United Nationalist Alliance senatorial candidate Juan Ponce “Jack” Enrile Jr. bares himself in a Tuesday meeting with editors and reporters of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He talks about his reconciliation with his powerful father, his fascination with biking and Jack Kerouac, the rumors about his colourful past and the broken rosary he’s kept in his pocket everywhere he goes. Video by Ryan Leagogo/INQUIRER.net
Jack Enrile said he once roamed the United States on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, seeking to find the purpose of life.
Having aborted a plan to become a missionary in Africa and never return to the Philippines, Enrile was called home by his father and namesake, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Father and son had not spoken for years.
He reconciled with his father, took over the family business and got roped into politics.
Today, Enrile roams the country not just to get votes for his senatorial candidacy but to teach people—through his agriculture and food sovereignty advocacies—how they and their families can always have food on the table.
“I wasn’t just reluctant [to run], it was more like ‘kicking and screaming,’” Enrile told Inquirer editors and reporters in an interview, referring to his first term as representative of Cagayan’s first district from 1998 to 2001.
“If you asked me in 1997 that 16 years later I would be running for senator, I’ll say you’re crazy. It was never in the stars for me,” he said.
The congressman candidly disclosed little known, and sometimes intimate, facets of his life as the scion of one the most powerful political clans in the country.
Enrile earned a degree in English at Christian Heritage College in El Cajon, California, in 1993, before moving to Pepperdine University in Malibu, where he graduated with a master’s degree in business administration in 1995.
At one point, he studied to be a pastor.
“My wife and I wanted to be missionaries in Africa. We didn’t have any intention of coming back to the Philippines anymore. We were going to apply for a mission in Africa. It was our dream. I have this love affair with Africa, ever since I was a boy, reading about all those great white hunters. I have this dream that I will live there,” he recounted.
However, after becoming a congressman for three terms, then being succeeded by his wife for one term, and then taking her place again, Enrile said they “decided to stick it out here and seal our roots in the Philippines.”
Before going for his MBA, Enrile was employed as a purchasing manager in the family’s Jaka Group. At the age of 36, he became the president and chief executive officer, serving for four years.
Fell in love with Cagayan
He vividly recalls the day in December 1997 when his father gave him the surprise of his life.
“I was brought into a room. Ten people sitting around a table were introduced to me, people I’ve never met in my entire life. And then my father said, ’Gentlemen, I want you to meet the next congressman of the first district of Cagayan.’ I looked over my shoulder, and went, ‘Who the heck are you talking about’?”
A big argument followed, Enrile recalled. He agreed to run on the condition that it would only be for one term, after which he would return to the US.
“But one term became two and then three. And the rest is history,” he said.
Asked what made him stay on as congressman, he said, “I fell in love with Cagayan and its people.”
If before, the young Enrile had longed for the reddish, rainless deserts of Namibia and Botswana, today the congressman is content to be with farmers in the green, fertile fields of Aparri, Buguey, Gattaran and the seven other towns of Cagayan’s first district.
Comfortable in grassroots
As congressman, Enrile focused on the grassroots where he said he feels most comfortable in. His interactions and consultations with the local executives of Cagayan gave rise to his advocacy of agriculture and food sovereignty, which he aims to popularize nationwide, if elected senator.
“No Filipino should go hungry in his own country. The prices of food and basic commodities should be affordable to all. With a population which will easily exceed 100 million in the next few years, it is a must that we have a good and rationalized food plan to assure the food security of our people,” he said.
He has used his pork barrel funds to build infrastructure in his district, such as farm-to-market roads, irrigation and dredging systems, water impounding projects, and the rehabilitation of roads and drainage.
While in Congress, Enrile sponsored bills pertaining to food security, protecting business competitiveness, reduction of income taxes, making bank loans easier, and stricter gun control.
One bill that he had been pushing for since 1999 was the Kasambahay Bill, which was finally approved and signed into law last year. Republic Act 10361, or the Domestic Workers Act, aims to protect the rights of household workers.
The website rollcall.ph, which tracks the attendance of congressmen through publicly available congress journals, has listed Enrile as among the top absentee lawmakers, ranking 7th with an attendance rate of around 40 percent. It said Enrile was present in 44 sessions out of 109 session days from July 27, 2010 to Nov. 14, 2012.
According to documents posted on the official Congress website, out of 59 session days in 2011, Enrile was “actually present” in 30 session days.
In the interview, Enrile explained that he preferred to roam around his constituency and talk and get feedback from the people to sitting around in Congress.
Reluctant to run
Enrile said his own experience when his father was defense minister and legislator was another reason for his initial reluctance to go into politics.
“My father was unavailable and distant, which he readily admits … I have kids, I did not want to grow up the way I did. If nothing else, my two children [with wife Sally], can say that I was a very present father. I was always there, doting,” he said.
Enrile has two daughters from an early marriage (later annulled) with Cristina Macalinao. They married when he was 19 and she was 16. Daughter Kriska, 35, lives in Milan with her husband and son, while Ina, 33, works in the family business.
His children with Sally are Sarah, 21, who studies in Boston, and Sam, 13, who studies in Manila.
“When my wife was pregnant with Sam, Kriska was pregnant with her son, so you could just imagine, I was just like Steve Martin in ’Father of the Bride,’” he said.
Reacting to comments about his supposedly “colorful youth,” Enrile said: “I was fortunate enough to have been given by both parents to chart my own life. They did not micro-manage my life. And because of that I was allowed to seek my own path and learn from the mistakes that I committed.”
Mistakes in life
Topping these “mistakes,” he said, was getting married young and unprepared.
He dismissed stories about his being linked to several murders as “urban legends.” After all these years, he said he still feels hurt by these allegations.
“It’s still difficult to [deal] with stories propagated by people that are not true and they have stuck to me for the past four decades. And no matter how many times I explain myself in public, the stories keep coming back,” he said.
“I know in my heart that I didn’t do those things. All I know is that I can look at you straight in the eye and tell you that they’re not true. The truth will always come out. I always go back to what my mother used to tell me when I was young—you can’t fake goodness and hide badness,” he said.
“I have lived as honorably as I can. I cannot control the public’s perception of me, the stories that people say about me, most of the stories have been proven not true. I will leave it at that and let the public learn the truth for themselves,” he said.
Enrile said he has the same reaction to stories about alleged illegal car importations in Port Irene and the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (Ceza).
“I don’t have any personal stake in Port Irene. I don’t own any single share in Ceza. I don’t even own any farm. I only own one property, an ancestral home,” he said.
However, he said the port and Ceza proved beneficial to the people of Cagayan because of the jobs and economic activities that have been generated.
The congressman dismissed accusations that he or his clan are involved in smuggling.
“Anything that has something to do with Cagayan and illegalities there is always linked to my name. But I would urge the public to find out the truth. We have answered the allegations time and time again since the creation of the port,” he said.
The Ceza, a freeport created in 1995 through a bill authored by the older Enrile, aims to create an interactive gaming, shipping and ecotourism hub in Southeast Asia in the country’s northernmost point. However, the freeport has become the center of controversy because of the industry that has grown around the used cars and vans entering its main port, Port Irene, in the face of a ban against the import of such vehicles.
Enrile said the decision to run for the Senate was his own.
He recalled that that when he was going to various provinces to solicit support for a bill that would provide a system of determining the minimum food requirements of Filipinos, reorganize the National Food Authority, and establish the National Strategic Food Supply and Reserve Corp., there was “constant encouragement for him to run.”
He was eventually included in the slate of the United Nationalist Alliance, one of whose leaders is his father.
He said he has had personal and business issues with his father in the past, he said. He recalled the times when he had to get an appointment just to see his father or how his father sent military agents to look for him in the US and tell him to go home.
But now, his relationship with his father has been “much stronger than it has ever been”.
“He is my champion, I am his,” he said.
Enrile said he could not forget his father hugging him tightly after the 1986 Edsa Revolution when the elder Enrile, after breaking with the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, sent his family packing and hiding out in separate locations.
His mother, who is against his entering politics, advised him to “just pray,” Enrile said.
He takes out an old rosary which he said he always carries with him. His favorite chapter from the Bible is from Psalm 25, which begins: “In you Lord my God, I put my trust. I trust in you. Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.”
When he was young, Enrile said his friends were motorcycle riders and mechanics like himself. In the US, he supported himself with motorcycle machine shops that later became dealerships.
Altogether, the young Enrile stayed in the US for a total of 15 years.
“I left for the US without my parents’ blessing. I went to every corner of the US, living the lifestyle that I wanted basically a free spirit. Before Harleys came back in vogue, I had long hair, a beard,” he recounted.
“I lived the biker’s lifestyle. The biker being a biker, you are searching all the time,” he added.
Enrile said the Harley rider is gone and the search seems over. He said he is content having a loving wife who once agreed to live in a mud hut in Africa, and spending quality time with his teenage son whom he rides with.
The congressman said he hopes to serve more people as a senator.
“Whatever the people decide come Election Day, I will take it, whatever it is,” Enrile said.
“If I make it, then I have enough youth and energy to try and do something for this country. If I don’t make it, then it’s my swan song and I will move back to private business and still have time to do that [his advocacies],” he said.