What’s Left in the Cabinet

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Without any proof and by merely attributing it to his sources in the military establishment, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV has been saying that the presence of left-wing personalities in the Duterte administration has enabled “hundreds of CPP-NPA (Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army) cadres” to be employed in the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), and even the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC).

What’s more, continued Trillanes, these “CPP-NPA cadres have been using government resources to stockpile arms and ammunition which they would use later on against our soldiers.”

Duterte critic Trillanes used the term “communist leaders” in obvious reference to DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, DAR Secretary Rafael Mariano and NAPC Lead Convenor Liza Maza. All three were nominated to their present posts by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) last year, although not as members of its affiliate organizations such as the CPP, but as competent, honest, patriotic and progressive individuals. (Neither DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III nor HUDCC Chair Eduardo del Rosario, a retired military officer appointed early in July, were NDFP nominees.)

Without mentioning anyone by name, as he’s been doing since early this year Trillanes went on to once more urge President Rodrigo Duterte to remove “communist leaders in his cabinet,” meaning Taguiwalo and Mariano. He made this latest demand in the aftermath of Mr. Duterte’s declaration that he was ending peace talks with the NDFP and his order to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to “crush” the NPA.

As serious as the Trillanes accusations are, Mr. Duterte, through Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevara, reiterated his confidence in Taguiwalo and Mariano as well as Maza. Guevara said the Office of the President saw no reason why they should be removed from their posts. He pointed out that, even if the three are indeed communists, the 1950s Anti-Subversion Law (RA 1700), which criminalized membership in the CPP and other organizations with the same aims, was repealed in 1992 to enable communists, socialists, Marxists and other leftists to legally campaign for their programs. But recognizing the significance of that fact to democratic discourse may be too much to expect of Trillanes and his fellow militarists, who either don’t know that RA 1700 was repealed in 1992 at the initiative of then President Fidel Ramos, or have never understood the reason for its repeal.

Presumably speaking not only for himself, but for Taguiwalo and Maza as well, when asked if he will resign in response to demands such as that of Trillanes and, even more important, in reaction to the Duterte decision to end the peace talks between the NDFP and the government and to wage all-out war against the NPA, DAR’s Mariano said he would not, the basis for the Left’s involvement with the Duterte administration being the “principle of instituting socio-economic reforms.”

Although the scuttling of the peace talks has prevented the discussion and possible implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) as well as of political and Constitutional changes, Mariano pointed out that free land distribution and agrarian reform, which are among the mainstream Left’s principal advocacies, are in the legislative program of the Duterte Development Plan.

Former Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) Chair Mariano reiterated that he would continue to work for authentic agrarian reform, and was in effect saying that he and his fellow leftists can still do some good by remaining in the Cabinet and the government. Taguiwalo has been doing outstanding work in DSWD, for example, and so has Maza in the NAPC.

The point is that in a regime in which the most strategic areas of government — economic policy and security, for example — are in right-wing hands, leftists committed to real changes in Philippine society must continue to do what they can to make a difference in the lives of the people.

Trillanes’ understanding and appreciating that kind of commitment to the welfare of the poor and powerless is as unlikely as the truth of his claim that Mariano and company have filled their offices with “hundreds of CPP-NPA cadres” who’re using government resources to stockpile arms and ammunition. One suspects that as an administration critic, the former coup plotter anticipated Malacanang’s negative response to his demand that Mr. Duterte fire Mariano et al. to, he hopes, put Mr. Duterte in a bad light, anti-communism being the most popular religion in this country next to greed.

Trillanes knows that whether Mariano and Taguiwalo will remain in their posts or not is ultimately up to the Commission on Appointments, which is a Congressional body. The Commission has twice bypassed Mariano and Taguiwalo. While there is no limit to the President of the Philippines’ reappointing a bypassed official, an outright Commission rejection, which is what happened to former Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Gina Lopez, will compel the former to appoint someone else acceptable to Congress.

Mr. Duterte may in fact be waiting precisely for the Commission to reject Mariano and Taguiwalo’s appointments. His recent statements ending the peace talks and ordering the military to intensify operations against the NPA, his word war with his former Lyceum University Professor Jose Maria Sison, etc. have in fact sent that message clearly enough to his allies in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as the so-called opposition in both chambers.

The gentlemen and ladies of Congress will almost certainly reject Mariano and Taguiwalo the next time their names come up in the Commission on Appointments so others acceptable to them can be appointed to DAR and DSWD. Although Maza’s appointment to NAPC doesn’t need Commission confirmation, the removal of her two colleagues could compel her to resign her post. That would leave it to Mr. Duterte to appoint others in their place, most probably with the same military or ultra-conservative backgrounds like his other appointees, who would then be to the liking of Congress.

The only Cabinet secretaries acceptable to a Congress crammed to the rafters with landlords, political dynasts, petty tyrants and oligarchs are the exact opposite of Mariano, who’s serious about agrarian reform and who’s neither beholden to nor acting in behalf of landed interests, and of Taguiwalo, who’s sincerely into using government resources to assist the victims of both natural calamities as well as man-made ones like Philippine class society. If the Commission on Appointments had anything to say about it, it would remove Maza as well, who knows exactly how to sustainably alleviate the poverty that has haunted this land for centuries.

The removal of what’s left of the Left from the Cabinet was only a matter of time even when the peace talks were going on, given the anti-reformist, ultra-conservative character of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But it is even more likely now, with the Duterte regime’s rapid swing to the Right.

Trillanes shouldn’t be losing any sleep — and most probably isn’t — over the continuing presence of Mariano and company in the Duterte administration. His fellow militarists in the Armed Forces and in the Cabinet itself, and the champions and beneficiaries of a society of vast economic and social injustice, have never been as dominant and as powerful in government than today. He’ll realize his wish for Mariano and Taguiwalo to get their walking papers soon enough. What would then be left in the Cabinet would be Right—and terribly wrong.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Senate website.

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