A Room with No View

4 minute read

Shortly after he and his son were peacefully and very publicly arrested on charges of “economic plunder” and carted off to a jail in a Manila military compound, Joseph Estrada, the disgraced ex-President of the Philippines, proclaimed his innocence on television and radio interviews and dismissed his persecution as a conspiracy being waged against him by the lite classes. It was potentially rousing material, but the former movie star’s delivery failed him. He was still wearing his trademark white wristband adorned with the presidential seal, but his swagger was gone. He looked defeated and confused, as if he couldn’t comprehend these latest events. “Not even in my dreams did I think this could happen,” he told a local television station. His widely disseminated mug shots showed the man once adored by a nation losing spirit, frame by frame. His sinking eyes seemed to ask: “Why me?”

A better question might be: Why now? Estrada is accused of pocketing $82 million of state money in his 31 months in power, but that was merely a good week’s work for the monumentally crooked Ferdinand Marcos, who was never even tried. Estrada’s booze, women and illegitimate children somehow came off as charming, even in a resolutely Catholic nation. His vices certainly made him a man of the people, not the Establishment. Estrada himself characterized the People Power II revolution that overthrew him in January as the “text-messaging generation” against the “vacationless class.”

The showcase nature of Estrada’s first days in jail suggest that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was trying to send a message to several constituencies. The administration wants the Philippine people to believe it’s trying to eradicate endemic corruption. And it wants the international community, particularly those who might invest more money if they didn’t have to pay bribes right and left, to believe likewise. The Philippines enjoyed several years of improved economic performance under Estrada’s predecessor, Fidel Ramos, only to see it wasted by Estrada’s erratic leadership. “This is a signal to the international community that the Philippines now has a strong and firm leadership that adheres to the rule of law,” says Finance Secretary Alberto Romulo. Translation: Brother, can you spare a billion?

But the arrest brought thousands of Estrada sympathizers out on the street. Inspired by pervasive pictures of their suffering hero on a too-thin mattress in a too-small cell with malfunctioning air conditioning, demonstrators congregated at the edsa shrine, which commemorates the anti-Marcos People Power revolution of 1986. Arroyo’s right-mindedness, in the short term anyway, began to look like a public relations blunder. What’s more, it might scare investors away. Two days prior to the arrest, Moody’s Investors Service issued a “negative” rating for the Philippines, due to continuing political instability. Following Estrada’s detention, both the stock market and the peso stumbled.

By the weekend, pro-Estrada crowds swelled to more than 50,000 people, and Manila’s caffeinated rumor mill started reporting that payoffs were being offered to military personnel to support “Erap,” as Estrada is known, over Arroyo. (Estrada still maintains that he is President, and that People Power II was an illegal rebellion.) “The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police are squarely behind the government and prepared to meet any challenge to the constitution,” Arroyo reassured the people. Still, both bodies remain on full alert, and as of the weekend, Estrada was set to be transferred to a more comfortable facility outside Manila, far from the crowds demanding his release.

Justice Secretary Hernando Perez says the prosecution is ready to make its case, and he’s confident enough to push for a trial in mid-May, smack in the middle of nationwide Senate elections in which Estrada’s wife is running. “If they want us to present evidence today,” he says, “we can do so.” That might not be a bad idea. The pro-Erap crowd, which includes Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, a hero of the original People Power movement who was also accused of coup-plotting against former President Corazon Aquino, is calling for People Power III to bring Estrada back to power. Enrile’s crowds are far smaller than the 700,000 people who poured out in January to get rid of Estrada. Nonetheless, it’s a dramatic gesture of sympathy for the first Philippine President to be tossed in a jail cell. One certainty: when Joseph Estrada stars at his own trial, it’s bound to be a ratings hit.

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