The President finally accepted Avelino Cruz, Jr.’s resignation from the cabinet today.
My only interaction with Avelino Cruz, Jr. was when he was still Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and months of meetings and consultations had finally produced a draft of Executive Order 236 (the Honors Code of the Philippines). As the proponent I was summoned to a final meeting with representatives of the different government departments and agencies I’d had to consult, to thoroughly go over the text and resolve any issues before the draft was submitted for the President’s signature (it would be fairly easy going, bureaucratically speaking, after that in terms of approving the Implementing Rules and Regulations). At the time of the meeting, there were only a few issues left to tackle but they basically had the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Historical Institute at loggerheads while there were some lingering concerns about the usual turf and so forth.
It was held on the second floor of Bonifacio Hall (formerly the Premier Guest House) and consisted of everyone being asked to sit around a table, with Cruz presiding over the meeting. The draft was produced; a brief review of the origin of the proposal, and the process followed in arriving at the document undertaken; and the Cruz began to go through the document, line by line. At the conclusion of each section, he would poll those present to determine if all the represented offices were in accordance with what was written. This included whether past presidential issuances cited in the text had been properly mentioned, and numerous references were made to the Administrative Code.
In the beginning, he presided over the meeting like a genial, barong-clad buddha, all smiles, but as the meeting went on he became more intense and showed a keen grasp of both the purposes behind the draft, and the various points of law (and administrative matters) raised during the drafting process. The only time he showed irritation was when individuals would begin to harangue the meeting while failing to support their opinion (or departmental position) with the necessary documents. There was also a time when he bluntly said one interpretation raised was contrary to law and the product of insufficient research. In general he was quite neutral except for one point (which I personally appreciated, because I also felt strongly about it), which was the need for a National Order of Social Scientists: he didn’t agree that the Social Sciences should be lumped together with the physical sciences as had previously been the case.
Unlike other officials I’ve worked with, he didn’t pull rank as a rule, and he didn’t show any inclination to rush through things: but at the same time he was able to keep people from rambling too much and was pretty adept at getting to the heart of the debates that emerged. Most issues were resolved, as I said, simply by referring to the law and by clarifying the weight various executive documents carried, with regards to each other and within the framework of the powers of the presidency and the other branches of government. For example, there were some things the Department of Foreign Affairs wanted, but Cruz pointed out everyone’s hands were tied because what would be affected was a presidential decree, and that pertained of the nature of a law -which meant, if any changes were to be made, it would have to be undertaken by Congress. Also, another proposal would have placed an inferior (bureaucratically speaking) government office in a superior position to the President.
When tempers rose, he would diplomatically take a phone call and leave the room, magically returning when people had sorted things out; at other times, he would call for a round of sandwiches and that would dispel the tension. After every section had been read, discussed, and changes noted, he then went over the draft with the new changes, and once again polled everyone. He then asked for copies to be made of his copies, and for everyone to sign the revised draft, and to furthermore submit a letter to his office signifying conformity with the changes.
His method of handling meetings, I must say, was in marked contrast with then-Executive Secretary Romulo who is also an exceedingly nice man but who simply avoided any decisions if he could help it.
His former cabinet colleagues have told me he’s pretty much a nerd, and happiest buried in books and formulating and then implementing policy. While rather miffed he hadn’t decided to quit the cabinet last July, they kept saying then that there would come a time when he would reach a line he wouldn’t cross -or discover that his decision to stick it out in order to meet goals he’d become engrossed in, was no longer tenable. He was known, even before July, 2005, for run-ins with the President’s husband, but those run-ins were par for the course for anyone with a minimum of backbone and even the smallest of reformist instincts. But even those formerly within the President’s cabinet who turned virulently against her maintained their respect for him and said he was not a crook. Diplomats I’ve encountered have also spoken highly of him.
The question is, of course, that for all his earnestness in reforming the Department of National Defense (and people from the DND have told me it was quite a tough climb for Cruz, there were cases, for example, of officers who refused to vacate their desks), while his plans were thorough and reasonable, he has presided over the DND at a time when the officer corps has become far more independent of civilian authority than at any other time previously. For a year, I’ve been asking people who claim to be in the know, just how much Cruz could be said to be in charge. The clearest answer I’ve been able to get is that he is firmly in charge of the bureaucracy within the DND but that the top brass has direct line to the President and can do pretty much what it wants in the field. So my personal view is that he’s had an impact in terms of lessening inefficiency and corruption in terms of procurement, but he’s been unable to influence the choice of field commands and the behavior of those commanders.
Notice that he is credited -at least by Senator Drilon- with having foiled a proclamation of martial law last January. That is a feat he could only have been able to accomplish as a lawyer and because he knew the President couldn’t have afforded to lose him at that time (or any other time). Since by then, the AFP top brass was firmly in the President’s pocket (and then Army chief and now chief of staff Esperon clearly showed he wasn’t beyond insubordination), it probably wasn’t because Cruz could have threatened to hold back the army; the only thing he could have threatened to do, was either quit or refuse to sign any orders that crossed his desk. But it was enough.
So perhaps his former cabinet colleagues were correct: on the whole, Cruz felt it was better to hold the fort for the reformists rather than abandon ship, much less publicly confront the President (his instincts as a private lawyer would have strengthened his determination to speak little and stick it out). Even when I’d get to hear scuttlebutt within the official circles I tended to be close to, he wasn’t identified with those obsessed with racketeering or a lust for power. the lesson, though, is that the writing on the wall’s been clear since 2005, it’s just taken Cruz longer than others. So he left, but it would be mistaken, I think, to attribute to him heroic qualities either for his sticking it out, or finally throwing in the towel. The tragedy of many of the reformists I knew in the President’s official family is that the line that could not be crossed kept being moved; or that, the desire to influence policy overcame any instincts to cut ties with the President when her legitimacy evaporated. It’s a dilemma -or a trap- my father used to call the “Cesar Virata problem.”