The Vice President

The man who would be President

Noli de Castro has come a long way from his days as a broadcaster; he may even end up in Malacañang.

HEADED FOR MALACAÑANG? Noli de Castro has come a long way from his beginnings as an unknown radio broadcaster. [photo credits: Malaya]

LIKE IT or not, Filipinos will have to accept the fact that Noli de Castro might just be president one of these days. It could be sooner, if President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo suddenly gets stricken with delicadeza and resigns, or later, if Congress eventually decides to put an end to the crisis and impeach her. Either way, Filipinos will have to get used to the idea of a de Castro presidency, especially if they don’t want Susan Roces heading a caretaker government or Jose de Venecia becoming prime minister for life.

Filipinos don’t seem to have much of a choice. Being vice president puts Noli de Castro next in line and just a breath away from being the 15th president of the republic. The middle class may not relish having another celebrity in Malacañang, and traditional politicians may be gritting their teeth over a neophyte having it quick and easy. But no matter what they say, if Arroyo falls, de Castro will have to rise to the challenge.

That will be some déjà vu. De Castro would become the third consecutive vice president elected after 1986 to have ascended to the top, following in the footsteps of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo. The two are not particularly pleasant precedents. One was ousted in the middle of an impeachment trial, while the other appears headed in the same direction. Unless he breaks the jinx, de Castro just might end up like his predecessors not too far into the future.

That is why he is playing it coy and cautious these days. He keeps a low profile, hardly gives any interviews, and rarely opens his mouth. His friends say he does not want to be branded power-hungry or to be seen as a deserter. In July, at the height of the “Hello, Garci” controversy when 10 cabinet and sub-cabinet members cut ties with Arroyo, de Castro refused to seize the position that was his for the taking.

“He will never be party to the ouster of President Arroyo whether extraconstitutional or contra constitutional,” says Cesar Chavez, a former newsman who was de Castro’s campaign manager. “Ayaw niya maging traydor. Ang sa kanya, ituloy ang proseso, ano man ang prosesong ‘yan, kung impeachment man o ano (He doesn’t want to be a traitor. The way he sees it, we must let the process continue, whatever that process is, impeachment or something else).”

“He had good judgment,” says Senator Ralph Recto, a friend and former colleague of de Castro. “He’s not a traitor, and that’s a value Filipinos cherish as well. He could have easily grabbed the opportunity to become president, I suppose, but he’s not like that.”

Icon for the masses

What exactly is he like then? To the public, Noli de Castro is the Joseph Estrada of the 1990s, an icon for the masses of his generation. People know his TV image too well — the guy who appeared on nationwide television night after night for close to 20 years, the news anchor who practically held the patent to the phrase “Magandang Gabi, Bayan (Good evening, Philippines).”

The nation also knows him as the candidate who topped the 2001 senatorial race and won 15 million votes in the vice-presidential contest in 2004.

But de Castro has something Joseph Estrada didn’t have: a college degree. And he has something Gloria Arroyo doesn’t: a feel for the public pulse borne of years as a broadcaster. His friends and supporters insist these and other traits, plus knowledge of the basics, more than make up for de Castro’s inexperience and lack of political savvy.

“He listens attentively…He knows how to ask questions,” says Recto. “Sometimes I listen to him during his Saturday programs. He makes sense naman.”

Former social welfare secretary Dinky Soliman says practically the same thing. “Noli asks if he doesn’t know what’s going on. He doesn’t pretend that he knows things,” she says of de Castro, her seatmate during cabinet meetings.

Having a vice president who might be clueless about a lot of things isn’t a particularly comforting thought; elevate that person to the presidency and chances are there will be a lot of handholding going on. But presidents were never meant to have all the answers, de Castro’s supporters say. That’s where his friends and advisers come in. In the event of a de Castro presidency, what the people will get is Team Noli.

“No single person is the answer to all our problems” is Recto’s reply to those who expect de Castro to be the nation’s savior. “It’s always a team,” the senator insists. “That’s why you have political parties…There is no messiah. Noli’s not a messiah definitely.”

“Plus-plus” and minuses

If Noli de Castro becomes president, Soliman says, Filipinos will be getting a package deal: de Castro, plus the support of at least four major political blocs, plus immediate economic and political reform. She calls it the “Noli-Plus-Plus” scenario. “The challenge is convincing people that the Noli-Plus-Plus scenario is a better deal than we have now,” says Soliman who was one of the cabinet members who quit last July. In this scenario, pushed by some NGOs, Noli would be a transition president who would preside over a process of charter change and pave the way for new elections and a new government. He would also govern with a council of advisers drawn from a cross-section of political groups.

It’s going to take a lot of convincing. Right now, what people are thinking when they see de Castro is not the possibility of a top-notch team working for the good of the country. Instead, what most likely comes to mind is a pack of friends waiting for their turn to ravage it. In classic Erap lingo, it’s “weather-weather” all over again.

The danger really is that there are far too many people who see de Castro as a blank slate on which they can write whatever they want. Actually, perhaps the better metaphor for a former “talking head” is a puppet that moves only according to the pulls of the puppeteer — or in this case, puppeteers. Harsh as that may sound, it is nevertheless apt for a person who has yet to be portrayed as making a decision on his own, or at least against the interests of his supposed handlers.

Former University of the Philippines president Francisco Nemenzo, convenor of the democratic-left alliance Laban ng Masa, summarizes the apprehensions over a Noli presidency: “De Castro’s track record as an envelopmental journalist and short stint as senator with no real credentials or evidence of competence has shown him to be simply an all too willing pawn of elite interests, especially the Lopez oligarchy.”

The Lopezes, of course, own the giant media organization ABS-CBN, de Castro’s former employer. Rumors of de Castro’s so-called envelopmental journalism, or his “attack-and-collect, defend-and-collect” (ACDC) style of reporting have hounded him and ABS-CBN for years. In the 2004 elections, reports surfaced that he took money from subjects of his investigative reports who wanted certain stories quelled. The payoffs were reportedly in cash or in kind.

De Castro has denied them all, but the rumors persist. Charges like these, though, are difficult to prove. To some, it may have been simple just to point to de Castro’s P51.3 million net worth declared in his 2004 Statement of Assets and Liabilities that included choice real-estate holdings. Or cite as evidence the fact that in the 2004 polls, he declared to the Commission on Elections that he put in P59.3 million of his and his family’s own money into the campaign. But then it shouldn’t be a surprise that de Castro has that much wealth. He worked for one of the country’s most generous employers for decades, after all, and he was even ABS-CBN’s highest-paid news anchor for several years. He held the title vice president for news for quite sometime, too, and owns, along with his wife Arlene Sinsuat, the production outfit that produces the weekly investigative program “Magandang Gabi, Bayan.”

The Lopez factor

But perhaps more than the reports of unethical journalistic practices, it is De Castro’s Lopez connection that is the public’s unspoken fear. Long a fixture in Philippine politics and business, the Lopezes preside over an interlocking web of business interests that range from power generation to power distribution, telecommunications to water concessions, infrastructure, to broadcasting and publishing. Because of some of their companies’ histories, the Lopezes are perceived by many as having monopolistic tendencies and prone to ruthless business tactics.

A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS. The vice president, shown here during his days as a radio broadcaster, has strong links with the Lopez family which owns ABS-CBN.

Numerous focus-group discussions conducted by the TV industry show that the viewing public perceives the Lopezes to be using ABS-CBN to further their interests. The question many Filipinos have now is this: Would they likewise use de Castro for their own ends if and when he becomes president?

The group Freedom From Debt Coalition (FDC) says the Lopezes already have done that with the vice president. They say that President Arroyo, through de Castro, allowed the bailout of the Lopezes’ beleaguered Maynilad Water company by allowing the government water agency Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) to shoulder some of the Lopez company’s debts.

Aside from this, the government allowed not only Maynilad Water to charge higher rates, but also let the Lopezes’s Manila Electric Company (Meralco) do the same. But Chavez insists, “Noli will never compromise or sacrifice the national interest to big business.” The vice president, says Chavez, understands these things and is aware of the country’s political and economic history and the role cronyism played in the past.

De Castro’s inner circle

Friends like Recto are also trying to correct that impression. Recto says de Castro isn’t the type “to favor anyone…He understands that for business it’s leveling the playing field (that’s important). He understands (the need for) equal protection of the law.

Simple naman ‘yun di ba (It’s simple, isn’t it)?” Well, not really, at least not for de Castro. One of de Castro’s former media colleagues says that Eugenio ‘Gabby’ Lopez III, President of ABS-CBN Channel 2, is the one person closest to de Castro, the person whose voice is the most often in the vice president’s ear, closer even than his friends in the so-called “Wednesday Group.”

The Wednesday Group is de Castro’s political gang, made up of four other senators he struck a friendship with when he began his political career in 2001. They are former human-rights lawyer Joker Arroyo, businessmen Manuel ‘Manny’ Villar and Recto, and ex-student leader and lawyer Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan. The group meets at least once a week to exchange political gossip, give each other advice, and, since June, help de Castro prepare for bigger things ahead.

Recto describes how the group came together: “Joker became somewhat of a Yoda — considering his age and experience, he’s the eldest in the group. Manny and Noli are of the same age. Me and Kiko are of the same age. Joker, Manny, and I all came from the Ninth Congress so we’ve been together since 1992. Noli was a neophyte as well. We had good rapport in the session hall.”

But de Castro’s former media co-worker describe them this way: “Ralph and Kiko are the outer flank, Manny and Joker are the inner circle, and right beside Noli is Gabby Lopez.”

A “problematic” friend

De Castro, however, has friends of his own outside the realm of politics and big business, and one of them actually put him in a bad light.

When de Castro was named head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) and given the Housing portfolio after becoming vice president last year, he brought with him his friend Celso de los Angeles.

In September 2004, de los Angeles was appointed chairman of the National Home Mortgage Corporation (NHMFC), the agency that provides community mortgage programs to urban poor groups. De los Angeles didn’t last a year in office. He filed sick leave prior in mid-July, to going on terminal leave.

Nongovernmental organizations in the housing sector say that the few months that de los Angeles headed the agency was a time of “flagrant and brazen graft and corruption” at the NHMFC. By the last few weeks of de los Angeles’s term, these NGOs were asking President Arroyo to kick him out.

“We believe that one impediment in your housing program for the poor is Mr. Celso de los Angeles,” said the Philippine Undertaking for Social Housing and other groups working in the area of Community Mortgage Program (CMP), in a paid print advertisement addressed to President Arroyo on July 1, 2005. “We urge you to remove him from office because he is not morally fit to be in government.”

Their reasons had nothing to do with the fact that de los Angeles got into a very public fight with TV starlet Regine Tolentino over the P8 million worth of jewelry he supposedly gave her. Neither did they have anything to do with the fact that Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson, in his testimony during the impeachment trial of former President Joseph Estrada, described de los Angeles as “isang jueteng operator din noong araw (someone who used to be a jueteng operator).”

Institutionalizing patronage

What the housing NGOs had protested was the culture of palakasan and alleged increased incidence of extortion that prevailed at the NHMFC during de los Angeles’s watch. A turning point in the campaign against de los Angeles was the arrest of Nestor Favila, head of the Task Force Community Mortgage Program, on June 24, 2005. Favila was caught in an entrapment operation accepting P85,000. The sting operation had been prompted by several complaints against Favila for allegedly extorting from landowners selling land to the NHMFC.

On top of this, say organizers of the National CMP Congress, NHMFC officials encouraged urban poor residents’ associations to seek the intercession of congressmen, senators, and local officials in following up their community mortgage programs. The result: the institutionalization of patronage politics in the housing sector.

Nobody in de Castro’s circle of close advisers seems to know anything—or wants to talk—about his relationship with de los Angeles. Recto says he never heard of de los Angeles before, while Chavez would only say that de los Angeles was someone whom his staff saw in the 2004 campaign sorties twice or thrice. Yet he is apparently close enough for de Castro to have endorsed as head of a crucial government agency.

But de los Angeles did not seem that indispensable to the vice president. To de Castro’s credit, says Soliman, the vice president immediately took heed when told of reports of controversies de los Angeles found himself in. “Alisin na natin kung ganun (In that case, let’s take him out of that post),” Soliman quotes de Castro saying.

Hopefully, de Castro has no more friends like de los Angeles and Lopez waiting for him to be president. For sure, to most Filipinos, that would hardly be a “plus-plus.”