Former Philippines President Joseph Estrada TalkAsia Interview
Airdate: January 29th, 2005
LH: Lorraine Hahn
JE: Joseph Estrada
LH: This week on TalkAsia, a former Philippine president who's fighting to prove his innocence against charges of corruption and plunder. This is TalkAsia.
Welcome to TalkAsia, I'm Lorraine Hahn. This week we're joined by former Philippine president Joseph Estrada, or Erap as he's cordially known to some. After years in the public eye as a Filipino film star, Estrada decided to try his hand at a different kind of role and in 1968 became mayor of San Juan. Much like the films he's starred in, Estrada's career followed an unlikely script. His political career took him to senator, then vice president and in 1998 Estrada ran and soundly won as president of the Philippines. His presidency was soon clouded by charges of plunder and corruption. And in January 2001 Estrada was ousted by a military-backed popular revolt. Then-vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo succeeded him. Until a verdict in his trial is delivered, Estrada remains under arrest. I caught up with the former president recently in a Hong Kong hospital where he was given permission by the courts to undergo replacement knee surgery. I began by asking him why he decided to have the operation in Hong Kong
JE: Well first I should be operated in Stanford University and my doctor, Dr. Christopher Mow, he's been taking care of my knee for the last six years. But unfortunately when the court granted that I could go to San Francisco and have my operation, the U.S Embassy did not issue me a visa. So I had to petition again to talk to the Doctor Mow and he said he will be available here in Hong Kong.
LH: I see, so that's why you picked Hong Kong. Right. So you also delayed your operation because of the loss of your very close friend (JE: Oh yes) is that correct? I wanted to ask you what his loss has meant for you?
JE: Well, it is an unbearable loss, he is more than a brother to me. He is a great friend and I believe that I will die and I will live again I will never find a friend again like Mr. Poe. So it felt very very bad.
LH: Did you manage to see him before he (JE: yes) passed away.
JE: Fortunately the court allowed me to see him at the wake and I was able to deliver in the closed services, a eulogy for my friend.
LH: But he had already passed away correct? (JE: yes) you didn't get to see him when he was still alive?
JE: I saw him, I saw him two months, no three months after the election and he was feeling very very bad at the time. I've known him for more than forty years we've been together and he just kept his problems to himself and I know that's one of the causes, you know maybe the similar depressions that he's encountering.
LH: Yes. Mr. Estrada I wanted to ask you what your life is now like, in prison and the conditions that you live in.
JE: Well at first, there is bitterness and anger, later on I was able to take the equilibrium that maybe god has some purpose for me being here. I said in my other interview, maybe I was successful in all the undertakings that I went on but when I want to be a movie star I had that passion to be successful. When I entered politics, when I ran for mayor, I had that passion to win as mayor. When I ran for senator, I had that passion to be a senator, so I always ... as vice president, I had passion to win vice president.
LH: And it continued I'm sure.
JE: And it continued as president. You know then later one, when my incarceration more than three years now and my frequent meditation, it just entered my mind that I have all these passions to win and I'm successful but I forgot this is something that I didn't have that passion to be close to god. Maybe that's why especially when I was president I only prayed maybe five minutes a day, unlike now I have at least an hour a day.
LH: Is that how you stay sane and in prison by yourself (JE: Yes, yes) through prayer?
JE: Through prayers, that's keeping me alive and giving me strength and courage.
LH: Anything else?
JE: Well of course what encourages me also is that after the media in our country have really demonized me, it seems that I am all alone already. So at that point, I asked my wife to run for senator, to find out for myself if I still have the support of our people. And fortunately, she won, and she is now a politician, she is very shy but by profession she is a doctor of medicine. And then last, this last year, I asked my son to run for senator. And then again, he won. So that gave me more encouragement and I believe that my wife's winning and my son winning as senators, this is nationwide -- I believe that's partly unbendicated.
LH: So you think that's partly because of you? And that you still have support out there from the people?
JE: I believe so because if the people believed all these fabricated charges against me, they would not vote for my wife or my son.
LH: Coming back again to prison, describe to me what the conditions are like for you.
JE: Well, it's so lonely. And then me used to being a movie star before, then a mayor, senator, vice president and president, of course all of a sudden you are all alone and being incarcerated. Even all the humiliation I have suffered, all these fabricated charges and all things I've never heard before, thrown against me. I would say that I keep myself strong because I would like to show my family. Because if I give in, I don't know what will happen to my family, and I want my family to be proud of me.
LH: Up next on TalkAsia- Estrada discusses his political career and when things started to go wrong.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia, Filipino movie star Joseph Estrada lived out his dream when he became president of the Philippines, but that dream was short lived and things started to go sour when he was faced with charges of plunder and corruption. I asked him what happened and how it all went wrong.
JE: Well as I said earlier, maybe god has his own purpose. And it's not yet over, it's not yet over.
LH: When you say it's not yet over, what do you mean?
JE: What I mean is that I am still alive. My life is not yet over and my fight is not over. 00:10:52
LH: You still have aspirations?
JE: Of course
LH: To get back into politics?
JE: Well my aspiration is to continue fighting for our poor people. Continue fighting for the injustices being committed to our poor people and my mission and dream to uplift plight for our masses.
LH: Do you find it ironic you have promised, and that you still promise by the sounds of it, to eradicate corruption and help the lives of the poor people, yet you have been charged with the pinnacle of corruption, something you said you would want to weed out.
JE: Yes, as I have said I have been a mayor for 17 years, senator for 6 years, vice president for 6 years, I have never been linked -- my name has never been linked with any kind of corruption. And now that I am president they have ganged up on me. These are all fabricated charges, because these people I already established are some of the powerful businessmen and of course this is a conspiracy of businessmen... the cardinal.
LH: So what is the status right now? Are you waiting for the defense, are you waiting for the sentencing, what is the status? Would you ever get out of jail?
JE: The charge against me is plunder so is not bail-able. So we have to wait to finish the case, now my defense lawyers are presenting our defense witnesses.
LH: Do you have any sort of time frame as to when you may, I don't know, get a reprieve or something?
JE: Well I am very sure that I will win this case. But the time frame, it doesn't ...is no longer in my hands. 00:14:11
LH: I also wanted to ask you what you thought of President Arroyo and how, and what she has done, since she has taken presidency for the country, for the Philippines?
JE: Well... since I... have been incarcerated for almost 4 years... I said to myself, if I can't say something good about somebody, I'd rather not say anything.
LH: So you're going to keep silent then?
JE: If I can't say anything good, I'd rather just keep silent. And people know in our country, what is happening in our government.
LH: And what do you think the Filipinos, the masses, think of you now?
JE: Well.. in the last survey, it shows that I have a higher trust rating that the.. than Mrs. Arroyo, so I'm happy about that. I'm not doing anything, I'm behind bars for almost four years and my trust rating is higher than her. 00:15:33
LH: So you do have aspirations, you do hope to get into politics again?
JE: I would say that as far as I am concerned, I would never stop fighting for the right of our people.
LH: And if it was asked of you to disclose all and any information about your assets and your worth and all that, you are quite prepared?
JE: Yes, it's open, it's an open book. I'm very transparent.
LH: While you were in office for the 31 months, did you feel that things were moving in the way that you wanted them to move as president?
JE: Yes, because you know my vision, my government is pro poor. In fact my first program is the food security and the economic recovery to agriculture productivity because the Philippines is agriculture country. It is all directed at the poor. At the same time we have this job generation program and of course I concentrated more on efficient order and security of our country because I know we were way ahead of Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong even Taiwan. But now we are behind them -- why? The reason is because I believe you cannot govern a country that is fragmented. We have this, in our country, we have this National People's Army, this insurgency and in the south, in Mindanao we have this succession movement. Now in the cite government is the corruption, kidnapping, car-knapping. So in my first year of office, I was able to neutralize the kidnapping, car-knapping. And after that the following year, I was able to overrun all the cessation movement of the MILF. So in short, there cannot be any economic recovery without peace and order and no president can be successful if his country is fragmented.
LH: Just ahead on TalkAsia- who was the source of inspiration that led Estrada from movie star to president?
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia. Joseph Estrada was an award-winning actor when he decided to turn to politics. He went from acting on screen to playing the most important role in the Philippines - as president. But what exactly inspired him to make such a bold move?
JE: I said to myself, if the most powerful nation in the world can elect a movie actor, I don't see any reason why the Philippines cannot elect a movie actor. So president Reagan was my inspiration.
LH: You don't find it different the fact that you know, he was obviously running a country that was very wealthy, whereas you had the challenge that there was almost 60% in poverty. I mean how could you learn from somebody like president Regan?
JE: So that is more challenging on my part. You know, people are deceived that they underestimate actors. You know, actors they don't know anything, but you know being a movie actor you play different kinds of roles, so you observe the field of every sector of society. Like for me, I've played the role of a squalor, a jipney driver, a labor leader, a policeman, a military man, a farmer, all these, so I know all of these problems. I observe it. So this is one advantage that a movie actor has over all politicians.
LH: So what was it about the qualities of Reagan for example that took you?
JE: First I could see his sincerity, second he has the charisma, third he is a great communicator, because a leader must have the charisma so that the people will follow. If you don't have any charisma, even if you have all these Phd's, if you don't have this charisma, people will not follow you.
LH: it's also interesting, in that particularly in the Philippines movie stars have garnered just so much support, so much adulation, why is that?
JE: (laughs) Well it's mainly because of the fact that they see among the movie actors, they are the heroes because you know especially our economic situation, they get tired of these politicians. But now there are some quality movie actors, even the broadcast people are already in politics. Right now the vice president of the Philippines came from the broadcast, our candidate for vice president became Senator.
LH: What does that say though, Mr. Estrada, about people differentiating between fact and fiction, between movies and real life? Is there no distinction?
JE: Well of course there is, but I would say that we have the majority of the masses and to them, I would say, especially the actors, they have somewhat of an endearment relations. For example, myself, I have that endearment with the masses, with the people.
LH: Is there anything in hindsight, that you did, that maybe now you would think maybe I shouldn't have done that? Anything you would have changed?
JE: No, I don't believe so. As I have said time and again that maybe I have committed some mistakes in my governance, but corruption is never one of them.
LH: After all you have been through, what has surprised you the most? After everything you have been through, the impeachment, now incarceration, what has surprised you the most?
JE: Of course my, incarceration.
LH: You never thought you would be put in jail?
JE: Never in my wildest dreams... never, never.
LH: And how do you feel now? Do you often think back to the days of the presidency and ...?
JE: I feel very frustrated because I was not able to complete my projects for the poor people. Especially, I cannot do something on what is happening to our country because I'm helpless, and now our people are helpless and hopeless.
LH: That's not very good.
JE: Well I leave it in the hands of the lord now.
LH: If you were given a reprieve and d the court said you are now a free man, what could you do? Business... or?
JE: No, no.. you know I have all the blessings that God has given me. He made me a senator, a mayor, a senator, vice president, president. I can't ask anything more from him. So before I pass out, or pass away, I would like to leave a legacy.
LH: And what would that be? What would be your legacy?
JE: The one that champion the masses. 00:27:21
LH: Where do you see yourself in the near future?
JE: I pray hard that, I know I'll be acquitted, but I pray hard that this must be soon so that I can still do something for our people.
LH: And that is TalkAsia this week, thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn, let's talk again next week.