Witness rattles foundations of 'evil oligarchy'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am

Cowering and in tears while testifying at a Senate probe, government consultant Rodolfo Lozada appeared the most unlikely person to shake President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's grip on power.

Mrs Arroyo had seemed unstoppable a month ago when her government swept away political opposition by chalking up 7.3 per cent economic growth for last year, the highest in a generation.

Analysts predicted the most unloved Philippine president would last until her term ends in 2010.

But then came Mr Lozada, a 45-year-old former overseas worker and father of five, who boarded a Cathay Pacific flight in Hong Kong on the afternoon of February 5. Barely off the plane at Manila's international airport, he was escorted by four men along the tarmac and into a waiting car.

That night his wife, Violet, sobbed on nationwide radio: 'Please return my husband, whoever has him. I just want my husband back. I just want my husband back.'

Mr Lozada, who has since resigned as head of Philippine Forest, a company under the Department of Environment, resurfaced two days later, claiming soldiers and policemen had kidnapped him and would have killed him if not for the media vigilance. He said he was abducted to prevent him revealing to a Senate probe that Mrs Arroyo's husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, was involved in negotiating the government's US$329 million broadband deal with ZTE Corporation, a Shenzhen company listed in Hong Kong. The deal has since been abandoned.

He also claimed the contract was inflated to include at least a US$130 million kickback demanded by Elections Commission chief Benjamin Abalos.

Mr Lozada's disappearance touched a nerve in the Filipino psyche. Senator Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino, a national hero, had been shot by soldiers on the same tarmac in 1983. When people learned Mr Lozada was missing they assumed the government had erased him.

Police chief Avelino Razon said he did not know where he was.

A presidential spokesman said: 'We have no idea about the whereabouts of Lozada ... the allegations that the Palace is involved are totally baseless.'

But they swiftly changed their stories. Mr Lozada had asked for police 'protective custody', Mr Razon said. Environment secretary Joselito Atienza said he had phoned Mr Razon to say Mr Lozada needed security upon his arrival.

Mrs Arroyo's closest aide, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, then assured a sceptical public Mr Lozada was safe and had signed an affidavit. 'Mr Lozada will surface in time and ... he will tell the truth about what had happened to him,' Mr Ermita said.

When Mr Lozada surfaced early on the morning of February 7, he was surrounded by Catholic nuns and looked like a tortured soul.

He said that he had been kidnapped and a lawyer hired by the presidential palace had made him sign an affidavit that stated Mr Arroyo was not involved in the ZTE deal.

Mr Lozada yesterday filed a criminal complaint of kidnapping and attempted murder against Mr Razon and Mr Atienza, the airport's general manager and officers who grabbed him.

His support has swelled to include the long politically apathetic middle class, the core of uprisings that unseated two presidents.

'Suddenly the middle classes are stirring,' political analyst Antonio Abaya said. 'They have finally found a champion around whom they can rally, who is neither a 'trapo' [traditional politician] or a communist nor a military mercenary ... a technocrat-bureaucrat with a conscience, a self-effacing intellectual who has a genuine love for his country.'

Perhaps it is also because Mr Lozada is one of them and has twice experienced what he called 'the ugly side of the state'. He is the 11th of 13 children whose half-Chinese parents made furniture. Seven years ago, his older brother was mistakenly shot dead by the police in pursuit of kidnappers.

He graduated at the top of his class at the esteemed Catholic University of Santo Tomas. He has confessed to sinning by cornering government contracts for his family and has publicly apologised.

Mr Lozada has gone further than previous whistle-blowers, who merely squealed on alleged scams. He has unwittingly educated the public on the nature of corruption and how this aggravates poverty.

Many became teary eyed as they watched Mr Lozada tell senators what is now known as the tale of the guava tree.

Visiting one poverty-stricken upland community, he recalled seeing a guava tree heavy with fruit. He suggested selling these for profit, but one resident told him: 'Sir, we leave them there. Those are for the birds.'

'I was so touched,' Mr Lozada said on nationwide TV. Here was a resident with a shirt full of holes, wearing old slippers, caring for the birds, while in Manila he had to 'moderate the greed' on the ZTE deal. 'I don't feel it is right,' he said.

The most explosive revelation Mr Lozada gave was probably on Monday when, choking back tears, he quoted his personal friend, former economic planning secretary Romulo Neri, as saying that Mrs Arroyo was 'evil' and at the centre of a corrupt political system controlled by oligarchs.

This was why, he said, replacing Mrs Arroyo would not remedy the situation because the system would remain. Mr Neri has since said he could not remember saying it.