For 12 years the nation consigned the Marcoses and their cronies to the status of moral pariahs. A few of them managed to reinvent themselves and regain some of the power and wealth they lost at Edsa. But their efforts have produced only limited effects. Their political successes have remained local, and to this day they have failed to reclaim the moral stature they assumed for themselves when they ruled the nation.
The vindication they hope for will probably never come from the courts, but, if at all, only from the electorate. Imelda Marcos and Danding Cojuangco tried to get it in 1992 and both failed. Bongbong Marcos tested the national waters by running for senator in 1995, and he too was decisively rejected by the electorate. Yet, there can be no doubt that the forces identified with the Marcos regime continue to enjoy the support of a significant, albeit dispersed, constituency.
Today we have a president who, while he never had a reputation as a Marcos crony, was nonetheless identified as an enemy when the Cory government came to power in 1986. Erap never spoke against Marcos, he did not appear at Edsa when it was the politically correct thing to do, and worse, he chose to visit Marcos in Malacanang a few days before his fall. Erap is not Danding or Imelda, and his victory is certainly not a vindication of the Marcoses, but it does signal the expiration of the Edsa spirit.
That spirit, which drew its strength from the moral outrage against the excesses of a dictatorship, carried the Filipino people through two presidencies. It allowed the nation to write a new constitution, repair its economy and mend its democratic institutions. But the Edsa spirit has an expiration date; it cannot indefinitely sustain the demonization of the past regime. Outrage wears off with time. The cold procedures of reason, incarnated in the law, must deal with the actions taken in a period of anger and confusion. We have not been able to do that with any satisfaction in the last 12 years, judging from the performance of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR).
The result of this failure is an array of pending cases for graft and corruption, that have remained unresolved after more than a decade not so much because the accused delayed their prosecution but because the government did not have the will or competence to do its work. What we have reaped is the wasteful freezing of assets for an extended period of time not so much, it now appears, to prevent their dissipation as to permanently deny the owners the benefit of their use. What we have seen is the unforgivable suspension in limbo of countless cases of human rights abuse, usually for lack of witnesses, with no hope of ever showing the truth or the way to forgiveness.
But it would not be fair to blame the return of Danding Cojuangco on Erap. We may expect the new president to give a full account of the cases against the Marcoses and the cronies. We may expect him to defend the public interest in any compromise settlement on sequestered properties. But it is not reasonable to expect him to accomplish during his term what two presidents before him, both custodians of the legacy of Edsa, failed to achieve. That failure shows up the shallowness of our outrage and testifies to the unreliability of our institutions. We should have tried harder. But the question is where to go from here.
Writing about German guilt after the war, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard offers this advice: “For a people, the consciousness of its past, even if it is without illusions, can only be bad conscience. Good conscience requires that they examine what remains to be done. A nation does not need a spotless past to conquer itself, but a past pure and simple, that is, the opportunity to think itself concretely and to turn experience and trial into knowledge.”
Perhaps we will never know exactly how Marcos and his cronies stole from this country. It is very likely that they clothed their deeds in layers of law. They may never be convicted, but that does not necessarily make them innocent. It only makes them shrewd. How they will be pictured when the history of our generation is written will not depend on where they are buried or how they escaped imprisonment, but on where they stand morally in the people’s collective memory.
Right now, the nation’s more important task is to “think itself concretely,” to determine where to go from here. In the long term, our people must address the need to gather all the experiences from past governments in order to plug the leaks that drain the nation’s wealth. The evidence now before the Sandiganbayan may not be enough to prove the guilt of a Marcos or a crony, but the complex story it would tell about the abuse of public positions would help our scholars and legislators design better institutions for our society.
In the short term, we must decide what to do with all the properties sequestered 12 years ago on the suspicion that they were ill-gotten. The government must review its evidence once and for all, and determine if it is better for the country to pursue the cases to their logical end or to settle for a compromise. In any event, it is not right for the state to hold on indefinitely to anybody’s property while it is taking its sweet time gathering evidence against the owner.
As for President Erap, he might spare himself the pain of being publicly perceived as the patron of cronies by appointing to the PCGG only individuals with impeccable credentials and moral discernment. Yes, it is time we buried the past, but we must make sure the undertaker is above suspicion.
Jean-Francois Lyotard, “German Guilt,” Political Writings, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
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