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Who is Cesar Flores Zavarce, president of Smartmatic Asia and the face behind the controversial Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines? The 36-year-old Venezuelan sat down over crepes with GMANews.TV and talked about life in the Philippines, but not necessarily all about the May 10 national elections. Local television has, in recent months, seen quite a lot of Cesar Flores. Often, in the harsh lights of TV networks' crews, he has been captured explaining and defending not only the feasibility and reliability of the machines, the Compact Flash cards, and the whole automated system in pulling off the first nationwide automated elections, but also his company from innuendos of complicity in poll fraud, mostly by local candidates. But who is he, really? Flores sat down with GMANews.TV after a long day on the congressional hot seat as the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, headed by Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., was winding down its probe into alleged poll irregularities as claimed by candidates who lost their bid for an elective post.
Flores carries himself well. He looks at you when you ask him something, and you know he's really listening. When he ponders an answer, he tilts his head, gazing into some distant object that may well be a reflection of his own thoughts. It took him a few seconds to come up with the three words that best capture his essence, saying these would undoubtedly be honesty, perseverance, and empathy. Flores looked at ease, despite the congressional hearings that have taken up most of his time and forced him to forgo his little pleasures - morning jog, watching movies, and catching live bands which he considers "very good in the Philippines." He also misses vegetables and Venezuelan cheese very much. "We have about 40 kinds of white cheese," he says with obvious relish. He also misses healthy foods. “I always have some breakfast before I leave [the house]. We Venezuelans normally have lunch at around 1 to 2, so I skip lunch because I’m not gonna eat at 11:30, I’m not hungry yet. Then all of a sudden at 2 there’s no more lunch. And you have to eat whatever’s available. The food here is actually similar, but I’m used to more vegetables. Tomatoes, aubergines, artichokes, salad," he says. Sense of empathy Having traveled to some 40 countries and personally observed 10 automated elections, Flores is no stranger to being an expatriate. This, he says, is where he gets his sense of empathy. “It’s important to know how to put yourself in other people’s shoes, with all the differences and similarities," he says. He sees the Philippines as very similar to Venezuela. “Family values, happiness, the take it easy attitude – for good and for bad, very similar cultures," he says. On the other hand, Venezuelans are not as polite. “Filipinos will always avoid confrontation. Even though they can try to kill you from the back, they’ll never confront you face to face. We always say what we have in mind," he shares, adding that he occasionally gets into trouble. “Especially if you break the Filipino protocol, raising your voice, answering back… I always try to keep my cool. I learned a lot from this country," said Flores. Based on what we've seen on TV, Flores knows how to keep his cool. As the man responsible for the first nationwide automated elections, Flores has had to endure some of the harshest criticisms, to say the least. "In other countries, people are not as interested. It's only here that people want to know how we will deliver the results," he says. “Normally, it’s not up to the president of a company to be the spokesperson, but I thought it was important that I take on that role. This is not your regular IT project. Everybody wants to know… things that nobody ever asked us in other countries," he says. When he goes out, he overhears people buzzing, "Smartmatic, Smartmatic," but he wonders why no one ever goes up to him. So he tries to find out what people think. “Every place I go I ask the people if they voted and how they feel about the results," he says, adding that he does this mostly in restaurants. As an aside, he says he appreciates the many restaurants that pepper Metro Manila. Bachelor workaholic By his own admission, Flores is a workaholic. Ask him about anything work-related and his eyes light up, and his whole body talks. The 36-year old bachelor lives alone in a condominium unit - a pad that, according to him, appears like hardly ever been lived in. Because of preparations for May 10, Flores had to give up time for other things, like jogging, or much less meet up with his fellow Venezuelans. “I have a friend here, but I haven’t had the time to meet up with him. And this is a friend from way, way back." And forget about dating. “It’s hard, too. At first I’d been on different dates but when it’s time to follow up, it’s hard to follow up. The first thing I tell anyone is you know I’m very busy, so please bear with me. Don’t take it the wrong way." Despite all that, Flores loves and Manila. “Everything is available. You have so many convenience stores. It’s good, because if you finish late you’ll always be able to find a place to buy anything. If you run out of soap, you can go and buy soap at 2 a.m. That’s very handy," he says. The Venezuelan community in the Philippines is small. About 200 nationals gather at events organized by the embassy. But these are few and far between. Still, Flores is far from being lonely as his job entails endless hours of work. His commitment is clear: He would like to be remembered as a man who helped shape the cleanest elections in Philippine history. “I hope they see me as someone who identifies with them, and who had a common goal. Someone who helped Comelec, and the people who really wanted automation. Someone who contributed to make sure that every vote was counted the right way and that no votes were stolen." The goal had always been to make it happen. "This is a victory of a lot of people," he says. Flores believes that the elections were a success. "On May 10, 17,000 officials were elected. There are only a handful complaining. I believe that is an indicator of success. Finally people can believe in Comelec again," he said. He praised the PCOS machine's Twitter account. "He's very clever. It's good that people can identify with the system. I appreciate it." Lost in translation From out of the blue in the middle of the interview with Flores, one of the public relations ladies who had set up the meeting asked him if he had a nanny. Confused, Flores said he had a cleaning lady who would come in from time to time. "I could be your cleaning lady," she said. Without missing a beat, Flores went on with the interview. Here was a man who said from the beginning: This is what will happen, and saw it through. He admits he has no time for relationships, saying that after a day's work, he is just too tired. "I have zero patience. I've developed work-related patience, but relationships suffer," he says. He is fulfilled in other ways. "The best thing about this job is having made an impact through my direct actions," he says with the conviction of a man who set out to achieve something and succeeded. Three weeks ago he went on a day trip to Jakarta, Indonesia where a handful of people recognized him. "As soon as I got to the airport around 3 or 4 people asked, ‘So you got your passport back?’" he laughs, adding that that was unforgettable. He smiles. He was earlier misquoted in the media about his passport. "Someone thought I said 'screw my passport to the wall,' but what I said was 'escrow,'" he said with a chuckle. He did not pursue it anymore because it was, for him, hilarious. “I would never say that. The lost in translation factor played a role there I think," he said. —TJD/VS/HS, GMANews.TV