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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My eulogy for a dear friend, the late Senate President Jovito R. Salonga

The late Senate President Jovito R. Salonga

Sometime in late December 1985, after President Marcos suddenly declared to an American media personality that he would soon call for snap elections, the Filipino people geared up for this dream scenario---finally, elections after 20 years!  Opposition leader Cory Aquino easily became the favorite candidate, but then, a most distinguished lawyer and leader of the opposition movement in the US in the latter part of the Marcos regime, Jovito R. Salonga, also planned to run vs. Marcos. Everyone realized what that would mean: the opposition would be split. Three young people decided to do something.

Former Antique Governor Evelio Javier (later to be slain by goons of a rival leader in broad daylight in the plaza of San Jose, a blood-soaked rosary clasped in his hand), civic leader Lorna Verano Yap, later to run for Congress, and myself, a member of the “mosquito press,” decided to visit Ka Jovy Salonga in his Pasig home.

We pleaded with him, tears welling up in our eyes, not to run and just let Cory be the candidate. He sat listening intently---probably amazed at our youthful audacity to corner a god from Mt. Olympus. Ka Jovy did not say much as we talked but we could read what was going on in his mind---he undoubtedly felt he had as much right as Ninoy Aquino’s widow to run against Marcos and lead his beloved Philippines into a new era. As we left his home, Ka Jovy, ever the gentleman, thanked us for our visit, but a few days later he announced that he was no longer running. 

When Cory Aquino, who was cheated out of victory in the counting (remember the walk-out of the Comelec computer programmers?) was swept into power by the EDSA Revolution, her first appointee was Jovito Salonga to head the PCGG that sought to recover the Marcos billions all over the world. Another brilliant lawyer with unassailable integrity, Ramon Diaz, became his deputy at PCGG, while Sedfrey Ordonez was appointed Solicitor-General.

In March of 1986,  Jovy Salonga left for the US to begin the task of recovering the Marcos properties. A controversy soon enveloped this effort in New York City. The Salonga party, which included his wife Lydia, headed into a Korean restaurant downtown and before they knew it, a con artist scattered some stuff on the floor and called the attention of the Filipino party to it.  Everyone focused on the floor and sure enough, the con man ran away with a valise and Mrs. Salonga’s handbag.  When news about this thievery in NYC reached Manila, Marcos elements tried to portray that original documents on the Marcos properties in NYC and other places were stolen, and what were being bandied around were all fakes. 

Salonga rebutted it with sureness and confidence. It turned out that there was another valise containing the precious documents and these were not stolen. Why not? Because upon reaching the restaurant Ka Jovy dispatched his aide-de-camp to the hotel to make some phone calls and like any dutiful aide, he never let go of that valise. How does this blogger know this? Because that aide was my husband, then a colonel, whom Ka Jovy borrowed from the military for that crucial trip to the US. The two men were also together in London in 1965, when then Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez headed the PH negotiating panel in the North Borneo talks with Malaysia. Salonga was the chief legal adviser and Lt. Cunanan was Pelaez's aide-de-camp.. 

My husband and I kept our friendship with Ka Jovy over the many years, as he ran for the Senate and eventually became Senate President. At some point in those years, the promotion of my husband to the rank of Brig. General came up before the Commission on Appointments, but a prominent senator tried to block it, owing perhaps to some things I had written as columnist then of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Ka Jovy called us to his Senate office to privately warn us about his colleague's blocking intention and then asked my husband if he wanted the Senate President to talk to this unfriendly senator on his behalf. My husband politely declined the favor and I reinforced it. Okay na po, we told Ka Jovy, it's not the end of the world. Ultimately the offended senator backed down and my husband sailed through the CA without a hitch. 

One of the most memorable episodes in the Senate in the latter part of President Cory’s rule was the crucial vote on the RP-US Bases Treaty in September 1991, which involved the fate of the US bases here. Salonga led the group of 12 senators against the US bases. We in media were split as the Filipino people were, and there was intense man-to-man guarding of the senators by both sides, lest one or two cave in. President Cory and Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus staged a march in the rain to strengthen the pro-bases group  I suspected that Manglapus was really anti-bases at heart, but he had to support his boss lady’s stand.

The anti-bases bloc won, and as if to celebrate it, Mt. Pinatubo erupted, spewing ashes on both Clark and Subic bases, causing their respective  populations to scurry out of danger. For his anti-bases stand Salonga was to pay a steep price---he was ousted as Senate President in December 1991, replaced by Sen. Neptali Gonzalez. 

Ka Jovy was a romantic and a lover of music---he used to have German-trained soprano Andion Fernandez, tenor Nolyn Cabahug and other talents regularly at soirees in his home to render his favorite kundimans.  He met Lydia Busuego on the long ship voyage to the US, where they were both going to study---he to Harvard for his doctoral degree in law and if I’m not mistake, Ka Lydia for her degree  in pharmacy. Soon they were married in a Protestant ceremony on the Harvard campus and became so devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. 

Weekends the Salongas would spend in their Pansol home in Laguna where he would swim in their hot-springs pool for exercise. Ka Jovy was particular about exercise as he was tortured by the Japanese during the war which damaged one eye (replaced with a glass eye), and imprisoned during the martial law years in the very cell Ninoy had occupied before. In  the bombing at Plaza Miranda in 1989---a mystery unresolved until now---he was badly mangled and survival placed at 50%.  

Ka Jovy took me under his wings as a young columnist and would take pains to explain issues especially in the Senate. But he was also a strict taskmaster and would call my attention even to seemingly insignificant details that were inaccurate. But he also could give a generous dose of approval. 

Once, when my Japanese balaes were in Manila and they prepared a traditional Japanese New Year’s Day meal for my family, I described all the mouth-watering details in my column next day. Ka Jovy soon called to say how much he enjoyed the Japanese meal vicariously, which flattered my balaes terribly, and made me feel guilty---as I should have invited the Salongas too.  

When Ka Lydia died, my husband and I visited at her wake in the Cosmopolitan Church along Taft Avenue. It was late at night when we arrived there and we found Ka Jovy alone by her bier. As we hugged him, he murmured that he didn’t know how he could survive without Lydia.  I took his hand gently and held it for a long while and we were enveloped by his grief.

At another time I had to undertake a tough task: in the elections of 1992, Ka Jovy ran for president against former AFP Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos and like many others I was in a bind. The bar topnotcher (1944) and former Senate Chief was running against an authentic EDSA hero backed up by the Kano. Ka Jovy ended up a poor third in that fight.

Over the years he continued to celebrate his birthday yearly and the family put up one big bang for his 90th birthday. In the past five years, however, the brilliant mind was slowly dimmed by Alzheimer’s disease, until death mercifully snatched him from it. Ka Jovy, however, would be forever held in high esteem in the hearts of the people he served so well.   

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