FAST BACKWARD: Marcos’ cigar gift for Kennedy

In a visit to Davao by Chinese envoy to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua on October 5, 2018, he gifted the city with thirteen, 4-storey school buildings as an appreciation of the country’s policy towards China. Embellishing the donation was the promised furnishings and teaching tools for pupils, both elementary and high school.

Gift, as a way of showing goodwill, is an ancient tradition. When the Butuan king sent a tribute mission to China on October 3, 1003, the emissaries brought red parrots and tortoise shell. Eight years later, another Butuan king sent an envoy to China “with a message inscribed on a gold tablet and gifts like ‘White Dragon’ camphor, cloves from Moluccas and a slave.”

In 1417, the king of Sulu known as Paduka Pahala (who died in China) led a tribute mission. With him were two Muslim leaders and an entourage of three hundred forty members, including the king’s two wives and three sons. Like the Butuan mission, he carried with him pearls, tortoise shell, precious stones and a “memorial inscribed on gold.”

Interestingly, on May 29, 1962, then Senate President Ferdinand E. Marcos sent a brown wooden humidor or cigar box with Manila cigars to American President John F. Kennedy’s on his 45th birthday. At Guerney’s online auction website, the gift, which was later up for bid for a minimum of US$6,000 in 2017, was described as follows:

“[It is] an iron-hinged box… made of lacquered mahogany and bears a silver nameplate reading, ‘John F. Kennedy,’ on the lid’s top left corner. The inside lid of the box is engraved with the logo of ‘Manila Cigars, A Product of Tabacalera,’ which is a four-part coat-of-arms topped with a crown. Four removable cedar panels line the interior sides of the base.”

To ensure the gift was authentic, its bottom part had a stamp denoting it was from the Philippines and it passed the Tobacco Inspection Service of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) which certified it as “hand-made, long-filler cigars from tobacco grown in the Cagayan Valley.”

According to records, the cigar box was later given to Jack Spangenberg, Kennedy’s butler, by First Lady Jackie Kennedy shortly after the president’s death. Overall, there were four cigarette boxes Marcos gave to Kennedy, one of which sold at an auction price of US$8,250 by Los Angeles auction house Nate D. Sanders.

Today, giving gifts to public officials, especially for the chief executive of a sovereign nation, is strictly restricted, although it is allowed in minimal amounts, depending of the legal limitations embodied in certain laws. In the Philippines, for instance, gifting public officials has since been defined under Republic Act No. 6731, which was approved on February 20, 1989.

RA 6713, otherwise known as the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees,” is aptly titled as “an act establishing a code of conduct and ethical standards for public officials and employees, to uphold the time-honored principle of public office being a public trust, granting incentives and rewards for exemplary service, enumerating prohibited acts and transactions and providing penalties for violations thereof.”

The law defines “gift” as “a thing or a right to dispose of gratuitously, or any act or liberality, in favor of another who accepts it, and shall include a simulated sale or an ostensibly onerous disposition thereof. It shall not include an unsolicited gift of nominal or insignificant value not given in anticipation of, or in exchange for, a favor from a public official or employee.”

It also describes the receipt of any gift as “the act of accepting directly or indirectly, a gift from a person other than a member of his family or relative… even on the occasion of a family celebration or national festivity like Christmas, if the value of the gift is neither nominal nor insignificant, or the gift is given in anticipation of, or in exchange for, a favor.”

Gift-giving, however, has evolved with new and clever schemes used to make it appear that there is no bribery, or no grease money is surreptitiously passed in exchange of a favorable treatment extended either in the processing of papers or in the release of project funds.

In refining the art of gift-giving, which is synonymous with inducement, the present now comes in the form of money deposited in the bank and withdrawable by automatic teller machine, car keys to a brand-new vehicle, travel tickets to expensive destinations, houses, lots, jewelry, lavish banquet, paintings, and more.

The sophistication that comes with gift-giving (also known as corruption) is largely an offshoot of the numerous restrictions that laws governing the conduct of people in the bureaucracy impose. With gratitude becoming a part of the wheeler-dealing, there seems to be an urge to reciprocate the favor by extending this utang na loob in ways that are covert and clandestine.

Between highest officials of nations, gift-giving amounts to building goodwill, strengthening ties, or simply appreciating an invitation. The late John T. Noonan, Jr., senior judge of the US Court of Appeals, once said: “A gift can be disclosed, [but] a bribe needs to be concealed.”

“A gift becomes a bribe,” the Wikipedia explains, “when its primary purpose is to gain special treatment from an authority figure, especially when there is no other likely reason for the gift. Particularly, if the giving of the gift is made in secret concealed from public awareness.”