Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: hacienda luisita, HLI, Kris Aquino, Luisita, Massacre, Noynoy Aquino, Senator Noynoy Aquino, tarlac
By: Jojo Robles
Why Luisita matters
In the coming days, expect to hear more about Hacienda Luisita, the giant, undistributed Tarlac agricultural estate owned by the family of leading presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino. That’s because, whether he likes it or not, Aquino’s flagging political fortunes may hinge on what he does or does not do about this festering issue.
But first, it can be argued that the last thing Aquino needs right now, when his survey rankings are on the verge of a free fall, is one of his own camp followers breaking ranks. But that’s apparently already happening, with no less than one of his own Liberal Party senatorial candidates going public with a demand that Aquino’s family distribute the lands in Hacienda Luisita to the farmers there.
The supposed token leftist in Aquino’s senatorial lineup, Akabayan party-list Rep. Risa Hontiveros, could not have come out with the statement on the ticklish issue that the leading presidential bet has repeatedly sought to dodge at a worse time. But Hontiveros, according to one news report, explained that her being a guest candidate in the LP senatorial slate did not mean that she had abandoned her quest for justice for the victims of the so-called Hacienda Luisita and Mendiola massacres.
“Healing and reconciliation can only happen if justice is served for the victims of the Hacienda Luisita and Mendiola massacres. But there’s no justice yet for the victims,” Hontiveros said.
Hontiveros’ demand came even as farmers’ groups allied with their fellow tillers in the Cojuangco-Aquino sugar plantation stepped up the pressure on Aquino to act to distribute the land to the tenants, who were given shares of stocks in the family corporation instead of land titles under a controversial exception made in the late President Cory Aquino’s land reform program. And now, Aquino’s rivals are also digging up the circumstances of the sale of a portion of the hacienda land to the government to make way for a new highway—a sale that allegedly did not benefit the farmer-stockholders, who control a third of the corporation on paper, at all.
Cavite Rep. Crispin Remulla, who is closely identified with Aquino’s chief opponent Manny Villar, castigated Aquino for not lifting a finger to help the Luisita farmers, despite alleged profits made by his family on the sale of 80 hectares of Luisita land. The government paid the amount to Aquino’s family so that the new Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway may pass through the sprawling 6,453-hectare agricultural estate.
Remulla said Aquino’s family never intended to distribute the land to the tenants there since his grandfather Jose Cojuangco Sr. bought the plantation more than 50 years ago with a loan from the Government Service Insurance System. The government guaranteed a $2.1-million foreign loan taken out by the Cojuangco family to buy Luisita from its Spanish owners in 1957, apart from extending a P5.9 million facility that allowed the elder Cojuangco to purchase the property on the condition that all of the land would eventually be distributed to the farmers and residents there.
The government sued the Cojuangcos during the Marcos regime over the refusal of the family to distribute the land. But the suit was uncharacteristically withdrawn upon Cory Aquino’s assumption to the presidency in 1986, upon the lobbying of officials of the new administration, Remulla said.
Then the so-called Mendiola Massacre took place in early 1987; 13 farmers were killed and 39 others were wounded in a clash with policemen and soldiers who were guarding Malacañang Palace that day. The massacre spooked the new President into fast-tracking the “genuine” land reform program that she had promised during her campaign against Marcos a year earlier.
Cory’s land reform program met stiff opposition from plantation owners throughout the country who protested what they called the government’s seizure of their property. Still, the program allowed the family of the President to keep their land through a stock distribution option, wherein their tenants were given shares of the family corporation instead of titles to the land they were tilling.
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During the abbreviated term of President Joseph Estrada, the Aquino-Cojuangco clan lobbied hard for the extension of the North Luzon Expressway to Tarlac, to connect the economic zones in Central Luzon, according to Remulla. The project, which was implemented by the current Arroyo administration through the Bases Conversion Development Authority, eventually connected Clark and Subic to Tarlac through Luisita.
The Cavite congressman said the farmland was overpriced 10 times when it was sold to the BCDA at P100 per square meter. On top of that, the family also got an interchange worth P170 million for free, which boosted the hacienda’s value from P600 million to P60 billion, he said.
Remulla said part of the payments made by the Arroyo administration to the Aquino-Cojuangco family were used to bankroll the congressional bid of Noynoy Aquino in 2001. The release of the payments were also expedited because of the lobbying of the late President, Remulla alleged, because Mrs. Aquino and President Arroyo were political allies at the time, having both worked for the ouster of Estrada.
During this time, the Aquino-Cojuangco family also started drawing up plans to convert their agricultural estate into a giant mixed-used development project, something that would effectively end the land claims of the farmers. During this period, Noynoy Aquino also worked as an executive of the family-controlled corporation, which meant that he had intimate knowledge of the SCTEX land purchase and the conversion plans, Remulla added.
But the Luisita farmers still wanted their land, and in 2004, when construction of the SCTEX was already being started, the Luisita Massacre took place. This time, seven plantation workers were killed when soldiers broke up a picket line put up by farmers demanding that the Aquino-Cojuangco family give the land to them.
Then, only last year, upon the expiration of the Cory Aquino land reform law, Congress passed CARPer, which extended the land-distribution program. The passage of CARPer into law was significant, because it removed the exemption that allowed landowners to distribute stock options to farmers in agricultural landholdings, like the Aquino-Cojuangco family did at Luisita.
Ever since he became a Tarlac congressman, according to Remulla, Noynoy Aquino never said anything about the Luisita controversy. And when he became a senator, Noynoy did not vote to extend the land reform program, which abolished the stock-distribution scheme.
Now that he is a presidential candidate, Noynoy has repeatedly said that he own only a small fraction of Luisita personally. But even the sizable holdings of the farmers are dwarfed by the shares of the Aquino-Cojuangco companies that control Luisita.
As the campaign heats up in the coming days, Noynoy Aquino will continue to be hounded by questions about Hacienda Luisita—questions that have remained unanswered in decades. As his own fitness for the presidency comes increasingly under scrutiny, expect Noynoy’s huge family plantation to loom large in the background.
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