Advocacy Mindanow: If I were a Cabinet member PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 07 November 2011 15:48

BY Jess Dureza

Since I started a series of “IF I WERE...” for several weeks now in my weekly column,   I’ll continue the sequel. This time, it will be:  if I were a Cabinet member now.
AWKWARD? — May I make though  a cautionary note at the very  outset. I was a bit comfortable  in my two previous pieces “If I Were the President” and “If I Were MILF” simply because I was not and could never be one of either.   But now that I am writing about being a Cabinet member, I really have this awkward feeling considering that I was once in the president’s cabinet  before and my “IF I    WERE...” this time may be misconstrued  as if  I am showing off that I know better and that I did not have my own shortcomings then. Let me just say that I have culled these thoughts by reminding myself  of  a few specific challenges and what I did – rightly or wrongly — while serving the nation in the Cabinet of former President Arroyo.  I recall that  I acted then  on the basis of my own personal sense of propriety – or  impropriety – as the case may be. It must be said that these judgment calls were mine alone based on factors and situations then obtaining. They may not be the same  today.

Nevertheless, let me share my thoughts.

AS CHIEF NEGOTIATOR —That feeling of discomfort aside, allow me first to relate my own experience. In 2001 and upon her assumption, I was appointed by PGMA as Chairman of the Government Panel Negotiating with the MILF with a concurrent position of Chairman of what was before the Mindanao Economic Development Council (MEDCo) now, Mindanao Development Authority (MINDA). The reason for my wearing two hats then  was because PGMA knew  that  doing both peace and development simultaneously and  in the same track at the same time, and personally handled by a Mindanaoan,  was the most logical and workable  way forward in Mindanao due to its unique situation.  I cannot forget her always emphasizing: “Jess, don’t forget this: peace and development must come hand in hand, not one after the other.” To PGMA’s credit, she had a clear and focused (laser-like, she would usually say)) vision for Mindanao.

UNFORTUNATE DISAGREEMENT —As Chairman for the GRP panel,  together with my team, and the President giving strategic directions, I helped negotiate and craft the milestone agreements of the Agreement for Peace in Tripoli, Libya in 2001, the Agreements on Development, Ceasefire  and other protocols in Malaysia that became the cornerstones of the  still on-going  peace engagement with the MILF.

Things progressed, although slowly but surely. About two  years into my work,  in 2003,  there was an unfortunate  disagreement caused by my refusal to sign one document after a peace meeting in Kuala Lumpur. This  was during the  aftermath of the AFP attack on MILF Chairman  Hashim Salamat’s enclave in   Buliok, Pikit. I will not disclose for the moment  the specifics of that incident, except to say that due to my firm   position  in refusing to sign  the document (which I instead annotated with corrections that I thought were vital and necessary and which the MILF strongly protested)  I realized  that by doing so, I   squandered some amount of personal  goodwill needed to be  an effective chief negotiator vis-a-vis the MILF and the Malaysian facilitator.  They  were expectedly unhappy –if not angry— at the firm position I took.   I felt then that my continued stay as Panel Chair became untenable.  

So,  after much thought, I  quietly tendered  my resignation to PGMA  as Panel Chair and went back home to Davao to continue my development work at MEDCO then. I found the right “excuse” when the MILF attacked Siocon town of Zamboanga del Norte during its fiesta celebration that year of 2003.   

AS PEACE ADVISER — I returned to direct peace process work again 3 years after that resignation,  in 2006 when I was appointed to fill the vacancy left with the resignation of Secretary  Ging Deles with the so-called Hyatt 10 group. Instead of doing direct negotiations, I served as Cabinet Oversight Official to the peace talks with the MILF, CPP/NPA/NDF and other groups and took care of other peace process tasks. Mark this please: peace talks is only one path to peace. There are a total of 6 paths to peace, negotiations being only –altho important—one of them.

I clearly recall that due to that “bad experience” with the MILF and the Malaysians that triggered my resignation 3 years earlier, I kept a respectable distance from the Panel work. I was even “nicely” informed that the Malaysians did not want me to be physically around during meetings in Malaysia. I kept my peace. But I recall that  I had openly complained to the President that the MILF Panel was “autonomous”. But I did not seriously pursue it as it would appear as a “turfing” issue that I also had distaste for. This happened  especially during the time of former Chair Silvestre “Yong” Afable, the brains behind the Ancestral Domain concepts of the failed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). He resigned in frustration over the Cabinet Security Cluster’s refusal to approve his peace concepts. 

The fallout, as we all know took place   during the Chairmanship of retired General Rodolfo “Rudy” Garcia, who, by the way unfairly  absorbed most of the shock together with the PAPP at that time, retired General Hermogenes “Jun” Esperon.     But that’s another lengthy matter to discuss here. Maybe at another time.

I  served in that capacity until 2008 when PGMA asked me to replace former Press Secretary “Toting” Bunye who moved to the monetary board of the Central Bank.
AS PRESS SECRETARY —While working as  Press Secretary in 2008 I had several challenges.    Handling media of course was exciting but equally exhausting and quite demanding.  Then  add to this is the unique  work ethic and the hectic public life of a workaholic  President ( not to mention her volatile temper)   that I had to deal with.   I made personal  adjustments and at the same time  tried to keep my sanity and my personal style intact. And there were a few gaffes along the way. One of them of course was my irreverent, but light-hearted  and now-famous Cabinet prayer that put PGMA in trouble. Then there was this unintended ‘ALL SYSTEMS GO FOR CON-CON”  statement I made that put again the President on the spot. There were more of this but not too significant to mention.  In several instances, I took a pro-active stance in dealing with issues, even becoming provocative at times. This, I realized later did not conform to the traditional role of the press secretary as  just an “explainer” or a “source of information” or a “mouth-piece”,  defensive or bland or   to some extent,  even a spin-master. In brief,  instead of being the President’s firewall, on several occasions I pushed her to the fire.

FAILED MOA- AD  — When the Supreme Court nullified the MOA-AD with the MILF sometime in October 2008 when I was no longer Peace Adviser but already Press Secretary, I volunteered to absorb some of the heat of that ruling by quietly offering to  the President to resign. Although the final version of the failed agreement was firmed up while I was no longer at OPAPP,  I found it fit to take part of the responsibility.  And take  the blame, if we must. Obviously, the President just ignored my offer.   I was  badly needed at that time to explain to the public the government side since I had direct  insights on the issues and I had the perfect platform to do it as Press Secretary.

I RESIGNED —In February 2009, after about  7 months of an exciting job as press secretary,  I told the President while we were alone in a holding room at  the Cotabato airport:  “Ma’am please allow me to resign”. She readily agreed.      My giving up the palace post  also  coincided  with my personal desire to spend more time then with my ailing wife Beth. (Thank God, she’s okay now, by the way).    The President understood my predicament.

I still have so many recollections to tell on that short but eventful 7-month stint as Press Secretary that I will save for another time.
AS PRESIDENTIAL LAWYER —Another case in point. After resigning as Press Secretary, PGMA unexpectedly  asked me if I was willing to take on the position as Chief Presidential Legal Counsel (CPLC) which was vacant then.  I accepted the President’s offer but  I really secretly  wished to return to   MEDCo in Davao City. This is not to say that I did not relish the perks and the distinct honor –and the perception of power – while in Malacanang.

One late evening, after a few  months as the President’s resident lawyer in the palace, Executive Secretary Ed Ermita called me   about the plan  to replace former Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez  at DOJ but they were  at a quandary on how to give him a “soft landing”  so to speak. Secretary Ed during my conversation on the phone did not specify what he wanted but merely said: “That’s the problem Jess. Just think about it” and hung up the phone. I sensed that he was hinting that the palace wanted my CPLC  post for Secretary Raul but  probably he did not  have the heart to tell me straight.  Immediately, I called back  Secretary Ed  and said: “If that’s a problem, please tell the President that   I want to be part of the solution” and I offered to voluntarily turn over the CPLC post so Secretary Raul  can have a “soft landing” instead of a “hard fall” from the palace.   That done, I promptly packed my bags  and headed for home. I continued  serving still in the Cabinet as Presidential Adviser for Mindanao.  The rest is history.

THANK YOU, MA’AM —One final note on this: Up to now, I still wonder.  I  think I’m one of the lucky few in this country who had the rare privilege of holding various cabinet positions in a single presidency. My last count was five Cabinet positions! I have even started to wonder whether I was really that good to deserve those positions – or I was not good enough to stay in a single post. (Hahaha!)  Whatever it is, I owe that singular  privilege and honor to President Arroyo.   Thank you, “Ma’am”.

CUT IT CLEAN —But what’s  my point in recalling all these? Simply this:  when a Cabinet member who is supposed to be the alter ego of the President becomes a burden or a liability, real or perceived,  that official need not wait for others to ask him/her to resign.  He must resign irrevocably, cut it clean  and spare the presidency of that burden.   When a Cabinet member gets the signal that he becomes a source of discomfort for his “boss”,  he must go without delay. And move on somewhere  else if still needed.  

Apropos to that, I always squirm  whenever I hear some presidential appointees fending off calls for their resignation in the height of public criticisms by saying: “I
serve  at the pleasure of the President” or “I will resign if the President says so” or similar words to that effect. By clinging to their posts and by indirectly saying “go ask the President”,   they  unduly transfer the onus or the weight of the problem on the shoulders of the President instead of assisting him lighten his load. Alas,   I have seen how some  beleaguered officials wait with bated breath hoping the president comes out saying: “She/he still  enjoys my confidence” etc., as if that presidential word of confidence suddenly erased  and atoned for all those public sins.

Cabinet members must act as lightning rods for the President, willing to absorb shocks and even, at times,  take the fall to protect and shield the presidency.

CABINET REVAMP – There is now talk about a Cabinet revamp.  It’s a good time for all Cabinet members and other officials to give this a serious thought. Believe me, there is life after a cabinet post. It’s liberation of sorts. Take it from me.

My unsolicited advice:  If you feel you have to go, please don’t continue to inflict yourselves on the Presidency and the whole nation.  Please do not think that you are indispensable and God’s gift to the nation. Please don’t delude yourself believing that you are the only one who can do it.   If you really want to help the President and the country, there are countless other ways to do it.  Believe me; in doing this, you are doing a favour not only to the President, to the nation, but to your good selves as well.

The bottom line is:  it’s your own judgment call. Not others to make. I already did mine – rightly or wrongly — during my time.