The redemption of ‘Manong’ Johnny
TEN days after Renato Corona earned his place in Philippine history as the first Chief Justice to be removed from office, Rex Robles was still gushing over the luminous performance of the presiding officer at the impeachment trial, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
“Did you see that, how he handled [Corona’s] walkout?” Robles fires off. “JPE was imperious, in control. The man taught us a lesson on [how] impeachment [should be done]. He showed us the pedestrian manner in which the Joseph Estrada impeachment trial was handled.”
A retired commodore in the Philippine Navy and a former chief of strategic studies at the Department of National Defense (DND), Robles knows whereof he speaks. He makes no qualms about being an unabashed admirer and acolyte of JPE, his boss at the DND for more than a decade. He looks up to the former martial law administrator as an adoring son to a father.
Robles admits to that, as well. “JPE is my father,” he says.
Robles just happens to be one of about a dozen officers who nurture a fatal-attraction kind of attachment to the man whose breakaway from the Marcos dictatorship toppled the martial law regime and helped install Cory Aquino into the presidency in February 1986.
Those officers include Colonel (and now Senator) Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, the pin-up boy of JPE’s patriarchal sway; Red Kapunan, Tito Legaspi and Felix Turingan, who worshipped the path that JPE walked on, and followed him to the trenches through peaks and pits, at all cost.
Robles says JPE has a “good, soft side,” but the national mindset misunderstood him “because he has a powerful personality.” He explains that much of the misconception stemmed from JPE’s role as chief implementor of Marcos’ mailed fist policy.
“It was martial law, for heaven’s sake! Did you expect him to behave like a pussy cat?” Robles argues. Implementing martial law was difficult “because there were no real guidelines.” Besides, he asks, “Meron bang [is there a] benign martial law?”
He adds: “JPE was given a mission and he delivered.”
Journalists who pounded the Camp Aguinaldo beat while JPE was at the helm recall an era of fear and intimidation from the man widely regarded as second most powerful in the country. “He spoke words that struck fear in the heart of a listener. JPE can make you piss in your pants,” recalls one journalist.
Another incident that may be considered an urban legend has JPE severely reprimanding another reporter for a story that questioned the suicide of movie star Alfie Anido, suggesting instead that JPE’s son Jackie had something to do with it. Anido was reportedly the boyfriend of JPE’s daughter Katrina. Jackie and Katrina are JPE’s children with his elegant wife, Cristina Castañer.
But Ed Pangilinan, in a message via Facebook to this writer, says he does not remember such an incident. Pangilinan was then an assistant at the DND press office and a buddy to many reporters. He was resolute though, about one thing: the Anido case was never discussed in DND circles. Robles confirms Pangilinan’s recollection. “As far as we know, Anido was a suicide,” he says.
Jackie went on to pursue a corporate career in the family-owned Jaka Corporation and in 1998, was elected representative of the First District of Cagayan, a position that JPE once held. JPE has never been coy about his dream of seeing his son in the Senate by 2013. Already, the younger Enrile has been included in the list of senatorial candidates in the UNA party headed by former president Joseph Estrada and Vice President Jejomar Binay.
Another Enrile in the Senate might just be the apt crowning glory to the historied political career of JPE. “He is one of the more enigmatic figures in Philippine history,” Robles says. “He talks tough, but he has a golden heart. He is a complex personality who can switch personalities. But it was only at the Corona impeachment trial that the true quality of JPE was exposed,” the former military officer continues.
About a month after Enrile granted them a surprise three-hour interview, Colegio de San Agustin high school students Riane Manuel, Rem dela Cruz, Jamie Gutierrez and Kaye Pavino were still reeling from the encounter. The group had chosen the Senate President for their entry in the “My Dream Interview” contest launched by the Philippine Daily Inquirer in cooperation with the World Association of Newspapers.
The teeners were dumbstruck that the iconic JPE, the “rock star” of the Corona impeachment trial, would lay bare his life as a deprived fatherless boy in a seemingly dead-end town in Gonzaga, Cagayan in a lengthy, animated conversation far beyond their expectations. “He cried, and we cried with him,” they exclaimed, still in disbelief.
JPE’s compelling life begins not on his birth date, Feb. 14, 1924, but the year before. It was an election year. During the hustings in Gonzaga town, politician Alfonso Ponce Enrile spotted Petra Furagganan, a comely 20-year-old Ilocano-Ibanag widow with two children.
“I was the result of their interlude,” JPE told his young interviewees. Born out of wedlock, JPE was baptized Juanito Furagganan. His mother, who bartered fish for a living, was too poor to send him to school but an aunt, a teacher, agreed to support his studies. “At ako ay naging alila ng aking tiya [I became an indentured servant to my aunt]. I cleaned the house, I cooked. I washed clothes. I fetched water. I scrubbed the floor. I was only seven years old.”
It was a hard life, JPE recounted to his mesmerized young audience. He quit in the middle of second grade and again in third grade. But in his fifth grade, JPE said the town mayor took him in. “Mayor Cesar Peralta was a former soldier, and he spoke good English.” With Peralta’s help, JPE finished seventh grade. He was 16 years old. He never had a pair of shoes or slippers.
He applied for scholarship at the Cagayan Valley Institute in Aparri and was accepted. For his other needs, JPE worked as laborer in his uncle’s transportation business. But in his second year, he figured in a rumble with a group of well-to-do boys who thought he was courting the girl fancied by one of them.
“There were four students, and they attacked me with knives. Tinamaan ako sa leeg, sa kamay, sa braso, sa sikmura [I got hit in the neck, the hand, my arms, my stomach],” JPE said. He parried the attacks with his training in arnis (Pinoy martial arts). Outnumbered and cornered, JPE said he jumped from a window and ran to the municipal clinic where he was treated. His wounds were sutured without anesthesia, without antibiotics.
The cuts and slashes JPE hurdled in no time. But the injustice left a wound that would throb and haunt him for life. “I went to court, but could not afford a lawyer,” he recalled. Worse, the school ordered JPE expelled, instead of imposing sanctions on the four boys who attacked him. JPE said he went home to Gonzaga to rest and recuperate. “I became restless, I wanted to go back to school,” he said. An uncle found him a job as a caminero [road worker with the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Then came World War II and the 17-year-old joined the guerillas. In one of the mountain redoubts, JPE met his half-siblings who had evacuated from Manila. After the war, his newfound relatives returned to Manila and told their father about his son in Cagayan. The older Ponce Enrile ordered a search for his lost son through his lawyer friends. When word reached JPE that his father had wanted to see him, he decided to leave for Manila.
In August 1945, JPE, with P300 in his pocket embarked on the most important journey of his life. “I was wearing my khaki uniform and combat boots,” he said. He boarded a military 6 x 6 truck that left Aparri at 5 a.m. It arrived at a military depot in Karuhatan, Valenzuela by midnight.
Early the next morning, JPE sought his father at a Sta. Mesa address where he would meet the half-siblings he had met in Cagayan during the war. But Alfonso did not live there anymore. “He had a second family, and his children were angry,” JPE said. His half-siblings in Sta. Mesa took him in as a houseboy, like the other half-brother who had been there ahead of him. “William Balisi, that was his name, and he told me how to get to my father’s office,” JPE recounted.
He walked from Sta. Mesa all the way to Escolta, until he found the Soriano building. He took the elevator for the very first time and found Alfonso’s law office on the seventh floor.
“I gave my name to the teleponista [telephone girl] who then led me to my father’s room. I saw an old man, fair-skinned, white haired, with eyeglasses. He wore khaki, like me. I thought he was a general. He stood up, walked towards me. Niyakap nya ako at sabi nya (He embraced me and said), ‘Sorry, my son.’”
“Umiyak sya at ako, napaiyak na rin. Nagkatagpo kami ng Tatay ko! Noong matapos na ang yakapan namin, medyo naiilang na ako. Twenty-one years old na ako at niyayakap ko itong mamang hindi ko kaano-ano [He wept and that made me cry too. I had found my father! But afterwards, I felt awkward. Here I was, 21 years old, and embracing a man I hardly knew],” JPE recounted.
Now officially acquainted, Alfonso asked JPE what he wanted to do with his life. “I told him I just wanted to go back to school. He did not say anything,” JPE said. That day, Alfonso brought JPE to a big house in Malabon to meet his father’s other children and their mother, Purita.
But he did not transform into a rich man’s son overnight. JPE said he helped with the household chores. He became the gardener, electrician, mechanic. He became his father’s driver, and later on, the family driver. He was also enrolled at St. James in Malabon, a private school run by the Maryknoll sisters. Alfonso took legal steps to change his son’s name from Juanito Furagganan to Juan Ponce Enrile, the name that he would use when he enrolled for pre-law at the Ateneo de Manila.
Enrile finished pre-law in 1949, cum laude, and moved on to the University of the Philippines for law proper. He passed the bar in 1953, eight years after he, as Juanito Furagganan, the poor fisherfolk’s son from Gonzaga, Cagayan, took a nomad’s journey to find his father in Manila, and pursue his dreams.
After obtaining a Master of Laws degree specializing in taxation and corporate organization at the Harvard University, JPE returned to Manila determined “to go deeply in law practice.” He said he helped organize mining companies but lawyered as well for the country’s top businesses like the Ayala Corporation, Lepanto and Philex Mines, and Hacienda Luisita in Central Luzon, somehow acquiring “notoriety” along the way, and catching the attention of the young politician, Ferdinand Marcos.
Elected president in 1965, Marcos then invited JPE to join the government, giving him the job of streamlining the Insurance Commission, and later on, weeding out the scalawags from the Bureau of Customs. After serving as Marcos Justice Secretary from 1968-1970, JPE got the top post at the National Defense department that has administrative control over the country’s armed forces.
With such long association, the Marcos-JPE alliance had become solid at this point. No wonder that when Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, he cited an attempted ambush on JPE as proof that the communists were in the city, and could only be vanquished if the nation was placed under military rule. JPE would later confess that the ambush was faked and was set up precisely to justify the imposition of martial law.
Asked how he’d like to be addressed, JPE told his young 14- and 15-year-old interviewees: “Call me Manong Johnny, Lolo Johnny, Papa Johnny.” Then he warned them: “Don’t ask me how many wives I have, or how many girlfriends. How many children, grandchildren, that’s OK. How much ill-gotten wealth? I might get impeached!”
He has another side, he told his young captive audience. “I was called all kinds of names. Martial law administrator, murderer, plunderer. I am this, I am that—most distasteful, distrusted, despicable human being—in this country. But I left them alone. I don’t harbor any ill-will against anybody. Sometimes I look stern and very unforgiving but, you know, I just can’t tolerate stupid people.”
Perhaps the late President Cory Aquino was among the “stupid” people JPE could not put up with, wryly commented a veteran journalist. In November 1986, President Cory ordered the arrest of JPE and several officers for the alleged “God Save the Queen” coup plot. The plot was supposed to have included the synchronized assassination of at least 12 top government officials and personalities in the Cory administration and leaders from leftists groups. The goal was to create chaos, depose President Aquino and replace her with a military junta to be headed by JPE.
The plot was nipped, but not necessarily in the bud. The killing of popular labor leader Rolando Olalia and student leader Lean Alejandro were allegedly part of the plot and were carried out before the plot was uncovered. JPE was held for investigation over the coup plot, but was released for lack of evidence. Rumors at that time had it that JPE was part of the plot, but backed out upon seeing the names of personalities listed for liquidation. That reaction, idle talk went, had the plotters privately labeling the former defense minister as “the reluctant tyrant.”
JPE would be linked again to the August 1987 and December 1989 failed coups against the Cory administration. But evidence against him remained mostly circumstantial.
Despite his running feud with President Cory, who described him as a fly (“langaw”) in one of her People Power anniversary speeches, JPE was elected senator in 1987 and earned a seat as Cagayan representative in 1992. In 1995, he won a six-year term as senator. He will step down next year, after serving 18 years, his place in history secure as presiding officer of the Corona impeachment court.
People say the role has become his redemption, a complete turnaround for a former defense minister whom human rights advocates still blame for the death and disappearance of many activists during the martial law years. But who, when among his staff at the DND, was said to have berated them often enough: “Don’t you have better things to do than kill people?”
Just who is the real JPE? Is he, in the famous words of wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “A riddle wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma?”
Enrile is reportedly writing his biography, a personal account of his defining moments, his storied life and his place in the country’s history. It is a much awaited tome, as admirers and adversaries alike ask: Will the man be honest enough to include the fingerprints he has left behind in his climb to power? •