Jojo A. Robles

One time, big time

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As presidential promises go, this one was definitely underwhelming. In less than a month, according to President Noynoy Aquino, a plan to finally address deeply entrenched corruption at the Bureau of Customs will be unveiled.

 

“I directed them to do so,” Aquino said, referring to the plan that is purportedly being crafted by Customs and the Department of Finance to reform the bureau. “I have been on board from the start.”

The real problem with Aquino’s alleged plan for Customs is, of course, not how he started it but how he intends to finish it. Unlike the other corruption scandals plaguing his administration – the pork barrel mess involving Congress and various Executive departments and the MRT coach-procurement scandal supposedly involving his sister come to mind – it was Aquino who put the focus on smuggling in Customs in his speech at the Batasang Pambansa.

But since that time, Aquino has done nothing to follow through. He has retained Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon and did not act when Biazon’s two top deputies offered to resign; he has remained silent even after Deputy Commissioner Danilo Lim expressed frustration about the political patrons of corrupt Customs officials and smugglers have thwarted any plans to institute significant reforms at the bureau.

Now, suddenly, we hear about Aquino having a “one-time” (his words) plan to end corruption at an agency that he himself has exposed for smuggling agricultural products, vehicles, guns and drugs into the country. And we are supposed to believe that he is still “on board” or even serious about reforming this corruption-plagued agency?

Excuse me while I try to suspend my disbelief. But I will only believe that this administration is making headway in the problem of smuggling when independent authorities like the International Monetary Fund, whose Direction of Trade statistics show the humongous gap between the value of goods exported to the Philippines and the value of these same products as they are reported when they enter the country, say so.

And according to IMF, an estimated $33.2 billion in smuggled goods entered the Philippines in 2010 and 2011. That makes Customs the most corrupt agency in government today and the biggest cause of lost government income from duties and taxes by far.

But that’s what the Senate and some thoughtful pundits have been saying long before Aquino got on board and began looking into the problem of smuggling. And that’s why if, by the end of the month, if nothing still changes at Customs, I won’t be surprised in the least.

* * *

That provinciano who heads the Metro Manila Development Authority tried to do an Erap yesterday. And Chairman Francis Tolentino failed miserably, earning only the ire of thousands upon thousands of his fellow Caviteños who have to commute to the metropolis daily for work or school.

Tolentino copied Mayor Joseph Estrada’s ban on buses in a desperate bid to show that he did not want to be remembered primarily for hanging ornamental plants along Edsa and then allowing them to die for lack of care. But because Tolentino obviously did not think his ban through, he merely stranded thousands of carless commuters at the Coastal Mall on the corner of Roxas Boulevard and MIA Road in Parañaque.

The scene at the mall was total chaos, since there were not enough jeepneys, vans and other means of public transport going into Metro Manila from the new terminal of buses coming from Cavite. Tolentino’s other claim to fame as the official most offended by author Dan Brown’s description of Manila as “the gates of hell” was particularly ironic for the commuters, the victims of the MMDA chairman’s new hellish scheme.

Why did Erap succeed where Tolentino failed abjectly? For starters, there are simply more modes of transportation in Manila whose routes are redundant with the buses than there are in MMDA’s new terminal. There are more jeepneys, FX vans and even tricycles along Manila’s major thoroughfares like Taft and Quirino Avenues and that were targeted by Estrada for traffic unclogging; and Manila has two lines of the Light Rail Transit that provide yet another important and high-volume public transport service which prevented the commuting nightmare in Parañaque from happening in the capital.

Commuters in Manila were forced to walk a couple of blocks before taking another ride to their destinations after Estrada banned the buses. Not so the workers and students from Cavite, who had to walk kilometer-length distances (in the pouring rain, no less) just to look for a connecting ride.

Meanwhile, the extension of the LRT from Baclaran to Bacoor, Cavite, promised a couple of years back by President Noynoy Aquino, still hasn’t left the drawing board. Not one single pile has been driven into the ground along the route, perhaps because the officials and presidential relatives involved in the purchase of train coaches are still haggling over their kickbacks.

Of course, Tolentino was also cursed for being anti-poor for dreaming up a traffic plan that only made life easier for people with cars, who whizzed past the waterlogged commuters after going through their newly bus-free “gates of heaven.” Perhaps it’s really time for Tolentino to return to Tagaytay, where he can direct traffic at his town’s single traffic light and forget all about his term as Metro Manila’s biggest headache and nightmare.

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