Philippine Strongman Feeling Pressure : New Mayor, Old-Style 'Don' Wrestle for Grass-Roots Power

Times Staff Writer

Armando Gustilo has been the political boss here in northern Negros for more than 20 years. This city is, as Filipinos say, "his place."

Gustilo is an example of the tough paternal "don."

"From the time of my father to my time, we have been winning elections," he said the other day. "People get to know you, they affiliate with you. It grows, bit by bit."

But now, at his compound up a dusty road by the Cadiz River, "Armin" Gustilo, 64, is a tiger at bay.

In Manila, the government of the woman he refers to with heavy sarcasm as "Madame Aquino" has frozen his bank accounts and barred him from leaving the country. And here in Cadiz, acting Mayor Rowena Guanzon, 28, whom Gustilo calls "that young woman," is snapping at his political heels.

'Dictator of Cadiz'

Guanzon says Gustilo "has been the dictator of Cadiz since he was a congressman." (That was in the 1960s and early 1970s).

"He has kept and is keeping a private army," she charged, and added with a smile, "and he's our best tourist attraction."

The strongman and the mayor are now waging a radio war. Gustilo broadcasts from a station near his home, blasting the young mayor for her liberal politics. Guanzon fires back twice a week from a station in Bacolod, 50 miles to the south, "really lambasting him," she says.

Their conflict is a case study in regional politics in the Philippines since the ouster of Ferdinand E. Marcos delivered the presidency to Corazon Aquino in February.

The Gustilos and the Guanzons--his a landed family, hers professionals--have been friends and opponents for generations. The children went to school together; one of the mayor's sisters is named after Gustilo's father.

Collapse of Sugar Prices

The land they share is the northern part of the island of Negros, the sugar capital of the Philippines. The best of the sugar land lies in the north, in the new province of Negros del Norte, but the entire island has been brought to its knees by the collapse of sugar prices in the late 1970s.

Gustilo's father was an occupation governor in Bacolod during World War II. The son was a guerrilla, fighting in the hills against the Japanese.

Armin Gustilo entered politics in 1955 as a member of the provincial board, and was elected to Congress in 1963, then reelected in 1965 and 1969.

"I didn't like martial law (which Marcos imposed in 1972)," he said. "After martial law, I hibernated."

Gustilo talked with a reporter at his riverside redoubt, a complex surrounded by high concrete walls and a steel gate and watchtower. A sign that says "Governor's Residence. No Trespassing," refers to his short term as Marcos' appointed governor of Negros del Norte, from January, when the province was established, to March, when he was replaced by an Aquino appointee.

His home, where his gubernatorial offices were situated, proclaims that it belongs to a powerful man. There is a broad pavilion beside the river where his large family gathers for meals. Nearby are a heliport and a place for his speedboats.

Yale Degree on Wall

On a wall of his office is his law degree from Yale. A 1952 Yale report card in constitutional law lists three "Goods" and two "Excellents."

Two other Marcos allies were powerful figures in Negros: Roberto Benedicto and Eduardo Cojuangco, who owned vast tracts of sugar lands. Of the three, Gustilo was the politician.

Early in his career he developed a reputation as a hard man and political master. Describing Gustilo's influence, a Negros newsman said: "He has this," and he clenched a fist.

Gustilo, a short, slight man, likes guns, and he acquired an early nickname: Audie Murphy. Once, he acknowledges ruefully, he shot himself in the leg practicing a fast draw.

His political machine, developed by his father, runs on patronage and loyalty.

"We (the Gustilos) have established one thing: service to the people . . . peace and order," he said.

'Idealism Is Not Enough'

Money is important. "When they get sick, married or die, they expect a little help," Gustilo said. "Without some financial backing, you should not enter politics. Idealism is not enough."

At another point, he said, "If you must build a machine, you must build it right down to the sitios (the neighborhoods)."

The payoff comes in votes, in influencing or hand-picking local officials and demanding favors from national politicians.

"One of the considerations of politics is future delivery of votes by local leaders," Gustilo said. "It's only natural that they should be consulted on appointments."

The Gustilo machine reputedly has gone a step beyond.

"He's a warlord," acting Mayor Guanzon says.

Her mother, Elvira, a longtime politician here, said the Gustilo image has changed over the years.

'He Lost Touch'

"He was a good man," she recalled. "He'd go into the marketplace, and vendors would just hug and kiss him. Somewhere along the line he lost touch with the people."

Gustilo dismisses the warlord label. "What's that?" he asked. He denied that he maintains a private army, and no guns were seen on a visit to his compound.

Part of the image comes from the paramilitary Civilian Home Defense Force units formed under Marcos. In Negros, they were outfitted and trained by the military, but paid by the planters. Aquino's government has disarmed and disbanded the unit in Cadiz, saying it was used to suppress political opposition.

Rowena Guanzon accuses Gustilo's men of a role in the Escalante massacre of last September, when the military opened fire on demonstrators in the nearby town, killing more than 20 of them.

Another Cadiz office holder, who says he has no quarrel with Gustilo, said he saw Gustilo's men carrying guns on election day last February. What did they do? "Terrorized the people," the man responded. Marcos defeated Aquino overwhelmingly in Negros del Norte.

But Gustilo has never been accused of personally using political violence.

"Once you use violence you cannot stay in power long," he said. "You cannot win an election."

Short Fuse

He is, however, alleged to have a short fuse, of slapping his own men. If true, it would go against one of the maxims of the strongman in the Philippines: You take care of your own.

Gustilo's ideology is simply stated. "Never the left," he says. He rolled his eyes when the names of leftist members of Aquino's Cabinet were mentioned.

Guanzon's ideology leans in the opposite direction. "She's a revolutionary," her mother says.

She is certainly that compared to a mainstream Negros politician.

Guanzon studied at the University of the Philippines in Manila, and graduated from law school there in 1984, then joined a top-ranked firm in Manila. (In 1974, she was an American Field Service exchange student in Yuba City, Calif.)

Nurtured in the sometimes-radical politics of the university, she campaigned for Aquino in Cadiz last February. When the Aquino government began replacing Marcos mayors with its own followers in city halls across the country, Guanzon was named officer in charge, or acting mayor, of this city of 90,000--"Armin's place."

Lessening 'Climate of Fear'

She accused Gustilo of "using all his power, money and influence to destabilize" her government. Still, she said, "we have decreased the climate of fear."

Gustilo agrees that the new mayor in his town is tough. She is certainly determined and, like her mother, has a droll sense of humor. Interviewed at a Bacolod restaurant, she was wearing a "Marcos-buster" T-shirt.

For now, Guanzon says, she is trying to reach a level of peaceful coexistence with Gustilo. But she complains that he is working against her. For instance, she charged, Gustilo is lending money to farmers and people in the city to keep them in his debt.

She has rejected an offer to speak on his radio station, and he has turned down her invitation to a debate on her Bacolod outlet, according to Guanzon.

Their most celebrated confrontation so far involved a dispute over whose teams could use the basketball court at the city plaza one day last month. Gustilo won that symbolic contest.

Keeping Machine Oiled

Even with Marcos gone, Gustilo is keeping his machine oiled for local and national elections tentatively scheduled next year. "What we intend to do here in Negros del Norte is to see which way the wind is blowing," he said.

Gustilo concedes that times are changing, that paternalism will give way to "more enlightened politics." But he does not suggest that Aquino's government fills that bill. "There must be some sort of order," he said. "Now it's hard to look at the Aquino government in the light of obedience."

He says he has no plans to seek office. Guanzon has not made up her mind, but, according to political observers here, she will need more than "people power" to win.

"She has the mass base," one said, "but not the planters, the money. Besides, after Marcos, Gustilo is the most brilliant politician around."

Guanzon prefers the frontal attack. At a rally here two years ago, she said, "I publicly called him an s.o.b. The city was shocked. It needed it."

So the gloves-off confrontation continues, with a twist. "Actually," Guanzon said, "I have never met the man."

Nick B. Williams Jr., the Times' Bangkok correspondent, recently traveled to the Philippines and Malaysia.

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