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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Pope Francis’ challenge to fight injustice and corruption is timely in the wake of citizens’ continuing protest rally vs. unholy and corrupt alliance between Comelec and Smartmatic at Plaza Roma, Intramuros. Pope also challenged the church, civic organizations and well-to-do folks to help alleviate grinding poverty of our poor, “the victims of this throw-away culture.”




Pope Francis in Tacloban



Aboard the PAL plane that took him back to Rome, Pope Francis conducted a running interview with international and Filipino media accompanying him, and that interview was every journalist’s dream. This respected voice on the international stage, following his earlier preaching here about the need to think (pensar), feel (sentir) and do (hacer), was forthright and straight-talking, sufficiently upset and therefore eloquent---
but always unashamed of conveying deep emotion.

In those two hours of interview Francis left the accompanying media--- and their audience world-wide---with enough nuggets of thought  to ponder on. I’ll highlight some of the more important and relevant points.

But let me say outright that so relevant is his condemnation of injustice and corruption to the ongoing protest rally by concerned citizens before the Comelec in Plaza Roma, Intramuros, regarding the unholy “midnight deal” that the poll body signed last Dec. 23 (on the eve of Christmas when no one was looking!) with Smartmatic-TIM. This contract amounting to P300 million is part of an over P2 billion peso package involving replenishment and refurbishing of those much-hated election cheaters, the PCOS machines. 

This contract signed last Dec. 23 also comes just over a month before Chairman Sixto Brillantes and two other commissioners retire on Feb. 2, 2015---hence a "midnight deal" in more senses than one. Really shady. 

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IT experts and plain citizens have grown hoarse in continually denouncing this unholy alliance between Comelec and Smartmatic as the mother-lode of corruption, and significantly, Francis has these harsh words against corruption "of all kinds and at all levels" and the corrupt. “We must ask pardon for those Catholics, those Christians WHO SCANDALIZE WITH THEIR CORRUPTION. It’s a wound in the Church,.” the Pope said (emphasis mine).  But this midnight deal, which obviously aims to manipulate the people’s votes again in the scheduled electoral exercise in 2016---as the devilish duo did in the 2010 and 2013 elections---is also a grave injustice to the Filipino people as the PCOS machines have been used to rob them of their sacred right to vote.

Pope Francis has repeatedly also called on his flock to fight injustice in all its forms.

The on-going protest rally in front of the Comelec against the unholy partnership and tyranny of Comelec/Smartmatic NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT, dear readers, because it’s the fight of all Filipinos who value their vote as sacrosanct---and not just of the IT community and politicians who have been cheatedt. It’s a fight against all politicians who have held power and are still lodged in their posts due to the conspiracy between some Comelec officials and personnel, and the vendor of those hated machines, Smartmatic.

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But doubtless the Pope’s most controversial topic aboard the PAL return flight involved the issue of population control--- and here he was forthright but obviously more sympathetic and understanding of the human condition. First he sounded the alarm bells: there is a universal “Neo-Malthusianism” with countries like Italy and Spain having less than 1 percent birth rate.  So much so that he warned that according to reports, Italy could be confronted by 2024 with the inability to sustain payments for pensioners---because of the lack of population.

He lauded his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, whom he recently beatified in Rome, for being “a prophet” about the dangers f this Neo-Malthusian theory now coming true---but for which Blessed Paul VI was ridiculed as “more antiquated” and “close-minded.”

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Pope Francis then went full-steam ahead. He stressed that the Church continues to put its foot down on use of artificial methods of birth control. He emphasized this, undoubtedly, to oppose the “ideological colonization” by richer nations that impose, among other things, contraceptives on poor Third World countries such as the Philippines, as part of some "loan" or "aid."

This blogger is very aware of the harmful effects of some of those contraceptives that our country is being bombarded with. Jennalyn, daughter of my former Ilongga cook Josie Monis recently died after undergoing dialysis for some time owing to renal failure. Jennalyn was a perfectly healthy 25-year old wife (her husband works in a gasoline station in London) and mother of a two-year old child, until she began receiving injectable contraceptives at her barangay center; after a few months her kidneys started to malfunction and she had to have dialysis three times a week! Then it was reduced to two a week, until she succumbed to renal failure. This injectable contraceptive is particularly notorious for its bad side-effects and should be banned from the country.

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But the Pope also stressed that Catholics must not think---“excuse the language”---that in order to be good Catholics they have to be “like rabbits” (a remark that met stiff criticism from rabbit growers especially in Germany). He cited the case of a woman on her 8th pregnancy, after delivering all her seven babies by cesarean section, and how he reminded her that she wouldn’t want to leave seven orphans behind, would she?

Francis stressed that couples should practice “prudence” and “responsible parenthood.” which is interpreted popularly as the call for the natural family planning method (no sex during the female’s 'unsafe days').  His advocacy of the natural method, is of course, a call for ULTRA-HEROISM on the part of many present-day married couples---as continence is very tough especially for those whose work makes it imperative for them to live apart, so that they can only come together on certain days in a month.   

Tough indeed, but viewed philosophically, in every age there’s always a challenge in one form or another for VIRTUE LIVED TO A HEROIC DEGREE.

Francis also lauded the “generosity” of poor parents who continue to regard a child “as a treasure” to be loved and cherished. This is especially true of the Filipino poor in our rural areas, where another child means another helping hand on the farms or in selling goods and produce.

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Pope Francis reserved most of his artillery, however, for the grim poverty in our country, about which he is well-versed, having worked with this same problem in his native Argentina (where slums are called “villas miserias”). Labeling the poor as “the victims of this throw-away culture,” (was  Francis thinking of the 700 poor families that DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman hid in a Batangas resort in order to clear Roxas Blvd. of them when the Pope was here?)  the Pope insists that “We need to be beggars---from them, because the poor evangelize us.”  He stressed that “If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message."

“I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them also to evangelize you---because they have values that you do not have,” he said.

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And so Pope Francis has issued that clarion call to Christians everywhere, especially here in PH where the gap between rich and poor is ever-yawning: let’s take care of the poor.  Each of us has this obligation in his or her own capacity: e.g., help children of our helpers with some kind of subsidy for schooling, or send the lavandera home with additional food for her family or extra for medicines needed, etc. Civic clubs can support more scholars from poor families, as graduating even one member of a poor family is the surest way to lift it up. 

Above all, the Church has to be pro-poor and sensitive to the plight of families orphaned by parents working in distant countries. It has to be the true shepherds of these "international orphans." The possibilities are endless, but we know where we are being called to help.

Pope Francis is a person unafraid of displaying his emotions and in fact he called on the faithful “to dream so that we can truly love, and not be afraid of shedding tears.” He confessed to being “annihilated” by the heroism of the Yolanda-hit Taclobanons---“how they were standing still (during the mass amid the rain and strong winds), praying after this catastrophe--- which left me thinking of my sins and these people. It was a very moving moment. I felt as though I was annihilated. “

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Not one to be afraid to confront deep-seated feelings, Francis at another point said: “We Christians must ask for the grace to cry, especially the wealthy Christians. We ought to cry about INJUSTICE and about sins, because crying opens us to understand new realities, or new dimensions to realities.”


Let me close this rambling blog on Pope Francis by citing the reference he made to the “prayer for tears” as found in the 1962 Old Missal (and circulated in the Vatican transcript of his PAL interview): ”O Lord, you have made it so that Moses with his cane made water flow from a stone; make it so from the rock that is my heart, that water of tears may flow.” 

A beautiful prayer apt for our times. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fantasizing that among hundreds of bloggers Pope Francis would choose me for briefing, just the two of us, on what ails this Catholic country. One thing I’d tell him---which he’d understand as he's Latino: how citizens’ votes have been manipulated in two recent elections by Comelec/Smartmatic and how their unholy partnership plans to steal 2016 elections again with midnight deal cooked up last Dec. 23, when Pinoys were marking birth of Jesus. This Tuesday, Jan. 20, with the Pope’s wisdom still in our hearts, patriotic citizens from all walks of life will pour into Plaza Roma and Occupy Comelec with one battlecry: No more PCOS! Boycott Smartmatic forever!




Would that this photo of me with a cardboard Pope Francis turn into reality, so I can brief him on Comelec/Smartmatic's unholy and dastardly alliance that threatens to thwart the people's will a third time in 2016.
                                   


With all the frenzied excitement about beloved Pope Francis I find myself fantasizing that of the hundreds of bloggers around he’d choose me for a 15-minute dialogue---just the two of us---on what’s ailing this country, one of only two Catholic countries in Asia.  And what would I tell him?  I’d tell him of one thing alone, and this he’ll understand, as he’s from Latin America where turbulent politics, mainly various dictatorships, has prevailed over decades, including in his native Argentina.

I’d tell Pope Francis of our rotten politics, specifically the manipulation by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) of our elections, through the foreign company it has become so beholden to, Smartmatic. I'll tell him how renowned IT experts, various professional organizations and plain citizens who care deeply about the future of their beloved country have grown hoarse reciting Comelec’s grievous sins in the 2010 and 2013 elections,  which over the years it has chosen to simply dead-ma (Your Holiness, that’s native slang for ignoring). 

Sadly, I'll tell the Pope how our Congress, which investigates just about every issue especially on the political opposition, has ignored Comelec’s anomalies, as these have involved some very powerful politicians.

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I’d tell Pope Francis that the Filipino people’s anger over the continued manipulation of our votes is such now that right after he leaves---on Jan. 20--- many citizens’ organizations, led by the National Transformation Council (NTC) that counts a good number of Francis' Filipino bishops as well as pastors and imams of other faiths, the most prestigious IT organizations, labor groups, urban poor and many others, will gather in a giant protest rally at Plaza Roma in front of the criminally liable Comelec.

Our message to Chairman Sixto Brillantes and his cohorts: enough is enough.  We just won’t take anymore the repeated thwarting of our most sacrosanct democratic right---to vote to choose our leaders.

Who knows, but that Pope Francis, hearing me recite the litany of Comelec’s sins, won’t forgive its commissioners---and instead, he’d just postpone his PAL flight to Rome on the 19th and join us at Plaza Roma on Jan.20.

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But just so that His Holiness won’t think that a low-tech protester like me doesn’t know what she’s talking about, let me reprint for him here the open letter of AES Watch, the umbrella group of Filipino IT experts, which patriotic Filipinos like those in Tanggulang Demokrasya (Tandem) and the Faith-led NTC, as well as various Filipino organizations here and abroad, are FULLY SUPPORTING. AES Watch has zeroed in specially on the immoral and unjustified awarding to Smartmatic---just two days before Christmas, when Filipinos were busy marking the Birth of Christ---of the first tranche (A “MIDNIGHT DEAL”) of a P1.2 billion contract for “refurnishing” those wicked PCOS voting machines, now better appreciated as the “Hocus PCOS machines.”



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Here, for Pope Francis’ perusal, is today’s Joint Protest Letter on the Comelec-Smartmatic Deal” from the AUTOMATED ELECTION SYSTEM WATCH (AES Watch) and the CITIZENS FOR CLEAN AND CREDIBLE ELECTIONS (C3E), addressed to Chairman Brillantes and the six  commissioners:

“WE, Filipino citizen election advocates from AES Watch and C3E, express in the strongest terms our opposition and grave concerns expressed by a growing number of coalitions of election watch groups, NGOs, Church leaders, academics, IT experts, people’s organizations here and abroad, as well as enlightened sectors in the media who are all legitimate election stakeholders, on Comelec Resolution 9922 of Dec. 23, awarding to Venezuelan reseller and marketing company Smartmatic, the very prohibitive P300M contract of diagnostics and minor repairs on the 82,000 PCOS machines WITHOUT BIDDING!

This rush holiday action by the Comelec led by Chairman Sixto Brillantes, Jr. and Commissioners Elias Yusop and Lucenito Tagle who are all scheduled to retire by law, on February 2, 2015, is HIGHLY SUSPECT AND UTTERLY UNCONSCIONABLE in the face of the many unresolved issues involving the defective PCOS machines provided in the last two elections – 2010 and 2013 -by SMARTMATIC.

We are APPALLED that the Comelec resolution smacks of a “MIDNIGHT DEAL” and cutting corners citing unacceptable reasons (“lack of time”) that compromise the provisions of the procurement as well as election laws. It was, to say the least, in disregard of the urgent concerns raised in the recent Joint Congressional Oversight Committee (JCOC) hearing of December 4, 2014 on the AES. This hearing called for thorough reports from Comelec on the latest discoveries and explanations by no less than the Technical Evaluation Committee of the government’S Department of Science and Technology (DOST) on the digital distortions of ballot images from the PCOS machines that, according to the TEC’s  official report, “could have affected the results (counting) of the election” and which “would be difficult to clean.”

We view with suspicion, the treacherous deal between Smartmatic and the COMELEC forged after that last JCOC hearing where Chairman Brillantes again failed to submit the poll body’s official reply regarding the critical TEC-DOST findings on the digital lines on the PCOS election results, and from which top Smartmatic official Cesar Flores had the temerity to excuse himself from appearing because they were “busy working on their bid.”  What refurbishment is being talked about when Comelec’s information is all dependent on Smartmatic’s and no certified report and inventory from independent bodies-–government or private--had been done and submitted on the state of the PCOS machines and the source codes that run the counting of the votes?

Why the COMELEC’s rush to close the deal involving TAXPAYERS’ MONEY of P1.2 billion for the supposed repair of damaged PCOS machines, to be paid exclusively to Smartmatic---when this went AGAINST THE RECOMMENDATION OF COMELEC’S OWN legal department that this contract be subjected, by law, to PUBLIC BIDDING? 

We raise this important question: WHAT POWER HAS SMARTMATIC– a foreign company - have that it CAN THREATEN the Philippines’ own constitutional election body and succeed in compelling it to award the services (amounting to more than PhP1.2Bn) on the basis ONLY OF UNVERIFIED INFORMATION supplied by this marketing company regarding its fictitious “ownership” and “manufacturing” rights to the PCOS system--- when such claims have already been shown to be questionable?

We remain firm that the Comelec should have bidded out the entirety of the refurbishment contract, and that its argument of a lack of time and that Smartmatic has exclusivity over the PCOS is highly arguable and questionable.

In the first place, Smartmatic should have been compelled to do the necessary diagnostics, repair and fixing of its PCOS hardware at the company’s own expense when technical and hardware deficiencies were exposed as early as 2010, worse in 2013; likewise, in early 2014 when the DOST’s TEC acknowledged the digital distortions of ballot images that altered the 2013 vote counting. Why THE HASTE in the Comelec resolution when-–based on the estimates of our own IT experts-–such necessary repairs can be done in 6 months?

As to Smartmatic’s claim of exclusivity, what is clear is that Dominion Voting System (DVS) holds the patent to the manufacturing of the PCOS, including the software. But since the Comelec NOW OWNS those second-hand used machines (bought for the 2013 elections at P1.9 billion---BOC), it can exercise its right by its own IT technicians – or bid out such services in a transparent and public bidding.

Expressing our gravest concern over this “MIDNIGHT DEAL” we ask that the decision to award the negotiated contract with Smartmatic be deferred until after the retirement of the three outgoing officials on February 2 and the appointment of their replacements. The span of time between the retirement and appointment of new Comelec Chair and two Commissioners would not cause grave delays to the election preparation, and also to avoid mistakes and the bad perception that comes with undue haste.

We ask that the retiring commissioners led by Chairman Brillantes, out of a sense of propriety and delicadeza, inhibit themselves from any long term decision-making especially on critical issues involving the questionable counting accuracy of the Smartmatic-provided PCOS technology that remains the property of another foreign company, Dominion Voting System.

Let us give the incoming Chairman and Commissioners the prerogative to exercise their decision over this very critical matter, as they also have the right and duty to review this contract and they are the ones who will be there to see it materialize and be accountable.

We also reiterate our position that Smartmatic Company BE BANNED FROM PARTICIPATING IN CURRENT AND FUTURE ELECTIONS on the basis of numerous accounts – since 2009 – of ownership misrepresentation, non-compliance with election and procurement laws including the E-Commerce Act pertaining to the minimum requirements of a transparent, accountable, accurate and reliable election system.

It is our moral, legal and natural obligation to stop THIS BLATANT MOCKERY OF THE RULE OF LAW in our country and the continued subservience of the COMELEC to Smartmatic and Cesar Flores who is allowed to malign and libel even reputable Filipino experts and legitimate organizations.

Let us allow our own Filipino IT inside Comelec, government agencies and independent experts to participate democratically and help develop appropriate election systems and technology in promoting the right of suffrage and against undue interference of foreign vested interests.





Friday, January 9, 2015

Extremists’ attack on Paris satirical paper whips up worries about attacks in other parts of the globe. Let’s double our prayers for Pope Francis’ security in our shores. Ultimately the issue of extremism boils down to need for tolerance of and respect for other beliefs.




View of the offices of Charlie Hebdo weekly in Paris (photo from nbc news.com)


I returned a few days ago from Israel, a state that is itself wracked from time to time with violent episodes between the Jewish majority and the Palestinian Arab minority. Thank God that during the two weeks and a half  that I was there---first with the tour group of Arlina Onglao’s “Journeys of Faith,” visiting various holy shrines, then I stayed a  few days more in Jerusalem---it was very peaceful, unlike last July when various areas were exploding with conflict. And the weather in Israel was just beautiful---cold but not too cold, and flowers were all in bloom.

Which is why I was shocked to read about lightning attacks last Wednesday, said to have been carried out by Islamist extremists in Paris against a local publication, the Charlie Hebdo weekly, famous for its satirical pieces. Satire is  a long-venerated French literary genre and tradition and recalls Voltaire's attacks on the Jews. As one writer put it, "satire is as French as champagne." In recent issues Charlie Hebdo targeted the Muslim faith and lately it has dealt in a mocking manner with the prophet Muhammad. 

Nevertheless, as a media person for the past 30 years, it shocked me that among twelve persons killed in that raid were cartoonists, editors, journalists and graphic designers, apart from two policemen.

The dastardly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo have triggered various reactions around the world, stirring fears anew that  extremists are lusting anew for vengeance, reviving the clash of civilizations. One can imagine how tight security worldwide would become; the matter of security becomes particularly relevant in our country as the visit of Pope Francis approaches.  Let us all pray that the Pontiff would be very safe during his visit here.

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The Islamist extremists' terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo have also triggered debate worldwide on the validity of the attackers' motivation and how far sentiments against a particular religious belief can be encouraged to prosper into action that would result in harm to others---either in feelings or physically, as in the recent killings in the City of Light. Over the internet the stand of a certain Shellah Montero was printed wherein he or she raised the question of whether a person or organization that employs a media tool “greatly dedicated to mock a religion or faith” deserves to be treated or viewed as a hero.

Shellah Montero argues thus: “I mourn with Paris, this is indeed a tragedy. But I would just want to express an opinion and I respect all the others. In my thoughts though (that) if you have a comic strip greatly dedicated to mock a religion or faith, would you be a hero? No one deserves to die but I think there is a level of respect needed when we want freedom of expression. Something of great value you voice out. Not mockery. Sometimes I am afraid that the world doesn't know that freedom comes with respect. Again murder is murder and these journalists don't deserve to die, but think.. Are they really heroes? Or just victims?”

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Where does this blog stand on this issue?  I agree with Shellah Montero about the need to balance a “level of respect needed” with the “freedom of expression” we all advocate and crave for, especially those of us in the media.  As a columnist in the Philippine Daily Inquirer for 25 years and now a blogger for over four years, Heaven knows how strong a position I have taken on many burning questions of the day with the powers that be, especially on political matters. But I have always striven in my long years as media person to raise the level of my arguments to a high plane--- avoiding ridicule and disrespect of personalities or what we call ad hominem attacks.

Let’s debate issues and take a critical stand on them, but I won’t call anyone names.

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This brings me to the recent unanimous ruling of a division of the Court of Appeals (CA) dismissing the petition of tour guide and RH advocate Carlos Celdran that he be set free. One and a half years ago Celdran was deemed guilty of violating Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code, in a decision handed down by Judge Juan Bermejo Jr. of the Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 4, that sentenced  him to imprisonment ranging from two months and 21 days, up to 13 months and eleven days, which he subsequently appealed to the CA and lost.

Celdran was convicted for shouting inside the Manila Cathedral and calling on the Church to stop meddling in government affairs. He walked down the center of the Cathedral carrying a placard that said “Padre Damaso,” and later shouted invectives in the middle of a solemn ceremony inside the Cathedral. “Padre Damaso” refers to the character in National Hero Jose Rizal’s novel referring to a Spanish friar who was hated by the Filipinos.

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The Celdran incident and his subsequent  conviction provoked controversy especially in social media. This blogger early on took the side of those who felt that Celdran had EVERY RIGHT to protest Church actions but that it cannot be carried out inside the Cathedral premises while a religious ceremony was going on---in deference to those who conducting it.  I argued early on that had Celdran demonstrated just outside the portals of the Cathedral, such as in Plaza Roma, that would not be contrary to law and no one should bother him. IN FACT I WROTE THAT I WOULD BE THE FIRST TO DEFEND HIS RIGHT TO DEMONSTRATE IN PLAZA ROMA. But on the other hand, I also insisted then that it was a matter of respect for the beliefs of others---the same issue that Shellah Montero has raised---that Celdran has to respect the ceremonies inside the cathedral.

Plainly, Celdran, like all Filipino citizens, can invoke freedom of expression as his  inviolable constitutional right, but Article 133 of the Penal Code also punishes “anyone who, in a place devoted to religious worship or during the celebration of any religious ceremony, shall perform acts notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.”


This provision is clear as daylight, and so long as it’s enshrined in the law it has to be respected and upheld.  Lawyers and libertarians who feel uncomfortable about Article 133 should work for its deletion from our statute books---it’s a free country. But for as long as this provision exists, it has to be upheld.


Celdran is lucky that Philippine penal system just chose to jail him briefly; in other climes he would perhaps not have been as lucky.