June 30, 2021 at 12:00 am
"To snipe at perceived failures of a former president simply because these are borne by biases and prejudice are not only in poor taste, but poor judgment."
A very good and morally upright president by most standards, Diosdado Pangan Macapagal, the “poor boy from Lubao” in the plains of Pampanga, gave a very memorable description of what a president should achieve.
In all modesty, he described his four-year stint as leader of the benighted land (then and still), as “laying a stone for the edifice.” In fine, the task of nation building is a long and arduous one. Leaders come and go, whether by election in a democracy, or by the natural recourse of history and life itself.
Unless a leader had become so rapaciously corrupt, as in the case of some notorious ones in Africa and Latin America, each one leaves office and allows history to judge it. Often, history is kind to those who left a stone or some in the task of nation-building.
One such leader was Elpidio Rivera Quirino, the son of a jail warden in Vigan, Ilocos Sur towards the end of the Spanish colonial regime, who, having been educated to become a lawyer, entered politics and became one of the mercurial Manuel Luis Quezon’s trusted “bright” men.
An accident of fate brought him to the presidency after the popular Manuel Acuna Roxas died of a heart attack while delivering a speech at Clark Air Base, then America’s largest military base in the Philippines.
It was a difficult time to become president. The country was still rising from the ashes of the Pacific War. Manila was the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw in Poland. Ironically, the devastation was wrought by American liberation forces who had to carpet bomb the “pearl of the Orient” to flush out snipers and hold-outs of the Japanese Imperial Army.
Reconstruction and rehabilitation was not easy, and American aid was rather niggardly toward its former colony compared to what it poured into the Japan it defeated and the Europe for which it had a Marshall Plan.
Furthermore, the Hukbalahap, a socialist rebellion borne out of the poverty of the landless in Central Luzon and exacerbated by the earlier exclusion of their leaders from the parliamentary process was knocking at the environs of Metro Manila from the foothills of the Sierra Madre which they controlled.
Corruption was rampant, as traditional politicians tried to recoup what losses they suffered during the war, from immigration rackets to smuggling, to all kinds of corruption. And while the newly-installed president was as honest as could be, he was surrounded by party-mates in the Liberal Party who were far from spotless.
Still and all, Quirino did his best, from putting his foot down on the incursions of the American ambassadors into our sovereign prerogatives, to reducing the number of military bases, to hastening the tedious work of reconstruction. He started the Maria Cristina hydro-electric project in Iligan, Ambuklao in the Montanosa, irrigation projects in the Cagayan Valley and Central Luzon, even a cement plant in Cebu, among others. He laid the foundations for our financial system and central banking. He built housing projects for the poor and lower middle classes in what was then cogon grassland which is now Quezon City.
But poor health and the dislike of the then still very powerful American influence in the country decimated Quirino’s approval and trust from the electorate. Eventually, his re-election in 1953 was challenged by his own nino bonito, Ramon del Fierro Magsaysay of Zambales, whom he plucked from Congress to become his Secretary of National Defense.
The young Magsaysay, at 46 the youngest to run for the presidency at the time, trounced his padrino Quirino at the polls. Dejected, the defeated president who was widowed when his wife was killed by the Japanese during the Liberation of Manila, retired to a modest farmhouse in Novaliches, and in less than a year after his defeat, passed away.
But the stones for the edifice that he placed upon the building of our nation last up to this time, and while the passions of the election of 1953 were unkind to the man, history eventually has been kind. Many, this writer included, believe that Elpidio Quirino was one of our best presidents.
And so did all our presidents leave a stone or many to the edifice, as President Diosdado Macapagal, who de-controlled the peso and the economy, despite incipient unpopularity. He also expanded the reach of agrarian reform, which succeeding presidents, Ferdinand Edralin Marcos and Corazon Cojuangco Aquino expanded further, even if controversies abound more on its implementation than the wisdom of land distribution.
PFVR further opened up the economy, loosening the grip of oligarchies in telecommunications and the financial sector, among many other reforms. Even the short-lived Erap Estrada managed to increase agricultural growth during his term. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who reigned for nine long years instituted what were unpopular reforms during her stint that turned out to become strong foundations for economic growth.
And so did Benigno Simeon Aquino III, scion, like GMA, to a previous president, continue the task of nation-building by adding several stones to the edifice. By a mix of right financial and fiscal policies, the economy grew by unprecedented levels, and our country achieved investment grade sovereign ratings which preceded a long and subsisting low-interest regime. That fiscal space allowed our present economic managers to spur the Build, Build, Build infrastructure program of the current leadership.
For certain, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, apart from his controversial but popularly accepted war on drugs and the prevailing improved peace and order situation in the country, along with his concrete infrastructure legacies, shall be credited for many stones in our nation’s edifice.
It is easy for us to criticize presidents from the armchairs and the laptops we write upon.
A free press and the freedom of expression, after all, are the hallmarks of democracy, without which, authoritarianism prevails. The checks and balances enhanced by public criticism are essential to fostering good governance from our rulers by pointing out shortcomings and when substantiated, failures in moral and legal standards.
But we should give credit where credit is due. To snipe at perceived failures of a former president simply because these are borne by biases and prejudice are not only in poor taste, but poor judgment.
Let history judge, and let generations after, measure the stone, or stones, each president leaves in the edifice of nation-building.