Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Those four longest days into night, Feb. 22-25, 1986

These four days beginning yesterday, Feb. 22, up to Tuesday, Feb. 25, the media will again be full of recollections and reminiscences of the series of events that we Filipinos, as well as the whole world, had celebrated in those epochal days in 1986 as the “Edsa Revolution.” For journalists the Edsa Revolution was a gold mine of historical memories and for me, even if I live to be as old as Methuselah, there would never be anything remotely like that phase of our history.

The memory of those four days in Edsa burns in my mind as vividly today as it did 28 years ago and it was truly a privilege to have been in the thick of it as a journalist.

If we go back to the Edsa Revolution time and again, it’s not just for self-gratification---as we seek to recharge our moral batteries as a nation and pat ourselves on the back about how we became a model to the world on peaceful, non-violent revolution.

More importantly it’s to discern vital lessons learned and those which we until now have not learned---and the hope that the generation after us would have the wisdom to push where we have failed.

As wise pundits have pointed out, ours is an unfinished revolution especially with regard to regulating the still-prevailing oligarchic power against the crying need to emancipate our people from the clutches of oppressive poverty of centuries. There's also the evil of the continuing dominance of political dynasties across the land, as well as the thwarting of our freedom of expression, as enshrined in our Bill of Rights, by the Cybercrime Prevention Law, RA 10175, whose constitutionality was just upheld by the Supreme Court with token objections. 

The current developments in Venezuela, so reminiscent of our People Power, couldn’t be timelier: how ignoring the sentiments of the broad masses could be hazardous and costly to the political ruling class’ health.

Innocuous Mr. and Ms. Magazine morphs into vanguard of ‘mosquito press.’
Since the assasination of Ninoy Aquino in August of 1983, I had been a political reporter for the black-and-white Mr. & Ms. Magazine that intrepid publisher and editor-in-chief Eugenia Duran Apostol, who later rightly won the Magsaysay Award for courageous journalism, began publishing right under the nose of the dictatorship. 

When Ninoy was shot Eggie quickly converted this rather innocuous women’s magazine that was hitherto filled with advice on parenting, human sexuality and successful marriage, and kitchen recipes and decor, into what was to become, together with Joe Burgos’ “Malaya,” the Philippines’ “mosquito press.” 

Only one Marcos-controlled newspaper was operating late into the martial law years, and it wouldn’t publish photos of the mammoth funeral of Ninoy that drew five million people into the streets of Metro Manila. Egggie Apostol shrewdly began filling up her innocuous magazine with those photos­­­--- knowing full well, as the adage goes, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Thus was born the political Mr. and Ms. Magazine. I was recruited by legendary writer Gilda Cordero Fernando to its stable of reporters, to focus on the emergence of the hitherto non-existent opposition.

In December 1985, however, when Ferdinand Marcos, under tremendous pressure from the Reagan administration, suddenly announced snap elections, Eggie decisively spun off the magazine into a newspaper, first a weekly, then a daily ---the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Thus I became a political reporter for the Inquirer, covering the opposition when the Edsa  Revolution began to unfold on Feb. 22, 1986. 
Events-choked February 1986
On Feb. 11, 1986, Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes,  dynamic Western Visayas opposition leader and former Antique Governor Evelio Javier, a dear friend of mine, was brutally murdered in the plaza of San Jose, Antique, by henchmen of his political opponent allied with Marcos, while Evelio guarded the ballots of Corazon Aquino in the snap elections held the week earlier. Clasped in Evelio’s hand was a blood-soaked rosary.

Evelio’s remains were flown to Manila and met by huge throngs, and at his brief wake at the Baclaran Church, so many ambassadors from European nations showed up, in defiance of Marcos.  On the way to the Ateneo University in Quezon City where his remains would lie in state for two days, crowds stood weeping in the streets---a mini-reprise of Ninoy’s funeral 2 ½ years earlier.

Prior to Evelio’s murder the canvassing of snap-election votes at the Batasan Pambansa was predictably skewered by Marcos leaders. All these successive events  provoked  opposition candidate Cory Aquino to launch mass actions, beginning with a series of boycott rallies against products of Marcos cronies .

The first rally at the Luneta drew nearly two million people, which remains unmatched in crowd attendance until now. So tight was it that if one were summoned to a call of nature it was just not possible to leave. I had fears of stampede which mercifully didn’t happen.

In succeeding days rumors swept the city of the impending arrest of opposition political leaders, media, militant church and business leaders and the Left. The term “Oplan Mad Dog” was whispered about, suspected to be launched by Marcos’ Chief of Staff, General Fabian Ver---where arrested personalities would all be dumped in Carballo Island off Corregidor.  
Cory asked Eggie to send me to Cebu to cover boycott rally

My particular narrative about Edsa 1 properly begins on the evening of Feb. 17, 1986 at the Loyola House of Studies chapel at the Ateneo University campus in QC. It was the last day of Evelio’ s wake and his remains were to be flown for burial in his beloved Antique next morning.

That evening Cory came to the wake. Finding Eggie Apostol and myself there, she told Eggie that she should send me to Cebu City on Saturday, Feb. 22 to cover the boycott rally vs. the Marcos cronies that she would lead there. Eggie quickly agreed.

 At dawn the next day my husband drove me to the domestic airport and at 5 am. I was aboard a single-engine plane bound for Antique for Evelio’s funeral, piloted by the late famed Irish-American  Humanities professor Fr. James Donelan, S.J., with Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., later to be the Ateneo University President, beside him;  I sat behind them. Our plane flew low, hugging the coastline of islands along the way.  I was dreadfully afraid inside the plane, but my fear was subsumed totally to my desire to bid farewell to my friend Evelio.
Fr. Donelan, bless his Irish humor, sensed my great anxiety and he joked that should the plane go down, either he or Fr. Nebres should be able to give me a quick absolution.  It was small comfort on the return to Manila that afternoon, as the dark was fast creeping at the horizon’s edge.

Besides, what was initially just a nagging fear of tiny planes became a neurosis, after then opposition leader John Osmena, taxiing after us into the dirt-patch passing off as a  runway in San Jose’s little airport clearing, said I had to be crazy to ride Fr. Donelan's “little tutubi.”    (Osmena brought a twin-engine plane from Cebu).  
AP's Mike Suarez breaks news of mutiny in Aguinaldo
Forward to Cebu City’s boycott rally on Feb. 22, it seemed like another typical opposition day I would cover for Mr.  & Ms. Arriving early that afternoon I checked into Magellan Hotel near Fuente Osmena in downtown Cebu, the rally site. Then the phone rang and Mike Suarez of Associated Press, whom I had ran into at the lobby, said, “Bel, have you heard? (Defense Secretary Juan Ponce) Enrile and (acting AFP chief of Staff Fidel) Ramos just broke away from Marcos and are holed up at Camp Aguinaldo.” Mike said they decided to break away after some attempt by Gen. Ver’s soldiers to arrest some close Enrile people earlier that day.

My heart pounded as I wondered where my husband, who was serving at the Defense Department in those years, was. I tried to reach him by phone at his camp Aguinaldo office, but couldn’t get through.

Soon enough I crossed over to Fuente Osmena, pondering how I could divulge  this very sensitive information with Cory and the other opposition leaders.  A huge crowd had already blocked the streets all around and the stage filled up fast. Cory and her running mate, former Sen. Doy Laurel, arrived with the local big guns and took their seats at the foot of the stage.

When the rally began, I realized from the boycott speeches that no one still had any idea of what was going on in Manila. I agonized about how best to approach Cory amid the rally.  
Operation Mad Dog
I caught a glimpse of John Osmena in the back of the stage and informed him about the news from Manila. Quick-witted as ever, he promptly tied it to the rumors of arrests and Carballo Island. “Eton na ang ‘Operation Mad Dog,’ eto na” he kept saying, adding, “Sabihin mo na ki Cory.”  But before I could do so, the rally ended and she was quickly hustled off the stage.
I verified that Cory would be staying at the residence of Norberto Quisumbing of Norkis, and after the rally I grabbed a cab and headed there.  I found her in the living room all by herself, looking relaxed and she smiled at me.

But before I could report on the Manila happening, she queried me about how the wedding reception for Judy Roxas’ daughter, Ria, held a few days earlier at the gardens of Bahay na Puti in Cubao, had gone. Cory was ninang at the wedding, but chose not to go to the reception.  I stayed on there.
I recounted how Ms. Gretchen Oppen Cojuangco, wife of Eduardo Cojuangco, had asked for a Coke at the reception, but since the Roxas household was on a boycott of Marcos cronies’ products, in support of Cory’s crusade, there was no Coke in the Roxas household. Ms. Cojuangco asked an aide to buy a big bottle from the corner store and put it on top of the table.

Cory more fascinated about Coke story
Cory got quite engrossed with that Coke story and I forgot all about the Enrile-Ramos break-away Manila happening---until Assemblyman Ramon Mitra walked in. I rushed to him and related what was happening in Manila and his first query was, did you tell Cory. I said, not yet, and he barked, “Ano pa ang hinihintay mo.”

I told her about the breakaway in Manila, and she listened, saying, “A ganoon.” But the full import of that chilling event apparently did not sink into her right away, as she asked me to return to the Coke episode and Gretchen. To her it was far more fascinating than “Mad Dog.”
Soon the other opposition leaders arrived at the Quisumbing residence and went into a caucus with Cory in the terrace. They included Cebu Assemblymen Antonio Cuenco and Raul del Mar, Cagayan de Oro Assemblyman Homobono Adaza, who had earlier fought the stormy canvassing of votes at the Batasan, Cory’s brother Peping Cojuangco, Cagayan de Oro Assemblyman Aquilino Pimentel and John Osmena.   

At about 6 pm. Cory called up Defense Minister Enrile and assured him and his rebel group of her prayers and support.

Opposition’s assessment tentative that right
If the import of the news from Manila, as I tried to narrate to Cory earlier, didn’t sink into her mind right away, the other opposition leaders were equally tentative in their assessment at that stage. Nobody could tell how the Enrile-Ramos mutiny would play out.  Besides, most of them probably had zero trust in the enforcers of martial law.

Cory’s Ninoy had been incarcerated by the military for over seven years, while Mitra, Pimentel, Adaza and others had their own bouts in prison along with Chino Roces and various other opposition leaders.

On the other hand, at that time opposition leaders in Davao like Chito Ayala and Lito Lorenzana were seriously mulling the idea of setting up a revolutionary government in that city, and that night in Cebu Monching Mitra forcefully raised the possibility of the opposition’s staking it out with the Davaoenos.  Patiwakal si Monching.  

Sitting with the big guns of the opposition at that historic Cebu gathering,   my pulse quickened like crazy. I must confess that as a journalist with just over 2 ½ years of covering the opposition’s formation, I was intrigued---and frightened--- by the prospect of a revolutionary government. It sounded romantic, but it could also spell war and violence. I was also wife and mother of young kids and I thought of my family in Manila.
Just like Sound of Music

As the night wore on there was need for more news about developments in Manila. I volunteered to go with Cebu educator Manny Go and Bono Adaza to the former’s residence, so we could link up with Aguinaldo. In those years cell phones were still non-existent and connecting could be tortuous.

Manny drove, and the trip meant crossing the city’s main military camp, Camp Lapu-Lapu---a prospect which got Adaza quite apprehensive about our not making it back to the Quisumbing house. By that time, however, I had very little sense of danger---my journalist’s instincts had taken the better of me.
Connecting to the Inquirer newsroom, I picked up news about tens of thousands of people massing in Edsa, but Camp Aquinaldo was not accessible---or, I thought, it was too busy seeking to defend itself.  
The immediate concern of the opposition leaders in Cebu that night was to secure Cory from Gen. Fabian Ver’s soldiers, in the certainty that they’d come for her. It was whispered around that a US warship had anchored in the bay, ready to spirit her out if trouble came. But ultimately It was decided that the safest place to hide her was the high-walled Carmelite Convent in downtown Cebu.  

I was excited: it was just like in "Sound of Music" when Capt. Von Trapp hid his family in the convent’s cemetery while the nuns dealt with the Gestapo.
Cory leaves for convent under cover of darkness
Under cover of darkness at about ten o’clock, Cory rode out in a car with daughter Ballsy, her brother Peping, and Assemblyman Cuenco and his wife Nancy, to a warm welcome from the Carmelites.

Unknown to the Cebu nuns, Cardinal Sin had ordered their Manila sisters in the Gilmore monastery to pray before the exposed Blessed Sacrament all night that night ON THEIR KNEES, WITH THEIR ARMS OUTSTRETCHED, for the Enrile-Ramos people holed up by then still in Camp Aguinaldo. “Don’t get up until I tell you,” Sin barked on the phone to Mother Superior in Gilmore. To this day the aging nuns remember that episode vividly.
To throw off any possibility of Ver’s soldiers trailing Cory’s group, the mestizo Miguel Perez Rubio (whom some journalists mistook for an American CIA agent), educator Manny Go and others, including myself, sat around the terrace taking in wine and peanuts as though we were in a jam session and not in the midst of a swirling revolution!  I enjoyed that part---playing decoy while getting tipsy with all the wine.

It was also decided that the major opposition leaders should be secured, so that if Ver’s soldiers came hunting, they wouldn’t all be caught  together. It fell on John Osmena as he’s  local (and later Cory's OIC appointee as Cebu City Mayor), to hide them one by one in different private homes, while we media trooped back to Magellan Hotel, where we gathered in the lobby to await developments. The sense of history hung pungently in the air.

Foreign Media complain about no story
After some time, however, the horde of foreign media that trailed Cory’s boycott launch began to complain that they had no stories and no leaders to talk to.  You have to realize it’s morning where we come from, they argued irritably.

Thus, in the middle of the night I called up John Osmena and suggested that he fetch Mitra and Pimentel from wherever he had hidden them, so they could brief the media in Magellan Hotel. But perhaps the two latter leaders were already too tired or scared of giving Cory's whereabouts away, for when they got to the hotel lobby they could only muster one lousy paragraph that said nothing much. Monching and Nene were not at their journalistic best that sleepless night.
For the media in Magellan it was a long night of vigil, full of tension and anxiety, but also a lot of humor and camaraderie. All of us were fully aware that history was unfolding and it was a great time to be eyewitnesses to it.

Cory flies back to Manila amid great tension

The next morning, Sunday, Feb. 23, Cory, surrounded by opposition leaders, held a brief press conference at Magellan, reiterating her support for the embattled group of Enrile and Ramos in Camp Crame and urging the people to protect them and pray for them.  
Then Cory boarded a small Ayala two-engine plane for Manila and as it disappeared into the clouds, there was a flurry of anxious questions on everyone’s mind and unspoken prayers in hearts. Would her tiny plane be shot down in the skies by Marcos’ planes? Would Cory be able to land at the airport? Would she be arrested upon arrival?
Good luck to Cory and all of us as well as those in Crame (that included my husband, who had joined the military dissidents the afternoon of Feb. 22) was the prayer in my heart.  I boarded a PAL plane later that day, together with Tony Cuenco, Bono Adaza and other opposition leaders---and went straight to Edsa to join the tens of thousands holding vigil in front of Crame.  

(To be continued).

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