About halfway through the nearly three-hour interview, Almonte finally makes a pitch for something close to his heart, his “four conditions” for bringing out the best in the Filipino. Anyone would feel unpatriotic not to take note of it. It is a message he wants to inject in the minds of younger people whom he believes can still make a difference. This is apparently why he agrees to meet with bloggers and anybody else interested in hearing his vision for the nation, hopeful that his message would get across to the youth.
“The old men never mind….Those people like me, we’re all fertilizer anyway,” says Almonte, who turns 82 in November.
He asks his secretary for a copy of his Christmas message last year. It is his prescription for nation-building on a sheet of paper measuring four inches by five inches. His face lights up. He speaks with such urgency that I feel as if I were the last person to hear it.
“Look at the Philippines from 1946 when we recovered our independence up to today. That’s 67 years. Was this nation really able to implement its Constitution and its laws fully? Hindi. We bribe the courts. We prostitute our politics. The system is so weak. It has no strength to prevent it. How could we change the environment so that we change that situation where the nation is paralyzed to even implement its Constitution and its laws?”
One condition, he says, is for the government to end the internal war in the country, against the communist insurgency and the remaining Muslim secessionists. “If we cannot end this, we cannot develop. Let me illustrate to you: If Lincoln did not take the risk in 1868 in emancipating the slaves in America, America may still be in war up to today. Will they be a superpower? No. That is why Lincoln, he was assassinated for these things but he is credited as one of the best presidents of America, one of the few best,” Almonte says.
The second condition is to complete all the land and non-land reforms needed, and the third, to end the stranglehold of vested groups on the Philippine State and its regulatory agencies which has dampened the competitiveness of the Philippines in the region.
“In reality, we have elections. But afterward, Malacañang is captured by the funder, by the elite. So you have a state that is under the control of the oligarchy. You have a state that is captured by the oligarchy. That’s the problem,” he says.
The fourth condition, he says, is something that Mr. Aquino has already started with his death knell on the wangwang culture. It is to live by the values that our heroes fought and died for. “Why is a Filipino not definitive on defining who is a Filipino? Why is he ambiguous in the understanding of a Filipino? My analysis is that the Filipino is confused because the nation, their leaders, the educational system perhaps, did not put the necessary emphasis in ensuring that this nation live by the values that our heroes, our martyrs, fought and died for. These are the values of honor, of human dignity, of justice, of liberty, of compassion. Our leaders, do they exhibit this?” Almonte says there have been cases when Philippine leaders “demonstrated very embarrassing behavior that derogate on these values.”
One example, he said, was in 2004, which prompted U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to vent out his frustration to “any Filipino” through Philip Kaplan, the US Ambassador to Beijing, who chose to meet with Almonte. According to Kaplan, Powell was angry at President Arroyo for pulling out the Philippine contingent from Iraq after she had personally assured the U.S. official that she would not under any circumstance withdraw the forces—an assurance that Powell had earlier conveyed to President George W. Bush. Powell had to apologize to Bush and said that in his 40 years of service, he had never met someone like Mrs. Arroyo who not only lied to him, but was also a head of state and a woman, says Almonte, recalling Kaplan’s words.
Mrs. Arroyo was pressured to go back on her word to save 46-year-old truck driver Angelo dela Cruz, who was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents and threatened with execution unless Philippine troops were withdrawn from Iraq a month ahead of schedule.
Almonte, who was still talking with Mrs. Arroyo then, did not agree with Bush’s policy in Iraq but he advised the President that since she had decided to support the Bush administration, it was a matter of “national honor” to stand by that commitment. He said dela Cruz had said that he had accepted his fate and only wished the repatriation of his remains to the Philippines. “I said we can make a monument for him using 1,000 sacks of cement—that would be bigger than the Rizal monument. We’ll put it in his hometown and we will make him the icon of the OFWs. Just do not withdraw the troops because that’s our national honor,” he says.
At the time, Mrs. Arroyo was being accused of poll fraud by the camp of Fernando Poe Jr. and was under threat of people power. She had to make a popular decision. “It just shows you that Gloria sacrificed a national value that our heroes died and fought for—national honor, national dignity. For what? For her political expediency. Do you see what I mean? What do you teach the people with that?” he asks.
He says Mr. Aquino had to cater to China because of the botched Quirino grandstand hostage rescue in 2010. The Philippines joined China’s “boycott” of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in 2010, where jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was an awardee.
“Imagine, my friends from outside called me and said, ‘Joe, we can understand other presidents who did not send delegations on China’s behest to Oslo but we cannot understand your President because he is the son of a martyr for democracy; human rights. And the son of a political saint, the mother. He embodies both the mother and the father. What he did is entirely something we cannot understand.’ What value do you teach there? You see my point?”
Almonte says Philippine society cannot produce a reformist president without his prescribed conditions but concedes that Mr. Aquino seems to be trying, at least.
"He was frustrated with the impatience of young journalists who wanted simple answers to complicated issues, especially on matters of national development. Now, his ultimate target audience is the youth and he is willing to clarify his answer many times over to drive home his point."
When he was no longer a Palace official, businessmen would call Almonte to complain about alleged corruption during the Estrada and Arroyo administrations. But since Mr. Aquino took over, he has not received such calls.
“Not asking commission [from businessmen] is very good, and that is to the credit of the President. That is why the businessmen are so happy. That’s why he is being given—not we—it’s the President who is being given this very high rating, Almonte says.
What he would like to see from Mr. Aquino is for him to become the “last cacique” which he says will happen once Hacienda Luisita, the Cojuangco family estate, is parceled out to its beneficiaries.
“He can do anything. Not only because he’s very popular; it’s by accident of birth. He’s a cacique. And he is the one who can end the cacique regime,” Almonte says.
He says that in the same way that Ramos was able to sell military bases and integrate Muslim rebels into the Armed Forces and the National Police during his time because he was a “professional soldier through and through,” so too can Mr. Aquino lead the way for other big landowners in the country. Almonte may get his wish yet; the Department of Agrarian Reform would announce a few months later that the distribution of Hacienda Luisita would be completed by September, after passing the most contentious stages in the acquisition of the estate under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law.
Even if he has been out of public service since 1992, Almonte has been busy with speaking engagements in and out of the country. He remains a favored resource person and is known to be a source of wise counsel for officials not only at home but abroad.
“My policy is always to do everything I can to help them because it’s my only duty. I think I owe it to them and to God. Look, I am being paid by the government. I still have my pension. They are very concerned about the situation and I do help them,” he says, but declines to name any of them.
Palace Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang admits that he has been seeking advice from Almonte, whom he has known since he was in media. He met him through Glenda Gloria and Marites Vitug when they were all together in Newsbreak.
“He’s considered as one of the elder statesmen of Southeast Asia. So when there’s an issue affecting the region, they seek him out, including officials from other governments,” Carandang says.
Almonte has spoken extensively on the challenges of terrorism, and the challenge posed by China, which he had predicted would be a continuing problem. Inside his main office, he motions to a framed page of the Far East Economic Review editorial cartoon that appeared on its May 7, 1997 issue. President Ramos is on a tugboat bearing the Philippine flag, confronting a Chinese ship. Mr. Ramos brandished a flyswatter and demanded, “I order you to leave immediately!” It was the only frame that he brought with him when he left NICA.
“This to me was very close to my heart because I knew it’s going to be a problem,” he said.
I ask if he plans to write an autobiography but he seems disinterested, though he admits that people have approached him about it. He says his problem in pursuing the project is that he has never kept a record about himself. He doesn’t keep old pictures; he has no baby photos because his family couldn’t afford them.
“I have sentiments. But I don’t live with my past,” he says.
Some parts of his past he has chosen to live with are displayed on his shelf. One is represented by his photo with the late British PM Margaret Thatcher. It was taken at the residence of the British Ambassador, the venue of a luncheon for Lady Thatcher who visited Manila for a speaking engagement in 1996. Almonte vividly remembers their meeting. He says Thatcher demanded that he be seated next to her at the luncheon, displacing Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo, and they talked for two to three hours.
“She lectured me. She told me, ‘General, I want you to continue what you are doing,” which showed that Thatcher was monitoring the key reforms of the Ramos administration, of which Almonte has been credited as the chief architect, and the backlash he received from those at the losing end. “She told me, ‘Don’t be intimidated by these; don’t believe them. I know what you want. That is what you do. Forget them,’” he recalls.
Another memorable meeting, he says, was in 1995, when Jusuf Wanandi, chairman of Indonesian think-tank Institution of Strategic and International Studies, paid him a visit. It was upon the request of their “common friend,” former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who had an important question for him. This was at the height of public outrage over the execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore. Lee, through Wanandi, told Almonte that he was very proud of Filipinos and had fought for their freedom but he could not understand why they have gone “collectively insane” because of the execution of one Filipino, “a domestic helper and a woman at that.”
“I said, Jusuf, tell our common friend: No. 1, he is right, that the Filipinos have gone collectively insane because of the Flor Contemplacion issue. Number 2, tell him that the reason why they have gone collectively insane is because they are insane enough to believe that the dignity of Flor Contemplacion is equal to the dignity of the Queen of England. That’s the reason,” Almonte recalls.