I was asked to speak at a gathering of Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, “Spirit Lives On,” to celebrate President Magsaysay’s birth anniversary. This is my recollection of the man and his times.
Ramon Magsaysay was born on August 31, 1907, and I was born 17 years later. I knew personally both President Magsaysay and President Quirino, who appointed him National Defense Secretary in 1950.
I think there was a special bond between the two because they were both Ilokanos. I spoke with them in Ilokano. I remember Magsaysay’s aides very well -- Lt. Joe Guerrero, Major Pat Garcia, Major Jose Crisol, and Colonel Angeles. I was very interested in Magsaysay because he championed agrarian reform, which was my basic interest.
Many in my generation were leftists in the sense that we were pro-communist. I never became a communist although I read Das Kapital in college to find out what communism was all about. Don’t try to do the same because it is difficult reading. I cannot remember much of it except for some of Marx’s conclusions. He believed in a classless society, that the state will wither away.
Before him, of course, the anarchists (the political philosophy) aspired for almost the same goals. If you read Rizal carefully, you will find that he was an anarchist.
Magsaysay came to power at the start of the Cold War. The Soviets held Europe hostage and Mao had united China. In this global turmoil, the United States was perceived as the free world’s savior. Magsaysay was ours.
He knew firsthand the harshness of peasant life, when he was a guerilla leader during the Japanese Occupation. I suspect he had at this time already met the Huks for he sympathized with their aspirations for social justice.
In 1949, the Huks had gathered enough strength to overthrow the government. To counter this, Magsaysay revitalized not just the army but also the government itself. I am almost positive that when the Huk leader, Luis Taruc, surrendered, Magsaysay would not have imprisoned him had the Americans, fearing the growing communist threat, not pressured him.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW the political structure of our country, the wielders of power. From the 1940s until 1972, when Marcos declared Martial Law, the most powerful economic bloc in the country was the sugar bloc. Its largesse came from the United States, with the Most Favored Nation sugar quota given to the bloc every year. For those who don’t know about this largesse, let me explain it briefly.
The United States has commodity agreements with favored countries. If the world price of sugar is ten pesos per kilo the United States adds another ten pesos which is, of course, paid by American consumers. The sugar lobby made the sugar quota a national interest and every Philippine ambassador to the United States, selected by the sugar bloc, had one major job: to keep the quota and enlarge it.
It is the United States that created the sugar oligarchy, which was then destroyed by Marcos. This oligarchy determined who would be President. Ramon Magsaysay was not a creation of the oligarchy. He was a genuine creation of the Filipino people, with some assistance from the United States. It goes without saying therefore that he owed us and also the Americans a debt of gratitude.
In a sense, Magsaysay changed our political culture. The earlier politicians who ran for the presidency or other high offices usually depended on their political leaders in the provinces to campaign for them. Magsaysay changed that by going to the people himself.
He was a brilliant speaker and people listened raptly to him. His delivery was conversational and he always couched the most pithy matters in a language the people understood. Unless it was an important announcement that he had to make, almost always his speeches were extemporaneous.
Magsaysay was a populist in the noblest sense of the term. He believed that social justice for the poor was doable with a clean government. When riled by doubts and challenges that required unusual solutions, he always asked what the people in Plaza Miranda would say. Plaza Miranda in Quiapo was at the time the venue for the largest political rallies in the country.
Magsaysay had no intellectual pretensions. He surrounded himself with the best brains at the time, Manny Pelaez, Raul Manglapus, Rafael Salas, and Manny Manahan.
He had enemies. I had a feeling that if he had not died in that plane crash, he would have started a new political party.
HE WAS ABSOLUTELY HONEST Manny Manahan told me how Magsaysay gathered all his relatives including his aged parents in Castellejos, and in front of them told Manahan that if anyone of them broke the law he should imprison them. Manny recounted how he was so embarrassed.
When Magsaysay died, his family did not have a house to go to. Francisco Ortigas donated a lot in Mandaluyong to his family, and the stevedores at the piers donated the tiles for its roof.
The people loved Magsaysay. Crowds wept openly during his funeral procession. Unfortunately, almost immediately after he died corruption was back. I’ve always wondered why President Garcia was not able to continue Magsaysay’s legacy – perhaps it was because his loyalty was to the sugar bloc.
Today we have a different oligarchy. It is now no longer dominated by Filipino mestizos but by Filipino Chinese who, unlike the sugar oligarchy, seem to be interested only in making money and shun partisan politics. But whatever its nature and composition, the oligarchy continues to be the biggest threat to the freedom and prosperity of the common tao.
We were 30 million in Magsaysay’s time, we are 105 million now. Magsaysay’s populist appeal has been likened to Duterte’s. But I have lived long enough to experience several regimes, starting with Quezon. I can say with all conviction that Magsaysay remains to be the best President this unhappy country has ever had.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 2, 2019