Thursday, January 27, 2005

Multiple lives

Multiple lives

Posted 09:59pm (Mla time) Jan 26, 2005
By Juan Mercado
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A12 of the January 27, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ANOTHER Australian newspaper has given local readers a rare insight into one of our reclusive -- and controversial -- Filipino businessmen, Eduardo Cojuangco.

As Australia's oldest (founded 1831) daily, the Sydney Morning Herald arguably packs the most clout in Down Under's largest city. Herald's measured style outstrips the influence of Rupert Murdoch's sensation-packed Daily Telegraph.

In "The Two Lives of the Boss," the Herald's Kate Askew underscores contrasts in the Cojuangco that Australians and Filipinos see.

Earlier, Sun Herald's Frank Walker reported how Australian courts tracked Ferdinand Marcos funneling, between 1982 and 1985, almost $169 million from the shell Lichtenstein foundation Vibur. Laundered funds set up, in luxury, a then-pregnant former Playboy model, Evelyn Hegyesi. Her daughter was named Analisa Josefa. "Marcos' mother was Josefa," Walker wrote.

Padding about, without bodyguards, in his $3-million Spanish style-hacienda in Mudgee (population: 8,500), New South Wales, "Cojuangco could be any gentleman farmer and horse breeder," Askew writes. "He leads a private life and does not mix with Filipinos living here."

But his $1.78-billion bid for a dairy company, National Foods, made via publicly listed San Miguel Corp., thrust him into the limelight. "National Foods' high brand integrity is vital to the Philippine company ... San Miguel is hardly a well-known brand here." If the deal is sealed, "40 percent of the Philippine company's revenues will be sourced in Australia."

But life isn't simple on home soil for the insulari who "became extraordinarily wealthy during the Marcos regime," then scrammed with them to Hawaii, a step ahead of furious people power crowds.

"Unlike Marcos, Cojuangco wound his way back to the top when the time was right," Askew notes. He hitched his wagon to Joseph Estrada who won in 1998, but whose corrupt government was ejected by People Power II.

Cojuangco "bought himself a couple of years' grace with the Arroyo government." He yielded seats on the San Miguel board and leveraged a 15-percent (now 19.1-percent) investment by the brewer Kirin. "Arroyo remains wary of Cojuangco," even as San Miguel revenue grew by 21 percent under Cojuangco's watch.

The coconut levy, however, haunts Cojuangco. So does the tough Haydee Yorac, chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG). How did Cojuangco nail 20 percent of San Miguel? the PCGG asks. And were additional shares of San Miguel bought with the levy, which, as the Catholic Bishops' Conference noted, cronies controlled?

The anti-graft court and the Supreme Court have ruled that coconut revenues are public funds. Cojuangco's legal counsel, Estelito Mendoza, emphasized to the Herald that the recent ruling did not relate to Cojuangco's own stake of 19.2 percent in San Miguel. That's to salvage part of the loot, scoffs the Philippine Peasant Institute.

In retaliation, "the Brat Pack" of Cojuangco's Nationalist People's Coalition tried to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide. "The complaint was thrown out," Askew recalled.

Are those the same forces at work in the new moves to downgrade the PCGG from an independent agency into an attached office, allegedly for efficiency and economy? "The voice is that of Jacob, but the hands are that of Esau."

Levies bought the First United Bank, then being offered for sale by no other than Cojuangco. It became the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB). For every nine shares issued to so-called coconut farmers, Cojuangco got one, Yorac says in a paper she wrote for the Herald.

In addition, he managed the bank for a decade and chose all its directors. Martial law dictated that all levies were deposited with UCPB at zero interest. More significant, who was the unnamed principal who snapped up 20 percent, dipping into the levy? Yorac asks.

When people power erupted on Feb. 25, 1986, the identity became clear. "Stock certificates of these holding companies endorsed in blank were found in the hastily abandoned bedroom and toilets of the former occupants of MalacaƱang."

Many Filipinos believe the country should now move beyond legal arguments. "Half of the country believes Cojuangco used his position with Marcos to build up his own interests," the Herald notes. Others commend him for standing up to the foreign coconut industry.

After winning the Fernhill Handicap with the Gai Waterhouse-trained gelding Clonmel in 2000, Cojuangco gave one of his rare public addresses. "I enjoyed Australia the first time I came here to buy a horse in 1959," he told the crowd. "This is my second country. My family, my grandchildren, they also love it."

Thanks for his benevolence from local businessmen elicited this response from Cojuangco, "It's no good having a pocketful of pesos if you can't spread a little sunshine," Herald racing writer Max Presnell reported.

Do that, asks Lea Kuizon, an aging small coconut planter in Bato, Southern Leyte. Kuizon's mother died holding coco levy certificates that never paid a centavo. He fears that will be his fate, too.

Kuizon has good reasons. A cash-strapped Arroyo administration has signaled it will siphon the levy to keep its head above the water. Looting is not lovelier the second time around.


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