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Chavit Singson: Ilocos 'folk hero' a blast from the past

May 4, 2007 2:49pm
There's something about Ilocos Sur Governor and Team Unity senatorial bet Luis 'Chavit' Singson that reminds one of times past — and it's not because he already qualifies for a senior citizen discount (he will turn 66 in June).

While Chavit has the almost requisite campaign website in these cyber times, in many ways he seems very much the retro politician. He has been spotted, for example, lugging around a comedy trio and dancing girls as part of his campaign.

Media crews have also recorded him participating in a "campaign raffle" in which winners received cash, something that has attracted the attention of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Just last week, Chavit was again caught on tape promising "50,000" to local officials in Nueva Ecija who could help him become one of the top five "senatoriables." Noticing that there were members of the media present, however, he quickly said that he was going to give "50,000 amulets," not P50,000.

Then there was the time he flew by helicopter from Ilocos Sur to Manila just to help talk to habitual hostage-taker Armando 'Jun' Ducat, who was keeping some 26 children captive inside a bus. In fact, Chavit even clambered on the bus, and then gave the children P500 each. When Ducat finally surrendered, the governor was seen holding Ducat's two hand grenades.

The act was classic Chavit. It was also so politics circa 1970s.

Capers like these have made Chavit a media favorite in the campaign trail, even though he has yet to break into the so-called "Magic 12" among the senatoriables. But although his strategy for winning a Senate seat seems to be suffering from a time warp (and perhaps from warped advice), anyone who dismisses Chavit Singson too easily even this late in the game may live to regret it.

Just ask deposed President Joseph Estrada, Chavit's erstwhile gambling buddy who has spent the last six years in detention after the Ilocos Sur governor called him "the lord of all jueteng lords" and triggered a series of events that culminated in Edsa Dos and Estrada's ouster.

Indeed, while Chavit burst into national consciousness only in 2000, the man is nothing less than a political veteran. His politics reeks of the '70s because he first gained prominence in that era, which was when the use of guns, goons, and gold reached its peak. And while at first glance he seems out of sync with the times, his presence in the senatorial campaign is actually a reminder that feudal politics is still alive and well.

THE LORD OF ILOCOS SUR


Chavit became governor of Ilocos Sur in 1971, and has since wielded power there by combining charisma, patronage, and warlordism. The latter two, of course, are part of the country's so-called "old politics." So are political dynasties, of which there are several choice examples in Chavit's province. He heads one, and is related to another clan, Crisologo, which also has considerable political clout. The Crisologos, in fact, used to hold sway over Ilocos Sur — until Chavit toppled them from their political throne.

For sure, many people have a hard time swallowing portrayals of Chavit Singson as one of the "heroes" of Edsa Dos. But in Ilocos Sur, residents do look at him as a folk hero, the one who "saved" them from the abusive and violent Crisologos. Floro Singson Crisologo was congressman from 1946 until his assassination in 1970. Crisologo's wife, Carmeling was provincial governor for a long time.

Together with their son Vincent or 'Bingbong' and their private army of saka-saka (barefoot goons), they implemented the infamous "tobacco blockade" in the 1960s that prevented tobacco farmers from transporting or selling their produce outside the province. Instead, the farmers were forced to sell their tobacco to Fortune Tobacco Company, then owned by the Crisologos.

Floro Crisologo was Chavit's uncle. "My family supported my uncle... who was then congressman, his wife was governor and his brother was mayor," Chavit said in a 2001 interview fueled by red wine. "It was a family affair." In turn, Crisologo appointed Chavit, then just 21, Vigan chief of police.

Chavit later morphed into the biggest shipper of tobacco in the province. He resisted the Crisologo's tobacco blockade. To punish the young businessman, Crisologo ordered Chavit, who also owned Vigan Electric Company, to transfer the power firm's office to the provincial capitol and remit its income to the provincial treasurer.

Chavit went to Manila and brought the case before the Supreme Court, consequently declaring an open war against the Crisologos. "I did not want to fight at first, but they took my livelihood. So I had to fight back," Chavit recounted.

He did that through the courts, as well as with money and guns, which he gave to people who were by then fed up with the Crisologos.

"Because I fought a warlord, people looked at me as a warlord. So I became a warlord," he said. "Ilocos Sur was the most notorious province in the world during that time. There were political killings everyday. People end up dead for no apparent reason."

But that stopped when he took over, he said. "When I became governor in 1971, I arrested my followers who wanted to take revenge," Chavit said. "There should be a stop to all the killings."

"I am not really a tough guy," he added. "I am just hardworking. In politics, you don't have to say anything. You just have to keep your word. I always keep my word unlike some people, unlike Erap."

COUNTLESS CLOSE SHAVES

Erap, of course, is ex-President Estrada, who Chavit says tried to get him killed, which is why he turned against the former action film star. Chavit, however, seems to have more lives than a street cat (the reason why, he has said, people in Nueva Ecija were asking him "for amulets"). Just recently, a helicopter he was riding while on the campaign trail crashed, leaving him with several nasty bruises to display to the ever-curious media.


Before the campaign started, he even had an operation to rid him of an aneurysm in the stomach. He has had a heart attack, and way before he burned bridges with Estrada, Chavit has been dodging bullets from his many enemies. At one point, assassins lobbied grenades at him, killing 11 people. The bloodstained shirt he wore that day is encased in glass and displayed on the wall of his mansion in Ilocos.

"Luckily, I was dancing with a fat woman and she took all the shrapnel," he recalled.

A propeller of a private plane he was in fell while in mid-air, a landing gear did not come out, an engine failed on another occasion. He fell asleep while driving a car and there were other near-death experiences that he relishes telling friends.


According to Chavit, he is a religious person, even though he doesn't believe in attending masses or going to church on Sundays. "I have a direct line to God," he said.

He owes a lot to God, said Chavit. That's why he has been giving money to the church. "I have built a lot of chapels and churches, especially in interior towns and villages. I don't want to brag about it. It's for God, not for people to admire and look at," he said.

When he had a heart attack, his wife said he was dead "for more than a minute." She asked him what he saw while he was gone. "White, like clouds," he answered. "No, those were not clouds," his wife said. "Those were smoke. You were in hell."

Even in his youth, Chavit was very much acquainted with death — he was an embalmer who dissected rotten cadavers in his family's funeral parlor.

He was barely out of his teens then and a college dropout. There was no licensed embalmer to sign death certificates, he recounted, so "I had to study and get a license from the health department. They gave me rotten cadavers that were already eaten by rats to study, but I had to endure for the sake of our business."

TEENAGE MILLIONAIRE

He studied architecture in college for two years before politics hijacked his studies. When his family had to leave Vigan to escape the wrath of their political enemies, Chavit stayed and took care of their businesses: a construction company, movie houses, a tobacco plantation, and the funeral parlor. "I was just a teenager but I was already a millionaire," he said.


"The family had a vast landholding and we had a lot of businesses. I was giving away houses to politicians, including (then President Ferdinand) Marcos." To protect the family's interests, Chavit had to enter politics.

He became councilor of Vigan in 1967. Two years later, he fought and lost against his uncle Floro Crisologo as congressman of Ilocos Sur. In 1970, Crisologo was shot in the head at the entrance of the St. Paul's Cathedral after attending an afternoon mass. The murder remains unsolved, and no case was filed.

Yet tongues wagged that the crime could be traced to Chavit, although no one ever came forward with any evidence. Chavit was elected governor the following year, beating his uncle's widow. Since then, Chavit has been either congressman or governor of Ilocos Sur.

Now that he is aiming for the Senate, Chavit has anointed his vice governor, Deogracias Victor Savellano, as his successor at Ilocos Sur's capitol. When Chavit took a breather from politics in 2001, he also endorsed Savellano's bid to take his place as governor.

Other political clans control town-level politics and have their own political machinery in Ilocos Sur. But they seek the support of the provincial elite, and particularly that of their governor, Chavit Singson, to strengthen their political resources. Political alliance with the Singsons becomes more critical as one aspires to be elected for congressional and provincial-level positions.

The Singsons themselves have been quite busy in both provincial and municipal politics. When Chavit became governor, his brother, Evaristo or 'Titong,' was elected mayor of Vigan, the province's capital, while his cousin and now political opponent, Eric Singson, won the mayoralty position in Candon town. Titong became governor in 1987 when Chavit assumed the congressional seat for the first district of Ilocos Sur.

Another brother, Jeremias or 'Jerry,' became a municipal councilor and eventually provincial board member. Titong's daughter, Eva Marie Singson-Medina, was elected provincial board member in 1992 and then sat as Vigan mayor from 1995 to 2004.

Chavit's son Randolf won a council seat in Vigan in 1995 and 1998. In 2001, Jerry ran for vice governor while Chavit's wife Evelyn and son Ronald ran for seats in the provincial board. Chavit's sister, Germelina Singson-Goulart, ran for Vigan city councilor.

These days, Jerry Singson is a provincial board member, along with Chavit's son Ronald and son-in-law Jonathan Justo Orros III. Chavit's cousins hold elective positions in the province, too: Eric Singson is the representative of the 2nd district of Ilocos Sur in Congress, while his son Allen is Candon mayor and brother Alfonso a Candon councilor.

Edgardo Zaragoza, husband of Chavit's cousin Charito, is Narvacan mayor, while his son Zuriel is a provincial board member. Ferdinand Medina, husband of Chavit's niece Eva Marie, is mayor of Vigan.

Ironically, Chavit was a co-author of the anti-political dynasty bill when he was congressman. His legislative performance in the Eighth Congress includes 19 national bills, 61 local bills, and two local resolutions. But he is most proud of being the author of Republic Act 7171, or the Act to Promote the Development of the Farmers in the Virginia Tobacco-Producing Provinces.

CLOSE CALLS OF ANOTHER KIND

A few months after Edsa Dos, Malacañang returned to Ilocos Sur's coffers some P107 million, the province's share of the excise tax from Virginia tobacco. This was the same money that Chavit claimed was taken by Estrada and which was one of the reasons Chavit bolted from his friendship with the then president. "Binawi lang natin ito (We just took it back)," he said.

But Chavit's alliance with the Palace, as well as renewed popularity at the local level, have sidestepped efforts to hold him and the rest of provincial government accountable to the alleged misuse of tobacco excise taxes, among other things.


In January 2001, a few days after People Power II, the Save Ilocos Sur Alliance (SISA) was formed. SISA was initially composed of 40 individuals from the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP)-Ilocos Sur chapter, some Catholic church-based groups, former members of the Social Action Center (SAC), a church-based organization, the leftist Alab Katipunan, and the local media.

Long before Chavit made his expose of Estrada's supposed involvement in jueteng payola and tobacco payoffs, organized sectors of local society had already raised concern over the long-drawn problems of graft and corruption in local government, jueteng, and political dynasty in Ilocos Sur.

Since 1994, the Roman Catholic Church under Archbishop Orlando Quevedo and some church lay individuals have been issuing statements against the untrammeled jueteng operations and the persistence of political dynasties in the province.

At the height of the Erap Resign protest in Ilocos Sur, Alab Katipunan towed a "resign all" line: a call for both Estrada and Chavit to resign, a position distinct from the other anti-Estrada groups in Ilocos Sur. The impeachment process in Manila that led to People Power II dulled these efforts.

SISA has been demanding an inquiry into Chavit's Commission on Audit (COA) records since August 26, 2000, less than two weeks before Chavit's expose on Estrada. The COA report stated that the provincial government under Chavit paid the contractor NS International for civil works on the Tomato Paste Processing Plant in excess of COA's evaluated cost.

The excess was estimated to be more than P41 million. The plant was registered as a private corporation, which makes one wonder why it was then funded by the provincial government.

SISA members also want the prosecution of Chavit and those who participated in the alleged re-channeling of the tobacco excise tax funds out of the province. Several days after the 2001 local political campaigns started, however, the Ombudsman granted Chavit immunity, by virtue of Presidential Decree 749, from all the cases that would be filed against Estrada.

Then Ombudsman Aniano Desierto said: "The office of the Ombudsman conceded that without Singson, the State would find it difficult to prove in court many of the crimes ascribed to Estrada."

The immunity does not only constrict the space for the democratic opposition's legal battle but also limits the conditions for political change in the province. Chavit's strong alliance with the new political leadership reinforces his position as Ilocos Sur's political kingpin.

Worse, SISA doesn't have the institutional support of the Catholic Church leadership under Archbishop Edmundo Abaya, whose brother, Arnulfo, was the head of the federation of tobacco-based cooperatives drawn in the COA report. Unlike the time of Archbishop Quevedo, the Catholic Church in the province has remained silent on the issue.

It's not clear why Chavit has decided to run for national office after decades of being a local political kingpin. Officially, he has said that he wants to "fight for decentralization of local government units from imperial Metro Manila." He has also said in jest it was to needle Estrada's son Jose (better known as Jinggoy) in the Senate.


But even if he has a way of telling folksy tales and has kept the media entertained in the present campaign, there is no doubt Chavit has a serious motive for making a try for the Upper House. Chavit always knows when to get dead serious. And whether he lands a seat or not, he is likely to make sure he comes out a winner in some way. - Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism