Eduardo (Danding) Cojuangco Jr. was the king of cronies.
Under his friend and mentor, Ferdinand E. Marcos, Cojuangco amassed $1.5 billion in corporate assets through illegal monopolies and massive fraud, prosecutors say. And although it was never proved, President Corazon Aquino reportedly suspected her long-estranged cousin of a role in the 1983 assassination of her husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr.
So it was hardly surprising when Aquino made an angry call to her government's top prosecutor two days after her political archenemy mysteriously showed up in Manila in November, 1989, ending nearly four years of exile in Long Beach, Calif.
"The president told me to personally attend to the prosecution of Cojuangco," said Solicitor General Francisco Chavez. "That had never been done before. . . . He's the only one the president has singled out for me to prosecute."
Over a year later, Cojuangco remains not only free but a jarring public reminder of Aquino's growing political impotence.
Indeed, the 55-year-old burly billionaire, described by prosecutors as second only to Marcos in the systematic looting of the Philippines, appears positioned to regain much of what he lost when he fled with the disgraced dictator in the "people power" uprising of February, 1986.
His family, including his wife, two children, their spouses, and two grandchildren, returned to the country two days before Christmas when the government finally gave up its effort to deny them passports.
A month earlier, Manila's anti-graft court gave Cojuangco a resounding legal victory when it lifted a 1986 government order sequestering more than $500 million in stock. The government, which has filed at least eight criminal charges and two civil cases against him, is appealing.
Moreover, Cojuangco is busy giving speeches, courting reporters over gilt-edged china and piloting his Beechcraft to line up key mayors, congressmen and governors in his all-but-declared campaign for the 1992 presidential election. Analysts say he is consolidating the remnants of Marcos' political machine and adding his own considerable clout.
So far, Cojuangco trails in newspaper polls against eight other likely candidates. But no one doubts his chances in a culture where votes are freely sold, politicians are easily bought and clan loyalties and obligations are more important than political ideologies or issues.
"He's the boss, a traditional boss who takes care of his people," political scientist Randy David said. "He plays a role as protector, provider and benefactor. It's understandable in our culture."
During his heyday, Cojuangco paid hospital bills for supporters, arranged loans and scholarships for needy students and gave land to tenant farmers. That adds to his Godfather-like reputation.
"People still look up to a strong leader," David added. "The democratic gains from 1986 are really superficial. Political patronage is still the most important thing. And Danding stands for . . . patronage."
Cojuangco stands for far more, of course. In the late 1960s, as governor of his home province of Tarlac, he armed and directed vigilante groups to battle Marcos opponents. Later, as his power grew, Cojuangco used Israeli mercenaries to train his own private army of thousands.
In 1972, Cojuangco was the only civilian in the military cabal who helped Marcos plan and implement martial law, paving the way for the arrest of thousands of Marcos opponents. The group was called the "Rolex 12," after Marcos gave each one a gold Rolex watch in appreciation. Later gifts were more significant.
During martial law, for example, Marcos imposed a levy on the sale of coconut products, the nation's largest industry, and mandated that the money be deposited interest-free in Cojuangco's newly acquired United Coconut Planters Bank. UCPB soon became one of the country's largest banks, as well as the basis of Cojuangco's personal fortune.
"A lot of people say he turned that bank around," said Guy Sacerdoti, editor of the Philippine Economic Newsletter. "It's true, because he got $1 billion in interest-free deposits. If someone gave me $1 billion interest-free, I could run a bank too."
Using levy funds, Cojuangco bought thousands of coconut-oil mills and forced millions of small coconut farmers to sell to his cartel, the only authorized exporter. He used other levy money to buy a controlling stake in San Miguel Corp., the nation's giant food and beverage conglomerate, and he tried to create monopolies in rice, flour and soft drinks.
Aquino's government sequestered the entire coconut-fund empire in 1986 as "ill-gotten gains," including the bank, the oil mills and the San Miguel shares. Cojuangco's lawyers argued that the funds were "private" contributions and said the stock and assets belonged to the coconut farmers.
On Nov. 15, Manila's anti-graft court agreed, saying Aquino's anti-crony lawyers should have sued the farmers, not Cojuangco. Their order lifted the sequestration of 50.7% of stock in the bank, 31% of San Miguel plus assorted subsidiaries.
"It clears up a lot of clouds," said Gabby Villareal, one of Cojuangco's lawyers. "It means he can say the levy was not spent for his personal benefit but for the benefit of the farmers."
David Castro, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, Aquino's anti-crony task force, said he's confident that the Supreme Court will overturn or amend the ruling. If it doesn't, he adds, sequestration of about 400 other crony-controlled corporations "will have to be lifted."
Chavez, Aquino's solicitor general, warns that if the notoriously inefficient judiciary doesn't complete the 38 pending crony corruption cases by the time Aquino's term expires on June 30, 1992, "we can kiss all these cases goodby."
That means Cojuangco may regain access to still-sequestered stocks, vast landholdings and more than 200 shipping, cement, insurance and other industries. Cojuangco said he's not sure how much they are worth today, but he concedes that his billion-dollar business empire once accounted for 25% of the nation's gross national product.
Even his foes concede that Cojuangco was the only Marcos crony who invested the bulk of his fortune in the Philippines. And they admit that his strongman image appeals to politicians and regional bosses who blame much of the country's economic and military problems on Aquino's weak leadership.
"We want radical reforms," said Fernando T. Barican, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former anti-Marcos activist who recently set up a political party called the Partido Pilipino that Cojuangco wants to use in 1992. "We think the country requires major surgery."
Whether Cojuangco can erase his unsavory Marcos ties is unclear. A virtual "Who's Who" of the late dictator's aides and allies led the 10,000 or so guests who flocked to Cojuangco's 55th birthday party and political "coming out" on a sunny Sunday last June in Sison, a mountainside village in central Luzon.
Stewards roasted pigs and poured Remy Martin cognac under huge striped tents. A 5-foot-tall cake boasted rice terraces and waterfalls. Beauty queens and film stars chatted with politicians and businessmen. Posters and T-shirts said, "We love you, Boss Danding," and "Danding for President."
"Danding would have the organization of Marcos as a base," said J. V. Cruz, Marcos' former spokesman and ambassador to London. "He's the logical heir, the natural heir."
Cojuangco, fresh from speaking lessons, took the stage surrounded by slinky red-dressed singers and a comedian who used to lead Marcos rallies. "I feel I have not changed. I am still the same Danding Cojuangco you knew before," he said.
"This is where I belong," he added to cheers. "That is why, by the grace of God, I have returned."