ZTE lunch was ‘turning point’ — De Venecia

By Norman Bordadora
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:53:00 06/02/2008

MANILA, Philippines—The lunch hosted by executives of ZTE Corp. of China for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Shenzhen in November 2006 was the “turning point” for the government policy of building a National Broadband Network (NBN), former Speaker Jose de Venecia said over the weekend.

De Venecia said that before the lunch tendered by the Chinese telecom executives, Ms Arroyo was for in favor of undertaking the NBN through a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme which would not have cost the Philippine government anything.

“But after the golf game, during lunch, it changed,” De Venecia said in an interview.

De Venecia was with Ms Arroyo’s party during that visit to China. The meeting with ZTE executives for a round of golf and lunch in Shenzhen was kept secret by Malacañang.

Asked if by “changed” he meant that the project would no longer be a BOT undertaking, the Pangasinan lawmaker said: “Yes. It was the turning point.”

ZTE eventually won the contract through a government-to-government deal that stipulated that China would lend the Philippines the money for the project. But the project was cancelled after the Senate opened an inquiry into reports of bribes and kickbacks in the $329-million deal.

Timing not right

De Venecia, who was ousted from the House leadership earlier this year after his son—a rival bidder for the project—linked the President’s husband Jose Miguel Arroyo to the NBN deal, gave no more information about the lunch meeting.

The Pangasinan lawmaker said he was still not ready to take the stand before the Senate blue ribbon committee to finish the story of that secret lunch meeting.

He said he had just recovered from the flu and would undergo a medical checkup this week to make sure he is in top shape physically when he finally decides to “tell all” about the ZTE-NBN deal.

He also reiterated his worries about the timing of his testimony and said it may be prudent to wait until the crisis brought about by the high cost of fuel and food has somehow eased.

Opposition leaders, among them former President Joseph Estrada, have expressed impatience over De Venecia’s hesitation in talking to the Senate.

Estrada, in a phone interview Saturday night, said De Venecia would have to brace himself for the backlash of his testimony, but he should testify “if he is serious about his own advocacy of a moral revolution.”

Senate President Manuel Villar had hinted that De Venecia could find the tables turned against him once he takes his seat at the Senate committee hearing. Nobody can stop any senator from asking De Venecia about his involvement in contracts other than the ZTE-NBN deal, Villar said.

In the end, the decision on whether or not to testify lies with De Venecia. “He knows what will happen or what will not happen more than anyone of us,” Villar said in an interview over dzBB ratio.

’I’ve nothing to hide’

De Venecia’s testimony was sought after pictures taken by a member of the party showed him with Ms Arroyo playing golf in Shenzhen with persons who were presumably ZTE officials.

De Venecia, however, dismissed insinuations he was delaying his testimony before the Senate because he was afraid the inquiry would lead to other controversial deals, some of which have been linked to him.

“I can’t wait to explain these deals. I have nothing to hide,” De Venecia said.

But De Venecia again stressed the need for “proper timing.”

Threat of martial law

He warned of the administration turning to martial law if a highly charged political issue worsened the economic situation.

“I do not wish to add to the problems facing our government and our people. And I certainly do not wish to create a political crisis that could provoke a declaration of martial law in any manner or form,” De Venecia said in a statement.

“I know that we Filipinos are used to living on the brink of political crisis but the national and global situation right now may be even more serious than we ourselves imagine,” he added.

De Venecia said that the ZTE-NBN controversy may prevent the country’s political and economic leaders from dealing with the steeply rising cost of living “in unity.”

Bracing for protracted war

On his concerns over his health, De Venecia said that he needed to be assured he is in top shape physically to take on what he believes will be a lengthy process.

“(In April), I was brought unconscious to a hospital in Doha, Qatar, after I delivered a speech and before my flight to South Africa (for the International Parliamentary Union conference). I have to fully regain my health,” De Venecia said.

“I have decided not to speak out on the ZTE scandal at this particular time. For I believe that when I testify it will be the beginning of a protracted and long drawn-out conflict and I must stay the course,” he added.

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