NAGA CITY—Reflecting on the sudden death of Interior Secretary Jesse M. Robredo, a Camarines Sur judge likened the longest-serving mayor of this city to Jose Rizal, whose greatness was only appreciated when he was already gone.
Thrice bypassed by the Commission on Appointments for various reasons except dirty politics, Robredo failed to assume the full powers of a Cabinet secretary. His nomination unconfirmed, he died serving his post in an acting capacity.
Municipal Trial Court Judge Soliman Santos Jr., a former peace activist, asked: “Is this syndrome part of our tragedy as a nation, which needs a regular dose of tragic heroes like Ninoy Aquino, whose violent death is being commemorated along with that of Jesse?”
Santos worked with Robredo in peace advocacies by civil society groups at the height of the communist insurgency in Camarines Sur and the rest of Bicol from the late 1980s to the 1990s, when Robredo was launching a career in politics.
Senator Joker Arroyo, who grew up in Naga and was here on Sunday, agreed that Robredo was more appreciated in death than in life.
Arroyo said that when Robredo was still alive, he was being looked down even though he worked at his job with dedication.
He said Robredo was not appreciated because in Manila he worked in a culture where those who can pay for public relations get the publicity. Robredo, he said, did not have money for public relations.
Arroyo said life had been unfair to Robredo. Only now that he is dead do people speak kindly about his work, he said.
But it is a consolation for his family to find that Robredo is held bigger than life after his death, Arroyo said.
Arroyo said he learned only after Robredo’s death that the home affairs chief did not bring his family to Manila to make his life convenient and enjoy the perks that went with his Cabinet position.
Judge Santos said Robredo’s death made this “a good time to be a Nagueño.”
Robredo’s legacy of good local government in Naga must give the nation hope, he said.
“Perhaps, one insight here for the structure of governance is to restructure it so that the locus of sovereignty of a very highly centralized presidential-unitary system of government is significantly or qualitatively devolved to the local levels—to better deal with problems at their respective levels, rather than constantly and unreliably relying on the central government, especially its all-powerful President,” Santos said.
Santos said he considered Robredo courageous, bold and daring for supporting the Nagueños’ declaration of their city as a peace zone despite opposition from the military and the New People’s Army’s seeing it as counterinsurgency tactic.
“The risks for Jess with his support for the Naga peace zone were underscored by the fact that it was actually the country’s first ever peace zone, still an experimental concept,” the judge said.
He said that people who have been living in Naga before Robredo was elected mayor in 1988 could not but note the fast economic progress of the city, with corresponding dynamic changes in its urban landscape.
“Those who had left or just visited the city during the pre-Robredo years would hardly recognize it during the later Robredo years, except for some old landmarks or haunts that are gladly still there for the Naga that we remember,” he said.
He said Robredo had egalitarian ethics, and he was progressive not only in the economic sense but also in the sense of balancing growth and equity for the poor.
“Jesse has become legendary with all the stories told about his literally down-to-earth conduct, especially in the equal importance treatment, whether at work or otherwise, of city folk from all walks of life, and then his signature casual T-shirt and walking shorts. But there is more substance than form to this egalitarianism,” Santos said.