Aquino: NY Times unfairly misquoted cousin on Luisita issue

Aquino: NY Times unfairly misquoted cousin on Luisita issue
By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer

NAGA CITY—Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III Tuesday accused The New York Times of unfairly misquoting his cousin and said that the Cojuangco family had unanimously decided on drastic changes in the operation of Hacienda Luisita.

“It is clear to me and my clan met—all the six families composed of my mother and her siblings’ families were represented—and there was a unanimous decision that we will be at the very minimum changing what is present there,” Aquino said in a press conference at the airport here.

Part of The New York Times article reads: “But Mr. Aquino’s cousin, Fernando Cojuangco, the chief operating officer of the holding company that owns the plantation, said that the extended Cojuangco family, owners of this plantation since 1958, had no intention of giving up the land or the sugar business.

“‘No, we’re not going to,’ Mr. Cojuangco, 47, said in an interview here. ‘I think it would be irresponsible because I feel that continuing what we have here is the way to go. Sugar farming has to be; it’s the kind of business that has to be done plantation-style.’”

“My understanding is—and I cleared this up when I asked—I said ‘We’re all clear that this is really no longer viable for anybody. That running it in the present scheme is not a sound venture. That was clear to everybody,” said the Liberal Party presidential candidate in the May 10 elections.

Aquino said that the family meeting happened after he formally declared last September his intention to seek the highest post in the land following the death of his mother, former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino.

To distribute land in 5 years

When the campaign started in February, Aquino said that his family would distribute the land to farmers within five years (the specified period for the distribution of land still not covered by agrarian reform under a new law) but was still deciding how this would be done without putting on the beneficiaries the burden of the hacienda’s huge debts.

“If you look at the entire story of The New York Times, unfortunately they have a colleague here, I think it favored one side of the issue. I don’t think it was a fair treatment,” Aquino said.

“As I told you there are many options that are being explored. There are 10,000 beneficiaries who are members of the corporation who have to be consulted and they will pick among all these schemes which best meets their needs,” he added.

Cousin’s apology

Aquino said his cousin Fernando, a son of his uncle Pedro Cojuangco, had sent him a text message and also apologized to him. Fernando Cojuangco is reportedly checking his own records of the interview with The New York Times.

“He said ‘It looks like negativism really sells.’ He’s wondering if he was quoted accurately. He’s starting to search his records,” Aquino said.

He said that it was unlikely for Fernando, a lawyer, to question the status of agrarian reform as the centerpiece program of the late President Corazon Aquino.

“I cannot imagine him talking that way about my mother. All of us were brought up to respect our elders. He as a lawyer would have studied the matter,” Aquino said.

“I really am not sure if he was taken out of context, if at all,” he said.

On Monday, Aquino said that his family could have earned P3 billion from selling the large sugar plantation. He said the 4,500-hectare plantation could have been sold for P4.5 billion, at a price of P100 per square meter, if his family did not care about the farmers and only worried about its own interests.

Excerpts of Times article

The New York Times article written by its correspondent Norimitsu Onishi and published on March 14 said in part:

“Despite the government’s assertion that a two-decade-old land distribution program has been a success, most farmers in the Philippines have yet to benefit significantly. The uneven ownership of land, this country’s primordial problem, continues to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of large landowning families and to fuel armed insurgencies, including Asia’s longest-running Communist rebellion.

“The land problem has drawn fresh attention since Mrs. Aquino’s son, Benigno Aquino III, declared his candidacy for the May 10 presidential election, running on his mother’s legacy of ‘people power.’ Through Mrs. Aquino made land reform a top priority, she allowed landowning families to eviscerate her distribution program. Critics say there is no greater example of the failure of land reform than her own family’s estate.

“For the past five years, the family has been fighting in the Supreme Court a government directive to distribute the 10,000-acre Hacienda Luisita—the second-biggest family-owned piece of land in the Philippines, about 80 miles north of Manila—to 10,000 farmers.

“In 2004, the military and police killed seven protesters during a strike by farmers fighting for land and higher wages. Since then, the family-controlled Hacienda Luisita Inc. has managed to plant only 40 percent of the estate with sugar cane; the rest has been seized by individual farmers or remains idle.

“Criticized for his family’s position, Mr. Aquino, 50, the front-runner in the presidential election, announced recently that the family would transfer the land to the farmers after ensuring that debts were paid off.

“‘It will be theirs clear and free,” Mr. Aquino said in an interview in Manila.

Is this the centerpiece?

“He (Fernando Cojuangco) dismissed the widely held view that Mrs. Aquino, his aunt, had made land reform a centerpiece of her government.

“‘Is there a document that it was a centerpiece? I always asked that question even to her ex-Cabinet members. Was there a Cabinet meeting where she said this is the centerpiece?’”

Karen Ang

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