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The friends of Cynthia Villar

Kindness to her family, even if it may not be for the benefit of the Filipino people, is her norm for friendship. Such is the fragile philosophy of senator Cynthia Villar.

Let us count the ways.

In April of 2019, the El Shaddai religious group held a prayer rally at Quezon City’s Amoranto Stadium. On the stage was the image of El Shaddai leader Mike Velarde printed on an outsized tarpaulin. But more conspicuous on stage right were the posters of senatorial candidates to be endorsed by the religious group for the 2019 midterm elections. The candidates were present and each was given time to speak.

The first to speak was Cynthia Villar. Immediately she took a swipe at candidates not chosen by Velarde. “Not all politicians are welcomed by religious organizations. But I have been friends with them, many of them. And I go to their affairs.”

Because of that invitation and endorsement, Velarde and El Shaddai were her friends. If she felt lucky to be their friend, woe to those who were not. It was a conceited campaign rhetoric that could have been said only by Doña Victorina.

The friendship theme was on hotspot recently. Villar and her son Mark were both members of the senate’s Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality. On the hot seat was the Davao city sect leader and multimillionaire Apollo Quiboloy. A senate warrant for his arrest for contempt – Quiboloy did not show up in any of the committee’s investigations – was requested by committee chair senator Risa Hontiveros. It was a legitimate use of authority that the law grants to the senate.

Religious leaders have been subpoenaed before and they showed up to be grilled in the senate. Quiboloy wants none of that. He is more than the bishops. He is god himself, the owner of the universe.

Remember that this was just a senate investigation, not a jury out to issue a verdict. Quiboloy’s appearance was the legal process due to him. The accusations of the eight witnesses were serious: sexual abuse, child abuse, human trafficking, labor exploitation. If Quiboloy showed up, he would be exercising his right to refute the allegations.

But Quiboloy was luckier with Cynthia Villar. She did not sign the arrest order and invoked their friendship. “He had been kind to my family. You don’t do that to a friend.”

International media immediately picked up her comment, considered outré in functioning democracies elsewhere in the world for its unabashed self-interest.

Conversely, Cynthia Villar can turn ballistic and personal when Villar business interests are questioned. In which case, duck for cover because you definitely will not be her friend.

In May 2018, Congress’s Commission on Appointments held a public hearing on the merits of John Castriciones as Rodrigo Duterte’s nominee for Agrarian Reform Secretary. In a public hearing such as this, oppositors are heard to help legislators approve or oppose the appointment, as prescribed by law.

Elvie Baladad was a farmer from Bulacan and she was out to question Castriciones’s commitment to prevent the conversion of agricultural lands to commercial use. She questioned the Boracay resort owned by the Villars.

Baladad’s questions were perfectly legitimate to ask of Castriciones if he was fit to protect the rights of small farmers like her. “Did the Department of Agrarian Reform give a conversion order or clearance for the land in Boracay, which was part of the flattened mountain? And if there was none, will he file a case against Vista Land for illegal conversion? When you put houses on an agricultural land, you can no longer plant crops.”

Baladad hit a raw nerve. Villar was a member of the Commission on Appointments. Above all, she was also owner of Vista Land. Flaring up, she confronted Baladad: “Bakit ba lahat ng projects ng Vista Land? Galit ka ba sa akin? (Why are you singling out Vista Land? Are you mad at me?)”

In fact, the omnipresence of the Villars in government tells us everything why political dynasties are detrimental and why the Villars should never be in government at all – at all.

As we write, four Villar family members are simultaneously in government: Aside from family matriarch Cynthia in the senate, there is son Mark, former Department of Public Works and Highways secretary (2016-2021) under Rodrigo Duterte, and congressman representing Las Piñas from 2010 to 2016.

Villar’s only daughter Camille Lydia Villar Genuino was congressman since 2019 to the present, Deputy Speaker of the House (2021-present), former Chief Operating Officer of the family’s Brittany Corporation. In July 2020, she was one of those who voted against the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN. In January 2022, the Villar-owned Advanced Media Broadcasting Systems took over use of ABS CBN’s two former television broadcast frequencies. Talk about voting in Congress to protect your family’s business interests.

And then there is Mark Villar’s wife Emmeline Aglipay Villar, DIWA (Democratic Independent Workers Association – whatever that means) party list representative at the same time when her husband was also in the House of Representatives from 2013 to 2016. In 2016, the House appointed her as caretaker representative of Las Piñas when her husband Mark left that post to become Duterte’s DPWH secretary. In 2018, Duterte appointed her Undersecretary of the Department of Justice. In October 2023, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appointed her as Undersecretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Of course, in the Philippines, the deciding factors in elections are friends in high places and money. The Villars have both. In 2019, the chatty Rodrigo Duterte revealed that the billionaire Villars gave him a bag of cash that made him seriously think of running for the presidency. He did not reveal the amount. The Villars were not listed among his campaign contributors. Duterte says there are bad oligarchs but also good oligarchs. The Villars are the latter, he said. A heavy bag of cash ensured their place in good oligarchy.

To be a Villar is to be in one lucky family. It is wealthy and it is politically influential. Each year, Cynthia Villar always tops the list of richest senators (P3.8B in the last count).

Knowing her kind of politics, must we wonder why she has no scruples issuing statements with no sense of morality? Her political interests lie on her friends who can advance her political positions and her business interests.

The adage, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” applies. This much we can say: Cynthia Villar is not a friend of the Filipino people.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.