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The man who holds a candle: Cesar Virata in the Marcos regime |

Sunday Lifestyle

The man who holds a candle: Cesar Virata in the Marcos regime

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose -

The year was 1964, I had returned to Manila after two years in Colombo, Ceylon, as information officer of the Colombo Plan Bureau. With my savings and assistance from the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris I had set up my publishing house, the journal Solidarity, and Solidaridad bookshop. One day, I received a luncheon invitation from Jose Aspiras, who then headed the Association of Textile Millers. His office was in one of the annex buildings of the Manila Hotel. Joe, as all of us on Newspaper Row called him, was a staff member of the Evening News on the same Florentino St. where I had worked as editor of the Manila Times Sunday Magazine and the annual Progress. I had known Joe for more than a decade and since we were both Ilokanos, the bonding was tight. He knew that I was familiar with the leading writers and intellectuals of the country and in Southeast Asia. He asked me to set up a think tank to support Ferdinand Marcos who was then a senator in his campaign for the presidency and backstop him as well when he became president.

At the University of Santo Tomas, in 1946, one of my classmates was Jose Nalundasan, the youngest son of Julio Nalundasan. He told me he was absolutely certain it was Marcos who had killed his father. Since then I had instinctively kept away from Marcos so I told Joe I could not do what he asked as I had to concentrate on my projects.

Joe exploded: “What is your publishing house, your journal? If Marcos wins — and he will — the sky is the limit!”

With  Ferdinand Marcos and his cabinet during martial law: Of the many who were close to the dictator, very few have come out of the relationship with their reputation unsullied. Virata is one of those few.

I had made up my mind but just the same, I was glad that at last here was a leader who would rule with a native brain trust. We then sat together and worked on a list that included some of my colleagues on Newspaper Row and the leading lights in academe. Cesar Virata was certainly high up on that list.

Ever since that flashiest of the Makati monoliths, the Yuchengco Tower at the corner of Buendia and Ayala, was built, I have been there several times, for lunch with the taipan Al Yuchengco, his PR chief, the late Virgilio Pantaleon, and his premier executive Cesar Virata, economist, teacher and the highest officer to serve in the Marcos dictatorship. From the 46th floor of executive country, a magnificent panorama of Metro Manila sprawls all the way to the far reaches of Manila Bay in the west and unfurls to the Sierra Madre in the east.

I was in the Tower Club again the other week to finalize this article. Senator Bongbong Marcos had made that fantastic claim earlier that if his father had not been deposed at EDSA I in 1986 we would be what affluent and bubbling Singapore is now. Last fortnight, he reacted petulantly when President Noynoy Aquino stated that under his watch, Bongbong’s father would never be given a state funeral.

Cesar Virata served Marcos from March 1967 to the ignominious end. What does he think of Marcos now? A generation has passed and we need to look back and ponder what transpired in the more than two decades that Marcos was in power. For the past few months, I have been having desultory conversations with Cesar. He had agreed to talk about a past still shrouded with gossip, innuendo and unresolved mysteries, among them the murder of the current president’s father, and whatever happened to the giant loot the Marcoses were supposed to have stashed abroad.

During their long hold on power, the Marcoses touched many lives. There is that old saying that he who sleeps with dogs is bound to catch some fleas. Of the many who were very close to the dictator and his wife, very few have come out of the relationship with their reputation unsullied. Cesar Virata is one of those few although, of course, he can never totally shake off the stigma that he was associated with a tyranny that brought ruin to this country and death to thousands. Justice has yet to be served for the victims.

Virata with Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos P. Romulo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the Republic of Colombia’s Virgilio Barco presenting him a presidential merit award: He had admirers in the world’s leading financial and economic institutions.

During those grim years under Marcos, I had just one thought that kept me going: that I would live long enough to see how the dictatorship would end. And I saw how it ended; I was at EDSA with the other cheering thousands and since then, I have also hoped that those who were involved so deeply in that despicable government would tell us what really happened in the slimy sanctums of power, in the murky corridors of Malacañang. Having personally known some of the major actors in that power cabal, I have encouraged some of them to emerge from the dark, to tell us about the Marcos regime, so that from that debacle in our history, we could perhaps learn something. Cesar Virata was both humble and courageous enough to accede to my request.

Cesar Virata’s reputation of excellence and integrity extended beyond his country’s borders. He had admirers in the world’s leading financial and economic institutions. Ambassador Rolando Garcia served in Berne during the Marcos years; he told me he was made aware of Virata’s reputation in the Swiss banking and financial circles.

On Sept. 21, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and for the next 19 years, he ruled with untrammeled power a fractious nation and a gregarious people. Many pivotal changes in the political system took place during that period. The Filipino psyche had also been afflicted — a whole generation of Filipinos’ moral attitudes were altered and so many new words in the lexicon took shape. The Marcos dictatorship ended in February 1986 when the Filipinos, in a very unusual display of unity and courage, massed together at EDSA. After three days of demonstrations that were more like a religious fiesta, Marcos was forced to flee into exile in the United States. A generation has lapsed since then, during which the country could have been turned around by the new leadership. Unfortunately, no such redemptive transformation happened.

A sense of history: Virata  in Silang with wife Joy, daughter Gillian, son Steven, daughter-in-law  Mia, grandchildren Enzo, Xavier, Diego and Daniela and friend Me-An Asico.Virata’s grand uncle was General Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of Asia’s First Republic.

Cesar Virata’s progeny imbued him not just with a sense of history but with that sterling motivation to serve. His granduncle was no less than Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of Asia’s First Republic. His father, Enrique Virata, was a faculty member at the University of the Philippines and was also business manager under UP president Bienvenido Gonzalez, in charge of developing the land grants of the University. Cesar was unsure of getting to the United States so he tried to finish his electrical engineering and MS degree in industrial management at night. He wanted to be a factory manager as many factories were being set up.

He received a grant to go to the United States to study. His preference was to enroll at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, in the Sloan School of Industrial Management. But he was told to go to Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He arrived with two suits and an overcoat borrowed from uncle Leonides Virata, a high government official who helped him in his studies. His $12 a day per diem during travel was reduced to $8 a day when he got there. His food cost $3, his room $1 a day. The balance went for other needs. His scholarship was only for two terms. He wanted a master’s degree, for a degree was important to him as a teacher. He talked with his adviser to be allowed the maximum 15 units per term beyond the regular load of 12 units. He actually needed 30 units to graduate. His thesis was on electrification in support of industrialization. He was able to get his degree from Wharton where he also studied the American labor system, the automotive and steel industries, then enrolled further in a summer course on work simplification, a special course for industrial practitioners. He then returned to the University of the Philippines to teach.          

Revisiting the park at Wharton during an annual World Bank meeting: Virata was named one of Wharton’s 100 outstanding alumni.

Washington Sycip invited him to join SGV as consultant in 1956 after he resigned from UP because his father was appointed acting president and he was assigned to study the sale of Bacnotan Cement and mining firms cost accounting system. Then Vicente Sinco became president of UP. He called Virata to offer him the dean seat at the School of Economics. He accepted on the condition that he be allowed to continue his consultancy at SGV. Both president Sinco and Washington Sycip agreed to the arrangement. He was in the college the whole morning, at SGV after lunch, and at night he taught at the UP graduate school in Manila. He was making P900 a month at SGV, much more than at UP. He was not yet 30.

He helped the faculty to go abroad for specialized studies, among them Jimmy Laya who went to Stanford. He also proposed that Ateneo, La Salle and UP form a management school, but UP withdrew because it could not control the new institute which became the Asian Institute of Management (AIM). He also proposed to General Romulo when he was UP president to create a foundation that would assist UP faculty members as the field was competitive and UP academics could be pirated easily.

At the time that Marcos was planning his strategy to occupy Malacañang, Virata was already a byword in Philippine finance, industry and academe. As a distinguished professor at the UP College of Business Administration he was innovative and pioneered the use of actual case studies of Philippine enterprises.

Rafael Salas, who worked with Ramon Magsaysay in the ‘50s, also worked for Marcos. It was he who got Virata into government. Salas called him immediately after Marcos won in 1965 to join the transition committees on Finance and Agriculture. Dean Dioscoro Umali, Fernando Lopez, Miguel Cuaderno and Eduardo Romualdez were also there. How to increase rice production, and the exchange rate of the dollar, were among the issues discussed. The reports were submitted to Marcos at his house in San Juan. This was the first time Virata met him.

On the campaign trail with wife Joy and supporters: The man’s guiding ideal was the philosopher-king, the ruler who was energized not just by raw power but by intellect .

After a hiatus of two years, Marcos called for him in February 1967 to join the Presidential Economic Staff. Invited to dinner at Malacañang, Imelda told him, “You know, it is good to work in the government.” Virata told her he was already in government at the UP, and at SGV he did consulting work for the Bureau of Customs, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and the water system.

Virata was designated deputy director of the Presidential Economic Staff for investments. His major job was to have an investment law enacted by Congress.

Virata was in Washington, D.C., when Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Like the other high officials who were in Manila or abroad, he had no inkling that it would happen although, of course, talk was rife that it would. The noisy demonstrations were multiplying and growing bigger. Violence had already erupted; during the campaign season Plaza Miranda had been bombed. Several were killed and senior politicians like Jovito Salonga were severely wounded. Jose Maria Sison’s Communist Party was found later to be the brains behind that bombing, although it was admitted years later by no less than former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile that much of the violent anarchy was orchestrated to provide an excuse for the declaration of martial law.

When asked by an American journalist what he thought of the new regime, Virata said, perhaps facetiously, that “the Philippines had joined the rest of Asia.” After all, many of the Asian governments at the time were openly authoritarian.

In a country where money was amassed by timid entrepreneurs and conservative land-owning oligarchs, Marcos needed the infusion of foreign capital. He needed someone like Cesar Virata to use his expertise as well as his unblemished reputation with global financial institutions. The Marcos vision shared by many economists themselves demanded the development of the country’s exports, a tried-and-tested potential to balance import substitution that the “tiger” economies of Asia were already successfully using.

The time was most opportune; some economists like Amado Castro of the Development Bank of the Philippines believed we were already in the “takeoff stage.” And why not? In the ‘60s — as that sad refrain goes — we were the second richest nation in Asia, next to Japan. Another economist, Bernardo Villegas, was just as confident that with our growing population, we had a large domestic market as well as a big pool of workers to produce the goods.

Another important reason why Virata was asked to join the Marcos team was because the Parity Act, which was dictated to the Philippine government by the United States in 1946, would end in 1974 and the Philippines needed to be prepared for that event. The treaty gave the Americans equal rights with Filipino citizens in the exploitation of our natural resources and operation of public utilities. What to do with the enterprises that would revert to Filipinos was, in itself, an economic transformation and restructuring that needed expert and smooth transition.

The good that Marcos did

Without our biases and bitter memories of those years of repression, mayhem and murder, we can see that some of the accomplishments of the Marcos regime were astounding, beginning with the abolition of tenancy in the rice and corn lands. This blight had for decades been the major source of peasant unrest, the fundamental cause of rebellion in the distant past, on to the Colorum uprising in 1931, the Sakdal revolt in 1935 and the Hukbalahap rebellion in the Forties onward. That famous Marcos decree abolished tenancy and replaced it with leasehold, something that was not legally possible in a Congress that was — and still is — dominated by landlords.

But Marcos did not go as far as to abolish tenancy in the sugar and coconut lands. Sugar and coconut were export industries from which he made money with his monopolies and cronies.

With the dictatorship, too, so many outdated codes — on tariffs, customs, penal, corporate — were improved to meet the demands of modernity and a growing population.

During the Marcos regime, the Development Academy — an idea of Onofre D. Corpuz, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and was former president of the UP — was set up to train the chief bureaucrats of the government not just in administration but also on how to make the bureaucracy more responsive and efficient. In the parliamentary system which, according to Cesar Virata, fits us more than the presidential system, the bureaucracy is the backbone of government, though each department is headed by a minister selected by the ruling party, the departments are run by permanent secretaries who are professional bureaucrats. This system explains the efficiency of bureaucracies in Japan and England.

Imelda, too, recognized the value of culture in a nation’s development and she focused on it, partly inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts in the United States. She also embarked on a building program that, today, benefits many Filipinos.

The ethnic Chinese were grateful to Marcos; he made it easier for them to acquire citizenship. Before Marcos, to acquire citizenship, the Chinese had to go through the wringer of bureaucratic corruption.

In the first two years of martial law, Filipinos also learned to be disciplined. But this welcome conditioning soon evaporated when it was evident that Marcos played favorites not only with the army, which he Ilocanized, but also with his cronies who rode roughshod over their competitors. This was done with special decrees — some of them secret — which Marcos issued. This, too, according to Virata, was one of the major sources of graft for Marcos and his cabal.

Marcos was considered “America’s boy” in Southeast Asia; after all, as a former American colony, the Philippines showed itself as a staunch American ally, always ready to assist the United States in its Asian ventures. It had supported the Americans in their conflict with North Korea during the Korean War in 1951 and, yet again, in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s. It was Marcos shortly after his ascension to Malacañang.who convinced Lyndon Johnson to hold the Manila Summit in 1966.

But that seemingly loyal support for the United States was not total. For one, unlike Korea, the Philippines had refused to send a combat unit in support of the United States in the Vietnam War. Marcos had correctly argued that Vietnam was a neighbor and instead sent a reconstruction group, not a combat battalion. He also did not allow American B-52s to take off from Clark and Mactan to bomb Vietnam.

According to Virata, the souring of American attitudes towards Marcos was heightened when he shortened the bases agreement in preparation for the eventual banishment of the US military from the Philippines.

As Marcos had explained to former Agrarian Reform Secretary Conrado F. Estrella, who I have also interviewed, the treaty had to be abrogated since it was for 99 years. According to international law, the Americans would then have the right to regard it as permanent and they would then own the bases in perpetuity as had happened to the Guantanamo American base in Cuba. No Filipino leader could let that happen.

Ninoy’s Assasination

Two days after Ninoy Aquino was murdered on Aug. 21, 1983, Virata was in Istanbul, Turkey, to chair the UN Economic and Financial Conference. When asked by journalists about the commission that had been formed to investigate the assassination, Virata said that government elements also had to be investigated. He knew of the rigid security measures at the airport; that these could be breached needed to be looked into for the murder revealed the inadequacy of that security system.

He got a call from the director of the Philippine Information Agency, Greg Cendaña, who told the media that he was misquoted but he declined to correct the statement; he said that was what he had said. Yet again, when he returned to Manila, this was what he reiterated. Marcos knew he had a letter of resignation ready for submission all through the years that Virata had served him. There were several occasions when Marcos knew Virata wanted to resign but he always reversed himself or followed Virata’s suggestions.

Together with the Chief Justice and the Speaker, Virata went to the Aquino residence on Times Street in Quezon City to pay his respects but they were refused entry.

Marcos was the primary suspect in Ninoy’s murder. As the whole country knows, that suspicion — in spite of the investigation and the subsequent conviction and imprisonment of the convicted soldiers — persists to this very day, and the brains behind it have neither been identified nor brought to trial.

Soon after, one by one, the Marcos crew left the sinking ship. Why did Virata stay on to the very end? Was it out of a deep sense of loyalty to the man who also made him prime minister? Was it dogged stubbornness?

He was advised by well-meaning friends to leave; they even warned him he would become nobody — not even mud — when Marcos fell. He told Marcos in person he could no longer serve in government with the stigma of the Aquino assassination hovering over it. Marcos begged him to stay on, saying his services were now needed much, much more. Virata acceded; he had a simple answer when I asked him why: “Sense of duty.”

In hindsight, after all those many years when the tumult of criticism had muted, we can now look objectively at that dark cloud that passed. I was personally harassed by the regime but what I suffered is nothing compared to the thousands who were jailed, tortured or killed. Because of his tyranny, Marcos turned out to be the best recruiter for such a radical organization like the New People’s Army.

Surely, government hierarchs like Virata were aware of the human rights violations, the injustices heaped by the dictator and his thugs on the powerless.

Did he know about them?

Virata said he knew; how could he not? He asked the Department of Justice to respond to the claims of human rights violations. But these were not on his turf and even when he became prime minister, peace and order were not his primary responsibility. On occasion, he had reminded the dictator that economic development depended so much on the stability, the security of the country.

I did not ask him, but I am sure he also admired Marcos; it was not just that iron sense of duty to a post entrusted to him that made him stay. In this, Virata was not alone.

Marcos had attracted in the beginning “the best and the brightest,” among them, Alex Melchor, Rafael Salas, his executive secretary who left for New York to work for the United Nations population program; his secretary of education, Onofre D. Corpuz had also left months before EDSA 1. UP scholars, personal friends like the poet Alejandrino Hufana, professors Felipe Landa Jocano, Remigio Agpalo, Zeus Salazar, Serafin Quiason, Jr. — they all admired Marcos intellectually but did not profit from him as did so many others who pandered to the dictator. They were adamant; they glossed over how Marcos had despoiled the institutions of democracy, and worse, the Filipino psyche.

Those of us who stood up to Marcos and his hirelings, and particularly those who suffered his lash — the thousands who were unjustly imprisoned and the relatives and survivors of his torturers — we can afford to be self-righteous not just in our opposition to him but in the loathing, which we felt and still feel for the toadies who did his bidding, who shared his loot. But what about those Filipinos of goodwill, those intellectuals who worked with him, who did not profit? How are we to regard them?

How could they justify working for an immoral leader? Will they, like the clerks who managed Hitler’s gas chambers, which exterminated the Jews by the millions, be believed when they say that they were merely “following orders” or that, without them, things would have been far worse?

I know what their answer would be, the same answer which I would give perhaps, if in 1964 I had accepted when Joe Aspiras offered me the job of forming a think tank for Marcos.

Marcos offered Virata a Cabinet position before he declared martial law. Intellectuals who have no actual power to carry out projects could see the golden opportunity to translate their ideas into actualities. More than this, here was a chance to serve the people, to be of actual help in the state which, after all, guarantees the citizens security. Marcos was the state.

The president of the Philippines — even now with his term limited to only six years — is the single most powerful individual in the country. He does not have to leave Malacañang to make millions legally and otherwise in such a short time. And more so during the martial law regime when, with a single presidential decree, Marcos could make an ally a billionaire instantly. The overpricing of so many government projects alone netted some of his friends billions.

Yet those who were close to Marcos observed that he was the personification of the Ilokano ethos — frugal, hardworking and stubborn. He would question outlays and consider them outright expensive. His food was plain — the traditional Iloko dinengdeng or vegetable stew. His habits, too, were marked by the simplicity of the Ilokano lifestyle. And as the Ilokanos have often insisted, it was all Imelda’s doing — the profligacy, the extravagance, the mindless striving to create a Filipino royalty.       

Virata gave the state the best of his ability at tremendous risk to himself, and to his family. Not many people know of his heroic act, that in the years that he was in government he fired over 5,000 erring bureaucrats and for this, he was threatened.

Why Marcos Failed

What are the most important insights that we can dredge from the Marcos experience? Here was a man who had acquired what no Filipino had gotten for himself: the immense power to command, to herd a complacent and pliant people and in the process acquiring so much wealth as well. As Virata and so many of the technocrats who had backstopped Marcos said, the man’s guiding ideal was the philosopher-king, the ruler who was energized not just by raw power but by the intellect. He had, after all, also built his own oligarchy to replace the rapacious oligarchs whom he had humbled to their knees. Why, then, did he fail?

Even with all the means at his command, Marcos failed because he was not able to transcend himself, his vaulting avarice for wealth and power. He was hobbled by the poverty of the spirit and with it, no real patriotism — an affection for the land — not as symbol or panoply, but as people.

The abolition of poverty — the wherewithal to diminish it and injustice as well — does not spring from political or economic ideology but from a stern moral imperative. Collaboration with tyranny, too, may be condoned, even forgotten or forgiven politically but it will always fester in the heart and mind as a moral issue.

In hindsight, the failings of Marcos seem clearer, bigger. For one, he brings to mind that rusted barb against Jawaharlal Nehru — he was no dictator, but he ruled India for so long and his influence lingered long after his death. As perceptive Indians said, “Nehru is like the banyan tree. Under him nothing grows.” So it was with Marcos. Virata faults him with not preparing for a successor. He had absolute political power but he did not develop a second tier of leaders to succeed him. He had, instead, tried to build his succession from his family. Whether he willed it or not, by the time he had fallen ill, it was his wife who was already well on the way towards assuming the vast powers which he had wielded. And because Filipinos have no memory, a generation after his death, his wife and children — voted into power by a lobotomized people — are well on the way to grabbing the same power that had slipped from their hands.

Virata believes that in the end, Marcos’s decline was an act of God. He became ill. When Virata saw Marcos for the last time, Marcos did not only look unwell, but his mind was no longer alert, and he seemed to speak and act as if in a daze.

In the beginning, it was easy for any of the technocrats to go and see him but towards the end, it got more and more difficult to have an audience with the man.

Imelda’s dislike of Virata was well known. Conrado Estrella recounts an incident when she was fulminating against Virata, saying Marcos should get rid of him immediately because he was an obstacle to her projects. Marcos asked which, and she said, housing.

Marcos replied that it is not mass housing that was the immediate need of the lower classes — that above all, they needed jobs so that they would have the money to pay for their houses.

Then Marcos said, “Without Virata, we cannot get the foreign loans we need for he is the man these institutions trust.”

As the most trusted financial adviser of the dictator, Virata faced many pressures from within and without, most of all from Imelda. He was joined by Gilbert Teodoro, Sr., who headed the Social Security System, in denying her. Virata was nicknamed “Dr. No” from the famous James Bond movie. Gilbert, Jr. knew of the friendship between Virata and his father; he empathized with Virata on his difficulties, having to bear himself the odium of serving under an unpopular President Gloria Arroyo.

In hindsight, the Philippines did not really take advantage of the import substitution policy as did Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. We imported a lot but there was no corresponding export surge. The vested interests in this country, the oligarchy, did not contribute to the export industries. This was the greatest barrier to the Marcos economic program, the major reason why economic development did not take off.

In one of his visits to Manila after the fall of Sukarno in 1965, the Indonesian novelist Mochtar Lubis told me what had happened in Indonesia. Over a million Indonesians were killed in one of the worst social upheavals in Asia when anarchy prevailed as the dictator Sukarno was ousted.

It was the same in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over that country. In Spain in 1939 after General Franco defeated the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, some 50,000 were killed.

Why did EDSA 1, which ushered in the catastrophic regime of Cory Aquino, not end in the same manner? According to Virata, Marcos believed the nation would not heal if he used the Armed Forces against their countrymen. During the EDSA revolt, he did not follow General Ver’s recommendation to use heavy arms. How was anarchy and its bloodbath avoided by Filipinos who are no better than their Southeast Asian neighbors? Filipinos have seldom asked themselves this important question for, to so many of us, it would seem that the transfer of power from one regime to another would always be peaceful.

Looking back, it is incredible how EDSA 1 smoothly transferred power from the Marcos dictatorship to the “revolutionary” Cory government. Not more than 20 lives were lost. Damage to property was also minimal. Compare this with what happened in Indonesia during the anarchical interim from the Sukarno to the Suharto regime; that the rivers turned red with blood was no fictional creation. Recalling the tragic aftermath of Sukarno’s fall, Mochtar Lubis described how fearful it was even to the ordinary Indonesian untouched by ideological or political controversy. “It was each man for himself — the personal hatreds, the thirst for vengeance had come with such viciousness, it was a revelation of man’s inhumanity to man.” He said — perhaps expecting the same holocaust to descend on the Philippines with the end of Marcos — “Stay in the city, it is safer there than in the rural areas. At least, that was our experience.”

Looking back, one of the most obvious reasons why EDSA 1 was essentially bloodless which we do not quite recognize even today is that the government remained intact, particularly the military and the police. It was intact because men like Cesar Virata, Conrado Estrella, Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile were at the helm.

Listen: there is some truth to the observation that those who live under a dictatorship — communist, fascist, or whatever — lose their sense of right and wrong, that they become amoral for the simple reason that under such dictatorships, morality ethics are diminished. The so-called decent avenues to the vital things in life — food, medical care, promotion — are closed. People have to use their wits to survive, and those who live by the old moral codes are rare. Using the narrow and crooked road is, often, the only way. And when normality returns, with too many of the populace already infected by the virus of corruption, it becomes difficult to revert to the old ways of virtue and decency. Just look at our own society after World War II, or even closely now at the dictatorship of Marcos, and realize that dictatorships do not produce virtue but the impetus to forge ahead without virtue.

And what about those who survived? Those who supported the dictatorships or believed in them? Even though the facts of their mistake are flung back in their faces, they will never accept these empirical proofs. To do so would be to indulge in self-mockery, that all their years had gone to waste. No, they cannot abjure the past, their mistakes and their contribution to the tyranny of these dictators because by accepting such, they would demean themselves, that, indeed, their lives had no meaning!

The apostates, the men who served the dictator and, like Vicente Paterno, Jr. who recognized their mistake: they deserve our understanding and compassion.

He who holds a candle

It is not easy for many of the Marcos critics to accept this, the fact that the men of good will in the Marcos government diminished the mayhem that was unleashed on the people.

The creation of a stable and just state has always been man’s greatest aspiration from ancient times to the present. The need for absolutes in morality as guidance, as a measure by which the legitimacy of the ruler is measured is always necessary, but such absolutes are more of a goal than a given in any government. The huge gray area between black and white is where many of us act out our fates.

Thus, there is always a special niche for an upright bureaucrat, a man of good will even in the most corrupt of systems; in the darkness, he who holds a candle is always needed; whether his light will grow or not, of course, is another matter for the state is what the people themselves make. And no state is static, no ruler ever rules forever. In fact, philosophically, no object in this world is permanent.

Deng Xiaoping, the leader who ushered the prosperity of China after the death of Mao Tse Tung, said something significant which needs to be understood by us: “It does not matter if the cat is black or white — what is important is that it catches mice.”

Could this mean that it matters not whether our government is presidential, parliamentary or even a dictatorship such as that which Marcos established, as long it brings justice to our people? A nation does not have to wallow in wealth; perhaps it is enough that its citizens have three meals a day, a roof over their heads, and most of all, that they have justice for so many hardships can be shouldered by a people for as long as justice works for them, which also means that they can sleep soundly at night.

Conrado Estrella said something equally significant. “If a leader is trusted like Magsaysay was, he does not need to declare martial law because the people will follow him.”

If they prevail, it is also men like Cesar Virata who make leaders like Magsaysay possible — they can even emerge from the chrysalis to be the leader themselves.

* * *

(Next week: Cesar Virata answers some difficult questions.)

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