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When word came out late last year that Energy Secretary Rene Almendras was being moved to the post of Cabinet Secretary, speculations went wild: one was that Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. was on his way out and was about to be replaced by Almendras; another was that Almendras was being demoted by being moved “upstairs.” How untrue those speculations turned out.
At a Bulong Pulungan session, Almendras said his appointment was meant to revive the Cabinet Assistance System (CAS). The CAS, a creation of the late President Corazon Aquino, was intended to speed up and better coordinate inter-department or cluster concerns agreed upon during Cabinet meetings. The department secretaries are extremely busy with their own concerns and yet so many problems need to be addressed by them in coordination with one another. This is where Cabinet Secretary Almendras steps in, to make sure common concerns are addressed, different secretaries coordinate with the other secretaries, and they do not have to attend to matters that do not concern them. For example, if a concern is over building bridges, the education secretary is not involved with the nitty gritty of the construction effort.
As to his relationship with Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa, he said, “I am working well with him, our roles are very clear.” This fine relationship between two of the President’s men was confirmed by Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Sonny Coloma — another presidential confidante — who confirmed at another meeting held at XO restaurant in Makati that Almendras is to remove some management burdens off Ochoa’s shoulders. This means Ochoa remains the “Little President.”
Someone asked if he, Almendras, Ochoa and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad make up The Holy Trinity in the Palace. Almendras, 53, bespectacled, and hefty, smiled. “I have a problem with the word trinity,” he said, but did not elaborate. Another much talked-about relationship is his being a kaklase (Class of ’81) of the President.
Actually, Almendras said he felt relieved about his transfer from energy to Malacañang (where he holds office). The energy portfolio is very difficult, he said. The difficult problems, top of them the lowering of electric rates — are now in the hands of Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla; I don’t know if the former Leyte governor needs consolation.
Almendras said he looks forward to returning to the private sector — after he has turned over “deliverables” to President P-Noy.
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The only reason he joined the government, he told the Bulong Pulungan crowd, was that “my President asked me to, and I believe in the President.”
Since their college days at the Ateneo, Noynoy and Rene were close friends, but the Cebuano was able to step into Malacanang only once, when Noynoy’s mother became president. Rene helped actively in P-Noy’s presidential campaign. But, he said, “I was one of the first guys to discourage him from running for the presidency.” The job was too tough, he told his kaklase, but Noynoy had made up his mind to run. There was no stopping him.
Rene learned to appreciate even more P-Noy’s one-track mind, his sticking to what he believed in. For example, during the campaign, he was asked not to touch the controversial Reproductive Health subject. “Why not?” was the answer. And when somebody said his getting married would help his campaign, the reply was, “Why should I do that?”
The President, said Almendras, does not ”shoot from the hip.” He studies issues thoroughly. On the suggestion that supporting the gun ban issue would have been easy, he said he wanted data to reduce the number of firearms and bring down criminality. On the Atimonan case, there is not a day that he does not confer with DILG Secretary Mar Roxas and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.
He remembers distinctly what the presidential candidate said at the height of the presidential campaign. “Kung gusto ng Diyos na manalo ako, mananalo ako. Kung ayaw ng Diyos, matatalo ako” (If God wants me to win, I will win; if not, I will not win). Obviously, God wanted him to win.
Almendras is a strong believer in his boss’s “tuwid na daan” directive. He is not alone in his assessment. He said that after a meeting with P-Noy, a foreign dignitary remarked, “I haven’t met anyone as sincere as your President.” How can you fake that? Rene said.
Not surprisingly, Almendras’ critics accuse him of his closeness to the President to promote his sister’s interest. The President has sided with his sister, Agnes Almendras Magpale, who took over from then Cebu Gov. Gwen Garcia who was removed from office on charges of fund misuse.
The late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo had already decided on the Gwen Garcia case before he died, he said. Agnes, Rene’s older sister, has long been in politics, racking up a record as the topnotcher provincial board member for many elections, and taking over as governor upon the death of Vice-Gov. Gregorio Sanchez Jr. So she did not need her brother in her rise in Cebu politics. She is running for VG in the May election.
With the exception of his late uncle Alejandro Almendras who migrated to Davao from Cebu and became a long-term senator, the secretary’s only relative in politics is his sister. Their father trained them “to be good productive citizens. He trained us to do things on our own.” Rene confided that his sister has said that if a TRO is issued by a court ordering her to step down as OIC governor, “she will not stay one second in office longer.”
Rene said he hoped the President will leave a legacy that does not end in 2016. The transformation in government must continue, he said.
He wants to return to the private sector “for the privacy,” he said. He did not mention the dip in income experienced by his family when he decided to accept P-Noy’s initial offer as energy secretary. But when the next offer came — as cabinet secretary, “I did not hesitate to accept. The energy portfolio was most difficult.”
Before he joined the government, he had assumed significant leadership roles in the top corporations in the country. His latest job was as business group head of Manila Water Company. Before that, he was with the Aboitiz company and Aboitiz Equity Ventures, then, at age 37, president of City Savings Bank, the biggest thrift bank in Cebu. He became CEO of Cebu Holdings Inc. and Cebu Property Ventures and Development Corp., then business group head of VisMin (Ayala Land).
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Journalist and environmentalist Emily Marcelo is holding her fourth one-woman painting exhibit at Chef Jessie’s Rockwell Club from Jan. 5 to Feb. 5.
Emily describes the prevailing theme in her paintings as “ the quiet splendor of nature — sweeping, elegant, colorful and uplifting to the spirit. From vivid, rolling valleys to breathtaking landscapes of sand, wheat fields, and grass; from depictions of vibrant flowers to the lumbering immensity of age-old trees, conveying a peaceful, beatific ambience of serenity, comfort, and peace.”
Never pretentious, angst-ridden, or moody, Emily paints “an optimistic viewpoint of the best our world can be, without the wanton defilement of human ignorance and carelessness.”
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