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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.

Friday, March 31, 2017

To understand the leadership imbroglio in the House of Representatives, the best thing to remember is: CHERCHEZ LES FEMMES.

The Pantaleon Alvarezes and the Tonyboy Floirendos in better times
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Two realities depressed me recently.

I was in Buendia waiting for a PNR train to pass, but the train proved to be such a pitiful sight to behold---slow, old, dirty-looking, its green paint so faded. The decrepit train looked utterly incongruous with the gleaming skyscrapers of Makati and ritzy hotels. It chug-chugged and stopped to pick up passengers bound for Laguna and the Bicol region. In their current state PNR trains look more like fit for cattle and pigs. 

Hope springs in me that the PNR management would either consign that train to the graveyard or if there are no replacements as yet (public funds being squandered in Congress and elsewhere) at least the PNR would repaint its trains and always ensure that they be given a good scrubbing every morning before they roll out. With all the manpower available owing to the high level of joblessness in the metropolis, one would think the PNR management could harness a few dozen hands each morning to give its decrepit trains at least a decent scrub. One never sees trains looking so old and dirty in other countries.

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But more than a just some decent scrubbing, the best thing is to put those decrepit PNR trains away for good---perhaps in a museum for locomotives dating to the 19th century, or sell them to film companies doing movies on historical periods (I remember a great movie about WWII  starring Alec Guinness, set in then Burma, with such a train carrying POWs). We sorely need efficient trains for the provinces but not in the sorry state of those PNR trains.  When we see all those gleaming super-high speed trains in Japan and China and in Europe, then along comes those decrepit PNR trains, we find ourselves asking, what happened to our country? 

Inquirer columnist Cielito F. Habito recently pointed out that in a visit to Bangkok, he saw the headline story of an English-language newspaper about a large double-track railway system that the Thai government plans to build. Cielito admitted the story saddened him as "it showed how fast the Thais are moving to further upgrade their infrastructure, already far ahead of ours as it is." In PH we still ran pre-WWII decrepit and dirty trains through the 21st century Makati district. How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Speaking of Bangkok I cannot help but reminisce on the excellent trains that capital city has maintained all along. One day while  my husband was Philippine Ambassador to Cambodia in the late ‘90s, he decided to bring our family of three children for a few days’ trip to Vientiane, Laos. In Bangkok we boarded a second-class train with a sleeper coach and around 8 pm. our uniformed attendant began pulling out the sleeper beds and fixing the linens; we all slept comfortably. It was not any of those fancy trains, but it was clean and efficient.  Why can’t we have something like those?

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The other sorry state we Filipinos can mourn is the scandal rocking the House of Representatives, involving, as accounts put it, the interference of supposed paramours or mistresses in the affairs of state and even in the legal system. The classic statement of 60-year old Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez in defending his having a paramour--“Kayo naman, Dios ko naman, Sino ba’ng walang girlfriend?"--- will be easy to understand with, but hard to forget. It will now rival in notoriety that oft-repeated-callous statement: “What are we in power for?”

Time was when extramarital affairs were whispered about in polite circles of power and tea parties, but never in the open---and certainly never on the front pages of newspapers. From front-page news accounts of the feud between Speaker Alvarez and his fellow Davaoeño and erstwhile bosom-buddy Rep. Antonio Floirendo in mainstream newspapers, these two members of the House are now bitterly locked in a personal and political quarrel that started because of the feud between their respective mistresses.  

Tonyboy Floirendo, son of the late “banana king,” is said to have been the major donor to the campaign of then presidential candidate and fellow Davaoeño Rodrigo Duterte, reportedly to the tune of P75 million. Floirendo is also credited with having helped his fellow Davaoeño,  Bebot Alvarez, bag the speakership.

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But all that is over now between the best friends and Alvarez has raised the question of conflict of interest in the business actuations of Tonyboy Floirendo. The latter’s family  business, the huge Tagum Agricultural Development Corp. (TADECO) which has been using vast lands leased from the Davao Penal Colony since 1969, renewed the lease in 2003 when Floirendo was already a congressman. Alvarez has referred the alleged the graft case to the Ombudsman. 

Whispers in the corridors of power, however, attribute the falling out between the erstwhile allies to the conflict involving their women. From Floirendo’s account, he and his common-law-wife Cathy Binag were approached by Alvarez’s estranged wife Emelita and their children, for help with regard to the Speaker’s womanizing.  Binag and Alvarez’s mistress, Jennifer Maliwanang Vicencio, got into an altercation during a Bacolod festival and hostilities erupted. Rumors of a plot to remove the Speaker from his post, linking Floirendo, followed (which he denied) and Alvarez retaliated with the move to investigate TADECO.

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The feud between the two mistresses has resulted in the suddenly closure of the office of the Congressional Spouses Foundation, Inc. (CSFI) reportedly on orders of the Speaker’s mistress. Traditionally the CSFI is headed by the Speaker’s wife, but here the girlfriend is shown to be more powerful. I spoke to some wives of House members and they lamented this latest move against the CSFI, for it has been around since the days of Cecile Blanco Mitra, Speaker Ramon Mitra’s wife, and the spouses of succeeding speakers, such as Cynthia Villar and Sonny Belmonte’s daughter Joy have sustained its programs. Among the most notable projects of CFSI is the Lakbay Aral project whereby congressional spouses received stipends for their respective scholars. Another CSFI project is the “Haven for Abused Women” founded by Speaker Joe de Venecia’s wife, former Rep. Gina de Venecia, which thrives till today in Alabang.

Reports say the CSFI’s office was closed down on orders of Speaker Alvarez’s girlfriend, who was quoted as saying that after all, the congressional wives don’t do anything but travel. There’s a bit of politics too, for after Vice President Leni Robredo indicated that she wanted to help the congressional spouses with projects, their office was closed.  

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The scandal hitting Alvarez js not expected to peter out soon, for this burly rough top official seems used to playing hardball and he’s close to President Duterte, whose life mirrors the same predicament. Some pundits opine that if such scandal were to hit the US Congress, the official in question would be hard-put to resign. I can believe this, for while some of the American people may appear quite lax about enforcing moral standards in their private lives, public lives are demanded to be paragons of uprightness. Here the name of the game is thickening of one’s hide (kapalmuks).

But women’s groups are speaking out. The militant Gabriela decried Speaker Alvarez’s “reckless generalization” that there would be no lawyer existing if such strident one-woman standards were to be applied.  Other women’s groups decried Alvarez’s flaunting of his extramarital affairs as “something ordinary and acceptable,” as they stress that it “reeks of machismo unbecoming of a public servant, more so with the Speaker of the House."

Shrugging It off as “something ordinary and acceptable” is a lamentable sign of the times we live in.

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