U.S. HAND IN OUSTER OF
CABINET MEN BARED
(Daily Express, Manila)
The most remarkable thing about Lorenzo Tanada’s eighty-eighth birthday party on August 10 was the cake. Tanada, a former senator, has had a long and consistent career as a “nationalist.” Although Filipino wags love to tell you that Tani, as the senator is known to his friends, hardly knows the difference between Groucho and Karl, his brand of nationalism has been defined over the years by such Marxist historians as Renato Constantino, whose books fill long shelves in Manila bookstores. Tani’s nationalism is a struggle for liberation from, among other egregious enemies, the CIA, the IMF, multinationals, the US military bases, in short, American imperialism. As Constantino pointed out in a speech during Tani’s birthday party, the senator was born in the same year that Commodore Dewey sank the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. He is still battling what Constantino calls “the forces responsible for our lack of independence.”
The nationalist birthday party was organized by a group called Bayan, a nationwide organization of so-called cause-oriented groups with strong links with the Communist party of the Philippines (CPP). The wild cheers that greeted the representatives from the Cuban and Vietnamese embassies were thus to be expected. Even the almost hysterical joy with which a whole row of nuns acclaimed a birthday message from the National Democratic Front (NDF), an organization virtually indistinguishable from the CPP, did not seem out of place. Nor, this being the Philippines, did the entire congregation singing “Happy Birthday to You” in English seem especially incongruous.
It was, as I said, the cake that was most curious. It was a huge slab of confectionary upon which artful chefs had re-created the February revolt. There were sugar barricades in front of camps Crame and Aguinaldo; there were little toy nuns defying little toy tanks; there were chocolate signposts pointing to the US embassy and Subic Bay naval base; there were miniature helicopters hovering overhead. This splendid cake was further embellished with marzipan hand grenades. What was peculiar, however, was the depiction of People Power itself: there were no yellow banners, signifying the spirit of the Aquinos—the late husband and his widow—just red ones representing militant trade unions and leftist groups. This was strange because it was false. People Power was overwhelmingly yellow, moderate and religious. The left had missed the bus in February. History was rewritten in the icing of Tani’s cake.
According to this version of history the leftists are the only true representatives of Filipino nationalist aspirations; the only legitimate heirs to the 1896 revolution against Spain, which, according to received wisdom in leftist circles—and increasingly beyond—was robbed by the Americans and betrayed by the Filipino elite. The February revolt was only the beginning. It is now up to the left to finish the job. As a writer in a left-wing magazine put it, “People Power must be transformed into People’s Power”—as in People’s Republic.
The birthday cake was also an example of the extraordinary confusion, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not, of symbols in the Philippines today. This is partly a question of language. An editorial writer for a Sunday newspaper pointed out that
the top leaders and private educators speak English while the masses speak the vernacular. Because of “the lack of a common language from which flows the soul and aspirations of Filipinos,” we remain today still a divided and weak nation.
Perhaps because no language can properly articulate the national experience, past or present, Filipinos tend to express the common cause in symbols—hand gestures, religious objects, jokes, T-shirt slogans, colors, pictures. This is why it is always dangerous to take words at face value in the Philippines; language itself is so often symbolic, based on borrowed rhetoric, expressing a vision of reality instead of what merely exists. There are now more than twenty daily newspapers in Manila, most of which are in English. From one sensational headline to another, they offer widely different interpretations of the same events. This points to a problem that goes beyond language, a problem hinted at in a poem by Alfredo Navarro Salanga, entitled “A Philippine History Lesson.”
It’s a history that
moves us away
from what we are
We call it names
assign it origins
and blame the might
That made Spain right
This is what it amounts to:
we’ve been bitten off, excised
from the rind of things
What once gave us pulp
has been chewed off
One is struck by the Rashomon-like quality of almost any event in the Philippines, beginning with the February revolt itself. To some it was a revolt, to others a revolution, to others yet a religious miracle. Jaime Cardinal Sin reminded his flock in a pastoral letter in August that divine intervention brought about the success of the February events. He called it a modern-day exodus that was the gift of Mary to the Filipino nation after the one-year celebration of her two-thousandth birthday. There is an exhibition in Manila of paintings and sculptures depicting the revolt, revolution, or miracle. Most of the works are symbolic: M-16 guns with yellow ribbons tied to them; nuns praying for liberation from the “Marcos-US dictatorship”; ghastly skulls draped in a bloody American flag; nice middle-class people dressed in yellow holding back tanks; rosary beads held up to a vision of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino smiling from heaven; barbed wire from the barricades in the shape of the sacred crown of thorns; New People’s Army guerrillas marching to a glorious future, arm in arm with workers and priests waving red banners; a wounded Mother Filipinas, raped by American Imperialism, and so on and so forth. The only image lacking in this exhibition was the poster I saw elsewhere of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile looking like a bespectacled Rambo, bravely leading his armed troops to victory in Manila. After the exhibition I attended a PEN club meeting. Members discussed the topic for a forthcoming lecture. National Renewal and the Filipino Writer, suggested one person. No, National Revival, said another. No, Restoration. No, Reconstruction.
LOYALISTS IN NEW PLOT
TO TAKE OVER?
The feverish search for symbolic significance, for common cause, for anything to keep the February spirit alive, can lend a mythical quality to the most banal, even sordid events. In July a worker called Stephen Salcedo got caught up in a demonstration by Marcos supporters. Because he wore the wrong colored shirt, or made a provocative gesture, or perhaps both, he got beaten to death by a group of “loyalist” thugs. It caused a huge rumpus in the local press. One letter writer to a national magazine stated that
the innocent and hapless Stephen Salcedo died a martyr. Together with others like him, he is one of the YELLOW MARTYRS of our exodus to the promised land. May the blood of Stephen and his companion hasten our people’s passage to reconciliation.
The same magazine came out several weeks later with a serious article, entitled “What Two Martyrs Had in Common,” comparing Salcedo with “Ninoy” Aquino. Among other things, “both their surnames have three syllables and end with an O.” Perhaps, as an old Philippine hand pointed out, it is their misfortune that Filipinos have to express Malay mysticism in English. A month later a provincial prosecutor and prominent Marcos loyalist called Felizardo Lota was shot dead in front of the Manila Hilton. Several unsavory fellow loyalist types, including two former movie actors, were said to be involved. A sympathetic radio announcer said that “loyalists are proud to produce a real martyr” and that “Fiscal Lota sacrificed his life for the restoration of peace against violence, love against hatred and democracy against slavery.”
I met a former official spokesman for Ferdinand Marcos at a radical chic party, where society ladies looked on adoringly as José Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist party, sang “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at the piano. “Much though I hate to say this about my fellow countrymen,” said the spokesman, “Filipinos are not a serious people.” The wild flights of rhetoric, the instant mythology, the constant jokes, the substitution of analysis with sensational rumor, all these do indeed suggest an extraordinary degree of frivolity. But one should not be deceived by appearances. Fantasy is the last recourse of the dispossessed. And, to quote an old but still delightful cliché, three hundred years in a convent and forty years in Hollywood have left Filipinos culturally dispossessed. One is rather lost for words when a Filipino businessman tells one that “at this point in time we are not yet fully Filipino.” The quest for meaning and national pride may be pathetic but it is certainly serious.
It was to a large extent what the February events were all about. Marcos and his discredited government were the enemy, or in the parlance of the Church, “the forces of Evil”; Cory Aquino and her yellow crusaders were the forces of Good. But the ultimate aim of this moral revolt went further than ousting Marcos; it was the assertion of national pride, the celebration of a common cause, an occasion for feeling truly Filipino. James Fenton in The Snap Revolution caught this atmosphere well. After the fall of Marcos and the chaotic scenes in the Malacañang Palace, Fenton went out into the street with a happy Filipino. “All was quiet again. He had a glass of whiskey in his hand. He had been celebrating. ‘You don’t realize,’ he said, ‘how deep this goes. Nobody will call us cowards again. We’ve done it. We’ve had a peaceful revolution. We’ve beaten Poland.’ “
Earlier on Fenton bursts out to a group of NPA guerrillas:
Well, let me just say this. I think the worst thing the Americans have done recently, but I’m only talking about recently, has been over this election. To push Marcos for reform, to insist on an honest election when he offered one, to watch people go out and risk their lives and actually get killed in the hopes of an honest election—and then to turn around and pretend nothing has happened—I think that’s purely cynical. I think that what Reagan said about there having been cheating on both sides was absolutely wicked.
Fenton was quite right. It was wicked. But I think worse damage was done after the revolt, revealing stupidity more than wickedness. This was the self-congratulatory manner in which Washington officials claimed the revolt as an American success. They were applauded for this by most American columnists. Even Anthony Lewis, not normally a friend of this administration, chimed in by stating that “Reagan and his people responded to realities with great speed and impeccable timing.” Even if this were the case—and conspiracy-crazed Filipinos are quite ready to see the CIA behind everything that moves—it should not have been put in this simplistic way. Such statements were a kick in the teeth of Filipino nationalism. “Nobody will call us cowards again. We’ve done it”—and for the second time since 1898 the Americans were trying to take it away from them.
Courage is what Ninoy Aquino’s martyrdom signified to most Filipinos. The manner of his death gave courage to a people anxiously aware of their reputation for spinelessness. It was, as editorials still like to point out over and over again, a national awakening. Marcos, too, had often talked about the fearless “New Filipino.” But, as the British journalist Harvey Stockwin wrote in The South China Morning Post, this “was a classic illustration of a politician saying the opposite of what he really meant. What Marcos was really doing was to apply balm to the national pride he was constantly wounding with his threats, intimidation, harassment and violence.” Washington, first by publicly backing Marcos for too long and then by claiming credit for his demise, harmed its own interests and greatly strengthened the nationalist claims of the left, whose paranoia about American interference began to seem less paranoid.
(Philippine Daily Inquirer)
If it has done nothing else, Cory Aquino’s government has done everything to keep the symbols of February alive. Videotapes of the revolt are replayed endlessly on TV and sold at department stores and domestic airports. Philippine Airlines pilots announce the arrival in the New Philippines. The Filipina beauty at the Miss Universe contest proudly said she was from “People Power Philippines.” The death of Ninoy was commemorated on August 21 with a morbid passion. The assassination itself was shown over and over again in photographs, TV documentaries, special exhibitions, and in the theater. Ninoy’s bloody clothes were exhibited in an art gallery, as was the Aviation Security Command van that took his corpse away from the airport. The martyr’s death was reenacted in a musical entertainment with the entire Aquino family in attendance—Ninoy’s brother Butz was said to have been asked to play the part of the martyr. There are new songs celebrating the February events, and a large number of coffee-table books, of which the most beautiful is entitled Bayon Ko!, and the most interesting, People Power—not least because of its Rashomon-like quality; it being a collection of different eyewitness accounts.
Patriotism has become commercial. “We Carry a Truly Filipino Identity,” said an advertisement for the Chico Computer Research Corporation. The Philippine Transport Company commemorated Ninoy as “the great Filipino martyr of our time…who, with his death, gave life and a new beginning to the Filipino people.” Now the company has opened a new route, linking the main islands, so “that Filipinos may work closely together…sharing their hopes and aspirations with one another, as they commune in the spirit of unity freedom and national progress.”
It is still a fragile spirit and no amount of coffee-table books and TV spots can hide the deep anxieties expressed in such letters to newspapers as the one that asked, “Is the Filipino worth dying for? Certainly not now…. The Filipino flesh is one of the weakest in mankind.” Or the one after the murder of Stephen Salcedo which lamented, “We cannot wash ourselves of Stephen’s death…. Has the country of heroes once again become a country of cowards?” Or in Cardinal Sin’s statement that the gains of the February revolt are “little by little being lost…. Faces have indeed changed, but the ugly head of the evil one still shows itself in many ways.” Or in the fact that Filipino businessmen still refuse to invest in their own economy.
On August 21, just as Cory Aquino stood up at the Manila Hotel to make a speech about Ninoy on the anniversary of his death, and just as the TV documentary about Ninoy was reaching its fatal climax, the blackout hit. The whole island of Luzon was in the dark, causing pandemonium. A local radio station called on People Power to protect the New Philippines against a coup. Laoag International Airport in Ilocos Norte, where Marcos grew up, was closed, lest he might use the opportunity to fly home. The papers the next day speculated about sabotage. Ominous conclusions were drawn from the fact that the last blackout of similar magnitude—it lasted for eight hours—had been in 1983, on the day after Ninoy died. As the president rather hurriedly left the Manila Hotel ceremonies without delivering her speech, a member of her entourage said, “They cannot even let us enjoy our anniversary dinner.”
Who did she mean by “they”? The military? Defense Minister Enrile, who was otherwise engaged that night? The National People’s Army? The Marcos loyalists? A simple branch of a tree? All these possibilities were feverishly discussed in the press. No culprit was found. But, said one editorial, “the nation must maintain its vigilance…for the forces of evil are abroad in times of darkness.”
Some would call the rather pathetic group of people who gather every morning for breakfast at the 365 Club evil. They are mostly overweight men, wearing expensive but tasteless jewelry. Almost all lost their jobs after the February revolt. Most hope, rather against their better judgment, that Marcos will come back. But until that day they jump up to shake hands with Enrile, when he comes in on Saturday mornings with his bodyguards, and laugh uproariously at the defense minister’s jokes. This is where Enrile can relax with friends and talk about the Red menace in the government and other such popular topics at the 365. One of these friends, a fat man in a silk T-shirt, held forth about how the failed coup at the Manila Hotel had been set up by the Americans to discredit the loyalists. Heads nodded all around. This is the way it was.
The doyen of the 365 is not Enrile, however, but a newspaper columnist in his seventies called Teodoro Valencia. Doroy, as he is nicknamed, is a tall, thin man with a rasping voice and a cackling laugh. He speaks in the manner of his daily column, in wisecracks, eyeing his audience with the shrewd eyes of an old comedian, always watching the effect of his words. Doroy, through many years of service to the Marcos regime, has become a symbol of sycophancy. He has done well out of the last twenty years and under his own motto that “if you don’t brag in the Philippines, people will step on your head,” he likes telling people that he is the best-paid journalist in the country.
There is no reason to believe that Doroy particularly liked the Marcos couple; rather, as do so many, he likes power. The fact that he has not yet rallied round Cory Aquino’s flag is perhaps proof of the fragility of the new order. Nevertheless, he gave Mrs. Aquino his favorite Jaguar as a token of his esteem. “I am now down to my last three Mercedes Benzes” is one of his latest cracks. He claims to be happy to remain a Marcos loyalist. “If you support Cory, her people won’t like you because they think you want a slice of the cake. If you are a loyalist, people like you, as there is no cake to share. And never forget that this is a cake-sharing country.”
Since the turn of this century two families have shared most of the cake in Tarlac, a flat, rice- and sugar-rich province in central Luzon: the Aquinos and the Cojuancos. Cory Aquino was born a Cojuanco. Her cousin, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuanco, was Marcos’s most powerful “crony.” During the ancien régime he virtually owned the coconut industry and he also ran Tarlac. He fled with Marcos and now lives in Los Angeles. “He had a soft heart,” say his supporters, who, according to one of them, feel “like lost sheep without a shepherd.” The towns in northern Tarlac, where the soft-hearted Godfather lived, all have excellent roads, nice plazas, and were ruled by Danding’s “boys.” These boys lived in big houses, surrounded by armed men. The former provincial governor, Federico Peralta, was such a boy, as was his son, the former mayor of San Manuel. The son was last seen staggering around town shooting his revolver off into the air. The Officer in Charge who had taken over from him is the son of Peralta’s predecessor, a Ninoy Aquino man.
Governor Peralta is said to have made some of his fortune from American aid, which Danding procured for his boys’ towns. He is also said to have demanded a standard 10 percent of every contract for building roads, buildings, supermarkets, drainage systems, or anything else that brought in cash. He lived in a lavish mansion, built in the middle of a rice field behind Vic’s Minimart and Snackhouse. There, in the courtyard, next to the swimming pool, his body is now enshrined in a marble tomb bearing the somewhat ambiguous words: “Here lies a great and lowly man.” For Peralta was stabbed in his bed one night, shortly after the February revolt. The new OIC thinks it was a simple case of robbery.
According to another one of Danding’s boys, Rolando Sembrano, former mayor of Gerona, “what happened to Peralta was political.” Why? “Why? Well, we are all politicians, in or out of the government. We all have our interests to protect.” Sembrano was known by his opponents as the terror of the town. He took care that people voted Danding’s way during elections. He handled, as they say in the Philippines, the guns, the goons, and the gold. He appears genuinely indignant that he was replaced after February by an OIC, appointed by the revolutionary government. “I was ousted from my position mandated by the people. We are no longer governed by the rule of law.” When you hear someone talk about the rule of law these days, you know you are dealing with a loyalist. They have a point, of course, but it is one of the unfortunate ironies of the Philippines that the wrong people are saying the right things for the wrong reasons. There are many people like Mayor Sembrano, and they still have a lot of guns stashed away.
Who, according to people like Sembrano, had Peralta killed? Without presenting proof, they suspect the man who did so, in order to protect his own interests, is José “Peping” Cojuanco, brother and former campaign manager of Cory Aquino. He runs the family hacienda, Luisita, at six thousand acres the biggest sugar-growing hacienda in the province. It was once managed by Ninoy Aquino, who had a huge golf course built there to attract rich industrialists who might invest in the family enterprise. Peping used to be on excellent terms with his cousin Danding. They share a passion for fighting cocks. “An expensive hobby,” explained the hacienda manager, as he pointed to the long rows of cages surrounding the family compound. It is an impressive sight, those thousand or so cocks crowing at the Voice of America radio masts in the distance. The split between the cousins began in 1963, when they backed different mayors in their hometown. In 1965 they ran for election as congressmen. Danding was a Marcos man and won; Peping backed Aquino and lost. When Marcos came to power, bank loans to Hacienda Luisita dried up. The towns to the south of the hacienda were Aquino’s territory. Most of them, including Concepcion, where Ninoy was born, still lack properly paved roads.
Liborio de Jesus campaigned hard for Cory Aquino. He was a lawyer in the town of Tarlac before. Now he is director of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes, a highly profitable government enterprise. “Bor” also owns a restaurant in Tarlac, called Los Angeles, Freeway 101. I asked him about Peping. “He has a soft heart,” he said. “He takes good care of his people.” Bor cited the example of a retired colonel in Peping’s private security force, who is kept on the payroll as a consultant on the golf course. “With Peping’s blessing anyone can win an election in Tarlac. His mere presence as brother of the president is enough.” Bor hopes to run for congressman himself in the coming elections.
I asked him whether he was worried about the growing political power of the defense minister, Enrile. It seemed not: “We are preparing ourselves in the military. Don’t forget that we can offer the first prize; Enrile only second. Cory and Peping can grant promotions and assign people to lucrative commands.” Bor is nothing if not an honest man, with a clear understanding of Philippine realities.
Finally I asked him about the Peralta case. He did not believe in the political angle. He then ticked off the other possibilities: Peralta had some outstanding deals with building contractors, which he could no longer pay off after February; there might have been gambling debts; then again, he might have been involved in dispensing money that Danding left behind; and, besides, he was seen entering motels with married women. One of them was the wife of the prime suspect, a local police officer.
I said goodbye to Bor. In parting he said: “Our main problem is the economy. It all depends on you Americans. If our Big Brother can’t help and things don’t get better, we have to go back to the guns.”
If you take a bus from Tarlac, straight up the MacArthur Highway, you hit the Solid North, Marcos country. There, at the northern tip of Ilocos Norte, is a grand hotel in the colonial Spanish style called Fort Ilocandia. It was built in 1983, the year Ninoy died and Marcos’s daughter Irene got married in Sarrat, where Marcos was born, about five miles from the hotel. Fort Ilocandia was meant to accommodate the wedding guests who wished to stay on for a few days. It has about three hundred rooms, a nice pool, an excellent restaurant, and a discothèque. Things are not what they were before February; in the third week of August I was just about the only guest. I saw one other solitary figure, quietly drinking wine in the bar. A constant din of disco music kept all outside sounds from penetrating this palace in the dunes. The air conditioning was turned off and long-distance phone calls were impossible. The hotel, I was later informed, had difficulties paying its utility bills.
Not far from the hotel is another palace, the Malacañang of the north, where Marcos used to spend a few days a year playing golf. I asked the people who were sticking tags on the furniture—the place was being “inventorized”—why there were so many rusty golf carts in the garage. I was told they had been used once to transport the funeral procession for one of Marcos’s stillborn grand-daughters, who was buried in the nearby lake. The burial, the people said, was an old Ilocano custom to ward off bad luck.
Ilocanos are a clannish people with a history of emigration, a bit like the Scots; industrious, dour, and loyal. Most Filipinos in Hawaii are Ilocanos. Almost the entire upper echelon of Marcos’s armed forces was Ilocano, including General Fabian Ver, who was born in the same town as the former president. I once asked a bar girl in Manila what she thought of Marcos. “I love my president,” she said. Why so? “Because I am an Ilocana. And the president, he gave us all the American things.” She mentioned the nice roads, the overhead city railway in Manila, and some of Imelda’s white elephants, like the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
“Welcome to Laoag, Town of Discipline and Order,” says a sign as you drive into the main town of Ilocos Norte. There are quite a few “American things” to be seen. The main roads are excellent—though not the back streets. There is a conspicuous number of banks offering special US dollar accounts—to handle remittances from abroad, I was told. And there is a recruitment office for the US Navy, which handles hundreds of applicants a month. Two family names appear to dominate the place: Marcos and Ablan. Among other family monuments, there is a Marcos Hall of Justice and a Marcos Museum of Costumes, “Given to President Ferdinand E. Marcos as a birthday present by Madam Imelda Romualdez Marcos.” There is an Ablan Hall of Heroes, a Roque Ablan shrine. And Ablan Day is celebrated every year on the anniversary of Governor Roque Ablan, Sr.’s birthday.
Ablan senior was provincial governor before the war. He disappeared mysteriously in the early 1940s, when he fought the Japanese as a guerrilla fighter (hence the Hall of Heroes). He had been kind to the young Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused in 1939 of gunning down the man who beat his father in the congressional polls. Marcos has been kind to the Ablans ever since. Roque Ablan, Jr., was acting governor for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., before stepping down after the February events. The OIC, Castor Raval, is an old lawyer in his seventies, the only man to be found with any credibility as an anti-Marcos man. (The OIC mayor of Laoag is in his eighties.) Raval has been in opposition for the last twenty years. I asked him whether he had felt uncomfortable in such an eccentric role in Marcos country. “Oh, no, they were tolerant, as Marcos was so strong. I gave a semblance of democracy in Marcos’s back yard.”
I wanted to meet Ablan junior, or Roquito, but he was not home. Instead I saw his mother, who was receiving a large number of people. “You see, how people still come to us,” she said, pointing at the crowd. “No matter what they say about him, Marcos did a lot of good for us. Look around you, all those roads and new bridges, the Cultural Center.” Why had things gone wrong? “All because of that woman,” she said. “It’s those Romualdezes. They were too greedy.” What about Marcos himself? “In any country, if a high official does something for you, you show him gratitude with gifts. It is only natural, no?”
I managed to catch Roquito a week later in Manila, where he manages the affairs for Aeroflot. He is one of those fat men with jewelry you meet at the 365 Club. There were a lot of muscle-bound men around the office, to whom he would distribute hundred-peso bills. “Thanks boss,” they grunted in unison. Our conversation was interrupted several times by messages which the boss would read and then burn with his lighter. My eyes wondered to the pictures on the wall of Roquito with Marcos, Roquito with Ver, Roquito in a paratrooper’s uniform—he was a volunteer in Vietnam, “helping brothers fight the communists.” I asked Roquito about his reputation as a bit of a gunslinger: “They accuse me of having a private army. It’s not an army. They’re just friends.” Roquito will run for governor next year. He is not worried about Raval. “Most of his mayors are my boys. I told them which opposition parties to join before the elections. I also told Raval that he may be the OIC, but I’m still the governor.”
The Solid North, hitherto relatively immune to the communist insurgency, has been the scene of an increasing number of killings. The only local factory, a tomato paste plant, was raided and a guard was killed. Several people were murdered in a village called Ferdinand, part of a township called Marcos. A number of soldiers and constabulary officers, including a relative of Marcos, were ambushed and killed. “The NPA is emboldened by the new democratic space,” explained a lawyer. “They are not NPAs, but loyalists in disguise,” said a local newspaper editor. “The loyalists have joined the NPA,” said the priest in Sarrat.
Picture this situation, five years from now: Cory Aquino is still president; Bongbong Marcos is a loyalist guerrilla in the hills of northern Luzon; Kris Aquino, Cory’s daughter, is a movie star. Bongbong kidnaps Kris to force Cory to allow his dad to come back, so he can die in his own country. Kris falls in love with Bongbong and is sympathetic to his cause. They stage People Power II and declare their love in front of shrieking fans and TV cameras at Camp Crame. Marcos returns in his wheelchair, makes his famous V sign, pisses in his trousers, and keels over to die. He is buried next to Ninoy Aquino. Imelda, who has become a nun in Mindanao, joins Cory at the graves. The president places a yellow flower on Marcos’s grave; Imelda puts a red rose on Ninoy’s. The women embrace. Reconciliation, that elusive Philippine dream, has come true.
It is an odd notion, highly unlikely even, but it has the ring of Filipino truth. It is the plot of a successful new play, called Bongbong and Kris. The play is witty, reminding one that Filipinos are perhaps the only Asian people with a sense of humor—different from a sense of fun. Filipinos laugh at anything, including themselves. Humor, as well as fantasy, is a refuge of the dispossessed. But the play is also sentimental, the product of an extraordinary capacity for wishful thinking. The last scene at the graves is not at all meant to be funny; it is supposed to be moving.
To translate the wish for reconciliation, national unity, for feeling truly Filipino, or whatever one wants to call this quest for a spiritual homeland where people can live with pride, into a political reality is Cory Aquino’s most pressing task. It is perhaps even more pressing than fixing the economy, which God knows is pressing enough; for violent revolutions are born not so much from the poor as from the spiritually dispossessed. José Rizal, the national hero, wrote a famous novel in 1891, entitled El Filibusterismo. One of the main characters is a Filipino Raskolnikov called Simoun. He is a revolutionary who wants complete independence from Spain.
When I was about to achieve the spontaneous combustion of all this corruption, this loathsome accumulation of garbage, and when frenzied greed, taken unawares, was rushing about to seize whatever was at hand like an old woman surprised by fire, you showed up with your slogans of pro-Hispanism, with your calls for faith in the Government and faith in what will never come!… You ask for parity of rights, the Spanish way of life, and you do not realize that what you are asking is death, the destruction of your national identity, the disappearance of your homeland, the ratification of tyranny. What is to become of you? A people without a soul.1
Substitute America for Spain and the same battle cry is still heard; the blood debt of the treacherous elite is yet to be fully paid.
Cory Aquino is almost a religious figure. David Steinberg in an interesting collection of essays, entitled Crisis in the Philippines (deftly updated to include February), compares both Imelda Marcos and Mrs. Aquino to the baylan, the traditional spirit medium, giving them “authority and respect…power and opportunity.” It is interesting how Cory Aquino has consistently presented herself as a medium of her assassinated husband, whose spirit is evoked in almost all her speeches. But, as always, native spirits have merged with the Christian faith. In the book People Power, there is a fascinating account by Cardinal Sin of the way in which Mrs. Aquino decided to run for president: “Cory said to me: ‘Cardinal, Ninoy is inspiring me. It seems that he is talking to me, telling me that I should run.’ ” The Cardinal asked her to kneel down: “I will bless you. You are going to be president. You are the ‘Joan of Arc.’ At that moment I thought God answered the prayers of our people.”
The commonly held belief that Cory Aquino did not seek the presidency, but was guided to it by Ninoy, or even God, is one of the strongest foundations of her power. It makes her the greatest and possibly only unifying force in the country. Whatever her squabbling advisers may do or say, Cory is above it, she can do no wrong, she is part Joan of Arc, part Virgin Mary, part Queen Mother. She has those magic qualities no ordinary politician can ever hope to have in the Philippines: credibility and sincerity. But is that enough to transform a wish into reality, prayers into politics? Or can prayers and politics perhaps be permanently linked, as they were in February, to forge a truly Filipino common cause?
This is where a group of men comes in, sometimes referred to as the Jesuit Mafia, which includes some of Mrs. Aquino’s closest advisers. Men like Father Joaquin Bernas, S.J., president of the Ateneo de Manila University, or Bishop Claver, who spent many years in a highly radicalized area in Mindanao. These men have tried to find an answer to the kind of liberation theology espoused by priests who, sometimes through force majeure, sometimes through naiveté, have been drawn into the communist cause. They realize that the communists have managed to fuse a moral, millenarian, quasi-religious vision with politics. It will no longer do to fight the modern religion with military might alone—the NPA is too strong for that, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines too demoralized and badly equipped. Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos, who is highly regarded by most Filipinos for his personal integrity, is doing his best to turn the so-called New Armed Forces of the Philippines into a less corrupt and more efficient fighting force. But visits to army camps often reveal the true state of affairs, with underpaid soldiers, often without proper uniforms, hanging about watching porno videos, and growing increasingly bitter about having to risk their lives for a partly hostile government. They are caught in between the human rights lawyers around Mrs. Aquino, who, after the many years of martial law, still regard the military with deep suspicion, and the bluster of the defense minister who tells them he will be like Rambo once he is unleashed. To most of them Rambo is obviously the more sympathetic character.
A civil war is still a terrifying possibility. So apart from a better equipped and less embittered army, it will take a non-communist Filipino vision with equally persuasive powers to stave off violent revolution. The Jesuit Mafia has found a sympathetic supporter in Cardinal Sin, not least because liberation theology is a serious threat to the institutional Church. Just as leftists want to turn People Power into People’s Power, the leftist priests hope to “transform” the Church into a People’s Church, as happened in Nicaragua.
This is how Bishop Claver answers liberation theology, in the light of the February revolt:
Faith, even in its most religious manifestations (the trappings and symbols of popular religiosity), was by no means a deadening opiate, but the motive force that electrified them into concerted action and kept that action within the limits of non-violent justice…. If action for justice cannot be a mere political act, but must at all times be led and guided by faith, so must a people’s “analysis of the situation” not be a purely rational exercise, but one that must, from start to finish, be infused and illumined by a truly discerning faith…. Finally, the social capital (political power, if you will) of the church must ever be at the service of people, the poor especially…. Perhaps these lessons are not new to theologians of liberation, but they show conclusively that one need not be an adherent of Marxist ideas in order to be a genuine worker for the liberation of the people.2
This is the Yellow Jesuit response to the Marxists’ claim to being the only true nationalists. If you will pardon the odd metaphor, it makes minced meat of Tanada’s birthday cake. The crucial battle for the Filipino soul is being fought between the Yellow Church and the Red Revolution. It is a point completely missed by the no doubt well-meaning group of US missionaries in the Philippines, who produced a booklet entitled A Letter of Concern from US Missioners in the Philippines to the Christian Churches of the United States. The letter is a diatribe against multinationals, American “interventionist policies,” the Philippine armed forces, the US bases, in a word, our old friend US imperialism. The communist struggle is referred to as the “still militant popular movement for democracy and nationalism.” The message of the letter is clear: retention of the bases and US military aid to the Philippine army to fight a counterinsurgency campaign are unjust attempts to thwart the nationalist aspirations of the Filipino people. No wonder that the US-based organizations recommended by the letter “for timely and reliable source materials about the Philippine situation” are all sympathetic to the leftist cause.
The Church can be the moral glue that holds the country together against the forces that threaten to tear it apart. But it cannot formulate, let alone implement, the political and social reforms necessary to create a stable society. Nor, for that matter, can a Joan of Arc. Neither the hand of God nor Ninoy’s spirit will institute land reforms, encourage investors, impose order on a publicly bickering cabinet, or adequately handle the great national hang-up: the Fil-American relationship.
The most contentious political issue is the communist insurgency. Mrs. Aquino is torn between her “palace mafia,” which urges restraint, peace talks, and accommodation with the left, and tough-guy politicians like Vice-President Salvador Laurel and Enrile, who favor harder measures. The palace mafia, represented by the left-leaning human rights lawyer Joker Arroyo, appears to be more concerned about the activities of Enrile and the armed forces than about the NPA. Mrs. Aquino, being a devout Catholic, is hardly sympathetic to the Marxist view of the world, let alone of the Philippines. But, as always in Philippine politics, personal loyalties tend to cloud the issues. Joker Arroyo was Ninoy Aquino’s lawyer and stood by the family in difficult times. Enrile was the man who signed Ninoy’s arrest warrant, after martial law was declared in 1972. Even a more ruthless president than Mrs. Aquino would find it difficult to take clear sides under these circumstances.
Laurel’s loyalty to Aquino is also in doubt, for political rather than personal reasons. As the leader of UNIDO, the best-organized opposition party during the February elections, he feels that he and his followers had deserved more of the victory spoils. In fact, he has been treated like a US vice-president, a ceremonial figure at best. And the best jobs in the provinces have gone to followers of the Minister of Local Government, Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, whose nationwide network of Officers in Charge could come in most handily as a power base for his own party, PDP/Laban. At the risk of losing some of her holiness, Joan of Arc will have to become a hard-bargaining politician to sort all this out. She might start by forming her own political party, as some of her advisers are urging her to do. These advisers are mostly moderates from the business world and members of the Jesuit Mafia, who feel squeezed between left-wing fellow travelers and right-wing hard-liners.
“A politician,” said Father Edicio “Ed” de la Torre, who spent many years in jail as an alleged member of the Communist party and who was released at the orders of Mrs. Aquino, “must make up his mind whom to accommodate and whom to represent. Cory tries to accommodate everybody, and represents nobody.” This is perhaps a little harsh. She has done little to accommodate the kind of opportunists who gather in the 365 Club. If she had been a politician she could have had many of them on her side, precisely because they are opportunists. Now they pose a political risk. They have nothing to gain by supporting the Aquino government, and everything by organizing an active right-wing opposition. Some hope to reactivate the KBL, Marcos’s old party. Some are seeking their future in the revived Nacionalista party, with Enrile as a possible presidential candidate. And some will join in anything that might destabilize the government. Whatever they choose to do, the loyalists are not strapped for cash. Marcos and his cronies are said to have left a sizeable nest egg behind.
Then there is the Fil-American relationship. Despite her rousing reception in the US, which warmed many Filipino hearts, some feel that Mrs. Aquino was too accommodating to the Americans. By going to Washington quite so soon, she continued the old Filipino tradition of asking the Great White Chief for money. She badly needs the money, of course, but she also wants to placate the left-wing nationalists, who wish to get rid of the bases which the Great White Chief, as well as thousands of Filipina bar girls, who also need the money, wish to keep.
I discussed the bases with Father Ed in the back of a taxi. He thought they had to go. He talked about the infringement of national sovereignty, of the destruction of morals, the shameful exploitation of Filipina women, and the exploitation of the Philippines as a pawn and potential target in US imperialist games. I had heard it many times before. And we will hear it more and more in the Philippines, as long as the bases remain. I dropped Father Ed at his office. The taxi driver turned around and asked me whether I knew where he was from. I did not. “From Subic Bay,” he said. He told me how he had tried to stow away on an American ship when he was a boy; how he later attempted to join the US Navy; and how he wanted his two daughters to marry Americans and live in San Diego. Finally he said: “If any politician in our city talks like your friend just did, he’d be a goner for sure.”
He reminded me of another taxi driver I had spoken to several weeks before. He had supported Cory. He had been there in February. But now he was disgusted, with the politicians’ quarreling, the high crime rate in Manila, the lack of any change in the country. He still loved Cory, he hastened to say. She is sincere. “But if our country doesn’t change, something is going to happen. Or maybe….” “Maybe what?” “Or maybe nothing.”
November 6, 1986