How Rasputins and cordon sanitaires destroy us
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2005-01-17
Nothing best illustrates the culture of corruption in our country than the tendency of Rasputins and cordon sanitaires to form around positions of power. The higher the position of power is, the more formidable the Rasputins and the cordon sanitaires that tend to control it.

The term Rasputin – as adopted now to refer to non-appointed users of political power – was derived from the experience of the last Romanov Tsar with the Russian monk Grigori Rasputin. Grigori Rasputin, who was said to have relieved the hemophilia bleeding episodes of the Tsar’s lone male heir, managed to have such an influence on the Russian Tsarina Alexandra that it became one of the most effective anti-Tsar propaganda issues that eventually brought down the Romanov dynasty.

Nowadays, those who manage to wield power not given them by election or appointment are called Rasputins. In the Philippine context, Rasputins are usually spouses of the power center, a very close relative or crony. The familial bond has a lot to do with the realities of our semi-feudal local political setups. In the local semi-feudal setup, people have gotten used to spouses or close relatives exercising the power of a governor or mayor.

The practice becomes controversial when it carries over to the national scene. Mainly because on the national scene, there are more sophisticated players like the big business community, vigilant civil society groups, national and international media who recognize the impropriety and are quick to react to any irregularity and abuse of power. The political opposition will always ride on the Rasputin issue but when they too ascend to power – it is likely they will also commit the same mistake.

Past presidents have had their fair share of Rasputin issues. During the Marcos regime, former First Lady Imelda Marcos became the most controversial Rasputin. Though she was eventually given her positions in government – Minister of Human Settlements and also Governor of Metro Manila – Imelda Marcos wielded more power than what her official positions allowed. She became so powerful during the Marcos regime that many would say it proved more beneficial to be close to Madame Marcos rather than to President Marcos himself.

Unlike the non-appointed Rasputin, cordon sanitaires are usually people who have been appointed to be part of the staff of a power center. Both the Rasputin and the cordon sanitaire attempt to monopolize the power they have access to – for what are usually selfish interests that hardly benefit the constituency. Such political culture is so pervasive that even before someone acquires real power, Rasputins and a cordon sanitaire already worm their way around him.

If one were to chart the start of the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, it jibes with the year 1976 which was also the year when Marcos was rumored to already suffer from a terminal disease. The rumor then centered on Lupus as the disease but I have it on good authority from one of Marcos’s doctors that he never had Lupus – just end stage renal failure. And like others who suffer from terminal diseases, Marcos entered the stage where his activities and capability to reach out to many sectors became limited. Thus, it was also at this time when the cordon sanitaire of Imelda Marcos and Fabian Ver took complete custody of the strongman. Unable to get information first hand, Marcos started making bad decisions that were founded on flawed assessments fed to him.

The Rasputin and cordon sanitaire culture is a natural offshoot of our political system which is dominated by an oligarchy. These powerful families wield political and economic power. Many areas of the country are still under the sphere of influence of warlords who maintain private armies and control the major economic activities in their respective territories.

It comes as no surprise that dynasties continue to flourish under our political system. We have the Marcoses of Ilocos Norte, the Garcias and Duranos of Cebu, Espinosas of Masbate and so forth. Now, we may be seeing the emergence of the Macapagal dynasty in Pampanga with the political star of a presidential son having risen in the Macapagal province. Our 1987 constitution has an anti-dynasty provision that never got an enabling act because the congress that is supposed to create that law is dominated by the very dynasties that will be affected by it.

In 1986, when we thought that we had ushered in a new political era, we were greatly disappointed to witness many of the new faces and names that EDSA brought into the political stage transform themselves into neo-oligarchs. As it turned out, their objective was not to introduce reform but to replace those who once lorded over us.

Like the barons and earls of old in Europe, these power centers attracted barnacles around them – the cordon sanitaire. It was a logical consequence of the state of political power dispersion. Political powers being confined to a very exclusive club, those who have it tend to attract these parasites around them like remoras who feed on the scraps of sharks. To be a Rasputin is to be a shadow power center. To be part of a cordon sanitaire is to accumulate a share of power. It is also one of the reasons why our democracy remains an illusion. People empowerment is anathema to the Rasputin and the cordon sanitaire. People empowerment is a catch phrase the traditional politicians here use to appeal for votes from those they exploit.

With the masses now aware that they have the numbers to dictate who rules, it is not surprising that the exclusive club wants to remove that power of the vote from the masses and convert the present system to one where they can settle power succession issues among themselves. This is what the clamor for a shift to a parliamentary system is all about.

With a Rasputin and cordon sanitaire who operate not for the clientele – the people – but for their personal interests, the power center is bound to fail. The concept of public service has been transformed to self-service. Many times we have heard it said that a particular power center was a good man and had all the good intentions but those around him derailed his plan and eventually destroyed his program. They said that of Marcos and we will continue to hear that said time and time again.

Of course we cannot accept that excuse either. Any power center is responsible for the people he gathers around him, whether these are relatives or even a presidential spouse. Election to high office is not subject to the conjugal provisions of the matrimonial contract and that power is certainly not hereditary. Delegated power and authority cannot be delegated and the use of such power outside of the appointed or elected person is usurpation of power and authority. Depending on the gravity of the usurpation and misuse of power and authority, some cases constitute high treason.

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