“Hello Garci, Happy New Year!”

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo might have called former Comelec Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano on January 1st last year to wish him the blessings of the New Year. Their brief harmless call could have been wiretapped, spliced and later mixed with other recorded material, to produce the controversial Garci Tapes.

This is the gist of the theory recently propounded by my fellow Inquirer columnist, Honesto G. General. “Whoever produced the tapes – let’s call him Lobo – started wiretapping the cell and landline phones of President Arroyo and Garcillano right after the 2004 elections.  When Lobo had enough recorded material, he produced the Garci tapes by electronically transferring words and phrases into what was later referred to as the master tapes….The whole project took a year to finish.” (PDI 12/19/05)

When I chanced upon Mr. General’s column in the business section, I thought this absurd proposition was his way of ridiculing

Malacanang’s futile attempt to dismiss the Garci tapes. I realized, to my dismay, that he was serious. From the premise that the technology for splicing tapes and mixing sounds now exists, he draws the conclusion that the Garci tapes must be fake.  It had taken one year, he says, for these spurious conversations to surface because that’s how long it took to gather the raw material needed to assemble the fake Garci tapes. He offers no empirical proof to support this astounding conclusion.

Yet he questions the reliability of all previous attempts to rationally deal with the tapes.  “No voice expert – certainly not Randy David – can authenticate the Garci tapes by just playing the tapes, even repeatedly.  Only a similar set of equipment that produced them can detect the fakery.”  I disagree. Inquiry and verification can take many routes and employ a variety of methods.  We may call upon a voice authenticator to tell us if the voices in a tape match the voice prints of a given sample of voices.  We may ask a recording technician to ascertain the physical integrity of a piece of recorded material. But all that one needs to make sense of a conversation is knowledge of the language and a lot of commonsense.

If one wishes to go beyond commonsense, he may consult at least two relevant fields of study to deal with the task of interpretation: hermeneutics and ethnomethodology. Biblical exegetes typically use the first to decipher the contested messages of the Scriptures. Conversation analysts employ the second to reveal the normative and achieved character of conversations. I have approached the Garci tapes with some background on the analytic strategies of these two disciplines.

A careful analysis of the content of these tapes will reveal that nowhere in the conversations does GMA actually give the order to cheat or manipulate the canvassing process.  What one will hear in these exchanges is GMA sharing her worries about some aspects of the ongoing canvassing with Garci. Why Garci?  Because, obviously, the man had been entrusted with a big assignment that went over and beyond his role as an election commissioner.  Garci – sometimes in exasperation but barely showing it — allays her anxiety by telling her what he intends to do about the problem or situation she brings up.  What lends strong credibility to these tapes is the way they are intricately woven around unstated understandings between GMA and Garci.  These understandings function as the invisible fabric that binds the utterances into a coherent whole.  This is the nature of conversations.  Very seldom are the tacit understandings made explicit – especially when the subject matter is illicit.  A rare and revealing exception is given in the following exchange:

Garci: Hello, Ma’am. Good evening.

GMA: Hello, dun sa Lanao del Sur at tsaka sa Basilan, di raw nagma-match ang SOV sa COC.

Garci: Ang sinasabi nila, nawala na naman ho?

GMA: Hindi nagmamatch.

Garci: Hindi nagmamatch? May posibilidad na hindi magmatch kung hindi nila sinunod yung individual SOV ng mga munisipyo. Pero aywan ko lang ho kung sa atin pabor o hindi. Kasi, dun naman sa Basilan at Lanao Sur, itong ginawa nilang pagpataas sa inyo, hindi naman, kwan, maayos naman ang paggawa eh.

GMA: So nagmamatch?

Garci: Oho. Sa Basilan, alam nyo naman ang mga military dun eh, hindi masyadong marunong kasi silang gumawa eh.  Katulad ho dun sa Sulu….(garbled) Pero hindi naman ho, kinausap ko na yung Chairman ng Board sa Sulu.  Ang akin, patataguin ko na muna ang EO ng Panguntaran para hindi sila makatestigo ho… (Here, Garci artfully shifts to another topic.)

In this exchange, as in many others, GMA brings up the troubles posed by the lack of fit between the municipal Statement of Votes (SOVs) and the provincial Certificates of Canvass (COCs) in two Mindanao provinces.  The discrepancy is a reliable index of the extent of dagdag-bawas (vote padding/shaving).  Garci assures GMA that the operation in Lanao Sur was orderly (“maayos naman ang ginawang pagpapataas sa inyo.”)  “Pagpapataas” is a thinly veiled reference to vote-padding, and it is interesting that Garci actually used the term. With Basilan, he could offer no guarantee.  His explanation for the mismatch there is the inexperience of the soldiers assigned to prepare the doctored returns.

The Garci tapes provide abundant evidence that GMA had full knowledge of the massive cheating operation that was done in her behalf. It is cynical to say cheating is normal in our political system. The nation will not be able to break with the past until GMA herself finds the moral courage to explain her involvement in these shameless conversations.

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