Jesse Robredo and the “EDSA Babies”
(Philippine history has another story to tell about Jesse Robredo, Martial Law and EDSA. Here, http://philippinehistory.ph reprints Edicio Dela Torre’s insights.)
Because 2012 is the 40th anniversary of martial law, I think of the “martial law babies” – those who were awakened politically and became activists because of martial law.
What about those who were awakened politically and became activists after Ninoy’s martyrdom, up to EDSA 1986 and beyond? Shall we call them “EDSA babies”?
if so, then Jesse Robredo was an EDSA baby.
He acknowledges that the killing of Ninoy in 1982 made him realize the need to get politically involved. He switched from his career path in the corporate sector, and entered public service. Soon after EDSA, he ran for mayor of Naga City and served for 9 years. After a short break, he returned to continue his innovative reforms, and served as mayor for another 9 years.
Jesse and the possibilities of EDSA
Jesse’s life of public service is a prime example of the possibilities for meaningful change symbolized by EDSA.
These possibilities are more evident at the level of local governance. He alluded to this when he said, “good local governance can be the conclusion of our unfinished revolution.”
What about possibilities at the level of national governance? Jesse died too soon to be able to answer this at the DILG. But he worked hard at this and was able to demonstrate initial results of his innovative reforms.
I confess a personal ambivalence about EDSA. I have a positive judgment about it, then and now, unlike the majority of the left and most martial law babies. But I also have reservations about exaggerated claims about what EDSA has achieved and represents.
Because of EDSA, I was released from prison earlier than I expected. The democratic space did open up, even for the legal left (though constricted by illegal and extra-judicial killings and abductions). But I retain the left’s critique about the structural limits and about the domination by the elite that continued despite increased participation of the middle class and some strata of the poor.
Hence I opted to stay mainly “outside,” but maintaining a stance of “critical support” for the post-EDSA government and system.
Jesse chose to work ” inside” the system. And he looked for ways to push its possibilities beyond the usual, formal limits. He opened channels of participation of people beyond what was defined by the dominant structure. He did it at the local level, where possibilities are greater.
In his words “…in some Asian countries and even in our beloved country, people say that democratic principles cannot work, and that the Oriental model of “ruling with a hard hand” is the call of the hour. We disagree. Our experience in Naga is our best argument against the traditional and authoritative ways in the management of people and governance. Our experience, too, proves that our people are our best resource and our best hope.
Our experience, and that of many others, have shown that if we can not do it at the national level, we can begin at the local level. Collectively, successful local governments, driven by constituencies who are well-informed, constructively engaged, and willing to share the burden of community building, can build our country.”
For me, Jesse’s life and work are rich source of lessons on how to pursue the possibilities of EDSA.
Jesse and the limitations of EDSA
Reading through his blog and posted speeches, I discover a Jesse whose thinking about EDSA’s possibilities and limitations converge with what is in my mind, though we have different points of departure. Or more accurately, “converse” with what is in my mind.
While I joined the celebration of the restoration of formal democracy, my deeper roots are in the tradition of social justice. I was worried that the legitimate euphoria about democracy may not translate into improving the lives of the majority, and reducing the gap between rich and poor.
That’s why I was struck and stirred by Jesse’s blunt and sweeping message to the Ateneo graduates:
“Our political history has shown that we have put the burden of running this country to our ‘best’ people for too long. And yet the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider.”
For Jesse, good governance is not limited to promoting transparency, accountability and participation. He addressed the substantive issues of the poor – especially the urban poor in Naga City. He had the poor in mind when he pushed for reforms in eduction, health, and other public services. He showed his solidarity with the farmers marching for agrarian reform. Ironically, the corporate life he gave up for public service was with San Miguel Corporation, which is the company involved in the issue of Sumilao farmers, whom he warmly welcomed when they stopped in Naga City.
He did not look at the poor merely as beneficiaries of responsible elite leaders. They are beneficiaries of course. But he emphasizes that they are a resource that needs to be recognized and developed, if we want to achieve more meaningful change.
“We viewed the poor, of which Naga had plenty, as our partners and assets… Working with the poor, we resolved long-standing land tenure problems dating back to the 1950s.
Viewing our constituency as our partner and asset, we enacted a People Empowerment Ordinance, the first of its kind in the country, which instituted the Naga City People’s Council. This Council represents over a hundred non-government and people’s organizations who are empowerd to propose legislations and vote at the committee level of the city council.”
Through his leadership, Jesse gave concrete shape and form to the promise of “people power” that has been franchised by EDSA, and often honored more rhetorically than in reality. Perhaps that explains his words about EDSA:
“We do not need another EDSA… for our country to move ahead. EDSA must be everyday. That means everyone understands he has an obligation to serve. That means reform is an every day activity. That means the daily grind is more important than the one-time heroic moment.”
His point is well taken. But we do need heroic moments, and as Bobby Garcia points out, Jesse himself provided us one, through the dramatic circumstances of his death.
There is much more to say, but this blog is getting too long. Paalam muna, Jessie. Till our next conversation.