In the case of Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, who died on June 16 at age 85, speaking ill of the dead is absolutely necessary as a reminder to Filipinos today just how thoroughly society has been traduced by well-born men ready to use almost any means to enhance their wealth and power.
Born into the largest landowning family in Tarlac in northern Luzon, Danding was the eldest child of Eduardo C. Cojuangco Sr. and Josephine Murphy, the daughter of an Irish-Canadian US Army volunteer. His father was of Chinese descent.
Danding was soon engaged in political games against other branches of the family. These were particularly exacerbated by the success of Benigno “Ninoy’ Aquino, from another leading family and married to his cousin Corazon (Cory). Ninoy Aquino would be martyred in 1983 at the airport later named for him in a blatant murder whose wellsprings have never been adequately explained.
It was this provincial rivalry with Aquino that led him into alliance with Ferdinand Marcos in the 1960s, a relationship which became especially close partly because of the friendship between Danding’s first wife, the beautiful and witty Gretchen Oppen, from a Negros mestizo family, and First lady Imelda Marcos. Oppen accompanied Imelda on many of her high profile, high spending travels.
Danding was also close to Juan Ponce Enrile, then the defense secretary, and thus intimately involved in the planning of the declaration of martial law in September 1972 that Marcos used to shut down protest against his increasingly corrupt administration. During the following 12 years of autocracy, Danding proved invaluable to Marcos and Enrile, his business instincts creating a system for a continuous flow of funds to himself as well as to Marcos, who would flee the country in 1986, having stolen anywhere between U$5 billion and US$10 billion from the Philippine people.
The centerpiece was the Coconut Levy, a tax imposed by the Enrile-run Coconut Authority on coconut production which was then supposed to help with the modernization of growing and milling of coconuts and the development of downstream enterprises.
In reality, it was a scam that defrauded the growers, mostly poor, smallholders from Bicol and Mindanao. Funds actually flowed into the United Coconut Planters Bank, an entity in effect created and controlled by Danding.
In 1983, the cash flow helped Danding acquire a major stake in the giant San Miguel Corp from the divided Soriano family. The same year saw Ninoy’s assassination. Danding was later accused of being implicated but so substantive evidence emerged.
Danding wisely left the country after Marcos’ 1986 flight and some of his assets were then seized by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG). But like many of the Marcos cronies he still had massive assets overseas as well as his original family wealth and connections. Returning quietly to the country in 1989 he was soon using his money and name, and known distaste for his cousin Cory, to regain influence.
Offshore assets were especially useful as the peso declined sharply in the late 1980s.
Together with fellow mega-rich crony Lucio Tan he backed movie star Joseph Estrada after the latter won a Senate seat in 1987 and became a rallying point for anti-Cory politics. Danding returned to influence so quickly that by 1992 he was himself a presidential candidate, with Estrada running for vice-president.
Danding came third behind Ramos and Miriam Santiago-Defensor but his rehabilitation had come remarkably quickly.
Naturally, he backed Estrada in Erap’s landslide 1998 election and the same year was back at San Miguel as chairman. Although Estrada was ousted by the massive EDSA 2 protest in 2001, Danding did not appear to lose influence as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo presided over a “politics as usual” pork-barrel government.
Danding got back most of his sequestered assets and with protégé Ramon Ang went on build it as a conglomerate which now controls companies such as Petron Corporation, the largest oil refining and marketing company in the Philippines.
Danding remained chairman until his death. He was eulogized by dozens of business community members including Philippine Stock Exchange Chairman Jose Pardo who said: “Though it may be an understatement, but in Danding, one finds true grit ….and in him, is a passion to make a towering difference in every little thing he does.”