JDV’s race against the clock to save Cha-cha

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
"If we miss the boat this time, there’ll be no hope for Constitutional change for the next ten years!" This was the anguished argument of Speaker Jose de Venecia at our Manila Overseas Press Club dinner-forum last Friday night.

Having lost the battle in the Supreme Court by a narrow but decisive 8-7 vote, De Venecia arrived at the EDSA Plaza Shangri-La late, appearing tired and disappointed – but when he walked into the bank of television cameras awaiting him, he switched on his multi-megawatt "winning" smile. After all, politics is show biz, and if you look like a loser – you’ll lose.

Indeed, JDV was cool and calm despite the furrows of weariness on his brow, and laughed easily at the jokes and repartee at the head table. But when he stood up to deliver his oration, he went into a fighting mood. He pulled no punches in zeroing in on the Supreme Court which had, by one vote, burst the bubble of his dream.

He groused that he was sorry the Court seemed "to have focused on the technicalities of the question – instead of the very real and very urgent political problems that impoverish the masses of Filipinos, demoralize our idealistic young people, and cause our country to lag behind its vigorous neighbors in the world’s fastest-growing region."

Up to now, I don’t really understand what he meant when he added that the Supreme Court "seems to have engaged in a trial of the facts instead of in a trial of the constitutionalities of our position."

During our dinner, he intimated to me that if the Supreme Court doesn’t reverse itself in answer to a coming Motion for Reconsideration by December 15, then time will have run out for the "People’s Initiative." He expressed the forlorn hope that after Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban retires on December 6, and a vacancy on the Bench is filled to replace the Justice who will move up, the High Tribunal might give the "Initiative" the nod. Alas, Joe, praying for a miracle is all you’ve got left.

In any event, battered but not yet beaten, Sunshine Joe says he’ll battle on. Con-Ass? Even for that, in my opinion, time is expiring. Yet, as I’ve said of him, De Venecia has overturned the old definition of politics as "the art of the possible." He has bettered that stale definition by transforming his style into the "art of the impossible." Throughout his, let me say checkered life and career he attempted to do – and often succeeded in doing – impossible things.

Sadly, though, with his Cha-Cha Express derailed by the High Tribunal’s narrow 8-7 decision, he may soon have to acknowledge meeting his Waterloo.

It was typical of JDV to have wagered everything on his passionate pursuit of "Cha-Cha" by exerting tremendous effort and using his every ounce of charm, persuasion, and hard-bargaining to achieve his aim. Even if Plan B is now, by his admission, going to be invoked – that of getting both Houses to reconstitute themselves into a Constituent Assembly for Charter change – once more I must remark that the clock militates against it. The Senate obviously won’t play – and Joe’s definition that a total of the votes cast by Congress (not the Senate and House voting separately) would carry the day will, once again, have to be tested in the Supreme Court.
* * *
Why does De Venecia maintain that if we don’t push through with Charter change this time, there won’t be any prospect of amending the Constitution or adopting a new Charter which converts our system from Presidential to Parliamentary for many years to come?

His argument is based on the fact that La Presidenta GMA is the only President to have expressed willingness to have her powers diminished during her term by accepting the creation of the post of Prime Minister – a Prime Minister (JDV pointed out) who would effectively be the "chief operating officer" of the government.

"The next President who’s going to be elected in the year 2010," De Venecia said, "surely will not welcome any Charter which would diminish her (then, quickly changing the sex tag) – or his powers.

I trust GMA fully understands the possibility of our getting a Parliamentary system on the French model, in which the Prime Minister runs the government and the President, while highest in stature, is relegated to mostly ceremonial duties. Perhaps she might prefer the British system, in which the Prime Minister does all the work and runs things (and gets all the badgering like Tony Blair), but there’s a Queen in the Palace to preside over all the pomp and circumstance.

Everybody knows that La Presidenta and her merry men, especially Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronnie Puno (who was picked for that job), pushed mightily and expensively to collect more than 6.3 million signatures for a "People’s Initiative." After the Supreme Court vote, however, La Gloria reacted like she didn’t have a care in the world, or didn’t suffer a setback.

When she graciously came to witness the conferment of the French Legion d’Honneur, Officer rank, on this writer at the Embassy residence of France’s Ambassador Gerard Chesnel in North Forbes Park Thursday night, La Presidenta was radiating charm and good humor. She even stayed for more than an hour and a half to have dinner with us, even though she was leaving for Xiamen, in the People’s Republic of China, early the following morning. In fact, she still had the energy to visit Speaker Joe in his residence not far away – probably to console him on the Supreme Court setback.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Bert Romulo (just recovered from a bout of the flu – I hope he doesn’t dislike my giving out this medical bulletin) was smilingly with us, too. He’ll follow to China today or tomorrow. Also present were a host of friends, like Defense Secretary Avelino "Nonong" Cruz, other ranking officials, Ambassadors and so forth.

The Ambassador had laid out – and I thank him for it – a glittering repast for the occasion, too. A good time, I dare say, was had by all.

But enough of society gossip. Friday, with the President off for China, and Vice-President Noli de Castro abroad, too, it fell to Joe de Venecia, as the highest-ranking official left here at home, to go to the International Airport to greet Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, accompanied by DFA Secretary Romulo. The unflappable JDV reported to us later that he had discussed mutual cooperation and other exchanges with S.B.Y. during the one-hour meeting at the NAIA. The Indonesian President was on a brief stop-over on his way from Jakarta to China.
* * *
Our MOPC dinner-forum was well-attended, since everybody wanted to know how JDV felt about the Supreme Court decision.

Among those present was Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Gen. Hermogenes "Jun" Esperon and some of his staff. Once more, we asked General Esperon how the hunt for Jemaah Islamiyah "Bali Bomber" Dulmatin, his terrorist pal Umar Patek, and chief Abu Sayyaf terrorist Khadaffy Janjalani was going.

The general replied that there are now ten battalions in Sulu engaged in search operations – including recently dispatched Special Forces and Special Operations Units. By golly, with 6,000 men being deployed in Sulu, I hope they won’t start shooting each other by mistake.

Yet, what’s the use of nagging? What will happen will happen. Who knows, our forces may luck out. We in the media shouldn’t fancy ourselves know-it-alls, even in matters of military strategy.
* * *
THE ROVING EYE . . . In my "Message from the Chairman" in the MOPC program brochure – which had, I must add, some glaring typographical errors – I recounted a few of the exploits of JDV. Among them was the following: "Some years ago, the intrepid JDV even crossed a dangerous desert in the dead of night from the Jordanian border to Baghdad to meet with then President Saddam Hussein of Iraq in one of the latter’s secret palaces. He was trying to get Saddam to pay him the $120 million he was owed for highway construction and housing development done by his old firm, Land-Oil. Saddam has since been overthrown and is being tried in court so Joe de V. despairs of ever being repaid." Would you believe, the printed program said that he had crossed "a dangerous dessert." Admittedly, most desserts are dangerous to the waistline, but that’s not what I meant. Anyway, at Friday’s dinner, JDV chided me for having left something vital out of the anecdote. He reminded me that he had crossed that desert in 1996 to meet with Saddam primarily to ask him to release three Filipinos who had been languishing in his prisons for ten years, "in this I was successful," Joe recounted. "Saddam released the three hostages into my custody and I was able to bring them home!" Okay, Joe – this is duly recorded in today's column. JDV’s courage and compassion deserve their due. But the "lost" $120 million isn’t peanuts. (That would have amounted to about P6 billion, enough to have paid off much of Land-Oil’s arrears) . . . Incidentally, the three Filipinos rescued by JDV in his 2,000 km. dash across the Jordanian-Iraqi desert were Ronaldo Ramos of Caloocan, Roberto Capiral of Ubando, Bulacan, and Alberto Nibungco of Pandi, Bulacan . . . By the way, unforgivably misspelled in last Thursday’s column (erroneously as Pablo Garuda) was the name of the real Constitutional law expert, former Cebu Governor Pablo Garcia – father, incidentally, of present Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia.

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