Coffee with Jose Almonte

Recently had coffee with General Jose Almonte, the former National Security Adviser during President Fidel V. Ramos’ time. This reminded me of an article I wrote about him way in 2008, which I’m reproducing below and, I believe, still well worth pondering upon:

I arrived at General Jose Almonte’s apartment on the dot, as befits a meeting with a military man. It was 13:00 and the General courtly escorted me to the dining table. His assistant, Edna Co, was there and helped serve coffee and pizza. The apartment cum office was modestly furnished but lined with numerous shelves filled with biographies, books on politics and current events. Interestingly, a number of religious books were there as well. After all, this is the guy who once declared: “I have only one hero - Jesus Christ.”

Gen. Almonte is a bulky man, with a voice to match his build. His face was lined and he had a weary air about him. He immediately went to business: “So, what is it that you want to talk about?”

The conversation, of course, focused on an area that he knew so well: that of Philippine development and the role the oligarchy plays in hindering it. One comment I’ve heard is that the oligarchy isn’t what it used to be, having diversified their businesses from mere landholdings and are now into telecommunications, manufacturing, and IT. The point is that, so the argument goes, the oligarchy isn’t the same and as pervasive as it once was. Almonte would have none of this thinking, saying that such is “misleading”. “Our economy is supposed to be a free market, but it is controlled by politics … not designed to serve the national interest, but certain families,” he says.

And therein lies the problem. For although every country has an elite, the Philippines has a significant problem with its local version as “the politics that has evolved [in our country] has no capacity to serve the nation as a whole; it only serves the oligarchy, or rather the party that serves the oligarchy.” For Almonte, it is the elite’s undeserved domination of economic and political power that is the primary cause of Philippine problems.

This observation, it must be observed, is not radical. Nor is it new. Political scientists from 1965 such as Dante Simbulan (who wrote The Modern Principalia), to politicians such as Ferdinand Marcos (Today’s Revolution: Democracy), to the writers of Anarchy of Families, and today’s journalists who reported in the book The Rulemakers, almost unanimously say the same thing. A recent book (Asian Godfathers by Joe Studwell) describes our elite as “the most selfish and self-serving in the region.” It is General Almonte, however, who provides the most colorful description: “You give Rizal to our oligarchy, they’ll shoot him.”

General Almonte is reminded of a passage in his book “We Must Level the Playing Field”, where then Commissioner William Cameron Forbes recounts that: “’[Sergio Osmena and Manuel Quezon] practically admitted to me that [the demand for immediate independence] was really a catch way of getting votes; that what they wanted was office, not independence’”. General Almonte notes dryly that “the skills that get a Filipino politician elected President are often the opposite of those qualities required for the decisive and upright administration of the state.”

General Almonte is a very charming speaker. And forceful as well. He observed that I was not touching the pizza. Hearing that from a Brigadier General who infiltrated the Viet Cong and who almost led the assault on Malacanang in 1986 with an AK-47 rifle brought home from Vietnam, I was eating in a millisecond.

Continuing on the subject, General Almonte is of the firm belief that the country doesn’t need geniuses or high intelligence in a leader. “You can get experts to make the studies and the policies”. What is needed, he says, is “a leader who will have the courage to implement the policies and with no attachment to the oligarchy and other such parties with vested interests.” Or, in the colorful Almonte-speak, “even a monkey could lead this country a whole lot better than a genius affiliated with the oligarchy.” Assuming, of course, the monkey is not attached to the elite.

“The secret to nation building is simple: just inspire the people. For a president, that is the one important thing he or she should do.” The problem is, how do you inspire the people when opportunities are closed to them by the oligarchy?

The discussion had gone on longer than expected, the General being quite generous with his time. I murmured my leave and he courteously rose to escort me out of his apartment and into the elevator. You know, he says, “a leader unattached to the oligarchy would do this country a whole lot of good. A leader with vision, values, and conviction.”

The elevator opened. Before I stepped in, the old warrior shook my hand. “Take care of our people. Our people are good and they deserve better.” It was a goosebump inducing moment. After all, he is right: our people do deserve better.