It’s ironic that in this season of political subterfuge, self-promotion and sabotage, hope comes in the form of grim news and pensive remembrance.
On Monday came news that former senator and Makati representative Agapito Butz Aquino had died, at 76. By Tuesday afternoon, his remains had been quietly cremated in a ceremony that was simple and without fanfare, as he had instructed.
That same Tuesday, the nation looked back with sadness and a renewed sense of loss as it marked the third death anniversary of Jesse Robredo, interior secretary at the time of his passing.
As President Aquino and Mar Roxas, Robredo’s successor as interior secretary and the Liberal Party’s standard-bearer in 2016, extolled the man, it was easy to imagine how he would have fidgeted at such pomp and pageantry. After all, the six-term mayor of Naga City energized local government units with his so-called tsinelas leadership, walking his talk in the poor man’s footwear.
It’s ironic that Philippine politics-notoriously elitist, patronage-based and personality-driven-has produced these sterling characters, two good men so removed from the opportunists who treat public office like private turf and public funds as personal fortune.
The turning point of Butz Aquino, an actor in his younger days, was on Aug. 21, 1983, when his elder brother Ninoy Aquino flew home from exile and was assassinated at the airport tarmac. In the anguished weeks that followed, he organized Atom, or the August 21 Movement, which spearheaded protest rallies and marches against the Marcos dictatorship.
Along with militant organizations who had resisted the dictatorship throughout martial law, the yellow protest movement (so-called after the yellow-ribbon theme of Ninoy Aquino’s fateful homecoming) kept dissent alive, the latter employing creative ways in its engagement with the parliament of the streets. The militant Left stirred up and sustained the rage of the grassroots, but Atom and its allied organizations like Bandila (Bansang Nagkakaisa sa Diwa at Layunin) coaxed the fence-sitting middle class off its comfortable perch and eventually helped form enough of a critical mass to topple the dictatorship in the historic Edsa People Power revolt in February 1986.
Fellow activists and Edsa veterans recall that it was Butz Aquino who first galvanized a crowd to converge on Edsa to protect the then renegade Marcos officials Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos, by calling on the people over radio to gather at a department store in Cubao. It’s said that at least 10,000 people turned up. Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin’s famous exhortation for the faithful to do the same would come later.
As a senator, Butz Aquino authored a number of laws, including the Magna Carta for Small Farmers, the Seed Act and the Cooperative Code of the Philippines. He was among the Magnificent 12, the group of senators who voted against the retention of the US military bases in 1991. And no whiff of plunder clings to his name.
The maverick Robredo trained a light on the dark, often forgotten pockets of governance on LGUs starved of attention and resources for basic social services, and proved that one can follow one’s vision without need for dirty politics. For transforming Naga from a fourth-class to a first-class municipality, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 2000.
He proved that role modeling, personal example and political will can work wonders. He was not above sweeping the muddy streets after a storm, his sturdy flip-flops soon evolving into a symbol of his grounded approach to leadership.
He also started among LGUs the seal of good governance, with benchmarks set and cash incentives given to the outstanding ones for their transparent financial transactions. This would later be expanded to include disaster preparedness, business-friendliness or minimal red tape, and healthcare and provisions for persons with disabilities and the elderly.
Apart from exemplary public service, Robredo was known to have been devoid of a sense of entitlement and unaffected by the trappings of power. Recalled his then fellow official Milwida Guevara: He slept his way on a slow boat to Siasi in Sulu, took showers in dirty bathrooms, ate in turo-turo, lodged in cheap hotels, and took buses instead of cars. I know because he had shamed us so many times by saying yes to all difficulties, and going to places where we were afraid to go.
Can men and women in that mold be found in the surfeit of hopefuls advertising themselves and jostling for positions in 2016?