By Raïssa Robles
Magsaysay had heard that the Spanish owners of Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinasa or Tabacalera wanted to sell off their remaining asset in Tarlac – the sugar estate Hacienda Luisita which consisted of a sugar mill called the Central Azucarera de Tarlac and some 7,000 hectares surrounding it.
In 1957, Magsaysay told his godson, the young mayor of Concepcion, Tarlac named Benigno Aquino Jr : “I don’t want the Negros sugar people to invade you people in Tarlac.”
Ninoy Aquino of course could read the subtext of Magsaysay’s statement – here’s something for you but at the same time, this would help me politically since I’m at odds with the sugar barons of Negros, namely the Lopez family.
The deal was recounted by the late national artist Nick Joaquin in his book The Aquinos of Tarlac: An Essay on History as Three Generations. Joaquin based the book on, among others, extensive interviews with Ninoy.
Nick Joaquin had interviewed Ninoy Aquino before 1972. I suspect the book that Joaquin was to have published then was intended to launch Ninoy Aquino’s candidacy for president in 1973. It never took place, however, since President Ferdinand Marcos imposed military rule in 1972 and arrested Aquino. It was only in October 1983 or two months after Aquino was assassinated that Joaquin had the courage to publish his book.
Ninoy Aquino made a promise
In his book, Joaquin disclosed the bargain struck between the Philippine government and Ninoy Aquino. The family of his in-laws would buy the hacienda with the help of not only soft loans but also a government-guaranteed loan.
In exchange, the Cojuangcos would give it up after a ten-year period. Joaquin quoted Ninoy Aquino as saying:
The idea was to buy the hacienda, turn it into a viable operation, then subdivide it and sell it either to the workers or to agricultural cooperatives.
Ninoy Aquino was the first administrator or CEO of the estate and he soon turned a profit.
As part of his promise, he tried to turn the hacienda into a model sugar estate with housing for the workers and a free school. He even showed movies to distract the men from gambling and boozing.
Ninoy Aquino told Nick Joaquin why he wanted to turn the workers’ children into white collar workers:
At the rate the hacienda population was expanding the time might come when there would be more people than cane plants. My theory was that if the young learned a profession they would move out of the hacienda; if I could depopulate the hacienda I could give more man-hours per worker and increase the per capita income. So, education and scholarships were at the crux of my strategy.
According to the deal, by 1967 the Cojuangcos were supposed to have eased themselves out of the plantation. This year 2012 marks the 55th year that the hacienda remains in the hands of the Cojuangco clan.
In 1986 when when Corazon Aquino, Ninoy’s widow and a member of the Cojuangco clan, became president she was prevailed upon by her relatives to exclude the estate from direct land distribution.
Now the issue has come full circle. Just this week, the SC forced the Cojuangco family to disgorge Hacienda Luisita to its farm workers. The process will ironically be carried out by the government of Ninoy’s and Cory’s son, Benigno III.
The meaning of the Supreme Court ruling
I asked Christian Monsod, a pro bono lawyer for some of the farmers, the significance of the court ruling.
This is the biggest private plantation still around. How can you have a successful agrarian reform if this huge plantation is owned by the family of the president?
Monsod also told me some of his observations about the case:
In the first place they (the Cojuangcos) got it due to political connections. Magsaysay told Ninoy about the Tabacalera sale. Some people did not want the Lopezes to get it.
Monsod also noted that the Cojuangcos were able to obtain a loan from the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). The Central Bank also helped the family get a loan from the Manufacturer’s Trust Company of New York.
He said the Cojuangcos were able to avoid distributing the land by arguing that they were no longer covered because there were no more “farmers” and no “share tenancy” arrangement. The people working there were all farm workers.
He explained why the SC used the 1989 land value to compute the compensation for the Cojuangco clan.
He said 1989 was the year the land should have been distributed to the farmers. Instead,the land was given a value that year of P40,000 per hectare. This in turned determined the number of shares that were issued to the farm workers in Hacienda Luisita Inc. – the corporate vehicle for the stock distribution option scheme. Using a formula, “they were able to keep down the (farm workers’) shares to 33 and 1/3 of the corporation,” Monsod said. Because of this, the farm workers ended up not controlling the corporation, he said. .
In their decision last Tuesday, eight justices led by CJ Corona decided to apply the P40,000 per hectare value that the Cojuangcos had used for the farm workers 23 years ago.
Monsod said that the justices did not rule all SDOs used by other large farming estates as unconstitutional. He hoped though that the landmark decision would have an impact as well on other estates.
Some one million hectares of farmland in the country have not been placed under land redistribution to this day, including 13 other existing haciendas.
One argument used against land reform by its critics is that tenants and farm workers do not know how to behave as landowners. Before land reform came along, the tenants could simply keep borrowing from the owners and it did not matter either way if the debt kept piling up and remained unpaid. It was simply the way it was.
Now the new owners of Hacienda Luisita will have to acquire a new set of behavior as owners. This is where government agencies like the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) are supposed to come in.
This is also where President Aquino comes in. Will he encourage the hand-holding of democracy or keep his hands off it – thereby discouraging or slowing down the entire process.
Aside from breaking up the land, agrarian reform is intended to dismantle the old power structure engendered by centuries of land-based feudalism.
When I covered the Senate in 1987 I saw how Senate agrarian reform committee chair Heherson Alvarez and other senators watered down the agrarian reform law by inserting the stock distribution option (SDO) scheme. Everyone covering the Senate knew without a doubt that this was meant to shield Hacienda Luisita from redistribution.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled with finality that the way Hacienda Luisita had implemented the SDO was unconstitutional and ran against the very spirit of land reform.
I think land reform is long overdue in this country. However, I am perplexed why Chief Justice Renato Corona has been linking his impeachment to the Hacienda Luisita issue.
CJ Corona did not link Hacienda case to his case
When he was asked about his relations with President Aquino, CJ Corona replied:
It’s a very complex situation we have here. There are people who don’t want me at all as Chief Justice. They happen to be against the previous administration and who apparently (are) now in favor of the present dispensation. It’s a whole complex web. You can pinpoint which is which. All I know is there are people who went out of our way to disparage the Supreme Court. When a situation like this occurs you sort of wonder how.
That was all CJ Corona said. He did not connect the Hacienda Luisita case to efforts to remove him from office.
He had a chance to link the two when I asked him during the same January 2011 forum what he intended to do with two high-profile cases that had social justice implications. One was Hacienda Luisita. The other was the coconut levy case. (The second case has to do with the ownership claim of 10,000 coconut farmers of a chunk of blue chip firm San Miguel Corporation.)
CJ Corona merely replied to me:
We are already discussing the Hacienda Luisita case and it (the decision) will be out soon. We are discussing the coconut levy case.
That was all he said. He made absolutely no link then between efforts to oust him from the high court and the Hacienda Luisita case.
He only started making a link between the two the moment he was impeached.
Recall that the Corona-led court almost unanimously ruled to parcel out Hacienda Luisita over the objection of its owners – the maternal clan of President Benigno Aquino – on November 23, 2011. Fourteen justices voted “yes” while only one – Associate Justice Antonio Carpio – abstained.
Corona was impeached 19 days later on December 12, 2011.
It was only after he was impeached that he said the root cause of his trouble was the Hacienda Luisita ruling, particularly his “blocking” of efforts to benchmark the value of the land at 2006 prices.
Last Tuesday April 24, eight of the justices including Corona voted to use 1989 as the benchmark, thus depriving PNoy’s relatives of a multi-billion peso windfall in government “compensation” for the expropriation of the land that the government helped them buy in the first place.
Corona told reporters in a text message: “I am certain that the administration will get back at me.”
But what about the seven other justices? Do they feel the same way?
Perhaps Corona can be more explicit about what he means.