THE CONVICTION and sentencing–to a maximum of 40 years in prison–of Joseph Estrada would have been the historic milestone it’s been endlessly said to be were it not for the context in which it has happened.
Estrada was the first former president of this land of woe to have been accused of what was, in 2001, a capital offense. He is now the first to have occupied that high office to have been convicted of anything. The same people who gave us such linguistic atrocities as “senatoriable” can henceforth use “estrada” as a verb. “Being estrada’d” can now mean being convicted of plunder.
But take note that Estrada’s is not the worse crime against the nation presidents have committed, and that the festering legitimacy issue against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo includes accusations of systematic corruption and plunder.
The offense of which Estrada has been convicted, plunder, was described by the Senate version of the law as “the use of high office for personal enrichment, committed thru a series of acts done not in the public eye but in stealth and secrecy over a period of time…. The acts and/or omissions sought to be penalized do not involve simple cases of malversation of public funds, bribery, extortion, theft and graft but constitute plunder of an entire nation resulting in material damage to the national economy.”
The necessity for the Anti-Plunder Act (RA 7080) was thus explained by Supreme Court Justice Josue Belosillo in patriotic terms: plunder has to be punished because unrestrained corruption can “spread like a malignant tumor and ultimately consume the moral and institutional fiber of our nation.”
Some may argue that corruption in both the public and private spheres is way past spreading like a malignant tumor and has not only damaged most of the country’s institutions (the courts, the military, the police, the civil service, the media, even the Church), but has also made theft and cheating second nature among much of the population. But that’s just me–and several million others.
The Act was nevertheless clear in its intentions, and was presumably welcomed by those Filipinos who, at the time the law was passed (on July 12, 1991), had been wracking their brains trying to find some way of preventing the repetition of the looting the Marcos era was noted for.
That some of the country’s worst looters in the House and the Senate were among those who made the bill into law wasn’t a good sign, however. It suggested that, like most laws in this country, RA 7080 was not likely to get anyone but the small fry–or to go beyond the usual words, words, words.
But Estrada’s arrest in 2001 and subsequent trial for plunder was crucial because it marked two firsts: it was the first time a past president had been arrested for any offense, and the first time the plunder law was being used against such a personage. Hopes were up that, having shown the world that the government could arrest a former president, it would also proceed to demonstrate that it could try one fairly.
But the new government–the beneficiary of Estrada’s ouster in January that year–had itself been resisting Estrada’s arrest, having accurately predicted that it could lead to the rioting that erupted in metro Manila in late April that year.
To mix metaphors: already comfortably ensconced in Malacanang, Arroyo (the glory, not the joker) didn’t want anything to rock the boat, and saw a plunder trial as providing the Estrada forces a host of opportunities to do precisely that as, like many other trials, it stretched on into infinity. Except that there were all these civil society, church and other groups that were insisting on arresting Estrada and charging him with plunder among other offenses to the law, taste, and plain good manners.
The Arroyo administration was in short dragged scratching and screaming into arresting and charging Estrada. Once compelled to do so by the forces that had put it in power, it had to go through the motions, but kept its options open, and most probably tried to make some deal with Estrada, including offering him the option of exile instead of a trial.
As expected, the trial dragged on to impact on two political low points: the 2004 presidential elections and last May’s mid-term elections, in which Estrada and his trial inevitably became an issue.
The Estrada plunder case was in short political from the beginning in the sense that not only its legal virtues and infirmities were at issue; so were the political implications of Estrada’s being tried (he had to be removed from office first before that could happen) and of his being convicted or acquitted.
It’s been said so often it’s now conventional wisdom: Estrada HAD to be convicted. An acquittal would have at least implied that he had been illegitimately ousted, and that the Arroyo presidency, already locked in defending its legitimacy after 2004, has been illegal from the start.
But the Estrada case’s being political doesn’t mean that it didn’t have a sound basis to begin with. Political or not, the merits of the case seem to have been the bases for the Special Court’s finding Estrada guilty of collecting P545 million in “jueteng” pay-offs and a P189 million commission from stock market purchases using government funds.
Were it not for the context, the conviction would have been truly encouraging. Estrada is indeed a “big fish” in more ways than one, and the biggest so far caught by a law that penalizes the crime against the nation systematic corruption is. But take note that it happened without his being in power, and that his is only one case among others that are arguably much worse. There is, for example, the “Joc Joc” Bolante fertilizer scam, and the “Hello Garci” scandal, both of them election-related, and both of which involve hundreds of millions of state funds used as bribe money.
The Estrada conviction does provide a warning, no matter how feeble, that some of the laws of this country can actually be made to work. Provided, however, that the corrupt are sooner rather than later removed from office. That lesson, however, is easily interpreted as one more justification for holding on to power forever and ever, the better to avoid being estrada’d.