A Meeting with Joseph Estrada by Eric Tinsay Valles

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(This appeared in the July 19, 1998 issue of Taiwan News)

Joseph "Erap" Estrada's mansion at No. 1 Ibuna Street in his bailiwick of San Juan town is typical of those of the moneyed in socially-stratified metropolitan Manila. It is shut in by high, forbidding walls. Threading through a gun search, I glimpsed at a couple of four-wheel-drive Pajeros in the garage. Lazing and shaded from the harsh May sun was a retinue of about half a dozen barong-clad bodyguards, a fixture on the payroll of Philippine politicians. I fidgeted in the receiving room, anxious about meeting the biggest celebrity among the senatorial candidates on my interview list.

After about ten minutes, Erap (from "pare," Tagalog equivalent of "friend" but spelled backwards) sauntered in. He looked the way he does in movie reruns on TV, except for the paunch. His was the look of a toughie. He wore a sport shirt, blue denims and a trademark sweatband on one wrist. His eyes were a bit dazed and his breath reeked of an after-lunch shot of brandy. The future (impeached) president of the Philippines looked grim like Clint Eastwood entering a saloon in a spaghetti western, but gamely fielded questions.

"It's really frstrating, because I thought we would have clean and orderly elections. But we've discovered this is the most peaceful cheating ever held," Erap said with his characteristic attempt at wordplay.

Despite his reputation for roughing up the English language as he would on-screen thugs, he can utter grammatically correct sentences when he sets his mind to it. Anyway, the reputation endears him to the masses who see him as one of their own (a mistaken notion, really). He seems to be proof that neither a tendency toward malapropism nor lack of party machinery can hinder any strong-willed working-class boy from making it big.

Estrada portrayed mean-punching underdogs in over a hundred movies from the late 1950s onwards. He relied on his popularity, especially with the masses, to embark on a political career beginning in 1968. He became mayor of San Juan for 16 years. During that long time in office, he credited to himself the transformation of the town into a rival of Makati and Ortigas complex as the top choice for residence and office real estate in Metro Manila. Chinese-Filipino families lived there alongside a few squatters (initially recipients of doleouts from the municipal government and later relocated to Taytay, Rizal). His tenure was cut abruptly, however, when Mrs. Aquino's government deposed all Marcos-linked local officials in the wake of the first People Power revolution in 1986.

The mustachioed, Elvis Presley bouffant-haired politician's grumbling in May 1987, the time of my interview, was occasioned by his party's charges of electoral fraud -- another staple in Philippine politics -- in the legislative elections. Then, as now, he depended on the common folk's vote. He pulled out and shoved in my face a color picture of a weary, gray-haired supporter keeping a count of votes in San Juan.

Also, as in this year's presidential race, Erap was vindicated after a rather long wait for the end of the official tally. In fact, he garnered the biggest number of votes among opposition candidates then.


A decade ago, Philippine society was riven by debate over three key issues: the US military presence in Subic Bay and Pampanga, austerity measures to stave off a decline in economic growth and a pesky insurgency. Strangely, the same problems seem to have caught the country in a temporal movie still. At the close of the 1990s, only the first has been resolved conclusively. As fate would have it, the burden of settling the other two prickly issues fell squarely on a man whose biggest claim to any trophy as a senator was his successful campaign to shut down the US bases.

Estrada's opposition to the mighty bases, defended by the likes of Mrs. Aquino, cast into stone Erap's reputation as a defender of the weak. Again, this is rather odd, since, besides playing working-class heroes on celluloid, he has little in common with the poor.

Erap was born into a middle-class family. His father was a state-employed engineer and his mother a music graduate from the Colegio de Santa Rosa. The family was affluent enough to send him and several brothers to elitist Ateneo. He studied there from grade six to third year high school, with future Marcos nemesis Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino and other would-be illustrious politicians as schoolmates.

Years later, Estrada became a card-carrying member of Marcos's party and drew wealthy Chinese-Filipiinos as his closest friends and associates. In 1992, he ran as a vice presidential candidate on the same party ticket as Eduardo Cojuangco Jr, a Marcos ally whose stake in San Miguel and other companies was subjected to protracted legal wrangling with the Aquino government. Estrada won hands-down and took office with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's political mentor, President Fidel Ramos.

All that time, Erap kept to his main platform (the basis for his being called a "one-platform politician") of raising the living standards of the poor. He can be accused --rightly-- of pandering to the masses, and the masses trusted him.

During my interview, the politician was the embodiment of a post-colonial leftist, raving against "pressure from multinational companies" on legislators. He later softened his stand on foreign investments-- hence an invitation for foreign company executives to be his economic advisers. But he still harped on reinforcing agriculture as the engine for economic growth.

"As long as we're dependent on other powers and our stomachs are empty, we can't be shouting 'self-reliance.' It's not just a matter of distributing land to farmers. Where will they get money to buy fertilizer, technology, storage and to do marketing? We have to be realistic nationalists," he said.

Ironically, Estrada vowed to fight high-level corruption. As in a performance, his voice was steady on tape.

"I'll be a watchdog, which is why people gave me their trust," he said, referring then to his position as senator.

Erap did not change much in the past decade in terms of personal style and vaunted vision. What if he had kept his campaign promises? He sounded as if he was about to do just that.

"No amount of pressure can change my mind," he barked onto my recorder which had since then broken down.

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