An open letter to Estela V. Sales, Department of Finance undersecretary

I read with great interest the Business Mirror article in which you were reported to have bristled at how Representive Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. “unfairly” portrayed your department as a “voracious tax collector” in imposing duties on imported books, a move that is codified in Department of Finance (DOF) Department Order 17-09. You claimed to have “studied the matter thoroughly and consulted with certain people so as not to provoke adverse reaction”.

Despite the so-called thoroughness of your study and the presumed expertise of your consultants, you know all too well that you have, in fact, provoked adverse reactions, not only from Filipinos–such as the several thousand members of Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books by Customs–but also from book lovers around the world, among them prominent writers like Robin Hemley and Neil Gaiman. I would even go as far as to say that the DOF and its bureaus, especially the Bureau of Customs (BOC), to which the dubious honor of collecting the book duties falls, generally provoke adverse reactions due to corruption, incompetence, and disingenuousness–of which your published statements are truly wonderful specimens. (That you are in charge of the Revenue Integrity Protection Service, the anti-corruption arm of the DOF, is a fine example of irony.) I must say that I heartily agree with you: you did not “suddenly [find] enlightenment” regarding book duties, because enlightenment is not the same thing as “imagination bordering on delusion“, to use Locin’s pungent phrase.

If it is enlightenment you are after, I believe I can be of some assistance. Are you familiar with “The Monkey and the Cat” by the French poet Jean de la Fontaine? If you are not, I strongly suggest that you read it. (Please do not worry–it is not a novel. I would never think to recommend something decidedly non-educational.) It is a fable from which the phrase “cat’s paw” is derived–a phrase that, according to Merriam-Webster, means “one used as a tool by another”.

Has it occurred to you that you are a cat’s paw for your boss, Secretary Margarito B. Teves, and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, at whose pleasure Teves serves? With the sole exception of BOC deputy commissioner Alex Arevalo, who is probably even more delusional than you are, all official statements regarding the book blockade have come from you, which has the effect of turning you into a target for public outrage. Granted, you may act as you wish with relative impunity because you do not hold an elective position. But you ought to ask yourself if it is fair that you bear the brunt of the growing protests against the taxation of books. Do you see yourself in the role of martyr, perhaps? If so, what reward have you been promised or are hoping for? And will such reward be ultimately worth it?

You see, the path to enlightenment is a path of constant questioning, a path where answers are always only provisional. I wonder what answers you will come up with. You will certainly not find them in a book, which is doubtless a relief to you.

Regardless, you may rest assured that your belligerent challenge to book lovers to sue the government will soon be taken up. University of the Philippines College of Law Dean Marvic Leonen has expressed interest in filing a case. And we book lovers have other resources at our disposal, not least of which is the Internet. Mind you, Ms. Sales, that a U.S. Embassy official stated that the power and reach of the Internet as an organizational tool in the Philippines has been “greatly underestimated“. You would do well not to commit that same mistake.

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