Special to ABS-CBNnews.com (First of Three Parts)
When Fidel Ramos became president in 1992, he gave old army buddy Jose Almonte his own black signing pen and the red pen he used to scribble marginal notes on official memos.
President Ramos then told Almonte that the pre-owned gifts meant: “You’re not my staff, we are partners.”
This direct quote from Ramos - which the former president did not deny ever saying during the launching of Almonte’s memoir Endless Journey - highlights the unusual nature of the two men’s bonding. Ramos placed Almonte way outside the “chain of command” in the state bureaucracy. Ramos knew (Almonte writes) that if he’d tried appointing Almonte to a Cabinet position, it would have been blocked by the Commission on Appoinments.
So Ramos appointed Almonte - his junior by six years – national security adviser but his real functions far exceeded the authority of his office. Almonte was only answerable to Ramos and was left to do as he pleased - just like recently disgraced Philippine National Police Director-General Alan Purisima had blanket authority from President Benigno Aquino III to pursue his own secret operations.
Purisima forged a deep friendship with President Noynoy Aquino during the numerous coup attempts against his president-mother Corazon. Almonte bonded with Ramos in the heat of military operations against the rebel Hukbalahap in the 1950s, and later during the coups against Mrs Aquino.
When both were still young military officers over half a century ago, Ramos and Almonte shared treasonous thoughts together. As Almonte narrates in his memoir, “our mission was to interdict remnants of the dissident Huks…Now and then a patrol would bring in a Huk’s body, slung on a bamboo pole like a deer….by then the insurgency had died down enough for Capt. Ramos and me, sitting together in the slanting afternoon sunlight of the hill, to ask ourselves why we were killing our own people.
“There, in the jungle, began our soul-searching….It was only when Ramos and I saw each other that we discussed this. It was a secret we shared because it could be considered treason. This was our bond,” he bared.
But why did Purisima fail to hold on to power while Almonte lasted Ramos’ term? The differences between the two graduates of the Philippine Military Academy are glaring. Almonte is smarter, more articulate and more adept at power play than Purisima. Notice that when the tragic fiasco over the Mamasapano operations first erupted, Purisima simply clammed up.
In a similar situation, Almonte would have argued his way out of trouble, just as he did in Operation Big Bird, an illicit and murky operation during President Cory Aquino’s term which attempted to tap into the stolen wealth of the Marcoses in Switzerland. That operation backfired disastrously, triggering the 1986 freeze on the secret Marcos Swiss bank accounts by the Swiss government. Yet Almonte wriggled out of it - he had the uncanny ability to extract himself from troubles of his own making.
Almonte spent three years living a dangerous life in Vietnam with the communist-led Viet Cong, so much so that he was suspected by the Americans of being a double spy.
When I heard last year that Almonte had asked Marites Vitug to write his memoir I was skeptical whether a backroom political operator was ready to spill the beans.
I had read Almonte’s earlier book and I told his long-time assistant Edna I was sorely disappointed. It was too theoretical and impersonal. I told her to tell the general that I wished he would write a tell-all memoir because he has long been a dealer and keeper of secrets; an ideologue and propagandist who tried to have his political theories implemented; a suspected Viet Cong spy; a self-confessed arms dealer; and an inveterate plotter of coups and other schemes.
In short, I wanted Almonte to do a kind of Wikileaks and bare the backroom deals that so affected the nation.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I read “Endless Journey: A Memoir.” This 395-page book breaks the unwritten rule (at least in the Philippines) of memoir writing. Local memoirs are largely bland, inoffensive and (of-course) self-serving. Almonte’s book is predictably self-serving but explosive and quite deliciously offensive in parts, at least to some prominent personalities he mentions by name.
For instance, he disclosed how Gregorio Honasan, currently a senator, had proposed not just one but two assassination plots for the junior officers of the secret Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM to undertake(but more on that later).
He also disclosed how President Ramos initially made a mistake in signing Executive Order No. 2 (EO 2) allowing zero tariff on cement imports for three years. This story shows how a President needs to juggle so many balls in the air at the same time.
THE CASE OF 'BOY BLUE'
Almonte said Finance Secretary Ramon “Boy Blue” del Rosario Jr. (now president of Makati Business Club) pointed out an “emergency” situation: the zero duty importation of cement was to expire the very next day and Ramos needed to renew it to avert a construction slowdown. Ramos then and there signed EO 2 extending zero duty three more years.
Almonte said cement traders flocked to his office and pointed out that Del Rosario’s family owned PHINMA, which was a big cement importer and would benefit from the EO and might end up monopolizing the sector. When Almonte told Ramos about this, Ramos adjusted the EO, cutting zero duty imports to only one year “because he recognized Boy Blue’s contribution to the campaign.”
On hindsight, Almonte noted that “normally, issues on tariff and duties would have passed through the board of the National Economic and Development Authority which would call public hearings. This one, however, skirted the consultative process.”
Almonte has many fascinating revelations that show the inner workings of the presidential palace and in the process sheds light on the governance of President Ramos.
Based on 17 lengthy interviews with Almonte, the book is written in the first person, from Almonte’s viewpoint. Written by Marites Vitug and very ably edited by novelist Jose “Butch” Dalisay, the book certainly reads like Almonte talking, spilling some of the sordid secrets of five Philippine presidents.
Unfortunately, we do not get the personal insights that Vitug could have shared knowing what she knew of Almonte and the other players that the memoir talks about.
THE 'SULO HOTEL OPERATIONS'
The strength of Almonte’s memoir lies in its brutal honesty about how the political game is actually played. And Almonte does not spare himself in the blame. His book could very well be turned into the local version of the US series, House of Cards.
For instance, Almonte opens up about the so-called “Sulo Hotel operations” - which rival presidential candidate Miriam Defensor-Santiago had pinpointed as the cheating scheme that Almonte and Ronaldo Puno carried out in Sulo Hotel in Quezon City to enable Ramos to win the presidency by a slim margin in 1992.
Almonte said: “I gathered all, if not most, of the known election operators or the experts in cheating. I assembled them in one group….I asked how much each was paid for his service. I asked for the average reasonable fee and agreed to pay them the amount they quoted. Each one operated independently.”
Almonte then told them: “You are not going to cheat for us. You just ensure that we are not cheated. Don’t cheat us.” At least, that’s what Almonte claims in this book.
Now, at first blush, nothing seems wrong with Almonte’s action, except that we can assume some of the experts in cheating were probably election officials. Then this would seem Almonte gave them money. There seems to be nothing in our anti-corruption laws that bars state officials from bribing others to follow the law.
As I said at the start, Alan Purisima was to Aquino as Almonte was to Ramos. We may have the Constitution and the laws governing the behavior of all public officials. But once in office, men like the four of them, bound by loyalty and friendship, skate along the very edge of the legal and constitutional in order to achieve their goals.
(Raissa Robles is an investigative and political journalist behind raissarobles.com: inside Philippine Politics and Beyond.)