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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 80,574 77,076 71,400 43
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,080 1,020 1,050 135
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Books on The Philippines



Update No: 087 - (26/05/11)

A matter of delicadenza
You do not have to be in the Philippines very long at all before you come across the distinctively Filipino characteristic of ‘delicadenza.’ It is a Spanish loan word that has crept into the Filipino lexicon but in doing so the meaning of the word has altered. In its Spanish form it connotes gentleness and delicacy but in the Philippines it has taken the meaning of ‘sense of propriety.’ It refers to the virtue of knowing what is proper and appropriate behaviour by those in a position of authority or trust. The concept is anchored in the notion that behaviour should be informed by moral or ethical standards.

At least that is the conventional meaning. The traditional sense of propriety that has stood the Philippines in good stead for centuries has been steadily eroded over the years, as indeed has the concept of ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour in other societies. Once business could be done on the basis of a handshake, but in most cases a handshake or ‘one’s word’ can be trusted no longer.

But perhaps the greatest damage done to Filipino society in recent times was the destruction of ‘delicadenza’ as a defining attribute during the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Under her watch, government was characterised by unethical, dishonest and abusive behaviour. The catch-cry of the day appeared to be along the lines of ‘those that are not with us are against us’. Corruption ran rife and ethical standards were trampled underfoot, even by those who in normal circumstances would regard themselves as upright and ‘honorable’ citizens.

In a nation that had become inured to corruption among government officials, Arroyo and those surrounding her were so contemptuous of public opinion in their grab for power and riches that in the 2010 election, the backlash from civil society was overwhelming.

Yet while President Aquino has an unqualified mandate to root out corruption and restore morality to government, his task is not proving to be an easy one. He has inherited, both individuals lacking in delicadenza, as well as institutions from which morality has been stripped away.

While progress is slow, there has been some positive movement although at times the pace seems glacial. Progress this past month has taken the form of the resignation of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. She was a friend of the former First Gentleman and appointed to her position by President Arroyo in the widely held belief that she was there to protect the First Family and those of their inner circle rather than to deal with complaints ‘without fear or favour’.

Up until recently and like many fixed-term appointees of Arroyo, Gutierrez, a lawyer by profession, had hung on to her post, refusing to resign and taking the legalistic position that she had broken no law. That may still need to be tested in court but she was certainly guilty of showing partiality. While the sins of Arroyo were those of commission, the ombudsman was plainly guilty of sins of omission. She failed to act on complaints filed against members of the former administration.

But it was the secret plea bargain struck between the former military Comptroller-General, Major General Carlos Garcia, and the Office of the Ombudsman that may have forced the issue. On several fronts, this case shows how moral responsibility sank to new lows during the Arroyo term and how difficult it is proving to wind back the clock.

The case dates back to Arroyo’s first term in 2003, when the sons of General Garcia were apprehended at a US Airport for failing to declare US$100,000 cash they were carrying with them into the United States. US officials informed then Philippines ombudsman, Simeon Marcelo who, in 2004, issued an arrest order for the major-general for plunder and perjury. He was accused of amassing more than Php303 million (US$7 million, GBP4.3 million at today’s exchange rates) in ill-gotten wealth while in active service.

The case languished throughout Arroyo’s second term but in December 2010, Garcia walked out of incarceration and posting bail of PhP60,000 ($1,3880), which was granted after he engaged, unknowingly it seems to others in government, in a plea bargain with the Office of the Ombudsman through the Office of the Special Prosecutor.

Garcia’s counsel agreed to have him change his plea of ‘not guilty’ of plunder and plead ‘guilty’ to the lesser charge of ‘indirect bribery’ and ‘violation of the Anti-Money Laundering Act’. The net result was a lesser sentence covered by the time he had already served. Though originally accused of plundering at least Php303 million, the agreement has settled for Php135.43 million. In walking free, Garcia pocketed at least PhP167 million and probably a lot more. Part of the argument, at least as it has been espoused in the press, is that since his ill-gotten wealth came in the form of bribes from suppliers rather than from actual diversion of government funds, it was not really ‘plunder’.

The presidential office was unimpressed by the deal, especially as it had not been sanctioned by the present military leadership. President Aquino ordered his office to review the plea bargain agreement and to study all options for intervention. Subsequently the Solicitor General filed a Motion for Intervention with the Sandiganbayan, a special court that judges on issues of public accountability and with a broad mandate to include cases of ‘ill-gotten wealth’ uncovered by the Presidential Commission on Good Governance as was the case in this present instance.

Meanwhile those politicians within the anti-corruption lobby were seeking to have Congress bring a case for impeachment against the Ombudsman and the Senate, using its powers to act as an Impeachment Court, was ready to try Gutierrez for plunder acting on the recommendations of the House of Representatives. While seeking to play a game of brinkmanship in recent months, in the end she realized that the political landscape had changed irrevocably, confronted reality and resigned her post on 6 May.

Yet even in resigning, her last act of defiance was to reappoint a dismissed Bureau of Customs official barely two days before her resignation took effect. Had delicadenza been applied in its traditional form, she would have confined her role to that of caretaker once tendering her resignation and allowed her successor to act on the decision. Instead she chose the path of a ‘midnight deal’.

But back to the main focus of this essay; the case of the former comptroller-general. The government’s case for overturning the plea bargain entered into by the Ombudsman was heard by the Sandiganbayan on 12 May and, incredibly to many observers, the court upheld the deal and threw out the government’s case. It seems the judges were persuaded by the same logic used by the Ombudsman. Despite the Anti-Money Laundering Council showing that Garcia’s wealth may have exceeded PhP700 million (US$16 million), and the obvious discrepancy between his low official income and his unexplained riches, the court decided that the onus was on the government to explain where these riches had come from. Obviously, Garcia had not issued receipts for the bribes taken so this was a rather difficult task. The court also decided that although during the time he amassed his wealth he was in a position of trust with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the AFP had no status in the case since no evidence was adduced that the money had been stolen from them.

The decision left many people bewildered. One newspaper editorial referred to it as a ‘model of judicial obtuseness’, another said that ‘the anti-graft court [had] succeeded in making itself an accomplice of the corrupt’ while President Aquino asked rhetorically whether the judges lived in a vacuum.

And therein lies the problem faced by those trying to restore delicadenza to its rightful place in society.

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