56 – PERSONAL POLITICS
One night I am in yet another meeting room that is below street level, this one warm and carpeted, and filled with some people who are familiar and some who are unfamiliar, and none of whom I would see in ACOA, not that some of them don’t belong there. Almost all except me are Filipinos – liberation theology nuns, students and academics, Marxists, defecting feudal lords, with a good quota of good looking girls. The first to speak is a young man I know from my work on the Philippine book, Walden Bello, a high-powered young economist, known as an effective arch enemy of the World Bank and the IMF.
Although I am here in this meeting, my times in the Philippines seem like someone else’s times – an erotically-charged desperate time when I was there for awhile in the sixties, then there again briefly in the 70s, technically sober, for my marriage to Anne Ang from Quezon City, and just recently in the 80s there under false pretenses, pretending to be sympathetic to Marcos people I was out expose.
That last time I had been in the islands I had dealt sometimes with elite opposition figures who had stayed on, like Salvador Laurel, who pretty much owned the province of Batangas, which he ruled with largesse and with his own trigger-happy militia army. On other days I was with idealistic people, from the universities or the church or the arts, not all of whom supported the New People’s Army, which by now had a presence in every province in this thousand mile, heavily populated island chain. These last were the people who in the end made the most sense when Max Vanzi, a journalist friend who collaborated with me on the book, and I were back in Manila, moving fast between the various camps.
We needed two people for the project. Max might be somewhere with a wanted man from the NPA while I was interviewing the self-satisfied chief justice of the martial law Philippines supreme court, and we would meet late at night in a seedy bar or casino to compare notes. Towards the end of our time there I was getting telephone threats in the name of a frightening Marcos general.
And soon afterwards, Max went along on a commercial flight from California taking Aquino back from exile. The plane landed and taxied to a far off place on the tarmac. Two plain clothes tough guys boarded, and pulled Aquino off the plane. Down on the tarmac they shot our friend in the back of the head. And I, working on the book in San Francisco, was again receiving death threats.
But all of that seems very long ago in this time of personal chance. The Philippine situation, the subject of this night’s meeting, seems to have little to do with my life – not my business – though it had just been the subject my last big writing project as the book author I wanted to be.
Not long after the night I was interviewed about Marcos’s last days, his defense minister and the head of his brutal national police force defected and holed up in a military post on the outskirts of Manila. To support and protect them, many different sorts of people poured into the streets surrounding the military post. The local press labeled it the People Power Revolution, though some observers noted that many of the participants had driven or been driven to the big demonstration in their BMWs and Mercedes.
Army and marine units were sent in, but when the soldiers saw the size of the crowds they refused to shoot. And then Marcos fled to exile in Hawaii. And right afterwards people were racing through the presidential mansion like the mobs that stormed the Bastille. The press reported with glee that inside the mansion the crowds found that Imelda had thousands of pairs of stylish shoes, as if that were the worst thing she had done in the time that so many people in the islands were being terrorized by the Marcoses. To me, the most interesting part was that in the mansion there were several copies of our anti-Marcos, anti-Reagan book.
But I saw it from such a distance, literally and psychically.
Soon the American press had taken up the term People Power. American foreign correspondents, who has been ignoring the Philippines, poured in and set up shop in the five-star hotels that had been built during marital law.
But Manila is only a tiny, and often cut off, part of this huge archipelago. The foreign correspondents were doing what I had seen them doing when covering, mostly by imagination, complex events in far flung parts of Asia that they heard and wrote about in the boozy Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. And what I had seen in the Middle East where foreign correspondents learned from each other about upheavals in Egypt, Iraq and Iran while watching water-skiers from the terrace of Beirut’s luxurious St. George Hotel.
People Power to the contrary, with Mrs. Aquino as president not very much had changed. Wealthy Filipino clan leaders who had been in exile flew in and resumed their positions as feudal barons. The Marcos cronies stayed rich and grew richer. Political assassinations continued. The rich stayed rich and the suffering of the poor continued. And at this meeting in New York now I heard a well-traveled nun confirm that no one in the Philippines outside Manila called what happened a People Power Revolution. Rather, it was always referred to by Malay words that mean “for this I have no words.”
Something I would have to remember, and wish I had had sooner. Words for things for which there are no words.
Maybe that is why I am do fed up with writing, my own and everyone else’s. Because in all parts of my life, from personal to political, I have tried to do it right by putting words to things for which I in fact have no words.
So I head back to the Met.