Juan Ponce Enrile will outlive us all

The nonagenarian has been immortalized for his work in politics and his tell-all.
IMAGE Jake Verzosa

He is the last man standing of three generations of Philippine politics. He has outwitted, outlived—and now, out-written (thanks to a 740-page memoir), both friend and foe, remaining visible and relevant while neatly consigning all of his contemporaries to the dustheap of history.

I first laid eyes on Juan Ponce Enrile when I was just eight years old, rubbernecking from the sidelines of one of the power lunches organized by Manila Chronicle columnist I.P. “Yeyeng” Soliongco on the occasional Sunday. He had taken a shine to Ponce Enrile, newly appointed Undersecretary of Finance by President Marcos, and even now, Enrile admits he “never figured out why Soliongco was even remotely interested” in him. Fiddlesticks! From what I could figure out from eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations, Soliongco had early on divined that Enrile was destined to be “the next big thing.” It was even more unexpected because Enrile seemed to have come out of nowhere. There were rumors that he had been found, like Moses, by the Pharaoh Marcos among the bulrushes (false), others that he had walked all the way from Tuguegarao to Manila (true.)

Serendipitously, Enrile is still being singled out as the man to watch, a “sleeper,” despite the fact that he is now officially two years older than Esquire magazine. He chuckles that it was Charo Santos, our local equivalent of Hollywood star-maker Sherry Lansing, who first broached the idea of giving ABS-CBN first dibs at publishing his autobiography. “I sent her a 2,000-page manuscript and I had no idea what she would do with it. I was told that Gabby (Lopez, the billionaire who runs the media empire) was interested.” Enrile says the ABS-CBN minions fact-checked the book, even traveling north to see the public school he attended and the prison the Japanese Imperial Army threw him in. Does that mean there is a movie in the works? “No!” Enrile replies, but I wouldn’t say never, since it’s no secret the ratings of the Impeachment Trial news coverage went through the roof, propelled single-handedly by Enrile, handily by-passing Willie Revillame’s glad-handing antics. As it is, Enrile’s autobiography, even at a stratospheric selling price, has briskly sold out.


Thus, I was rousted from my bed on that distant Sunday morning to accompany my mother to meet this paragon. Soliongco’s home was a many-layered bungalow on Scout Tuazon Street (so named after the dozen or so Boy Scouts who crashed to a flaming death enroute to an international jamboree) in Quezon City. It was modern and new, but had all the ambiance of an ancient mansion, all red Spanish tiles and dark mahogany, filled to overflowing with books, antiques, and somber oil paintings, H.R. Ocampos, Alcuazes and Manansalas, many of which were purchased by the Central Bank for its collection after Soliongco’s death. (Soliongco and my mother were phone pals—the late-20th century equivalent of textmates—talking shop on a regular basis about all kinds of journo mumbo-jumbo. One of the conversations, in fact, was illegally recorded by the NBI and used to denounce them both on the floor of the Senate as Communist conspiratorsigniting the passage by Pepe Diokno and Dingdong Teehankee of the country’s first anti-wiretapping law.)

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That Sunday, there was a hubbub as the burly members of the Presidential Security Guard appeared, advance party for Ferdinand Marcos himself. An aide appeared first, bearing aloft a piña-cloth formal shirt on a hanger as the President (dressed to my surprise in just a thin undershirt) slipped in through the side door to dress in Soliongco’s library. But the even greater stir occurred when Enrile walked through the door, dressed stylishly in a snow-white linen “shirt-jack,” one of those ‘60s newfangled fashion concoctions that combined a formal shirt with the cut of a denim jacket. I am told that DingDong Teehankee (then appointed Secretary of Justice, later Chief Justice), eminent writer Celso Cabrera, various other luminaries, and even Imelda herself were there to sup on the insider gossip and puchero, but I remember none of that.

Enrile was destined to be "the next big thing." It was even more unexpected because Enrile seemed to have come out of nowhere. There were rumors that he had been found, like Moses, by the Pharaoh Marcos among the bulrushes (false), others that he had walked all the way from Tuguegarao to Manila (true). 

Manila in the ‘60s was in the grip of a glamorous death vise, a very film noir sort of place, and I can only suppose that the closest thing to the city in that period was the atmosphere of the cocaine wars of Columbia. Daily, the newspapers (such as the Manila Times, with the astounding circulation of 1 million readers a day) headlined grisly tales of ambushes and murders, the infamous burning of entire barrios (Barrios Oeste and Este both burnt to the ground in the northern political rivalries). There were gangland assassinations on church steps, women chopped up and spread in pieces throughout the metropolis. The city was puffed up like a poisonous blowfish with new buildings and burgeoning industries. By night, there were cha-cha parties and feasts featuring champagne fountains, operas and grand rigodons de honor. It was peopled by the genteel upper crust, plantation owners and landed gentry but also carpetbaggers and buccaneers, guys out to make a quick, illicit buck, and Enrileseconded to the Bureau of Customswas assigned to perform emergency triage.


He has interesting tales about the true owners of the various contraband he confiscated, men with improbable names, fronting for people in high places, with a penchant for importation without the proper documentation. “I’m not saying that Mr. So and So was a smuggler, but he had people close to him that were,” Enrile grins. He recalls how one container of illegitimate goods was discovered because the container truck that carried it took an unexpected spill on Roxas Boulevard and revealed its contents. “There were bales of uncut fabric, which was clearly against the customs laws, as these had been declared as ‘remnants.’” Enrile hints that he was eventually kicked upstairs to the Secretary-ship of the Department of Justice for busting one shipment too many.

The next I remember of Juan Ponce Enrile was a whispered phone call my mother was making in September 1972, at the very dawn of Martial Law. “Please, Johnny, return my daughter,” I overheard her saying. The daughter in question was my half-sister Gemma Cruz Araneta, who had been arrested at the Araneta home in Forbes Park and taken away by the military. Her husband Tonypet had managed to evade the army dragnet and lived for months, wearing a woman’s wig and moving from one fleabag motel to another. (It would upset my older brother Ramon, a prim and proper Atenean, when he would have to meet Araneta at these motels, bearing provisions and letters from my sister.) There was some nonsense about a cache of firearms found buried in the Araneta stables, mainly elephant guns and hunting rifles, the sort of thing rich playboys would have in their arsenal, but under Martial Law rules, this would be cause for the death penalty. Both Gemma and Tonypet had travelled to what at the time was called Red China and I remember receiving a copy of Mao’s vinyl-covered Little Red Book and a crudely made green worker’s cap with a red metal star as coming-home presents. (I had the fear of God drummed into me by Dr Zhivago, however, and was not about to be turned.) She had taken the persona of our local Hanoi Jane, exchanging her beauty-queen title to become a placard-bearing activist, very much the same way the pre-Ted Turner Jane Fonda had shucked off her Barbarella role to become an anti-Vietnam War demonstrator.


In the dead of the night of September 20, 1972, my mother had received a sinister phone call that Martial Law would indeed be shortly declared and we were all commandeered, bleary and still in our pajamas, to toss the piles of incendiary newsletters and leaflets my sister had stashed in our house down a manhole in the street outside. Mom had just signed a manifesto condemning Marcos and the possible imposition of Martial Law and so had a parade of newspapermen who next descended on our house, taking refuge in our garden pavilion, jumping out of their skins every time a car rumbled down our street. There was, I think, Nick Joaquin, Pete Lacaba, Amando Doronila, shaking like a leaf, and one of my gentlest cousins Amadis Guerrero, who had the bad luck of having the baptismal name as the nom de guerre Jose Maria Sison had taken for himself, who threw himself under my mother’s dressing table. My mother eventually egged them into turning themselves in “It can’t be worse than this!” She said that Doroy Valencia, who had the ear of Marcos, had assured her that nobody would actually be arrested. Of course, they were all clapped into jail. And, the military had taken Gemma from Forbes Park.


Enrile did oblige and Gemma was turned loose in Lindsay Lohan fashion “under house arrest,” sans the electronic manacle but still required to report weekly to Fort Bonifacio (before it became the posh business and party slice of the city.) I was appointed her chaperone and each week, Mother would perplexingly order me to dress in a lace-trimmed party frock—she said it was important to be well-dressed for the occasion, what were supposed to be “tactical interrogations.” I always wondered what I was expected to do if I were called on to defend my sister, apart from showing off a large, frilly wardrobe. I must have been all of 13. The sessions always took place in a small office, down several winding, concrete garden paths. There was a front parlor done up in shocking pink, a fuchsia settee with matching ruffled curtains, very much unlike what one expected in an army camp. We would be served bright yellow cakes, also covered in pink and white icing. It would be the same every week. The officer in charge was a certain Colonel Elefante. Decades later, at a Manila Peninsula party for what it termed as its top accounts, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I instantly recognized the man. He sheepishly explained that “they knew that your sister was not really involved in the movement but there was a danger that she would be used as a propaganda tool.” Today, Enrile says the same, “I really don’t know why she was arrested. There was no need for that.”


By February 1986, it was my turn to besiege Minister Enrile with phonecalls, this time to ask for the guarantee of my mother’s safety after the fall of the Marcos regime. (She was the head of a government corporation, Technology Resource Center, and was on her way home unaware from a long-pending journalistic junket in Australia.) I had flown to Hong Kong to meet her, on as it turned out, the first commercial flight out after the Palace had been overrun. It was full of Malacañan cabinet members and high-ranking officials, ashen and teary-eyed. Just before the plane landed, the cabin crew announced that all Filipino passport-holders must remain in their seats. When we were finally allowed to leave the plane, we were herded into a waiting room and instructed that “any government officials from the Marcos government” would have to stay behind for questioning. My mother, who had arrived on a separate flight, was in fact detained for almost eight hours and asked to explain her credentials.

I was anxious about the situation, and pestered one of Mom’s friends, Louie Beltran—a powerful radio and print columnist, a Cory confidante (until he, too, was thrown into jail for saying she had hidden under her bed during one coup attempt) for Enrile’s private number.

I would call, morning and afternoon, pretending I was still in our San Juan house, leaving messages for Enrile, with his chief aide, Col. Noe Wong. Finally, Col. Wong said in an exasperated tone, “Miss Nakpil, you have not exactly been telling the truth. You are, in fact, not at home because the Minister has tried to call you back several times, and we have been told that you have left the country. Where are you exactly?” I stuttered and admitted that I was hiding in Hong Kong. Enrile then came on the phone, and I said I just had to ask him one thing, Would my mother be arrested when she came back to Manila? “Of course not!”, he said laughingly. I replied, “Do I have your word, sir?” “Of course, you do.”


Today, I had the opportunity to ask about Operation ROVER, the acronym for the secret cabal that was purportedly organized to unseat President Marcos. It was Jolly Benitez (a Mrs. Marcos-loyalist and head of the Ministry of Human Settlements) who inexplicably confided to my mother of this clandestine plot supposedly hatched by Roño (Jose “Peping” Roño, DILG Minister); Roberto “Bobby” Ongpin, Cesar Virata (Prime Minister, and who the foreign press had once dubbed “the only honest man in the Marcos government”), Juan Ponce Enrile, and Fidel Ramos (head of the Marcos-era Philippine Constabulary, later President.)

“There was no such thing as ROVER,” said Enrile, mildly impatient. “You obviously haven’t read my book! It was me and the RAM. Virata had nothing to do with it, and Bobby Ongpin, he was so close to Marcos, how could he? I was at the Atrium in Makati—you know, with Nemesio Yabut (former Mayor of Makati) and Peping Roño—and I got a phonecall from Bobby, very upset, that the bodyguards I had given him were all arrested. You know, he was running the Binondo Central Bank and really needed those security men for that reason, so he was quite shaken. What he didn’t know was that the men I had sent him were actually officers of the RAM because I needed to keep an eye on him. The men were caught casing Commodore Tadiar’s house that midnight. He was the head of the Philippine Marines and was on the list of people we planned to have arrested the next Monday morning. But Doromal, and five other men, had fallen into the hands of Irwin Ver and had been made to admit to him that we were planning something. It was Edna Camcam who actually warned me.”


* * *

Was it the Americans who dictated the outcome of the EDSA revolution? “Of course not,” he snorts, “they had nothing to do with it! People are always calling me an AmBoy, but it’s not true.”

I wind down my interview of the Senate President for this cover story in Esquire. In dancing attendance is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief Erwin Romulo, and his father, former Department of Affairs Secretary Alberto “Bert” Romulo (brought in as ballast in case we were in for a bumpy ride), Jonty Cruz (grandson of Ninoy Aquino), and former PNoy stylist and love interest Liz Uy. (She inveigles him into wearing a powder-pink Louis Vuitton silk tie, which he does willingly.) “I have never had so many people watch me getting dressed!” Enrile jokes. Esquire has assigned, to paraphrase Susan Roces, not just one (me) but two writers to profile the great man. The other is Ms. Patricia Evangelista, (herself the grandniece of newspaperman Mario Chanco) who turned up looking like Lauren Bacall, her outfit prompting Enrile to murmur to an aide, “Is that Heart? Is Chiz Escudero coming?”


Despite his protests that “it’s too late” to consider the Philippine presidency, or even a cabinet position, (“these are jobs for young men”), his riveting, strong-jawed performance at the Impeachment trial, has clearly struck a chord among the general public, who have apparently been yearning for a leader with a steel-trap mind and piercing 20/20 vision. Yes, intelligent is the new sexy, as far as the Filipino voter may be concerned. For that, they would have come to right place, for Enrile quotes Shakespeare in kilometric quantities with a twinkle in his eye, refers to his autobiography by page number, and needs no cue cards to recall dates and names from decades before. He is charming and supremely self-confident, meticulous and relentless with the aura of an overtrained Olympic athlete; he cleaves to tribal loyalties and ancient roots (he hugs the photographer upon discovering he is also from Cagayan Valley and speaks softly in Ilocano to him); and magnificently brainy (although Enrile himself describes Ninoy Aquino as “most intelligent man he ever knew.”)

In the original Star Wars trilogy, Darth Vader is revealed to be the original Jedi Knight. In Enrile’s case, he might just have pulled off the last coup and become Obi Wan Kenobi.

This article originally appeared in our December 2012 to January 2013 issue. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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