The Terminator

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It was Douglas MacArthur’s trademark phrase. But in using it before flying to the United States, Independent Rep. Mark Jimenez of Manila sounded more like The Terminator than The American Caesar.

“This is just the beginning. I shall return,” Jimenez said about an hour before his flight to the United States in the company of US federal agents. Referring to the Arroyo administration, he also said, “They cannot silence me…they will hear more from me.”

This statement (he made several others, the later ones contradicting his earlier display of belligerence) was extremely optimistic. It suggested that he would be acquitted in time for him to return to the Philippines to make a difference in the fortunes of the Arroyo administration and his nemesis, Justice Secretary on leave Hernando Perez.

Unlike the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as the first Terminator (“I’ll be back,”) Jimenez is unlikely to instantly make good on his threat, however.

Jimenez was at the airport to return voluntarily to the United States, whose government has been demanding his extradition since 1999. That was the year Jimenez returned to the Philippines, quickly made friends with then-President Joseph Estrada, and ended up Estrada’s “adviser on Latin American affairs.”

Jimenez also became an honored, if somewhat shadowy, member of the Estrada Midnight Cabinet—the cabal of high-rolling friends and associates Estrada had gathered around him, and who arguably had more influence in the government than the daytime Cabinet.

The US Justice Department had charged Jimenez with making illegal contributions to the 1996 Bill Clinton campaign, as well as with conspiracy, tax evasion and fraud.

That he had returned to the Philippines to escape prosecution was, in that context, a natural enough suspicion. That he had also succeeded in gaining Estrada’s ear was also an outrage to those Filipinos who regarded being accused of a crime by the US government as proof enough of guilt (it isn’t).

Their outrage was compounded by Jimenez’s winning a seat in Congress in 2001. It wasn’t only the means he used to win, which seemed mostly limited to throwing money at the electorate, but also the suspected motive. With Estrada deposed in January that year, Jimenez lost not only an avowed admirer (Estrada regarded him with awe as “a financial genius”), but also a protector—as well as someone he had also supported by, among other acts, buying a newspaper in 2000 (the Manila Times).

It did seem that despite an extradition treaty with the United States, under which the Philippines had to send back to that country anyone accused of a crime in it, the Estrada government had been finding all sorts of reasons not to comply.

Among those “reasons” was the “nationalist” one that the country didn’t have to bow to Uncle Sam’s wishes—which of course provoked the riposte that if that were the case, we shouldn’t have signed the treaty at all.

With Estrada in detention on charges of plunder, a seat in Congress did seem to have been the former Mario Crespo’s next best protection from extradition. For a time it was. That turned out to be short-lived, however, despite the best efforts of his colleagues in the House to protect one of their own, as the Supreme Court ruled that the subjects of extradition proceedings can’t post bail.

Jimenez faces a sentence of at least five years in a US prison if convicted on either fraud or tax evasion. Other charges could also be filed against him, but defending himself from the charges already filed will take months, at the end of which, even if acquitted, events are likely to have overtaken whatever else he can do to damage the Arroyo administration.

Though Jimenez’s vow to return during the lifetime of the Arroyo administration may seem unduly optimistic, he has already damaged it by adding to the skepticism about the honesty of its leading officials.

Jimenez may not have driven a truck into the police station and wasted a dozen policemen, but he’s driven the equivalent of one into the Arroyo administration—and probably terminated Hernando Perez’s career in this government.

Perez’s credibility is in ruins, despite the inconsistencies of Jimenez’s claims that Perez had extorted $2 million from him, presumably (and about this Jimenez had not been forthright) so he could remain in the Philippines.

The most critical sign that Perez’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse is the extension of his leave, which was supposed to have ended December 26th. He’s supposed to have asked for the extension himself. But no one who heard him proclaim on the 23rd that he wasn’t going to be “anyone’s punching bag” and that he would definitely report for work December 27 is buying that story.

What’s more likely is that Malacanang has concluded that Perez has become a liability likely to drag President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s approval ratings further down, and needs time to plot its next move.

In the recent Pulse Asia survey, those ratings were at six percent and dangerously close to negative. Perez’s return to his post despite Jimenez’s allegations hanging over his head will be perceived as one more sign of the administration’s tolerance of alleged corruption within the ranks.

There is more, however. Perez is also among the most powerful officials of the Arroyo administration. His closeness to Mrs. Arroyo has not only been the subject of coffee- shop gossip. It is also regarded as his edge over other Cabinet members, a belief boosted by that now famous exchange of kisses on the cheek early this month, when the press captured in print Mrs. Arroyo’s obvious delight in Perez’s presence.

Given Mrs. Arroyo’s dismissal of two Cabinet members—NEDA’s Dante Canlas and Agriculture’s Leonardo Montemayor—widely perceived to be doing their jobs well and untainted by any accusations of corruption, Perez’s hanging on will also be regarded as indisputable proof of a double standard, a sign that all the rhetoric about a strong republic is so much media hype.

Jimenez has thus put Mrs. Arroyo in the unenviable position of being between a rock and a hard place. Mrs. Arroyo’s declining approval ratings and the spreading clamor for Perez’s removal demand that he be replaced in the justice department by someone the public regards as independent and beyond reproach—someone like Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., whose name has been mentioned as a candidate for Perez’s post. On the other hand, Perez has been a reliable ally with close personal ties to Mrs. Arroyo.

What to do? As things go in the Philippines, given time Mark Jimenez will soon be forgotten, along with his unproved but nevertheless damaging charges.

Jimenez may not even need to make good his promise to be back, however. The administration doesn’t have the luxury of time. What matters now is the next few weeks.

During that time, what it does will decide how the public will look at l’affaire Perez. Jimenez may have left the country, but he’s far from gone.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 28, 2002)

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