Covering her Tuesday visit to Camiguin, the media dutifully reported, as if it mattered, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s decision to “revamp” her Cabinet.

Speaking in the collegiala language that she probably thinks would endear her to long suffering Filipinos, the putative president of the Philippines initially told the media people present that who’s going to go to what post was “secret.”

Eventually, however, she did say that four of her current Cabinet secretaries would stay in their posts. The four — none of them fantastic and at least three of them among the most unpopular cabinet secretaries to date in one of the most unpopular administrations ever to inflict itself on this unhappy land — she identified as Gilbert Teodoro of Defense, Angelo Reyes of Energy, Bayani Fernando of the Metro Manila Development Authority, and Raul Gonzalez of Justice.

Former general Reyes has been moved around so often he’s been nearly impossible to keep track of. Although the escalating costs of energy — cooking gas, diesel and gasoline fuel as well as electrical power — is at the very center of Filipino household concerns, no one’s really looking in his direction for solutions.

It’s probably because, like his boss and Cabinet cohort, he’s regarded as part of the problem rather than the solution, as when, during his stretch at the Department of the Environment (where incidentally former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, who was noted for razing Manila landmarks, currently holds imperious sway), he approved mining concessions as if they were going out of fashion.

The same is true of Bayani Fernando, who was once regarded as part of the solution, and who admittedly enjoys some following among those who favor such fascist approaches to compelling obedience to anti-hawking laws as pouring kerosene into vendors’ wares, in addition to painting everything a ghastly pink and throwing steel overpasses over every intersection.

A few weeks ago some senators noticed that in the manner of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984, Herr Fernando has also been nailing humungous posters of himself on every available space in metro Manila’s already ugly thoroughfares, in preparation for running for the Senate in 2010.

And then there’s Raul Gonzalez, who’s made the Department of Justice the most ironically named agency of the executive branch. Mrs. Arroyo said if she had ten more Gonzalezes, “that would be half of the Cabinet already.”

As puzzled as some may be over the literal meaning of that statement, it’s obvious that it’s meant to be a compliment, to which Gonzalez responded with the usual glee, declaring how pleased he was over Mrs. Arroyo’s expression of confidence.

As for the Defense Department’s Teodoro, Mrs. Arroyo said she was keeping him on because of “civilian supremacy,” despite rumors that he’s about to be replaced by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon who’s due to retire next week. That rumor had seemed credible because Esperon’s been one of Mrs. Arroyo’s most loyal operators since before, during and after the “Hello Garci” scandal. But Teodoro will remain in Defense, said Mrs. Arroyo, because a civilian’s needed in that post, given the continuing restiveness in the military.

Civilian supremacy over the military is of course enshrined in the Constitution, but it’s not guaranteed by simply having a civilian in Defense. Arroyo policy relies heavily on the military on such matters as the insurgency that she has pledged to crush before 2010, when she will (supposedly) leave office. That reliance undermines civilian supremacy in practice and on the ground, where it’s the generals who practically make policy.

The extra judicial killings and other human rights abuses in this country that have attracted so much attention among human rights groups world wide, for example, are a consequence of the military strategy of destroying the so-called political infrastructure of the New People’s Army by decimating the ranks of legal though militant organizations. The strategy is apparently not under any civilian oversight, with the civilian role being limited to denying that the policy exists, as well as assuaging the concerns of various countries and human rights groups.

Changes in the Cabinet can only be meaningful if they signal changes in policy or are meant to improve policy implementation. But neither has ever been the case with the Arroyo regime, in which the primary consideration for such changes has been to reward political operators and to put others in high profile positions from where, benefiting from their visibility, they can go on to run for office.

As biased as it naturally is, the United Opposition may have a point. Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay claims that whatever changes will take place in the Cabinet will be in the nature of rewarding those Arroyo allies who lost in the Senate elections last year and who have been waiting these past 12 months to rejoin their fellow capos feasting on the Philippine banquet of power.

Rather than in response to such problems as the rice and energy crisis, whatever changes will take place in the Arroyo Cabinet will thus be in furtherance of the regime’s unremitting focus on its survival and continuing dominance, rather than the fate of this country and its long-suffering people. No wonder most Filipinos aren’t even halfway interested.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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