The memoirs of Geronimo Z. Velasco

Philippine administrations love to anchor their legitimacy on the total demonization of a past regime. They see nothing worth pursuing in their predecessor’s policies and programs, finding them corrupt to the core, and preferring to dismantle everything. Our political system seems to thrive on an ethic of discontinuity.

We have, for instance, succeeded in depicting the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship as the darkest moment in our nation’s history – a period to be remembered singularly for its unparalleled corruption, oppressiveness, and venality.  And yet, strangely enough, successive post-Edsa governments chose to retain many powers contained in countless Marcos decrees, virtually normalizing, in effect, the practices of an authoritarian system.   Presidential Decree 1177, which exempts appropriations for debt service from congressional scrutiny and debate, is one of these.

Certainly we should never forget the monumental abuse of state power committed by the regime in the name of security and development.  But we would never understand the persistence of authoritarian regimes if we saw them as standing solely on a platform of unremitting evil.  Wasn’t there really anything worth keeping in that demonic regime — outside of Imelda’s 5000 pairs of shoes?

These recurring thoughts visited me again the other day when I learned that former energy minister Geronimo Z. Velasco had died. He was one of the brightest minds in the Marcos Cabinet, a technocrat who led the country’s quest for energy self-reliance from the early ‘70s until the collapse of the Marcos regime in the mid-‘80s. He retreated from public life after 1986, traveling to distant places, writing his memoirs, and playing his cello.  A shared fondness for books brought us together in 2001, and we quickly became good friends. He had read my critique of the Marcos years, and was keen to offer his comments. I was curious to know what it was like to work with Marcos.  Our conversations prompted him to publish his memoirs into a book, “Trailblazing: The Quest for Energy SelfReliance” (Anvil, 2006)

This book will disappoint those who are looking for more reasons to flog a regime we overthrew 21 years ago.  This is not a lurid kiss-andtell account, or an inside story of the snake pit that was supposed to be Malacanang in those heady days of the conjugal dictatorship. These are not the confessions of a Marcos lackey wishing to unburden himself.  These are the notes of a willful technocrat who refuses to completely withdraw into the solitude of ironic wisdom.  For Ronnie Velasco, there is nothing gratifying about being proven right when the costs of repeated mistakes are to be borne by successive generations.

These are the reflections of someone who was once entrusted with enough powers so he could put together a modern and self-reliant energy infrastructure that is essential to any nation’s economic development.  He is aggrieved to see how the profitable state corporations he painstakingly built were run aground after 1986, then pronounced dysfunctional, and finally to be sold to foreign buyers.

He argues the case for nuclear power with such clarity that, on reading his book, I had to review the rational basis of my own youthful opposition to the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the 1970s. He believes that the charges of corruption that plagued the project, justified as they were, so clouded the air that it became impossible to think objectively about nuclear power and its merits.  He feels that science was fatally trumped by politics at every turn.  He is convinced that nuclear energy remains a viable alternative to fossil fuel, and has become more so in the light of the recent phenomenal rise in crude oil prices.

Instead of signifying the country’s leap to modernity, the BNPP, which was his baby, became the symbol of everything that was corrupt and wrong about the Marcos regime.  So powerful was the imagery of the plant as a toxic monument to a dictator’s folly that it became impossible for the Aquino government to do anything but mothball the plant.  We had borrowed $2.1 billion over a 10-year period to pay for the plant, and now we were going to put it in the freezer.  Then in the same breath we would tell our creditors we were going to honor all the debts incurred despite the supposed collusion between the regime and its foreign suppliers.  “Where is the commonsense there?” Velasco asks.

The plant was ready to fire; the fuel rods had been delivered.  But for a strange last-minute demand from a US mission to take a final look at the site, the plant would have been commissioned by December 1985.  The 620 megawatts it was expected to generate would have fulfilled the country’s goal to bring down dependence on imported oil to 50% by 1986.

The chapter on the BNPP explains the price escalation, the safety features of the plant, and the meticulous training of Filipino personnel to operate the plant and handle emergencies.  It mentions but doesn’t take up the issue of corruption, however, in particular the role of Herminio Disini who brokered the deal. The contract with Westinghouse was signed in Feb. 1976.  Minister Velasco was put in charge of the project in Oct. 1977.

A more complete account of the Marcos years will have to tell the kind of story that Geronimo Velasco tells in his book.  Those years were not all about primitive accumulation through corruption.  They were also about the painful attempts of nameless public servants to expand the country’s productive base and build an economy based on modern industry and technology.


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