Ex-Leader Awaits Another Chance in Philippines
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
TANAY, Philippines -- He hobnobbed with President Bill Clinton at the White House. He shook Nelson Mandela's hand when Mandela became South Africa's president. These days, Joseph Estrada, ousted president of the Philippines, talks to his ducks.
"I tell them to have more babies," deadpans the man who led his country from 1998 to 2001.
Estrada, 68, is under house arrest while he waits for a special corruption court in Manila, where he is on trial, to decide whether to set him free or lock him up for life. He has been charged with amassing a fortune of nearly $75 million from gambling kickbacks and skimmed tobacco taxes.
"Those are all trumped-up charges," he said with a harrumph, sitting in a guesthouse overlooking a lagoon. "I haven't taken a single cent from government coffers."
Confined to a secluded vacation home about 90 minutes north of Manila, the former freewheeling, highflying president is living in a rustic Filipino Neverland. His companions are a cell phone, a 30-inch plasma TV, the occasional political visitor, and a life-size statue of himself.
"From president to prisoner," he said. "Can you imagine that?"
His 45-acre estate is far beyond the average Filipino's means, with a mahogany-floored, Spanish-tiled house, a lagoon stocked with black-necked swans and ducks from Beijing, a saloon, an aviary, a chapel and a corral.
He has spent four years in detention, including two years in a veterans hospital.
Now he is raising pigs and planning a Joseph Estrada museum, modeled after Ronald Reagan's ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. "My idol," he said, "is President Reagan." Like the late president, Estrada was an actor who became a politician.
His life is a whisper of his old lavish lifestyle, which abounded with Bordeaux, beautiful women and influential buddies. Gone are the all-night gatherings, the games of mah-jongg with stakes as high as $500,000, the buffets of roasted pig, lobster and giant prawns. On a recent Saturday afternoon he dined on hot dogs and pasta with soft drinks.
Detention has aged the former movie star, whose eyes are slightly clouded, though his hair is still thick and black. Replacement surgery in December left him with two titanium knees and a slight limp.
Vilified by his opponents in the camp of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, he is a near deity to his supporters among the millions of poor Filipinos. "I'm doing nothing here, just feeding my ducks," says the man better known in this nickname-loving country as Erap, which is Filipino for buddy spelled backward. "And my rating goes up. That's my consolation."