June 03, 2005

Signs of the times

Jueteng, the so-called poor man’s game of chance, is very much in the news lately. And why not, the current brouhaha about it has all the elements of an unfolding political melodrama.

In the words of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself, the latest revelations of wrongdoing by her husband, politician son and brother-in-law in connection with the illegal numbers game have all the hallmarks of an Opposition ploy “to undermine my capability to govern”.

More ominously, both pro and anti-GMA politicians and opinion makers say that the swirling controversy could very well become Mrs. Arroyo’s own “juetengate” referring to erstwhile Presidential chum Governor Chavit Singson’s expose about former President’s Estrada’s alleged direct involvement in jueteng that triggered the latter’s impeachment and eventual fall from power.

Ordinary citizens get their daily dose of the developing scandal from the mass media covering Pangasinan Archbishop Oscar Cruz’s fearless and catchy sound bytes; witnesses speaking anonymously to the press and that of confessed jueteng operator Wilfredo Mayor whose Senate testimony implicating Presidential relatives has been dismissed as hearsay by the President’s men while hailed by more independent-minded senators as “a good lead” for a serious investigation; the angry denials by Presidential son Rep. Mikey Arroyo and the tight-lipped, dismissive air of Presidential spouse and brother-in-law whose body language seems to say “we invoke our right against self-incrimination”; and Mrs. Arroyo’s terse but loaded statements that attempt to balance the image of a no-nonsense Chief Executive on an “all-out war” against illegal gambling and a strong-willed leader who is poised to pounce on an assortment of “destabilizers” should they come close to their evil objective of using the jueteng scandal to oust her from Malacaňang.

One gets a variety of reactions. One view says, jueteng like the poor, will always be with us for one reason or another, not least of which is that life for the poor Filipino is so filled with uncertainty that risk-taking and belief in Lady Luck as the harbinger of better times has become culturally ingrained. Thus, the conventional wisdom is that it would be close to impossible to stamp out the vice of gambling.

Besides, the on-and-off crackdown on jueteng is said to be discriminatory since it is the poor man’s harmless diversion while big-time gambling by sleazy characters laundering dirty money goes on legally in PAGCOR casinos.

Thus it is claimed that the practical solution and the lesser evil is to simply legalize the popular numbers game and with a single stroke eliminate the protection racket involving crooked policemen, corrupt government officials, paid media hacks and even amoral churchmen who accept donations from jueteng lords because the money will be used to do the Good Lord’s bidding.

One can argue about the pros and cons of legalizing jueteng and whether the social costs of gambling can really be tamed by having government supervise its operations. Off hand, what would privatization gurus like the World Bank and the Arroyo administrations economic managers say to this attempt to have government interfere in a perfectly lucrative business providing jobs to thousands of cobradores and cabos?

At the same time remember how the former Estrada administration pioneered in the attempt to legalize jueteng by instituting Bingo Two Balls? Legalization didn’t end the big time profiteering that accompanies gambling wherever it takes place, above or underground.

The unsavory experience with PAGCOR, the government corporation with the sole authority to operate legal gambling outlets comes to mind. Critics, including Plunder Watch and the nemesis of jueteng himself Archbishop Cruz, say it has become the milking cow for the Arroyo administration’s less-than-legal and less-than-legitimate projects and that it has enriched several very influential Presidential cronies. But that’s a different story all together.

There is another, seemingly erudite view by so-called political analysts who opine that jueteng and corruption have tainted and will always taint any administration so what is the big deal this time around. Moreover, considering that the anti-jueteng crusaders and their witnesses have so far failed to provide the smoking gun-type of evidence that would stand up in court, the entire thing is a waste of time, effort and only derails the national government’s earnest efforts to attend to the ailing economy.

Having argued that all the accusations against wrongdoers especially those close to the President are baseless, recycled attempts at character assassination and are in the end counterproductive to the common good, their logical conclusion is that all this muckraking about jueteng is part of a devious plot to overthrow the Arroyo government.

Such a line conveniently sets aside the historical fact that presidential election bids have been made or unmade by charges of corruption and in the case of the Marcos dictatorship and the formerly popular Estrada regime, the issues of corruption and abuse of authority (in Erap’s case directly related to the business of jueteng) have served to ignite and fuel their downfall.

Corruption is an emotionally-charged, morally-laden and perfectly legitimate political issue that can be a powerful vehicle for exposing, opposing and booting out a sitting government that is detested by and isolated from the people long suffering under the yoke of its anti-people policies, programs and decisions.

Precisely, this is how Mrs. Arroyo came to power -- in the aftermath of the unraveling of the Estrada regime after the jueteng expose against him, the impeachment trial that had everyone glued to their television sets and the culmination of a series of mass protest actions in a people’s uprising called EDSA Dos.

It would seem that Mrs. Arroyo, her subalterns and her allies have suddenly contracted amnesia and conveniently forgotten recent history. Perhaps they can’t stand the unsettling sense of déjà vu or the suggestion of a karmic turn of events.

Or rather, desperately clinging to power, the Arroyo regime simply refuses to see the unmistakable signs of the times.

June 3-4, 2005