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Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, farmers victorious vs Aquino hacienda

You’d have to visit Hacienda Luisita to realize how vast it is, why it’s been a symbol not only of elite rule in our country but of its hypocrisy and powers of deceit. It’s the biggest hacienda in the country, with a total area of 64.4 square kilometers—nearly as big as the cities of Manila and Makati combined.

The sugarcane fields as far as the eye can see were a marvel for me when I first visited the hacienda in 1970. It was troubling though to see emasculated sugar workers, their skin blackened by the hot Central Luzon sun, their shoulders nearly buckling under the weight of sugarcane poles, and after that to be served US steak from nearby American Clark Airfield in an air-conditioned hacienda mansion. Class exploitation, class struggle are not ideas but realities in this hacienda, I then felt.

Indeed, it was in this hacienda that the legendary guerrilla Commander Dante, as a teenage cane-cutter, decided to take up arms against the ruling class. Yet it was ironic that it was also in the hacienda that an opposition figure named Benigno Aquino Jr.—who married into the Cojuangco clan that owned the plantation—brokered a historic meeting between Dante and Maoist demagogue Jose Sison, which led to the organization of the New People’s Army. The hacienda until martial law would be a nursery and refuge for the fledgling NPA, which Aquino calculated he could utilize in his fight against Marcos.

It wasn’t Marcos who invented behest loans. The hacienda, together with the sugar refinery, was acquired from the European firm Tabacalera in 1958 by the clan led by President Aquino’s maternal grandfather Jose Cojuangco through a P12.9-million loan from the Government Service Insurance System, and through a $2.1 million-loan from the Central Bank of the Philippines. The loan’s condition though was that the hacienda’s agricultural lands would be sold to its tenants at “reasonable” costs.

Because the Cojuangcos rejected the demands made several times by the central bank and the Land Authority starting in 1967 to implement this condition, the government in 1980 filed a case in the Manila Regional Trial Court to compel them to do so. There are no tenants to distribute the land to, the Cojuangcos replied.

The case dragged on for five years until Judge Bernardo Pardo (years later the Comelec chairman and then Supreme Court justice) in December 1985 ruled that the hacienda’s lands should be distributed to the farmers. Persecution by the Marcos regime, the clan claimed, and ran to the Court of Appeals.

Two months later, the Edsa Revolution of February 1986 would save the hacienda for the Cojuangcos. In 1988 during President Cory’s term, the Department of Agrarian Reform, the Central Bank of the Philippines, and the GSIS informed the Court of Appeals that they were no longer interested in pursuing the case to require the Cojuangcos to distribute the lands to the farmers.  The Court ruled that the hacienda would instead fall under the provisions of President Aquino’s “comprehensive agrarian reform program.”

Fortunately for the Cojuangcos, that program provided for an option in which, instead of distributing the land, the landlord may issue the farmers papers called stock certificates, representing their supposed minority ownership of shares in the corporation the landlord sets up to own the hacienda.

This scheme made land reform such a farce that only 12 other much smaller haciendas dared use it.  Cory though was the saint of Philippine democracy who could do no wrong, and the defiance by her clan’s hacienda of the Constitution’s land-reform mandate receded in the public mind. Starting in the 1990s, parts of the Hacienda would be transformed into a profitable modern complex with an industrial park, a business center, a shopping mall, two hotels, and a world-class golf course.

In November 2004, after the so-called Luisita massacre in which seven striking plantation workers were killed at the picket line—and seven others murdered one by one by assassins later—the DAR, under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, accelerated its investigation over a complaint by the hacienda union that the stock distribution scheme was a farce.

In December 2005, upon recommendation of the DAR, the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council—a body Cory set up in 1987, made up of 15 Cabinet members and chaired by President Arroyo—ordered the hacienda’s fake land reform ended, and for the land to be distributed to the farmer-workers.

“Persecution by the Arroyo regime,” the clan then complained.

This time around though, there was no People Power uprising to overthrow the administration that went against them, so they could hold on to the hacienda. The Cojuangcos appealed to the Supreme Court. It is only six years later last week that the Court upheld the Arroyo government’s decision.

The Court’s decision could mean the clan’s bankruptcy. The Court not only ordered the Cojuangcos to immediately distribute 4,915 hectares to the haciendas’ farmer-workers. It also ordered them to pay the farmer-workers P1.33 billion, the proceeds of the sale of hacienda lands that became the industrial and business parks. Agrarian reform laws will peg “just compensation” for the clan at 1989 levels, or just about P200 million. Now I understand why they hate Chief Justice Renato Corona so much.

Arroyo’s critics claim she went against the Cojuangcos to retaliate against Cory’s participation in the July 2005 conspiracy to topple her. The counter-argument could be posed in a question: If Arroyo was overthrown in 2005, would the new DAR and a new Cabinet have ordered real land reform at the hacienda?

Now I understand why they would torment and put a former president in jail on the basis of the say-so of a lone witness implicated in the Maguindanao massacre. “Accountability” and “reckoning” have indeed taken a chilling meaning.