Toti Lopa, Jun Elicante, Tommy Trinidad, Eddie San Juan, Mon Tapales, (Mon Gelate), Jun Arcinas, Tito Valencia, Pitoy Ticson, Noli Turingan, Roy Navarro, Rollie Tablante, among others.

We were a group that enjoyed each other’s company. We enjoyed playing basketball, watching movies, attending jam sessions. We were generally a peaceful, fun-loving group. We would be the peacemakers during the De la Salle-Ateneo Games when students from both sides there would be in a fracas.

What traits do you value in a friend?

We don’t like people who have hidden agendas. We want people who show what they really are.

You are a devotee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. How did this start?

This started for me in high school at the Loyola School. The first Friday was always some kind of a special day. All of us used to go to Mass, because of one promise of the Sacred Heart — that if you go to nine consecutive First Friday Masses and receive the Holy Communion, you will not die without making peace with the Lord. What better insurance do you like about going to or not going to heaven?

When I was Congressman and we were hit by several catastrophes then, like floods, volcano eruption, earthquake, one after the other, I called all the mayors. Hey, why don’t we have a novena Mass to the Sacred Heart on First Fridays? Which we did. I would go from one town to another, to the First Friday Mass while the others were holding their respective Masses, while the mayors would gather and attend Mass in just one church, which was rotated between the towns of the mayors. Typhoons directly headed for Tarlac.

What made you want to write this book, Laban: His Story?

There are many instances that people don’t know and which I believe people should know. So that the people who were really behind the fight for freedom and democracy will be known. In the next edition, hopefully, I will be able to put more names who risked everything. For instance, Jojo Binay and I went to the EDSA celebration. We were underneath the overpass, and looking at the stage. The people on the stage weren’t even party to the original EDSA. At the same time the people who were really involved won’t even attend to have themselves recognized. At the same time, I noticed that young people don’t know what really happened and who were involved in the struggle. It’s about time that they knew the sacrifices of Ninoy. Hey, he was assassinated.

This is the story that I have about Ninoy. Ninoy had this kind of thinking during his younger days. “Alam mo, Ping, mali itong national anthem natin. Mamatay ng Dahil sa Iyo. Bakit ganuon? Dapat, ang pumatay ng dahil sa iyo.” He wasn’t joking, he believed it. In the end, after he was incarcerated, especially when we got together in the States, he had a complete transformation.

Were you in touch with Ninoy before he came home? I once heard that you tried to dissuade him from returning to the Philippines.

Yes, we were talking over the phone days before he was coming home. “Why are you going home? At the least, they will put you back to jail. What good would it do us? You are the only leader... If we lose you, what will happen to our cause?” “Tigilan mo na ako, Ping. Basta tandaan mo lamang, whatever happens, don’t ever go for an armed revolution.” He repeated this on the phone. We talked about it many times. He said, “I talked to a lot of people involved in the armed revolution, including the Nicaragan rebels. Even the Nicaraguan priest said, ‘Don’t ever go for an armed revolution. We won, but the people lost and suffered.’ Tandaan mo yan, Peping. Huwag kang papayag.” So, that was my principle.

Could he have known he was going to be killed?

When he came home, he was for national reconciliation. I heard stories from the people who were with him on his journey back, from Massachusetts. All throughout, as they were preparing for the trip, they were all very happy, very jolly, until the night before they left for the Philippines. Ninoy received a phone call. And after that, Ninoy had completely changed. He became very quiet. He became very serious. I could only guess what the phone call was all about. The intelligence of Ninoy is really fantastic. Even when he was incarcerated and in solitary confinement, I would go and visit him and tell him stories and he would complete the story. He knew more than I knew. So, I figured, someone called him up, his source from those days, and told him, if you come home, you will be killed.

Is it true he planned to talk things out with Marcos?

He told me, “Ping, desidido na akong umuwi. I am definite about going home. Unless I go back, the country is in danger of civil war. I know because I talked with the NPA, I talked with the MNLF, the rebels. Areglado na lahat (all is set). I have a plan which I will submit to Marcos. A plan that, I know, Marcos will not refuse. Sigurado ako na pag nakita niya ito, hindi maari na hindi niya tanggapin.” Then he told me, “Kaya ikaw, umuwi ka na. Prepare my homecoming. Make sure that many will welcome me at the airport.” The person who called him up in Taiwan must have said, ‘Pag umuwi ka, papatayin ka.’ And knowing him, siguro sabi niya, “Okay, God, I am willing to give up my life in exchange for a peaceful transition.” That’s the way I look at it, anyway.

How was it like for you after the assassination?

When he was assassinated, things began to move for me. I never belonged to that higher echelon of the opposition at the same time I was the one blocking their moves toward an armed rebellion. National reconciliation ang sinasabi niyo, pero bakit mukha yatang binabago ninyo? “What national reconciliation when they killed him?” they retorted. Some of them were espousing armed rebellion.

From that time on, things began to fall into line. I became Secretary General of the PDP Laban and then President with not much effort on my part. Ang mga bagay na yun ang malaking nagtulak sa akin. Of course, I had my share of opponents but that’s part of the democratic process.

Sabi ko, ito na nga siguro ang trabaho ko para kay Ninoy. And I became that confident that this would be a peaceful transition. Lalo na kandidato na si Cory, ano, imposible naman kako na gamitin ng Diyos na walang mabuting kahihinatnan. Can you imagine Cory, with all the hardships and sacrifices and all the sufferings she underwent, how can she be put in a position, running for president, and losing? Hindi naman na yata maganda yun. Sobra nang parusa yun.

I could never make a mistake in that campaign. Everything I did, every decision I made — and I made a lot of decisions, because I was it.

What can you say about the return of the Marcoses and their cohorts?

That’s the fault of the Filipino. That’s because of the religious training, which tells us to forgive and forget. It’s all right to forgive. But I think we’ve gone a bit too far. We easily forget that these people had committed crimes against us, the Filipino people. What’s happening to us is as long as you have money, you are lord. They never ask where that money came from. Yun ang problema natin. How are you now going to change the attitude of some people?

What can you say about the pardon of the soldiers who were imprisoned for the murder of Ninoy?

The sad part is if it had gone another way, maybe people would take justice more seriously.

Siyempre, ang sabi ng mga tao, kung si Ninoy nga, di naman talaga nahuli kung sino talaga ang nagpapatay.

In your heart, would you know who was responsible for the killing of Ninoy?

According to Speaker Villareal, Marcos could not have done it. Sabi niya sa akin, during that period daw, Marcos was already incommunicado because he was in pain. My guess is people went to him. They told him Ninoy was arriving. “What do you want us to do? Si Marcos naman, sa sakit ng katawan niya, might have said, “Yan ba naman, itatanong niyo pa sa akin, bahala na kayo kung anong gagawin niyo?”

You look at this also. Marcos was too smart to do that. He knew the consequences.

Were you closer to Ninoy than you are to Noynoy?

Ninoy and I were partners. I only had one fault against Ninoy. I turned Liberal in 1962 without asking him. We were both Nacionalistas. Nag allied majority lang ako for the Speaker. Nag-usap-usap kami. Since we’re here already, we might just as well become Liberal. So, why not?

Of the many presidents you have worked with, sino sa inyo ang pinakamagaling? Except Cory, of course.

Alam mo siguro why I have sort of a complex or an attitude not to consider any of them as successful, it is because of one main thing. This is an agricultural country, and yet none of them ever focused on agriculture. Everyone says at the beginning of their economic program, agro-industrial. In the end, there is no more agro.

All the time, over 50 percent of our people live off agriculture. And I kept saying this to Gloria to the point that in the end, you know what she told me? “Peping, hindi na 50 percent, 47 percent na lang.” Why can’t we put a little more effort into agriculture? I am looking at Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Thailand. These people went into agriculture first.

You’re telling us agriculture will save us?

Of course. Why can it save us? Like I said, you give the appropriate attention to rice and coconut alone, that will give 25 percent of our population additional income, and that additional income will give them the buying power to buy into industry — one more pair of shoes, one more shirt, this and that. Regardless of what kind of industry you produce here, if you don’t have the buying power for it, where will it go?

* * *

Should you agree or disagree, praise or damn, e-mail me at cyber.proust@yahoo.com.

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