“Past Relationship Impinges on Present Affairs of State”
(First of 2 Parts)
We are running this series to put an end to the backstreet gossip that has hounded President Ramos since he assumed office last year. The gossip about the alleged relationship between Mr. Ramos and Rose Marie “Baby” Arenas now threatens to distract the nation from its own responsibilities toward nation-building.
Never has gossip influenced public perception about how decisions are made in the highest levels of government. Never has gossip trivialized the affairs of State.
The series the prestigious Center for Investigative Journalism looked into and behind the gossip and came up with this two-part report. It is hoped that with the CIJ report the gossip will be stripped of its mystique and set the President free to put on his armor of governance.
A PHOTOGRAPH of President Ramos in white duck uniform is prominently displayed in the luxurious living room of 2056 Lumbang St. in Makati’s posh Dasmarinas Village. This is the residence of Rose Marie “Baby” Jimenez-Arenas, where some of the country’s most powerful officials regularly meet.
Arenas, a wealthy former beauty queen and fashion model is said to have had a relationship with President Ramos, At least two persons close to Mr. Ramos have asked him about this and they say the President dismissed it as part of the past, a tacit admission of the liaison. Similarly, Jose Almonte, national security adviser, once referred to it as “something that happened in the past...a matter between two persons.” Aides of the President as well as Cabinet members we interviewed consider the relationship common knowledge. . . .
Arenas is known to have sought favors on behalf of a number of business interests and to have influenced a few appointments in government. “She asks for jobs, concessions but these are low level—not the PLDT or Cabinet posts,” a friend of Arenas says. . . .
Arenas’ power is both real and perceived. She draws strength from her association with Almonte, who is probably the President’s closest and most trusted adviser.
She also projects a power image, flaunting her access to the Palace. She is not shy about making known that she is close to the top official of the land. Recalls a former Cabinet official of Mr. Ramos: “She says she calls the President directly.” Arenas has also shared this information with other people.
The case of Arenas may be unique, compared to experiences of past presidents. Manuel Quezon had reported liaisons, but these apparently did not affect official matters. Ferdinand Marcos’ affair with Hollywood actress Dovie Beams had no impact on the affairs of the State, although others now say the former first lady, Imelda Marcos, started building her domain after her late husband’s relationship with Beams.
But Arenas’ role as a wielder of influence is not uncommon. Says Felipe Alfonso, president of the Asian Institute of Management: “She reflects a highly personalistic society and a protectionist system. Here, protection of industries means protection of families, individuals and power blocs.
Perceptions that Arenas uses her access to Malacañang to boost certain businesses or place people in government has worried some Cabinet members. . . .
These Cabinet members thought it was important that the President be informed about the growing concern about Arenas’ activities and the disturbing talk about her influence on the Palace. . . .
According to government officials and presidential aides, Arenas, on two occasions, was about to go public with the relationship. During the presidential campaign, she visited Mr. Ramos’ headquarters on Pasay Road, Makati, and nearly raised hell because campaign staffers who did not know her denied her request for stickers.
Visibly mad, Arenas threatened to call the media, a member of the campaign staff recalls. She was later placated.
“If Baby (Arenas) gets angry, she can do a lot of trouble. The President needs trouble like a hole in the head,” says a retired general.
Our investigation has shown that Arenas has, on occasion, intervened on behalf of business interests. (Arenas declined to be interviewed despite repeated requests.) . . .
Among some members of the Chinese-Filipino community, Arenas is seen as a “facilitator.” Explains one Chinese-Filipino: “Many see nothing illegal in asking her to speed up a bureaucratic process. In Philippine politics, whom you know counts. What would prevent us from asking her help?”
This source also says that Arenas, through her representives, is known to “facilitate” release of shipments from the Bureau of Customs. “It makes matters easier,” the source says. . . .
“Socialite seeking legitimacy”
As early as 1989, Rose Marie (Baby) Jimenez Arenas was hosting weekly meetings, usually held on Wednesdays, attended by friends and supporters of then Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos. At that time, Mr. Ramos was already talked about as a potential presidential candidate.
A year later, when Mr. Ramos emerged as a likely contender, these meetings evolved from social gatherings into “informal strategy sessions” aimed at boosting Mr. Ramos’ chances in the elections. Some of those who joined the initial meetings later formed the inner core of a team for the Ramos presidential campaign. . . .
Arenas also invited at least two cabinet members to the meetings, but they declined.
“Baby likes to arrange things, to broker meetings,” says a friend. “A lot of people seek her out thinking she would make a difference.” . . .
Arenas’ bigger role in the campaign, sources say, was in helping fill up the coffers. She is said to earn generous sums from renting out her houses in exclusive villages in Makati.
Arenas wants it known that she contributed heavily to the Ramos presidential campaign. She has told a number of people that she sold anywhere from two to seven of her 21 or so houses, aside from jewelry, for the campaign. . . .
But an aide of Ramos who dealt with Arenas during the campaign estimates that she may have donated P50 million. This includes thousands of campaign paraphernalia such as stickers, hats, fans, umbrellas and pins which she may have solicited from her businessmen friends.
Arenas comes from an upper middle class family with no substantial wealth. Her father worked with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and her mother was the soprano Remedios Bosch, who taught for many years at the University of the East. In the late 1970s, her now-estranged husband, Ramon, was in the shipping business. Ramon, who comes from a wealthy Negrense family, was recently appointed to the board of the Manila Electric Company.
Arenas was, by some accounts, one of Mr. Ramos’ most aggressive campaigners. “...It is this aggressiveness on the part of Baby and her group that contributed a lot to the decision of Mr. Ramos to run for the presidency even after his defeat in the LDP convention. Those in the know credit Baby for the hard work done by this particular group to make Mr. Ramos win,” wrote the INQUIRER columnist Julie Amigo, a close friend of Arenas. . . .
Charity and high visibility
Although she had already been involved in charity work for soldiers, Arenas began to take a high profile after the 1986 uprising. In the early 1980s, she was fundraising for the Constabulary, then headed by Mr. Ramos. The V. Luna Hospital, now renamed Armed Forces of the Philippines Medical Center, was also a beneficiary of her work. . . .
“I know Baby to be very generous and charitable,” says a newspaper editor. “Arenas,” one of her friends says, “finds it had to say no to requests or favors: She accommodates anyone who calls on her.” . . .
Months later, Arenas went on a media binge, meeting with journalists, granting interviews and having her photos published in newspapers and magazines. Almost all of the full-length feature articles written on her were lavishly positive. Pleased with one of these articles, she gave a gift check worth thousands of pesos to the author. But she was less kind to the bearers of bad news about her. In a speech before the Makati Rotary Club in June, she lashed out at the media: “The things that have been attributed to me have been largely nasty and nastiness is always good fodder for news. Besides these speculations being absurd . . . they question my motives, yet they have been aired through an institution powerful enough to assign blame while itself escaping blame.” . . .
Arenas may raise another stone if reports are true that she intends to run for a seat in Congress to represent Makati, a plan that worries some presidential aides. Public office will give Arenas a mantle of legitimacy and propel her from the backroom to center stage.
“People expect her to vanish after long years of relationship (with) and help for the President?” asks a friend of Arenas. “She will not do that.”