Aquino lets go key aide in bid for `peace'. Arroyo departure appeases conservatives, but leftists call it weakness
Expressing regret, embattled Philippine President Corazon Aquino finally released her controversial executive secretary from government service. Joker Arroyo, a former human-rights lawyer openly critical of the military, had been Mrs. Aquino's closest adviser. Aquino's acceptance of his resignation ended a week of speculation in rumor-prone Manila over the outcome of a Cabinet reorganization triggered by the Aug. 28 attempted coup.
Speaking on national television Thursday, Aquino said she hoped Mr. Arroyo's departure would bring ``peace and quiet'' in government.
Aquino has been under strong pressure from conservative businessman, clergy, the military, and congressmen - including members of her own family - to dismiss her closest adviser. But she made it clear she is sticking to the policies that Arroyo, a professed liberal democrat, helped her shape.
``I hope no one interprets his departure to mean that these ideals which fired our struggle for democracy have likewise departed as the ideals of the new nation and government we established,'' Aquino said, ``for I shall continue to hold fast to these ideals.''
Arroyo is credited with such moves as releasing political prisoners early in Aquino's presidency, establishing a human rights committee to investigate military atrocities against civilians during martial law, and cease-fire talks with communist rebels.
While these met with praise from progressive groups, they earned for Arroyo the label of ``leftist,'' and brought about loud calls from the military for his removal.
To the Philippine left, Arroyo's release is an unmistakable sign the Aquino government has veered sharply toward conservatism.
However, to the right - which has been increasingly upset by Arroyo's alleged inefficiency as an administrator - his perceived lack of political sophistication, and his combative stance on the military's handling of the Aug. 28 attempted coup, his resignation brings a sigh of relief.
Arroyo's supporters, however, note his crucial role in keeping at bay all perceived ``predators'' on the presidency such as the military, presidential relatives, and businessmen with alleged ``vested interests.'' A Cabinent official close to Arroyo points out that every coup attempt in the past 18 months found Arroyo at the palace personaly directing the defense of the presidency. ``Without Arroyo there,'' he said, ``the President may not have lasted this long.''
Arroyo also is said to have diverted criticism of the president by taking the flak for unpopular palace decisions, such as Aquino's agrarian reform program (which peasant organizations rejected as inadequate) and the recent oil-price increase.
In announcing his resignation, Aquino called Arroyo ``a man of unswerving fidelity, proven courage, patriotism, and true nationalism.'' She recounted his record as a human-rights lawyer, including his defense of her late husband, Benigno, before the military court during martial law. In an obvious dig at journalists who have been critical of Arroyo, she pointed out that the press ``now enjoys the broad freedom he helped restore.''
Replacing Arroyo is his deputy, Catalino Macaraig, who was deputy justice secretary under ousted President Ferdinand Marcos. Mr. Macaraig is described by some observers as a ``paper pusher,'' and is not expected to cope effectively with the job's political demands.
Aquino also accepted the resignation of Teodoro Locsin Jr., a controversial Harvard-trained lawyer who served as her legal counsel and speech writer.
Thursday's announcements followed Aquino's acceptance Wednesday of the resignation of vice-president Salvador Laurel as foreign secretary, and Jaime Ongpin as finance secretary. Press secretary Teodoro Benigno said he expects no more immediate changes.