Miriam Defensor-Santiago will be alright

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Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago prepares for an interview with CNN Philippines at the tail end of her third presidential campaign. She previously ran for the highest elected position in the country in 1992 and 1998. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Miriam Defensor-Santiago is feeling well today. She climbs down the stairs unassisted. During the interview, she talks freely and constantly. She takes a break just once, and only because the cameraman has to change his tapes.

It’s a far cry from her performance in the final presidential debate just two days before. Onstage, she was visibly weak. Her answers were broken up by long, erratic pauses. At one point, she completely missed a question — unthinkable for a politician known and feared for her quick wit and even quicker tongue.

According to her staff, the heat and the considerable amount of time spent on her feet took their toll on the senator. Today, in her home, she is clearly more comfortable. She tours everyone around the house, jokes gamely about her fellow politicians (“morons are forever”), and opens up about her decades-long career in public service.

Of course, Santiago’s cancer, at stage IV, is still very real. There are small signs of it around the house. The bottles of pills in the kitchen, and the schedule on which she must take them, pinned up on the wall. The help watch her every move closely in case she needs anything.

It’s been almost two years since Santiago announced that she was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. She says that after the doctor told her that, she went home, dropped to her knees, and started crying. At night, she lay in bed, “waiting for God to send the Angel of Death.” “My attitude, naturally, was one of frustration, injustice,” she admits.

Miriam Defensor-Santiago Pia Hontiveros Santiago takes a break from her interview with Pia Hontiveros, Chief Correspondent for CNN Philippines. During their conversation, the senator talked about her cancer, comeback, and candidacy. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA  

But then, undeterred, she decided to fight back. With advice from her sister Linnea, a doctor in the U.S., she enrolled in clinical trials to try new drugs that could help fight her cancer. Very few cancer patients will seek out these trials. The risks can be high and the rewards uncertain. But according to her aides, Santiago has never really been the type to back down from a challenge, no matter how slim the odds.

She first took Tarceva, an oral chemotherapy drug. The side effects were punishing: She could barely walk and her skin became so sensitive that her nails caused her fingertips to bleed. But for the most part, it worked. That is, until she started developing a resistance toward it.

Today, to combat this setback, Santiago is taking the so-called “magic” pill, a coded drug yet to be released to the market. Her balance is still a little bit off, and she needs to take short breaks once in a while to catch her breath. Nonetheless, she says she’s almost back to normal.

God must have something else planned for her, Santiago reckons. Whatever it is, she aims to make the most of it. “I intend to live a full and fulfilled life,” she says, “because I did not die after cancer stage IV!”

So, what does Santiago decide to do the moment she feels better? She runs for president.

Frank and fearless

It’s impossible to walk around Santiago’s house without being overwhelmed by the sheer number of accolades she’s collected over the years. The Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Outstanding Young Men Award for Law, the Gran Cruz de Dama del Merito Civil, the University of the Philippines Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award, the Philippines Judges’ Association Hall of Fame Award ... You name it, she’s probably got it put up on a pedestal in her living room.

It was clear to see early on that Santiago was brilliant. She topped her classes, attended the best universities, and worked for some of the most prominent organizations. But to say that she rose to fame simply because of her intellect would be an injustice. Santiago is frank and fearless, with a work ethic that saw her process the most number of cases in the Quezon City regional trial court during her first year as a judge.

Miriam Defensor-Santiago portraits “I intend to live a full and fulfilled life,” Santiago says, “because I did not die after cancer stage IV!” Portraits by JAKE VERZOSA  

Perhaps the defining moment in her career was her stint as Immigration Commissioner during Cory Aquino’s presidency. The agency was infamous for producing fake documents in exchange for bribes, taken advantage of by overstaying foreigners and international criminal syndicates. It was Santiago’s first stint at the executive level, but she displayed an astute mix of high-level policymaking and common sense to deliver immediate results. She granted amnesty to “desirable” aliens and focused the agency’s resources on deporting those linked to heinous crimes. The hefty fees charged for alien legalization went to salary increases and overtime pay for Immigration employees to improve their working conditions and deter extortion. This move was not without backlash, both from within the government and without. Faced with pressure to stop the reforms, she gamely challenged her detractors, saying, “Gentlemen, make my day.”

It was rare to see someone stand so steadfastly against rampant corruption in the wake of martial law and the fragile state it left behind. It was even rarer that it was all coming from a woman. One magazine dubbed her “The Iron Lady of Asia.” Another proclaimed, “Watch out, bad guys — Miriam’s coming.” She says with a hint of pride, “I started a trend of female politicians shooting guns on magazine covers.”

As Santiago runs her third presidential campaign — the most of any politician in the post-EDSA era — many are prompted to ask: Why?

She first ran at the height of her career in 1992 and still lost by a hair to Fidel Ramos. With fewer than a million votes between them, she claims she was cheated, as power outages disrupted the manual count. She attempted a comeback in the next presidential election, in 1998, but this time, she barely scraped together 800,000 votes, finishing seventh in a field of 10. It doesn't seem like it will be third time’s the charm either, since she sits at last place in this presidential race.

So, why? Why bother to try again? Well, given her caliber and her track record, why not?

Miriam Defensor-Santiago home It’s been almost two years since Santiago announced that she was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. Today, she is taking the so-called “magic” pill, a coded drug yet to be released to the market. Her balance is still a little bit off, and she needs to take short breaks once in a while to catch her breath. Nonetheless, she says she’s almost back to normal. Photo by JAKE VERZOSA  

Santiago may be far from perfect, and she may no longer be as winnable as she once was, but there is a broad agreement even among her rivals that she is arguably the most capable candidate to take the helm.

And Santiago is a politician comfortable with her legacy. She knows she will not be judged based on one electoral loss — or even three. Maybe it’s sympathy, maybe it’s respect, maybe politicians all grow in the esteem of their constituents once the worst has passed. But some would even go so far as to say that Santiago could be the best president this country never had.

Anchor and sanctuary

When this is all over, Santiago plans to take a sabbatical, get some rest, and spend time with her grandchildren. She thinks cancer has taught her to slow down and change her perspective. She used to zip from place to place and meeting to meeting, working long days and nights. But every frantic life needs an anchor, she says, and hers has been her family.

She says she no longer worries about how she will be remembered when her political career comes to a close. What good will it do her to be remembered by strangers when she is six feet under? I want to be remembered only in the memories of my own family,” she says. “That I was a caring grandmother, that I was always equitable, that I was always reasonable, that I was always supportive, no matter what happened.”

Her face changes when she talks about her family — especially when it’s about her grandchildren. There is a softness not usually seen in her, and it’s clear that she dotes on them. “They’re all scheduled for law school,” she shares proudly. “They’re very assertive. Even I can’t get a word in!”

Miriam Defensor-Santiago interview home Santiago says that her home, where the interview was held, has been her sanctuary, especially after a difficult couple of years — a place where she is “welcomed with the same open arms because they know that policies come and go, victory and defeat are the same.” Photo by JAKE VERZOSA  

The senator’s house is grand and palatial, a fact that should come as no surprise. But it is also warm and lived in, as though kids have run around its rooms and played on the sofas and even caused an expensive vase to break at some point. Amid all the awards garnered over the years and the treasures collected from travels around the world — it’s the family mementos that take pride of place in the center of Santiago’s living room: wedding portraits, photos of kids and grandkids, Christmas cards scrawled in crayon.

Santiago says this has been her sanctuary, especially after a difficult couple of years — a place where she is “welcomed with the same open arms because they know that policies come and go, victory and defeat are the same.”

“That is the essence, I think, of family love,” she says. “That you should be the comfort and the haven of a person who is battered by the world. When he or she comes home, there should be a presence there that enables him [or her] to still make sense out of an irrational world.”

Santiago faces many important battles right now, but they don't bother her too much anymore. She likely won't win all of them, but she knows she will be alright.

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Watch the full interview below: