29, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21
star Joseph Estrada's backslapping style served him well as a small-town
mayor but can't help him solve the Philippines' abundant woes
By TERRY MCCARTHY Manila
It is Joseph Estrada's birthday, April 19, and he is visiting Taytay,
a slum-redevelopment area north of Manila. In a dusty square beside a
half-finished housing project, the Philippine President sits down with
cabinet ministers and several local inhabitants to plates of rice and
roast pig. As they eat, an old man in tattered clothes is ushered through
the crowd. The President recognizes the man, who had been a security guard
in San Juan 15 years ago, when Estrada was the town's mayor. Master of
the common touch, Estrada converses warmly for several minutes. As the
man turns to go, the President pulls out his wallet and discreetly slips
his old buddy a few bills.
Girard/Contact Press Images for TIME.
Joseph Estrada still has his fans, but leading a nation requires more than charisma.
one month. Perfecto Yasay, the Philippine Stock Exchange Commissioner,
goes public with allegations that Estrada asked him repeatedly to block
an investigation into Dante Tan, a gambling magnate accused of share-price
manipulation. Tan is also a buddy of Estrada's. Yasay is talking about
the scandal on Debate, a late-night TV show, when the switchboard gets
an unusual call. It is from Malacañang, the presidential palace, and the
guy who lives there wants to go on air. The engineer patches him through,
and Estrada launches into a tirade against Yasay, the man who threatens
to ruin his friend. "You're such a liar," the President rants. He accuses
Yasay of seeking a 1 million peso ($24,000) bribe and calls on the heavens
to blast him with lightning.
ALSO IN TIME
COVER: Nice Guys Finish Last
former movie actor with a penchant for telling off-color jokes,
President Joseph Estrada seems ill-equipped to solve his country's
Hostage Drama: In
search of a breakthrough
JAPAN: Dirty Little Secret
As deadly toxins contaminate the environment, the nation's leaders
simply look the other way
The Activist: One
man's clean-up crusade
Viewpoint: A plea
to take action before it's too late
Religion in Command
The Taliban have ignored the intricacies of governing, leaving the
impoverished nation in crisis
Herat: The country's
golden goose has its own rules
are still dismal
Home-based schools for girls quietly flourish
Authorities struggle to stop booming exports of digital counterfeits
Animal-rights activists expose the barbaric transport and slaughter
of the country's most revered beasts
likes to keep things personal. It is both part of his charm and his greatest
failing, an endearing trait of an aging actor but a screaming liability
in a man entrusted with the fate of 76 million Filipinos. The President
has vowed to change--since January he has overhauled his administration
to give more responsibility for policy to technocrat advisers. But that
runs against his own instincts. In a country where kinship ties far outweigh
institutional loyalty, Estrada still seems to see himself in the role
of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, looking after his friends and making
his enemies offers they can't refuse. In Estrada's eyes, there appears
to be little difference between giving a security guard a couple hundred
pesos and helping a billionaire business associate out of a fix. When
Estrada had lunch recently with the American Chamber of Commerce, the
topic turned to finding land for a new international-school campus. The
President whipped out his mobile phone, spoke to his Education Secretary,
then handed the phone to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard, saying: "Here,
you explain it to him." The code of loyalty is reflected even in his nickname,
Erap, which is the reverse spelling of pare, Filipino slang for buddy.
"He is a very good friend, to a fault," says Nelson Navarro, a Manila
newspaper columnist. "Being a good friend, he can't say no."
edition's table of contents
And that, of course, is the problem. As the future brightens for the rest
of Asia, the Philippines continues to limp from one crisis to the next--from
today's renewed warfare and hostage drama in the south, to the near closure
of the stock exchange in March to a series of scandals involving cronies
of the President that sap investor confidence. Each problem cries out
for delicate, reasoned management. Instead the fate of the nation depends
on Estrada getting on his mobile phone, often in the early hours of the
morning, to persuade a friend to call a colleague to help out a buddy.
The result: confusion and inertia. In the space of three weeks, Estrada
has appointed three different negotiators to free the 21 hostages kidnapped
from a Malaysian diving resort and held on the southern island of Jolo.
Not surprisingly, the government still hasn't received a list of the hostage-takers'
The most serious problem of Estrada's administration is the President's
indebtedness to a cabal of businessmen, many of them ethnic Chinese, who
are regarded with increasing xenophobia by Manila's self-styled Hispanic
élite. These corporate climbers donated huge sums to Estrada's 1998 election
campaign. The President probably didn't need all their money: he easily
beat the nine other candidates with 40% of the vote, compared with just
13% for his closest rival, Jose de Venecia. But it gave the cronies a
seat at the table--or at the bar, in the legendary late-night drinking
sessions that got Aprodicio Laquian fired in March when the then-chief
of staff said he was often "the only person sober in the room at four
o'clock in the morning." The perception that a carousing Estrada has been
handing out favors--like calling off a tax investigation into Philippine
Airlines head Lucio Tan, or making Mark Jimenez, a fugitive from U.S.
justice, presidential adviser on Latin America--has done more damage to
the presidency than any of Estrada's other gaffes. "It took him a year
and a half to realize that he was President for all, not just for his
friends," says opposition Senator Raul Roco.
Ever since the days of strongman Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines has
been struggling to develop the rule of law and governmental institutions
that are not subject to the whim of one man. There is no sign that Estrada
is stealing from the public purse as Marcos did. But the President's personalized
form of government and indebtedness to friends is unerringly pulling the
Philippines back into its bad old patron-client habits. Meanwhile, society
isn't progressing. One third of the population is below the official poverty
line, the annual birth rate averages a whopping 2.3% and the country's
economic growth, forecast by the Asian Development Bank at 3.8% this year,
will put the Philippines close to the bottom in Asia. The country is barely
keeping its head above water.
The rhetoric is good: Estrada and all the members of the Economic Coordinating
Council he created this year say that fighting poverty is the administration's
top priority. But implementation is something else. "We are a country
in love with elocution lessons," says former presidential spokesman Jerry
Barican. "If you could only build the country with words, we would be
No. 1 in Asia." Estrada's genuine concern for the poor is hampered by
a lack of comprehensive policymaking and the interference of local officials
keen to cash in on the "anti-poverty" bandwagon. On a recent presidential
inspection trip to Mindoro Oriental province, the governor, Rodolfo G.
Valencia, has the helicopter fly low to show off two "Erap bridges" and
an "Erap highway" put up in advance of the visit. But even as the chopper
banks sharply around the new concrete structures, the governor hands the
President an inflated budget request for the following year. "It's almost
double what he will get," says Agriculture Secretary Ed Angara, also on
the helicopter. "We know how much each province really deserves."
Such is the daily routine in the presidential palace for the Chief Executive
of the Philippines, besieged by requests from cronies, sycophants, friends,
foreign embassies, competing branches of government--and the 5,000 members
of the Association of Erap's Godchildren, whose ranks have been swelling
from the days when he first rose to prominence as a movie star in the
1960s. "Some people call Malacañang a snake pit," says Barican. "That
is an insult to the snake."
Born in 1937 as the eighth of 10 children in a relatively well-off family,
Estrada grew up in the Manila suburb of San Juan. The black sheep of the
family, he played with the poorer kids of the neighborhood, drifted out
of college and finally became a movie actor. His macho style and self-deprecating
humor led him to star in 80 films and earned him five Famas, the local
equivalent of Oscars. In 1969 he was elected mayor of San Juan, where
he became hugely popular for paving roads and cleaning up crime. He rode
to the presidency in 1998 on an image of being the poor man's savior.
Immediately after the election, Estrada enjoyed high popularity ratings.
He burnished his reputation internationally by speaking out strongly against
the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
and by meeting with Anwar's wife on a visit to Kuala Lumpur--something
no other asean leader dared to do. He also bucked asean's "don't see,
don't tell" policy on Burma by denouncing that country's military junta.
But in the middle of last year, mounting allegations of cronyism and a
badly managed attempt to change the constitution to attract more foreign
investment led to a sharp drop in his ratings. For a movie actor used
to the adoration of his fans, it was a huge blow and prompted a panicky
overhaul of his administration in January.
In person, Estrada likes to play the lovable rogue, as if he were still
on the film sets of four decades ago. A warm host, he seems to enjoy nothing
better than to sit around over a meal trading jokes--often bawdy--with
a deadpan expression and a Lucky Strike clamped between his teeth. When
he reaches a punchline, he flashes his trademark leer, then laughs uproariously.
His favorite movie is Gone with the Wind ("seen it 10 times--great plot"),
and he says he molded himself on actors like Steve McQueen, Anthony Quinn
and Gregory Peck. But his favorite model of all is actor-turned-politician
Ronald Reagan. "When he made governor, I thought I could get into politics--and
so I became mayor of San Juan," says Estrada. "Then when he became President,
I thought--I can do that too." Though he doesn't share Reagan's conservative
ideological leanings, Estrada mimics his style of governance, eschewing
long cabinet sessions, briefing charts and the other details of administration.
Estrada's instinct is to project his personality to the masses, and he
clearly enjoys speaking to a crowd: "I know how to make them laugh--and
when to make them cry."
"Erap is game--he is fun to be with. He is very showbiz," says Baby Arenas,
a Manila socialite and close friend of Fidel Ramos, Estrada's predecessor
in Malacañang. At a recent wedding, Arenas found herself seated next to
Estrada. During the service he leaned over and whispered to her, "I know
where you used to go with Ramos in Malacañang." Arenas tried to protest,
but Estrada insisted with one of his leering grins: "I checked out the
room for myself."
Estrada's extramarital affairs are well-known--he makes no attempt to
hide them, admitting to 12 children born out of wedlock, on top of the
three he has had with his wife, Luisa. During a visit to Cebu in April,
Estrada owned up cheerfully to another of his children, born to a movie
starlet. At a public rally he pointed to a teenage girl in the crowd and
asked, to the cheers of the audience, "Doesn't she look like me?"
No longer young at 63, Estrada walks heavily, rolling his shoulders like
an old boxer. He has arthritic knees, although he likes to say that "above
the knees, everything works." Since his makeover in January, he says,
he has stopped drinking the old reliable--Johnny Walker Blue Label--and
now imbibes only red wine, on the grounds that it is better for the health.
But Estrada's bitterest critics in Manila's high society have made up
their mind about him, and they are in no mood to give him a second chance.
They regard his common touch as simple vulgarity and resent being shut
out of the parties in Malacañang that they had grown used to attending
under previous administrations. They have conducted an unrelenting campaign,
spearheaded by the Philippine Inquirer, to defame the President. A "Silent
Protest Movement Against Erap" has even been set up--its paradoxical strategy
being "noise barrages" of cars honking horns in Manila's Makati business
district. To the Establishment, Estrada is simply not one of them. In
a society that reveres gold Rolexes and Cartier Tanks, Estrada doesn't
even wear a watch--just a white sweatband with his crest on it. He jokes
about his clunky English and his preference for the native Tagalog. And
no meal at Malacañang is complete without the trademark lechon, roast
fat pig that no restaurant in trendy Malate would even dream of putting
on the menu.
And then there are the Erap jokes--like the jigsaw puzzle he reputedly
finished in six months, and proudly told his friends "it says 3-4 years
on the box." Thousands of such jokes circulate around Manila, and Estrada
himself has his own store--most of them unprintable. Part of his charm
is his self-effacing humor--he once told former Interior Secretary Rafael
Alunan that he didn't mind the jokes at all: "They are good for brand
Despite his warm personality and good intentions, Estrada retains the
style of a small-town mayor who tries to get things done by tapping his
buddies. The longer reach and policy grasp required of a president still
escape him. Since January he has tried to distance himself from what aides
call "his more unsavory friends." He has begun to make some progress in
economic liberalization, pushing the privatization of the electric power
industry and initiating some reform in securities regulation. But many
of his policies are ad hoc, like the inept negotiations with the Muslim
Moros that have restarted the war in the south. Lacking a coherent vision,
many of his ideas are likely to end up like unused footage from one of
his movies on the cutting-room floor.
To boost his ratings, Estrada has taken to the road with his message of
poverty reduction, population control and economic development. After
flying down to the island of Mindoro last month, he tells a group of farmers
in Calapan that, with 2.3% population growth, the Philippines will always
stay poor. "Men, control your sex drives," he says, bringing roars of
laughter from the crowd. The fact that his own child-making prowess is
already well into double digits doesn't seem to faze him.
In San Jose, on the other side of Mindoro, he makes a speech about how
the Philippines has fallen behind the rest of Asia economically. "In the
1950s we were second only to Japan in terms of economic growth," he says,
"Now we are 10th." Although he has ordered officials to lift 10 million
people out of poverty by the end of his term in 2004, he announces no
concrete plan for how to achieve this, in Mindoro or anywhere else.
In the helicopter on the way back to Manila, he ruminates about whether
anyone can fix the country. "There is too much politics in the Philippines,
everyone arguing with everyone else," Estrada says. "We need to be more
disciplined." Then he falls asleep. The helicopter, flown by Philippine
air force men, lands at Malacañang just as the sun is setting. Before
getting out, the President and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces gets
out his wallet and tips an embarrassed pilot a 1,000-peso bill. The man
With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Cebu and Nelly Sindayen/Manila
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