Disclosures and closures

Like his former classmates and colleagues in academe who have known him closely or casually, I too was disappointed that former Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Romulo Neri failed to seize the moment at the Senate hearing in order to disclose everything he knew about the controversial ZTE broadband deal. I also believe that basic self-respect now demands that he should quit this government. But that is his call, not ours.

I do not think it is fair to call him a coward. He is caught in a conflictive situation, and we must recognize that every person has reasons for not doing what may seem heroic at first glance.  After endorsing it, Neri obviously wanted to stop onerous and immoral contract. That explains why he bared himself to columnist Jarius Bondoc.  But heroism was farthest from his mind.  He was afraid of triggering a political upheaval that could bring down the government. Many will take this as a sign of cowardice, but from where Neri stands, it is understandable.

A kinder take on Neri is possible if we make a distinction between utterance and information, which is at the heart of all communication. Utterance refers to the words we speak.  Information is what our listeners take from our utterances and demeanor.  I am convinced that Neri was at pains to disclose something without having to utter it. He made no effort to conceal the fact that he was operating under strict orders from Malacanang not to implicate the president. His utterances and non-linguistic behavior betrayed this.

If he simply wanted to clear the president, he would have stopped with the alleged bribe offer from Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos.  He would have said he did not think then that it was serious enough to let the president know about it. Or, he would have said that he told the president, but the president told him to ignore the bribe and to proceed with the objective evaluation of the ZTE proposal. It is, I think, what Malacanang would have wanted him to say.  But this is not what he said at the hearing.

Neri reveals that Abalos offered him a bribe in exchange for endorsing the ZTE project.  He states that he felt bothered and so he informed the president about it.  He says that the president told him to refuse the bribe. Then he abruptly stops — as if wanting to take back what he had just said. Transformed suddenly into a robot, he recites the mantra of so-called “executive privilege.”

But this too is a form of communication.  What was he communicating?  The following, I think: First, that he was under duress not to divulge anything more than he had already told media. Second, that he was struck that the president was not bothered at all by his report about Abalos.  Third, that, in fact, the president told him to approve the contract anyway.

Except in a courtroom proceeding, these pieces of information are so clear to any reasonable listener that to demand more explicit confirmation of Ms Arroyo’s knowledge of the corruption in the ZTE deal would be superfluous. Yet we insist that disclosures must be total before they can be understood. It is symptomatic of the national obsession with juridical closures.  For all the political adventurism that has marked our recent history, we ironically think that nothing is settled until the courts have spoken.  We are so fixated with utterances admissible in legal proceedings that we fail to see how people in everyday life form reasonable conclusions about events in their environment in order precisely to “move on” (to use a politicallyladen phrase).

Thank heavens not everyone hangs by the thread of unresolved legal issues. In the meantime, there are political closures. The fact that GMA or her husband has not been charged or found guilty of any crime does not negate the certainty that the majority of Filipinos have closed the political book on her.  Her consistently negative approval ratings in recent surveys attest to this.  The rejection of most of her candidates in the last senatorial election shows this in no uncertain terms.  The stunning election to the Senate of the detained young soldier Antonio Trillanes IV, accused of leading a mutiny against her government, confirms this closure.  Ms Arroyo governs on the sufferance of a nation still recovering from past upheavals.  Everyone awaits her last days in the presidency.

There are moral closures too.  No one today, not even its most rabid supporters, thinks of this administration as an emblem of good government or of ethical leadership. Those who still see politics as a contest between the forces of good and evil are in no doubt at all as to which side Ms Arroyo is aligned with.  No other administration has been as brazen as this one in giving cash to legislators, election inspectors, and bishops.

And there are social closures.  After Marcos, no other head of government has earned the resolute distrust of the citizenry as much as GMA.  Again, survey after survey expresses this. More than at any other time, distrust permeates the whole political system today because of the way she has run the government. She ought to listen to how ordinary folk talk about her on AM radio.  She may not sense this now, but it will be difficult for her not to notice it when she finally leaves public office.  She will receive none of the lingering affection and awe that Cory and Erap continue to bask in when among ordinary people. No one with any hope of winning will want to be associated with her in any future election.  That is social closure.


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