(Second in a series)

Last Wednesday, the Philippine Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the stock distribution option (SDO) that was implemented beginning in 1989 by Hacienda Luisita, the sugar estate north of Manila that is owned by President Benigno S. Aquino III and his family. At the heart of the case is the legality and validity of the SDO, which the Cojuangco-Aquino clan implemented in Hacienda Luisita in lieu of actual land distribution to farmers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) argues that the SDO – a scheme allowed in the CARP in which farmers are given shares of stocks instead of actual land – is valid, while critics, as well as the Department of Agrarian Reform, said it failed to address the joblessness and poverty obtaining in the hacienda. This failure of the SDO, these critics contend, led to the workers’ strike in 2004 and subsequently the massacre that same year where at least seven people died when police and soldiers opened fire at the picket line. (Click here for background materials on the Hacienda Luisita dispute.)

This failure also forced the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) in 2005 to revoke the SDO. HLI challenged the order before the Supreme Court, which issued a restraining order against the DAR and the PARC. (To learn what transpired at Wednesday’s hearing, click here.)

HLI, perhaps sensing that its chances of winning in the Supreme Court was nil, signed on Aug. 6 a “compromise agreement” with supposed representatives of the farm workers. This agreement is anchored on the SDO and allows the Cojuangco-Aquinos to retain control of the nearly 6,000-hectare hacienda.

To sweeten the deal, HLI promised the farmers 150 million pesos as part of the agreement and, for good measure, gave away 20 million pesos of that to the farmers who signed the deal, with the promise that the rest would be given to them if ever the Supreme Court upholds the new agreement.

It was a brazen attempt to bribe the farmers and to exploit the poverty of many of the families, some of whom lined up just to receive a few hundred pesos that was not even enough for a day’s meal.

The new agreement was also criticized by many sectors, calling it a ploy to preempt the Supreme Court in the hope that the judges would think that the case before it has been rendered moot by the new agreement.

This case is significant because it goes to the heart of agrarian reform and social justice in the Philippines, a country that is wracked by extreme poverty, especially in the countryside, and is battling a Maoist revolution – the longest-running in Asia, perhaps the world — bred by widespread agrarian unrest.

To many Filipinos, Hacienda Luisita typifies the resistance by landlords such as the Cojuangco-Aquinos to break the feudal environment in the countryside. In their effort to keep their property in spite of the agrarian reform program (keep in mind that CARP is not confiscatory – there is just compensation to the landlords), these landlords have resorted to all means possible, many of them unethical and probably even illegal.

And of all the landlords in the Philippines, the Cojuangco-Aquinos, because of their stature in Philippine politics and society, have been the worst in frustrating the attempts to bring about this social justice, the heroism of the president’s parents, Cory and Ninoy, notwithstanding.  (Click here for a timeline of the events in Hacienda Luisita.) The case of the SDO and, more recently, the new compromise agreement merely underscore this.

A question many people have on this issue is, if the situation in Hacienda Luisita has become more miserable (as DAR said in its terminal report that justified the revocation of the SDO) and if indeed the workers have become disillusioned with the SDO, why did most of them sign the new agreement that would even, after a close reading, worsen their plight?

There are several things to keep in mind.

The Cojuangco-Aquinos control the politics of Tarlac, their home province where the hacienda is located. Practically nothing happens in that province without the imprimatur of this clan.

When it launched two referendums in 1989 for the SDO, which were subsequently approved overwhelmingly by the farmers, the clan sent out what is called the “Yellow Army” to harass and intimidate people into agreeing with the SDO.

Historian Lisandro Claudio, whose doctoral research is about Hacienda Luisita, writes in his blog on the “politics of fear” in the hacienda:

The fear in Luisita is more deep-seated; it has its roots in a historical trauma. The last time a Cojuangco became president, the family was able to eliminate calls for land distribution through implementing a broken and illegal Stock Distribution Option (SDO). Luisita management (and even Cory) claimed this was a valid move because the farmers voted for it in a referendum. However, according to Danny Carranza, a community organizer in the hacienda during the late 80s, farmers voted for the SDO under duress. Management told them that their jobs would be at risk if they voted against it.

The Cojuangco-Aquinos essentially did the same thing with the new compromise agreement, using in this instance the village captains or chieftains who belong to the Liberal Party, Aquino’s political party that thoroughly dominates Hacienda Luisita and its environs.

Claudio writes:

This fear is not unwarranted. As I mentioned in my previous piece “Prinsipyo o Caldero: Why Noynoy won in Luisita,” the Liberal Party has the allegiance of the hacienda’s barangay captains. Since formal work stopped in 2005, farmer-residents have been dependent on the captains to allot them plots of land to independently farm. Residents are afraid to do anything that might antagonize their respective captains.

In other words, if a farmer didn’t sign the agreement, whatever chance he has of finding work in the hacienda in the future is gone.

HLI likewise used former officials of the farmers’ group Ambala and the workers’ union Ulwu to sign the agreement. These officials had been kicked out earlier from their groups for having collaborated with HLI. They have been dismissed as “impostors” who have allegedly received money and property from HLI in exchange for their collaboration with the management. (Read In Crafting ‘Sham’ Deal, Cojuangco-Aquinos Turned to Leaders Who Had Earlier Betrayed Farm Workers)

Apart from the political control by the Cojuangco-Aquinos of Tarlac and the towns that comprise the hacienda, there’s the militarization that has never stopped since the labor unrest in 2004. In fact, according to some reports, harassment and intimidation by soldiers intensified in the hacienda in the run-up to the new agreement.

As reported by the online news site Bulatlat.com, which covered the Luisita dispute from Day One:

Only recently, before the inauguration of Aquino on June 31, soldiers burned down the hut of one Ambala leader. Another Luisita resident said the soldiers had also trailed the eldest daughter of a former Ambala official to her new job at a mall, threatening to abduct her if he did not get her father’s “head on a platter.” The daughter resigned from her new job to avoid going out and being tailed by soldiers.

“Hacienda Luisita has been turned into a military garrison,” said Federico Laza, a member of Ambala whose son Jesus was one of the casualties of the massacare in 2004. (Ambala is an organization of Hacienda Luisita farmers.)

Fear, indeed, is something that the farm workers of Hacienda Luisita have been facing since the strike and massacre in 2004. But the violence and intimidation in Hacienda Luisita did not end with the massacre. In fact, more people died in the hacienda after the massacre. The victims were members of the farm workers’ groups that oppose the SDO, their leaders and supporters, including a city councilor, a Protestant priest, and possibly even the highest-ranking bishop (Obispo maximo) of the Philippine Independent Church, a Protestant denomination known for its progressive politics.

It is in this context and atmosphere that the Cojuangco-Aquinos wangled the new compromise agreement. Their claim, therefore, that the deal was reached with the free will of the farmers of Hacienda Luisita is a lie no different from the clan’s previous deceptions that enabled them to retain control of the land that was never theirs to begin with.

Next: A history of deception in Hacienda Luisita

Read the first part of this series: Aquino is being shrewd about Hacienda Luisita