POSTSCRIPT / July 25, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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What, jai-alai fronton is an architectural gem?

WE liked the way President Estrada socked it to Bangsamoro secessionists in his State of the Nation Address yesterday, especially his laying down clearly three non-negotiable demands for them to drop secession, criminal activities, and their armaments.

These are inflexible conditions to the government’s sitting for serious peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which has taken the lead in the war of secession in Muslim Mindanao.

We wished the congressmen and senators assembled in joint session broke into thunderous applause to show approval when the President reaffirmed the government’s resolve to defend the integrity and sovereignty of the republic.

Although there was some sporadic clapping early in his speech, the more spirited applause came later – when the President declared another war, this time on graft and corruption in government.

* * *

ONE would think that that part on corruption was written specifically to warn the cronies and name-droppers to stop their money-making rackets that have given the Estrada administration not just a limp but also a black eye.

Among the anti-graft measures promised by the President: No more negotiated contracts, only transparent open bidding via a website accessible to everybody. Duty-free shops will sell only the usual goodies such as cigarettes, liquor and chocolates and not big items like refrigerators and home appliances. No more imported chicken and other smuggled items flooding the black market. Duty-free shops will stop operating like supermarkets and vice versa. All those involved in the Best World share manipulation will be prosecuted. Government will not guarantee any loan of private entities.

Has the President finally cut and cut clean with his campaign financiers? Listening to his SONA, one would think so. His recitation of his reformist moves conjured up images of avaricious cronies and money bags being swept under the rug.

Sorry na lang to the adventurers who have not recovered, several times over, their heavy investments on Erap Estrada.

* * *

THE problem is that like a wayward husband, Mr. Estrada has repeatedly made similar promises of reforms, but ended up breaking them.

For a better appreciation of the content and color of his speech, it must be read from the perspective of his visit to the United States, a journey calculated to gain implied Washington endorsement of his administration.

The more skeptical observers are likely to point out that it was expected of him to project a fresh resolve to clean up the Augean stables of his administration and to make good on his basic promises.

He must have found the recurring issues of corruption and cronyism so hurting that he had to include them in his address. At least, kahit sa salita lang, Mr. Estrada went on record on the eve of his US visit as waging a renewed war on corruption and cronyism.

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MR Estrada’s straight talk may have clicked with the fans, but there could be questions on the propriety of his hitting his predecessor, former President Ramos, between the eyes as the latter sat there lending the prestige of his presence to the proceedings.

While discussing the Mindanao problem, President Estrada drew a contrast between his taking the military option (which he said was forced upon him) and Mr. Ramos’ virtual policy of appeasement.

He said that the administration of Mr. Ramos, ironically a West Pointer and former defense secretary and AFP chief of staff, “refused to fight, pretending that the secessionist problem did not exist.” The President also referred to the “neglect” of Mindanao by previous administrations.

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ON wholesale corruption, Mr. Estrada vowed “no more Amari deal or Centennial Expo” — a virtual slap on his predecessor — alluding to the monumental scandals that rocked the Ramos administration.

“I shall not do to the next administration what the previous one did to mine,” Mr. Estrada said while Mr. Ramos sat squirming and forcing out a smile. Referring by name to Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who sat beside her partymate Mr. Ramos, the President promised to leave her (when she takes over as next president) a house in order.

Upon his inauguration in 1998, President Estrada told the nation that he inherited a government that was bankrupt.

* * *

WHEN he went to Congress yesterday, President Estrada was generally expected to deliver a SOFA (State of the Future Address), another recitation of old promises, instead of an honest SONA.

His critics said there was no solid achievement to report. Yesterday, however, he managed to roll out some statistics that showed, according to him, that we are doing better than expected. The problem is that hardly anybody in this country believes government statistics.

But even if he delivered only a SOFA, there was nothing technically wrong with that. The constitutional mandate is for the President to “address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.” There is no rule on what should be the content of his address.

Our focus on a “state of the nation” was just borrowed from the “state of the union” address of the American president. Some of us still think that if it is American it must be better, so we copy it.

* * *

TAKE the jai-alai fronton on Taft Ave. which is being demolished to make room for a court house pompously called Hall of Justice. Some people seem to think that just because it was designed by an American architect it must be so exceptionally good that it must be preserved at all costs.

My opinion may not matter, but I want to cast my lot with Mayor Lito Atienza who is set on building the court house where the decrepit jai-alai building is being torn down. He had scouted around for a suitable site but could not find any, until President Estrada gave him the fronton area.

Pardon my architectural taste not agreeing with that of the handful of protesters, but I do not see anything aesthetically moving or inspiring about that jai-alai den of gamblers and game-fixers to warrant its preservation.

* * *

LIKE many others I have asked, I do not care if the jai-alai fronton went down. It would be different if they were threatening to demolish the main Post Office building beside the Pasig, the old Congress (now the Museum), the San Agustine church, the Metropolitan theater, or the old Manila Hotel.

Maybe I would have some sentimental attachment to the jai-alai building if I were with Manila’s 500 who held lavish parties there. Or if I were an infatuated girl who had an unforgettable date at the Sky Room of the building some decades ago.

Or I might look upon the old fronton with fondness if I were a jai-alai aficionado, one of those who would watch the games nightly and part with hard-earned pesos unaware that they were feeding the syndicate running the games.

Or if I were a jobless squatter, I might be willing to carry a protest placard in front of the doomed building and pretend to appreciate its alleged aesthetics and function.

But from the purely architectural point of view, excuse me… I see no good reason to cling to the old structure.

* * *

THREE prominent names keep cropping up in our email after we asked readers to identify this man:

A very rich and influential crony of President Marcos, now also a buddy of President Estrada, who went around as an ambassador at large. Despite his businesses in America and his diplomatic immunity, this crony has not set foot in the US for the past two decades or so.

He started avoiding the US after getting wind of his being “wanted” there for alleged “human smuggling” and other serious offenses. The US Department of Justice (mother unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service) is reportedly waiting to pick him up if he shows up.

How about you, who do you think he is? And why?

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 25, 2000)

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