Aquino’s sisters also want out of Luisita

Aquino’s sisters also want out of Luisita
By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—They also want out of Hacienda Luisita.

The sisters of Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III on Monday night said it was their dream to be divested of their interest in the Cojuangco-owned sugar plantation in Central Luzon.

Speaking with Philippine Daily Inquirer editors and reporters, Maria Elena “Ballsy” Aquino-Cruz, Aurora Corazon “Pinky” Aquino-Abellada and Victoria Eliza “Viel” Aquino-Dee said that they and many of their cousins also wanted out of the hacienda but that they were having difficulty finding interested buyers because of its large debt and labor problems.

Abellada added that the government decision to nullify the stock distribution option at the hacienda could be “political harassment” because her mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, had called for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s resignation after the “Hello Garci” scandal.

“Even when mom was alive, we really wanted out of that place except that nobody would buy our minority share,” Abellada said.

“Our dream is somebody—some conglomerate with agri-diversified businesses—will come in and buy it and give more employment,” she added.

Defending her brother from criticisms on the Hacienda Luisita issue, Abellada said that the senator owned only “a little over 2 percent” of hacienda shares and insisted that her family had complied with the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

“Every time I go to a school, I pray that they ask me this questions so I can fix the disinformation … I tell them mom herself was the one who signed agrarian reform for sugar lands,” Abellada said.

“Where can you find a government official who signs something that will make her poorer? We complied with CARP,” she added.

Complex issues

Cruz said she and her sisters had to explain the hacienda issue because it was being used against their brother and that only a few understood the complex issues about the plantation.

“I think it is [affecting his campaign] somehow because they really can’t say anything about his person. And then many don’t really understand the thing,” Cruz said.

“And all of their rice lands—both the Aquinos’ and the Cojuangcos’—had gone to land reform. They have no remaining rice lands,” she added.

Abellada said that under CARP, farmer-beneficiaries could choose between direct land distribution or get shares of stocks. She said it was the Luisita farmers who chose the stock distribution option.

“The 5,000 plus farmers all voted and they chose stocks by 90 plus percent,” Abellada said.

“The explanation given to me is if you plant sugar on less than one hectare—and this was what they were about to get—it’s not economically feasible. So they chose the stock,” she said.

“So what happened was 33 percent [of hacienda shares] went to the farmers at zero cost. The owners got nothing,” Abellada said.

‘Hello Garci’ fallout

She said this set-up continued until after her mother in 2005 called for Ms Arroyo’s resignation due to the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal.

“When the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal came about and mom went out and asked GMA (Ms Arroyo) to resign, shortly thereafter, the DAR (Department of Agrarian Reform) said that [the stock distribution scheme] was illegal. But it’s been done in other parts of the country,” Abellada said, adding that the issue was now pending before the Supreme Court.

Cruz said that some of her cousins, who also own shares in the hacienda, had shown interest in divesting from the sugar plantation but that potential buyers were hard to find.

“Many of them like the Lopas also want out … but it’s also not that easy. You also have to get somebody to buy it,” she said.

Cruz said that buyers were also wary because the hacienda was “heavily in debt” in part because it provided free medical services to its farmers.

Debts due to medical bills

“Ever since Luisita went to the Cojuangcos, they were really given free medical services … during that time, it was OK because there was still no [expensive medical operations like] chemo and dialysis. It was not as high-tech as it is now,” Cruz said.

But as the hacienda debts grew in recent years, the management discovered that medical bills were “running in the hundreds of thousands,” adding that some farmer-beneficiaries even sold their identity “numbers” to those who were sick and in need of free medication.

“That was discovered because one bill was running into hundreds of thousands. It turned out the original holder was already in Taipei … These [cases] were many and were not checked so the debt continued to grow. The medical bills were really one of the big items there,” Cruz said.

She said that farmers were also given land for their houses, apart from being awarded every year 3 percent of the hacienda’s gross profits.

2004 massacre

“I would say it was really a pretty good deal for them,” Cruz said, adding that the farmers were “pretty spoiled.”

“There was a video interview of some of the original farmers and they said that life there was good. They could take out a loan and no one pestered them,” Cruz added.

On the other hand, Abellada said that many of those who died in the Hacienda Lusita massacre in November 2004 were not from the plantation.

“That was something we hope will really be solved … The two who died who are from Luisita were shot in the back … Why in the back?” Abellada said.

Abellada and Cruz also said that the hacienda’s private security force was disarmed during the labor protests.

“We were expecting that someone was going to sabotage it so they were disarmed. And apparently … well of course, the story we get is that it (the violence) came from elsewhere. Although the government helped us then, they sent there military men,” Cruz said.

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.