The Ver-Marcos connection
''I think Ver's gone for good,'' said a senior Philippine official Thursday. ''I doubt very much that he'll be back. President Marcos is just trying to let him down gently.''
The official was taking no chances. He not only spoke off the record, but in a low voice with his hand pressed against his mouth. Asked if he was perhaps worried about listening devices, he simply chuckled.
The brief conversation typifies the immediate reaction to the events of Wednesday. On that day, Gen. Fabian Ver, armed forces chief of staff and one of President Ferdinand Marcos's closest aides, took a leave of absence pending legal action against him. He was named by a majority of an investigative panel as one of those who conspired to kill opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. last year.
Public reaction to General Ver's leave is one of satisfaction and relief. Organizations are already gearing up to urge that the general's temporary leave becomes permanent. But no one is sure that he has really left the scene.
Even without his position as chief of staff, the general can wield considerable power and influence. To start with, there is no confirmation yet that he has relinquished the other positions he held along with his job as chief of staff. The most important of these is the position of director-general of the National Intelligence and Security Authority (NISA), the country's biggest intelligence agency.
In an interview Thursday, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile said he thought that Ver might have retained this position. ''Relief as chief of staff does not automatically carry with it relief as director-general of NISA,'' the minister said.
Mr. Enrile also expressed the opinion that Ver would probably retain his almost unequalled access to the President. The President and Ver are extremely close, Enrile noted. They are not only blood relatives but grew up together.
''Ver will probably maintain his relationship with the President on a personal basis,'' Enrile said. Ver's access to Marcos is made easier by the fact that he lives in the grounds of Malacanang, the presidential palace. Although Ver has an official residence as chief of staff at the armed forces general headquarters on the other side of Manila, Enrile says that the general still lives in the quarters he occupied as commander of the Presidential Security Command. Thus even if he were eventually confined to quarters, like the officers named earlier for their alleged involvement in the conspiracy to kill Aquino, it would be theoretically possible for him to retain considerable access to Marcos.
Enrile, Ver's titular superior, was at the meeting in Malacanang on Wednesday where the decision was taken to relieve Ver. Asked if the decision was a difficult one for Marcos, Enrile replied ''I don't think so. I did not see any sign of hesitation on the part of the President.''
Neither did Marcos show any sign of emotion, Enrile said. ''I suppose he must have felt unhappiness or sadness. But he gave no sign of being perturbed.''
Ver might be on leave for some time, stated the defense minister. Legal proceedings would probably take a minimum of six months to a year. If the case goes to the Supreme Court, it would be much longer. The President would probably not retire Ver while the case is pending, Enrile said. He did, however, note that Ver had ''passed retirement age long ago.''
There has been considerable speculation that the removal of the chief of staff might spark a coup by Ver loyalists. Enrile dismissed this possibility.
The military organization, Enrile said, on the whole probably felt ''a certain degree of relief.'' Speculation that the Armed Force of the Philippines (AFP) as a whole had been involved in the assassination had now shifted to a small group of men.
The AFP had been demoralized by such insinuations. These were groundless, Enrile stressed. The conspiracy was the work of ''just a group whose members wear the (military) uniform.'' Enrile qualified this statement somewhat by adding that he was basing this assertion on the reports of the Fact-Finding Board.
Those close to Ver say that he never does anything without the knowledge of the President. This, they feel, demonstrates that Ver is innocent of the charge that he plotted to kill Aquino. Opponents of the President, such as Aquino's widow, Corazon, make the same claim to bolster their assertion that the President himself was responsible for the murder.
Enrile - a Marcos loyalist but no great admirer of Ver - took a middle path in this debate. He noted the long and close relationship between Ver and Marcos. But, he added, ''I do not believe that General Ver is a robot, that he must always get orders or consult the President in the performance of his duties or the execution of certain personal actions.''
In recent months, Ver has been taking a more independent stance vis-a-vis the government. This has usually been attributed to two main reasons.
He was apparently interested in running for the presidency in 1987 if Marcos does not do so. And over the last eighteen months - until Wednesday that is - Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel Ramos had been pushed increasingly to the sidelines, while Ver consolidated his hold on the armed forces. Enrile admitted that he and General Ramos had asked to resign last July - a fact strenuously denied by the government at the time.
Enrile seems to be retaining a fairly independent stance, however. He appeared more favorably inclined to the Fact-Finding Board than the President. For example, while Marcos noted the controversy surrounding the two reports, Enrile noted that on at least one issue - which report is the official document of the board - there is no argument. Under any collegial system, Enrile said, the majority report is decisive. He said the board has ''done their best, their utmost, to receive evidence, assess it, and draw conclusions from it.''
Thursday also saw the first public moves to turn Ver's temporary leave into permanent retirement. A full-page advertisement in several leading Manila daily newspapers called for the ''immediate and permanent relief'' of all military men accused of conspiracy to murder by the Fact-Finding Board. The statement was signed by 34 influential business, legal, and civic groups. These included the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Bishops'-Businessmen's Conference, the Trade Union Conference of the Philippines, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and the Philippine Jaycees.
In a speech to a rotary group in Manila Thursday, United States Ambassador Stephen Bosworth refrained from commenting directly on the board's findings. He did, however, emphasize the US belief that ''a vigorous, functioning democracy is not only feasible but must and indeed will be achieved.''
This, he stressed, was the best way of both ensuring economic growth and fending off the challenge of a communist insurgency.
There have been other important developments in the Philippines this week. On Wednesday Aquilino Pimentel, one of the opposition leaders most likely to run in the 1987 presidential elections, was stripped of his National Assembly seat.
In the country's third largest city, Davao, 300 people were arrested in antigovernment demonstrations. And Thursday the government announced that the inflation rate was now 66 percent.
These events have been recorded, but have passed almost unremarked. Ver is the main topic of discussion.