'Danding' emerged stronger out of Marcos’s shadows

Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 17 2020 05:21 PM | Updated as of Jun 18 2020 12:31 AM

San Miguel Group of companies boss Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco, Jr., in one of his last public appearances, on June 28, 2019, at the oath-taking of elected Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC) officers, in Tarlac. Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

He was loved as much as he was feared.

Either way, San Miguel Group of companies chief Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr., who died on Tuesday (June 16) at 85 years old, offered no apologies in his lifetime. Those who feared him believed they had some reasons in believing so. Those who loved him believed they had all the right reasons in doing so. 

When Ferdinand Marcos was still in power, Danding was said to have been one of the very few who could see the strongman without prior notice in Malacañang, next only to First Lady Imelda Marcos and Fabian Ver, the armed forces chief of staff.

By that closeness, Cojuangco walked his way to the corridors of power with ease all throughout Marcos’s dictatorial regime. He was the first among equals among Marcos’s business cronies. 

He was fondly called “Boss Danding” by the people who loved him. By his critics, he was pejoratively called “Pacman”, a computer character known for eating up anything that would come his way. He was believed to have been granted the right of first refusal to acquire private companies the Marcos administration seized. He was Pacman, long before the public got to know the small-town bakery-boy-turned-world boxing champion, now Sen. Manny Pacquiao.

But that same closeness with the Marcoses drove him out of power by the military-backed February 1986 people power revolution that deposed Marcos and installed Danding's cousin, Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, widow of his political nemesis in Tarlac, their home province. He hibernated to his sprawling farm in Australia, away from the madding yellow crowd. “He was happy there,” former PR woman Pamsy Tioseco, whose brother helped run the farm, once said. 

Amid the many graft cases the Aquino administration filed against him, Danding quietly returned to the country years later, initially attracting sports aficionados and writers. And in the hope then of promoting his new-found life in the Philippines, Danding agreed to visit and meet Inquirer editors for a night of a no-holds-barred interview at the Inquirer office in Makati. 

With mixed feelings, the Inquirer rolled the red carpet for him, but its top editor didn’t let the night pass without asking him about what he knew about the assassination of his and Marcos' political nemesis, former Sen. Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino Jr. 

“I’ve led a full life—full of controversies,” said Danding, chuckling, in a later interview with Inquirer lifestyle editor Marge Enriquez over lunch at Fortune, his favorite Chinese restaurant in Tarlac City.

AQUINO ASSASSINATION

Neither Marcos nor Aquino sued Danding for the murder. After he rose to power, Aquino’s son, former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, said his family didn’t believe Danding had anything to do with it. The last surviving member of the Agrava Commission, former Sen. Ernesto Herrera, said the commission had affirmed Aquino’s theory.

"How I wished we had solid evidence against Marcos, but there was none. Not against Imelda, not against Danding. Unless there come new pieces of strong evidence to link or charge either one of them in court, we had to close that chapter in our history," he told this newsman in an interview weeks before he died.

Danding ran but lost in the presidential election in 1992. He never tried again, but he emerged a king maker in the subsequent elections, then took control anew of the country’s premier food and beverage company, San Miguel Corp., as if he had never left.

But since his defeat in the 1992 elections, Danding had never been so private about his life, including his political influence and colorful family life. Inquirer’s Enriquez called him enigmatic. Indeed, he made himself readily available only to selected business and political leaders and yes, fellow Tarlaqueños. Except for a few times he attended business meetings in Makati, he was either in Australia or in Tarlac.

“Tarlac is great because of Danding,” so declared 71-year-old photographer Ver Buan, a die-hard Cojuangco believer, in an interview in March 2019, with this newsman receiving as many questions from him, because he was overprotective of the man he learned to love since he was a younger man growing up in Tarlac.

There was no other Tarlaqueño, like Danding. For Buan and many others who loved him, Danding had many names – “Boss, ECJ, Americano (because of his American mother), Lee Kwan Yu of the Philippines.” And he had been fondly called so, long before Marcos spotted him as a young congressman before martial law. He was down-to-earth, unlike many other Cojuangcos of Tarlac, he added. 

SON OF TARLAC 

Danding Cojuangco with son, Carlos, who was elected unopposed as first district representative of Tarlac, in this photo taken in June 2019. Dax Simbol

Danding was born to a landed family on June 10, 1935, in Paniqui, Tarlac. 

Raised in a farm in Barangay Apulid, Danding faced an early challenge in life when his father died in March 1952. 

Eduardo Sr. died of kidney failure in 1952 at age 49. Danding, barely 17, studied briefly at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, then enrolled in a two-year program in field crops and agriculture at the California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

After his return, he said: “As the eldest, I tried to preserve what my father had started. After a few years I told my mother that we had no more debts, but that she should consider selling the company. In the end, we would be blamed for floods, for cutting down the trees." 

He was only 16, a student of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños. He took over his father’s business, the debt-ridden International Hardwood, which produced plywood and toilet paper. Overnight, he stood as the new padre de familia, venturing into various businesses, most of which were risky. Subsequently, he became the family’s provider, because of his growing fortune, the family patriarch, and eventually because of his commanding presence, the Boss.

Danding was 22 when he became a councilor and then later vice mayor of Paniqui, Tarlac. In his 30s he became Tarlac governor, though he cut it short when he decided to become a congressman sometime in early 1970. It was in Congress that Marcos spotted him.

“I remember Boss Danding as the first governor to declare an all-out war against the insurgents Hukbalahap. Because of this courageous act, communist threats were neutralized in Tarlac and eventually in Central Luzon,” said Buan in his book titled The Tarlac Book, published in 2016.

DANDING THE INDUSTRIALIST

San Miguel Corp Chairman and CEO Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco speaks during the annual stockholders meeting in Manila on July 23, 2009. Nat Garcia, AFP/file

He had no college degree, but in his lifetime, Danding served either as director or chair of some leading companies, including chair of San Miguel Corp., United Coconut Planters Bank, Northern Cement Corp. and lately, Petron Corp.

Over the past many years since then, Danding was on his own. Out of Marcos’s shadows, he emerged far richer, and far more influential than he had ever been. In death, no one could deny his place in Philippine history, especially in Tarlac, and especially in Big Business.

In 2012, Danding was named one of the 1,000 wealthiest men in the world. Then 76 years old, he had an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, his crowning glory was the stewardship of San Miguel, the country’s largest food and beverage conglomerate. Former Rep. Oscar Santos had questioned his wealth, calling it a joke and a great injustice to coconut farmers.

But by the recollections of veteran business journalist Tony Lopez, Danding was the best and most successful Filipino industrialist of his time.

“Danding is the most misunderstood tycoon in the Philippines, largely because of his friendship and association with Marcos. He was dubbed the quintessential crony,” he said in a June 2013 column in the Manila Times.

“In my book, Danding Cojuangco is the best and most successful Filipino industrialist. His vision was for a prosperous Philippines anchored on the development of agriculture (he is a farmer at heart), and the pursuit of key businesses which are huge growth areas in an economy and population of the Philippines’ size,” he added.

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME

When he turned 82 in 2012, Danding no longer had any ambition, Lopez said in another column in June 2017.

“I have achieved more than what I have intended to do in life. I never imagined I could reach this far. Everything that has happened, I never even dreamed of,” he quoted Danding as saying. 

Since his kidney transplant in December 2013, Danding took to wearing a mask in crowded places. “I could pick up an infection very easily, on account of the anti-rejection pills,” he said.

True enough, Danding showed up wearing a facial mask at the oathtaking of newly-elected officials in Tarlac in a three-hour ceremony in June 2019, long before the new coronavirus came upon the world. He was on a strict diet and had lost considerable weight. 

Before the lockdown, Danding showed up at the blessings of a church he built near the family mausoleum in Paniqui, Tarlac.

“Whatever I have now, I did not inherit; I worked for all of it," Danding told an Inquirer interview, looking back. “I must have made the right decisions in my life. In anyone’s life, you win some, you lose some.”