By Nathalie Tomada
Former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is nicely adjusting to a less stressful and hurried life even as she embraces the housewife role she said she never had before.
In her first media interview since leaving the presidency last June, the congresswoman of Pampanga’s second district looked relaxed in a light blue dress, smiling and seemingly at peace with herself and the world despite the controversies that continue to hound her.
Arroyo talked about the more domestic role she has just embraced. She welcomed this writer into her Quezon City home and showed their family portrait that showed her as a young wife and mother at 22, with husband Jose Miguel and eldest son Mikey, taken at the garden swing that is still on the front lawn.
“Now, I’m getting a life that I did not have even then,” she begins. “I married and I lived in this house with my in-laws. My mother-in-law would cook and was very tolerant, up to my last toilet paper she provided, and then she had a terrific mayordoma (housekeeper) who had been the yaya (nanny) of my husband since he was born. She helped in my career because she took care of the house and everything. I didn’t have to be a housewife. I was a wife.”
“My mother-in-law died when I didn’t yet enter politics and my mayordoma died when I was president,” she continued. “So, when I left the presidency, I came back to this house without a mother-in-law and mayordoma to run it. So I entered now the life of a housewife which I never had before.”
Her staff says that she notices everything, from flies to dust in the windows. Running the household, Arroyo says, “is very therapeutic; whenever I’m idle that’s what I do.”
10 pounds slimmer
There’s another change that has gone largely unnoticed. She just lost over 10 pounds, but she has not gone vegetarian, contrary to speculations on her new look.
“This just came about because of exercise and diet because I don’t have socials at night and I don’t have many breakfast meetings now. It’s still the same basic two hours of high-intensity exercise, and then I added 15 minutes for three days. I also eat only one full meal a day. Unless we’re socializing, my husband and I only have soup for dinner.”
Arroyo, who turned 64 on April 5, adds, “I decided to have a new hairdo for my new life.”
She just bought an iPad to download books, finished reading Game Change, a politically-themed book on the 2008 US elections, opened a Facebook account, watches American Idol, and joins the carpool to send her grandchildren to school.
Arroyo’s chief-of-staff Elena Bautista-Horn said the congresswoman’s pace is still very much like her workhorse pace when she was president.
“But she’s been adjusting to her now less punishing schedule and lean staff of six, among other things,” said Horn.
When asked if she might return to her first job as teacher, whose former students included President Benigno Aquino III, she said: “Maybe one day. Of course, I have many things to share now, all the economic theories that I actually applied and worked.”
The Arroyo house is decorated with photographs, including one taken of her as daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal with then former US President John F. Kennedy at the White House – a gift from present US President Barack Obama.
The Arroyo residence is just a stone’s throw away from Ateneo de Manila University where she worked as a professor after graduating with an Economics degree from Assumption College.
“I chose teaching because it was a way of having a good balance between motherhood and career. The good thing about it was that for 12 hours of teaching a week and then some very flexible research time, there was plenty time to be with the children. Also, I would take the semester off after I gave birth. I read at that time that what an individual learns in his whole life he learns half of it before the age of 5. So I wanted to make sure I will be able to give them a lot of time before the age of five,” she said.
Spacing of children
Arroyo said that the birth of her children Mikey, Luli and Dato were well spaced, which had largely influenced her present responsible parenthood policy.
“I stress spacing rather than the number of children. It’s good for the health of the mother, of the baby, and of the relationship between mother and baby, mother and other children, mother and father, and the whole family.”
Explaining why she doesn’t link the issue of population with development, she said: “During the last global crisis, which were the economies that not only survived but also came out very strong? These were the big population countries with a good per capita income, one of which is the Philippines. So, of course, if you have a big population but the per capita income is very poor then it is still bad or you have high per capita income but your population is very small like Singapore, you also suffer. You really need those two ingredients. The Philippines had those two ingredients. In the last year before the economic crisis, we had 7 percent growth rate; we had already graduated to the middle class per capita income. That’s why I don’t tie up population policy with development.”
This should clearly hint at where she stands as the battle lines are being drawn on the Reproductive Health Bill in Congress. “At least it didn’t pass under my term. It’s going to be a tough fight. We shall see.”
“I’ll tell you something, my father, when he was telling me about public service, for the public servant, the priority should be God first, then country, and family last. I used to think ‘what do you mean by God first and then country?’ then analyzing it, I came to realize because when thinking something good for the country, there are different policies, and some are more faith-based than the others, like pro-life. But fortunately also, [my parenthood policy] is grounded on reason and economic logic.”
Keeping emotions private
Asked whether the challenges of the presidency were responsible for this faith and religiosity, she says, “No, no, I’ve always been religious. I learned it from the nuns in school. Not from my family because my mother was not particularly religious.”
From her mother Eva Macaraeg, nevertheless, she inherited the sternness and know-how in languages and learned that whatever is private – like emotions – should remain private.
It was also perhaps her mother who provided her first connection to Cebu, which famously delivered her 1 million votes during the 2004 presidential elections. “You know, my mother said she spent the best years of her life in Cebu. She was the carnival queen of Cebu at the age of 16.”
She also fondly recalled an acting stint in a Cebu soap opera when she was senator. “It was done in Carcar. I played a mother of a rape victim. They didn’t require me to cry but they required me to be sad. But the one who played my daughter was so good that I actually cried.”
While she was recruited to enter politics in the late 1970s for the opposition ticket, Arroyo says that it was only when she topped the senatorial elections in 1995 that her father, who passed away in 1997, began to think of the possibility that she might follow in his footsteps.
“I would say that among all the historical figures that I’ve come across with either personally or vicariously, my father has been the biggest influence on me. Everything about the family and private life was my mother, and everything about public service was my father. He didn’t meddle on how we were raised, and he expected my mother not to meddle also in his governance,” she said.
“He had said that the presidency is a position not to be enjoyed but you have to work hard for the good of the people and necessarily, you have to suffer. And he suffered because he worked 20 hours a day. He had a silent heart attack when he was president, which we didn’t know until much later on.”
“I got that focus from my father, although I didn’t work for 20 hours when I was president. I did about 12 because I had to make sure I would have one-hour exercise twice a week and seven hours of sleep.”
Asked how her father would think of her now if he were still alive, she says after some pause: “For my father, he thought we were the worthiest people. He was a very, very affirming father. Our choices were his choices. Before, when I was about to do something, he would advice. But after I’ve done something, his concern was if I did the right thing.”
Proud of accomplishments
Amid controversies that beset her presidency and which prompted the lowest approval ratings upon her exit, Arroyo still believes that she had accomplished what she set out to do.
“Considering that our political culture is so negative, what’s more important is that the progress that we worked for speaks for itself. From day one that’s what I tried to do – tried to have permanent change in the economy of the Philippines so that it can have our growth sustainable and move into the first world within 20 years,” said Arroyo.
“And I feel that I was able to do a lot in that direction. First of all, we had unprecedented 38 quarters of consecutive growth, never, never happened before. And then I left the economy with a 7.9 percent growth rate, better than what I started with. And at 7.9 percent, what does it mean? Nine million new jobs, more people with healthcare and education, especially for those who didn’t have access to it before, there’s the RORO (roll on-roll off ships of the nautical highway) that connected our nation like never before, and from almost nothing, we have become a BPO (business process outsourcing) powerhouse, all the while we were paying our financial obligations. And then if you just look at the skyline of Manila and of Cebu, how they have changed in the past 10 years. There are more buildings, malls, small businesses.”
Asked to react to criticisms that these gains have not trickled down to the poorest of the poor, she said: “First of all, the poverty rate has gone down in my administration compared to the previous years. But of course, if you’re talking about from 49 to 23 percent of whatever it is, there’s still that number that are poor.”
Unwilling to offer any criticism to her most vocal of critics, she explains, “What for? I’ve never returned the negative feelings. I’m only matapang (stern) to people accountable to me. I get mad because of what they did, not the person.”
Horn, who is also Arroyo’s current spokesperson, adds, “Even now, we will speak when we need to speak. We choose our battles. We choose issues we comment on. Why glorify them?”
There were times when the urge to engage was strong, but Arroyo says, “Maybe because as what St. Paul said, ‘Let God be your lawyer’… I don’t get out of my way to reach out; on the other hand, I don’t do an aggressive act.”
Looking back, does she feel she has been under-appreciated and unfairly judged?
“Well, I would have wished that there was less negativism. That’s part of what I’ve been saying about how I see the Philippines. We’re not one country but we’re like two countries with the same name. There’s the one Philippines, that’s the economy, which after many years of cumulative effort, we’re taking off. Then there’s the other Philippines, which is the political system, after many years of degeneration also, it’s becoming a hindrance to progress.”
“I tried to be philosophical about it,” she summed up her experiences, including the crises, the sacrifices, and the tumult. “You know, it was a big honor to serve the Philippines, I am gratified because I was able to deliver what I wanted to do.”
Asked if she looks forward to the day when history will cast her in a more positive light, Arroyo said: “Of course I care, but most importantly, I let God take care of the rest.”
PHOTO: GMA and family members attending a Mass.