The barren soil of traditional politics

What was being fertilized with the P728-million fertilizer fund was not agricultural land but the barren soil of traditional politics.  And this was carried out not by a shrewd solitary operator, but with the consent and connivance of a large number of politicians and public officials.  The fund, originally set aside for agriculture, was released at the onset of the campaign for the 2004 national elections. The favored politicians – mayors, governors, and legislators – literally took the money and ran.  This much we can infer from the layers of lies that former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante so skillfully piled in his testimony at the Senate the other day.

What is preventing the truth from coming out under these circumstances, clearly, is not the absence of any trace of the crime committed but the wall of collective silence and dissimulation erected by those who profited from it.  That wall is not that solid.  The fault lines will surely appear as another election year draws near.  The Senate inquiry can let the truth seep through those cracks if enough of its members have a will to do so.

For, the truth is that there is nothing complex about the so-called fertilizer scam.  It is garden-variety corruption.  It did not require a genius to design it.  What it required rather is a blanket clearance from the most powerful office in the land – the office of the president, or of the presidential spouse.

This is, more or less, the story we will get if we follow the money trail. Around August 2003, the secretary of agriculture, Cito Lorenzo, is verbally instructed by somebody above him to mobilize the fertilizer fund of his department.  He knows what the fund is for, but does not take direct responsibility for its actual use.  He assigns Bolante instead, knowing that Malacanang placed Bolante in the department not for his knowledge of agriculture but precisely to look after the political interests of the president.  Bolante secures the release of the fund, contacts obliging fly-by-night suppliers who understand the nature of these schemes, and draws a list of those who will get a share of the election largesse.

In almost all instances, cash is given out, for this is what politicians need during elections.  But this is possible only if the conversion is already packaged, and this is exactly what Bolante facilitates. Together with the cash, token bottles of diluted, overpriced, and generally useless fertilizer are distributed by the regional offices of the department.  Some politicians in the Bolante list turn down the offer of fertilizer but they negotiate to get the full value of their allotment in the form of other goods.  Technically, this is still misappropriation of public funds. As brazen as it is, this practice which lies at the heart of our political culture no longer shocks anyone in government service.  The fertilizer scam closely follows the template of the pork barrel system.  In general, the system corrupts, implicates, and silences everyone, even if, in a few instances, one or two exceptional politicians may be able to summon enough selfesteem to snub the offer from the start.

The Senate investigation will never be able to get Bolante to validate this narrative.  His testimony appears to have been methodically crafted with the aid of lawyers.  The senators can use the televised occasion to project their own undying commitment to the highest values of public service, and to dramatize their disgust over the shameless lies of underlings like Bolante.  But they will not be able to squeeze the truth out of him.

In an ideal world, the function of dealing with people like Bolante belongs to the investigative and judicial offices of government, not to the legislative branch.  But the public has no choice but to turn to the remaining forums in which the clamor for truth can still be heard – the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the mass media, among others. This is what happens when governmental institutions, which should have been carefully shielded from political conflict, are used as weapons in political combat.  The politicization of the department of justice and of the office of the Ombudsman under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo represents only the most glaring instance of this systematic undermining of institutions.

But the biggest casualty of all in my view is the government bureaucracy.  This is the backbone of every modern state – the one element that must remain steady and focused if a nation is to survive the destabilizing outcomes of prolonged political battles.  The credibility of the bureaucracy is what lends legitimacy to political outcomes.  If the bureaucracy is compromised because it has itself become an auxiliary to political conflicts, then everything is up for grabs.

They may be intimidated, perhaps even silenced by insecurity, but I like to believe that there remains of corps of dedicated and patriotic professionals in the civil service who are deeply protective of the public interest.  These are individuals who, out of a need to protect their jobs, have internalized a “culture of obeisance” (as fellow sociologist Dr. Cynthia Bautista calls it).  But their eyes and ears are wide open.  Given the chance and enough protection, they will, out of a profound sense of duty, tell us what happened to the fertilizer fund and other similar public funds, how these things are done, and what we need to do to extricate the nation from the barren soil of traditional politics.  The Senate must give them that chance.

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