"It was about 11 o'clock. I was coming home from a dinner alone, with my driver. A car in back of us started firing. There were two gunmen. One pulled out my driver and finished him off. The other went to the right side of the car and fired . . .
"Five bullets entered my back. One broke five ribs. One was half a centimeter to the left of my spine; another was two centimeters to the right. And one bullet hit my left elbow" -- there is a pause, a half-smile and a palms-up gesture of thanks be to God or fate or whatever -- "and I survived!"
The man proffers coffee from a silver urn on the gleaming table in his Massachusetts Avenue office.
His assailants were never found. "I had bodyguards after that." A wise smile crosses his face. "Supplied by the palace of Marcos."
The new Philippine ambassador, Emmanuel N. Pelaez, views life with soft humor and the slight detachment born of surviving many political winds in his 71 years. He looks and acts astonishingly youthful, with thick gray and brown hair, and a face less lined than that of someone a decade younger. As he moves quickly about the Philippine Embassy, wearing brown loafers and a pale tan suit, there is no sign of the pounding his body took from bullets four years ago. Or the more than six months it took him to recuperate.
Pelaez was once a lonely voice in the Philippine general assembly, denouncing President Ferdinand Marcos' coconut monopoly, which taxed the small coconut planters. His colleagues, he says, were "either scared or benefited from the monopoly. This money was put into a kitty and disposed of by the president's cronies. And there would be no accounting. The coconut producers would lose about 30 percent of their crops' real value -- a terrific drain from the economy in rural areas," where many such farmers were living in poverty even before enactment of the tax. The levy brought in something like $1 billion dollars.
The night Pelaez was shot, he says, he had just returned from helping an exporter load 5,000 tons of coconuts bought from farmers at a higher price than the Marcos monopoly was paying them. "That was 1 million pesos, which otherwise would have been lost to the small people." The attempt to assassinate him came about "apparently because they saw this challenge -- whoever they were."
Pelaez had been a distinguished lawyer and assemblyman before Marcos declared martial law and abolished the Senate in 1972. Six years later, "when Marcos decided to restore the legislative arm, he called us former senators and told us it was going to be a brand-new assembly." He appealed to Pelaez and others, saying he needed them to help guide it. "So I ran -- only to find out that he gave control to his own henchmen."
But Pelaez had not initially opposed Marcos. "Manila was beginning to be known as a Wild West city, and he restored peace and order," he says. "They collected something like 650,000 pieces of firearms. There would be boxes placed at strategic spots and people surrendered them."
Pelaez laughs at the "austerity" of the early Marcos regime when the slogan was "National Discipline for Progress." Later, "we knew that this was the most corrupt regime. But -- my God," says Pelaez, in a whisper, "the extent!" The millions of dollars, the thousands of pairs of shoes, the jewelry and the billions in real estate, wealth far more vast than anyone would need, Pelaez says, were the product of "insatiable greed coupled with perpetual adolescence." Marcos and his wife Imelda, he says, "believed above all else that economic affluence had political power. They always bought their way in."
Still, Pelaez seems to admire Imelda Marcos' chutzpah. The Philippines "had a very unpleasant time" with Libya in 1976, "when Libyan money was funding unrest among Philippine Moslems. What Imelda did was go directly to Qaddafi." Pelaez chuckles. "She was effective."
"She waited for hours to see Qaddafi. And then when she learned that Qaddafi's father still lived in a tent, literally, in the desert, she went with her whole entourage and engaged the old man in conversation, gave him gifts. And this touched the old man." His present boss, Corazon Aquino, would be above that sort of manipulation, he says.
Pelaez's grandfather was an early settler of Mindanao, and in 1870 "literally cut down the forests and started planting coconuts." His father was also a coconut planter, but from childhood, Pelaez planned to be a lawyer.
"You have to go back to the Spanish period. All those years were punctuated by rebellions. We managed to overthrow the Spaniards. By a quirk of fate" -- the Spanish-American War -- "we had the Americans there, sitting in the boats. The Spaniards would not surrender to the Filipinos; they engineered a fake battle in which they surrendered to the Americans."
"I compare the United States to a golfer that sends his ball into the sand trap and then recovers beautifully. The military administration of Theodore Roosevelt was replaced by a civilian administration, headed by William Howard Taft." Pelaez says his name almost reverently. "He laid down the foundation of the Philippine government and brought the young American teachers who became the backbone of the Philippine education system."
A proud, colonized people, used to racial subjugation, the Filipinos found that under the Americans "we could talk our heads off -- as long as we didn't take up arms." His generation was "born in an environment of freedom" and by 1935, the Philippines was a commonwealth, similar to Puerto Rico. "As a result, when the Japanese came, we fought on your side." Pelaez became a lawyer because "the heroes of my youth were the leaders of the lobby that used to come to the United States and plead for Philippine independence, and in my view you had to be a lawyer in order to argue successfully." The independence movement never turned to violence in any strength because the United States "always held out the hope that this could be settled peacefully. And it was." The Philippines gained independence in 1945.
After World War II, Pelaez made a colorful entry into politics in the case of the "postliberation beer scandal." When the Japanese surrendered, the United States had a huge stockpile of food and materials that were simply transferred to the Philippine government without any assessment or accounting.
"Among the stockpiles was a very big stock of beer . . . in the hundreds of thousands of cases. The Senate president connived with a Chinese merchant and manipulated things so as to award this huge stockpile of beer to the Chinese." The Senate president became very rich in kickbacks. "I was called to become counselor of the committee that investigated." As a result of the investigation, the Senate president was found guilty and deposed -- and Pelaez was swept into elective office as an assemblyman.
Today he is pushing for yet another recovery of goods -- those taken by Marcos. "There is no question morally," he says, that there should be a mandatory return, but Pelaez recognizes the slow necessity of "due process."
bat16 Pelaez was "comfortable in retirement" when Corazon Aquino appealed to him in her fight against Marcos. His private life was rich: a 47-year marriage, nine children and 29 grandchildren.
One night during the Aquino campaign, Pelaez met Aquino at a party. "She said she was drawing up a list of advisers and there was one person missing, and that was me. She asked me to join. So I campaigned actively for her."
The government is settling into its new, raw stage of running a problem-plagued country with many unemployed. Gone are the cheering mobs of millions, the election where people risked death to vote, the victory that moved the world. Pelaez, asked if he is sanguine about the future, says: "Sanguine, no. There are a lot of problems. But possible, yes. In all modesty, we know we can't get out of this hole by ourselves."
For 30 years, Pelaez has been in on negotiations to settle the thorny problem of U.S. bases in the Philippines. He allows himself to speak as drily and pointedly as the ambassador in him will allow. "It used to be 'American bases' but there has been a change in nomenclature. Now they are 'Philippine bases' -- on which 'American facilities' are placed.
"The Pentagon now has a proposal to spend a million and a half dollars on housing for servicemen on both bases. The materials would come from the U.S., prefab. But we could build those homes for much less -- and it would create so many jobs for Filipinos."
Pelaez has brought this up with authorities in the State Department and the Pentagon. What does he think will happen?
The sigh sounds negative, but the answer is again a guarded ambassadorial one.
"I don't know," says the 71-year-old survivor of Philippine and American politics. "I'm new on the job."