(Second of a series)
SAN PEDRO, Laguna—The wild tree atop a hill overlooking the bustling town of San Pedro, as well as Laguna de Bay had always fascinated the late Salvador “Doy” Laurel as he traveled the highway.
He did not know who owned the place, said his widow, Celia Diaz-Laurel. Only that he wanted it. So he bought it. And after President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, padlocked Congress and made Laurel, then a senator, jobless, he had all the time in the world to turn the terraced sprawl into a leafy Shangri-la.
He built a house there, and constructed a chapel beside the majestic tree locals called Himbabao, Broussonetia luzonica of the mulberry family. “He liked the place and would come here. He planted all the trees,” said Celia.
She recalled that her husband used to quote to her a popular saying: To be a man, one has to plant a tree, bear a son, write a book. “He was smug,” she said. He had done all those things and more. “I planted so many trees,” he would say. “I am the Lord’s gardener.”
Laurel wanted to build a library on the four-hectare property but never got around to it. He died at the age of 75 on Jan. 28, 2004, after a prolonged battle with cancer, in California.
Little of what Laurel did for the People Power on Edsa are talked about these days.
Laurel was with Cory Aquino in Cebu City when the four-day uprising against Marcos began on Feb. 22, 1986. They had just launched a civil disobedience campaign after the dictator claimed victory in a fraud-marred snap election.
From his notes in the book “Doy Laurel” which Celia wrote, we learned that while Cory went to the Good Shepherd convent for security reasons, Laurel took a private plane to Manila via Calatagan in Batangas province. On Feb. 23, Laurel arrived at businessman Enrique Zobel’s Calatagan private airfield after a nearly three-hour flight, before getting on a helicopter to Manila.
At Camp Aguinaldo, held by military rebels, Laurel met with then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Gen. Fidel V. Ramos.
“They asked me to go on radio to appeal for more people to gather at Edsa,” Laurel recalled. “I made the appeal to MM (Metro Manila) and Southern Tagalog. Edsa People Power swelled.”
The following day, Laurel met Cory in her sister Josephine’s house and talked about taking their oaths. “I told her we must take our oath today,” Laurel wrote. “She agreed and asked me to make all the arrangements. I decided on Club Filipino. I invited opposition leaders and local and foreign media.”
Cory, however, had her misgivings about Club Filipino. “She said Club Filipino was too fragile and vulnerable to attack from Marcos men. She asked to see my father’s house,” Laurel wrote, adding that Cory was impressed and wanted it as a venue for their oath-taking.
[Laurel’s landmark ancestral white house was in Mandaluyong City.]
Laurel wrote that he told Cory: “But if FM [Ferdinand Marcos] will really attack us, he will attack us wherever we are. Besides, it may not be able to accommodate 2,000 political leaders and media people we expect. Likewise we have already announced the plan to the press.”
They later agreed to take their oaths at 9 a.m. on Feb. 25 at Club Filipino.
Laurel arrived before 9 a.m. at Club Filipino. By 11 a.m., Cory was still nowhere in sight. Cory told Laurel that Enrile had warned her not to go. “He said we will all be killed there,” Laurel quoted Cory as saying.
Laurel called Enrile and assured him that they would be safe. “Johnny, there is no problem about security there. I’ve taken care of that. I have about 300 Batangueños ready to protect us. We cannot show any fear at this time.”
After a brief invocation, Laurel took his oath as Vice President of the Philippines before his former professor and dean at the UP College of Law, Vicente Abad Santos.
Cory then took her oath as President.
Years later, recalling Laurel’s wish to build a library, Celia said it hit her that she would set up instead a museum that would showcase her husband’s legacy. This was after she decided to sell the sprawling house her husband built on Shaw Boulevard in Mandaluyong, beside a swank golf course. A high rise condominium nearby had deprived her of privacy.
The buyer agreed to her request that she dismantle piece by piece Laurel’s study there and put it together in the rambling ranch-style home cum library her husband had envisioned in San Pedro.
“So many historic meetings were held here,” Mrs. Laurel said in an interview in the reconstructed office. “So I asked the buyer if I could take all the materials and have them moved here. It was good that they agreed.”
He had taken many books and memorabilia to the house in his windswept redoubt. Celia, who had fulfilled a deathbed wish of her husband that she should write his life’s story, knew that one day she would build his library.
The books on the shelves lining one wall are as Laurel had arranged them, said Celia, now wheelchair bound from a leg injury. There’s his dark mahogany desk at one end, near the window, behind which stands an urn containing Laurel’s ashes brought home after his cremation in California.
The museum was inaugurated last January on Laurel’s ninth death anniversary.
The event took place as the Department of Education and the National Historical Commission pondered ways of including a study of the martial law years in the school curriculum in a way that would allow the young to make an impartial judgment of that period that roiled the nation decades ago.
Almost half the nation’s 100 million population were yet unborn at the time. Already, revisionist accounts of that dark chapter have emerged. The memoir of Enrile, chief martial law enforcer of Marcos, is one such narrative.
Laurel comes alive here in his sanctuary—in eight video walls painstakingly put together by his wife and grandsons Javier Delgado and Joaquin Laurel.
The film clips capture his journey as a precocious son of the country’s wartime president; as a disciplined student who earned his law degree from the University of the Philippines and later masters and doctorate from Yale; as a lawyer and pauper litigant; as a senator; as an opposition leader and presidential aspirant; as vice president, prime minister, foreign minister and forlorn castaway in the Corazon Aquino era; as a Filipino who, in the words of political commentator Nestor Mata, “enriched the country with his great love … and passionate defense of its democracy.”
The mosaic traces the origin of the Laurel clan from Gat Masungit, the surly son of a sultan in Brunei. Wanderlust saw the prince with a terrible temper sail to islands in the north, finally settling in a beautiful bay he called Batangan, where lies a placid lake with an occasionally fiery volcano in its midst.
One wall has an account of several incidents in 1966. A man’s bullet-riddled body was found stuffed in a garbage bin in Parañaque City. His widow pointed to a policeman as the killer. Being poor, she could not bring the culprit to court.
At the behest of Justice Roman Ozaeta, president of the Philippine Bar Association, Laurel took up the case, pro bono, and got the policeman convicted in a trial that riveted the nation. Soon Laurel was swamped with pleas for help to pursue cases of police brutality, prompting him, again at the prodding of Ozaeta, to assemble the best and the brightest lawyers of the land to handle the cases.
And so Laurel’s Citizen’s Legal Aid Society of the Philippines (CLASP) was born.
The case of Parisio Tayag put Laurel’s lawyers in the spotlight, in the same manner as the Tunisian who burned himself to death in December 2010 in a protest at his treatment by police sparked the Arab Spring, the extraordinary pro-democracy rebellions that convulsed the Middle East.
An impoverished jeepney driver in Dinalupihan, Bataan, Tayag figured in a minor traffic accident. A policeman tried to get him to cough up P300. The man offered P30, the only money he had. An argument ensued. The policeman drew his gun, Tayag pulled out his knife, but ran away instead, sensing prudence the better part of valor. A chase followed, joined by five other policemen.
Cornered in the town plaza, Tayag was shot dead. His widow, pregnant with their sixth child, lost her baby, and her mind. Laurel prosecuted the policemen. Within a month he had another 200 cases to handle.
Justice for the poor
That same year, Laurel ran for a Senate seat under the battle cry “justice for the poor” and was elected in a landslide vote.
Laurel was one of the bright lights in the Senate of old, where wizened patriots, all presidential timber, chartered the course of the nation that in the 1960s was thought of as the country in Asia next to Japan where an economic miracle would happen. He was talked about, in the same breath as Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, as a potential presidential candidate in the 1973 elections.
But Marcos, citing leftist and rightist conspiracies to topple the republic and the need to reform society, clamped the nation under martial law in 1972, jailed his political opponents and closed down newspapers and other media facilities. A simmering communist insurgency gained strength, attracting young cadres at the forefront of the First Quarter storm in 1972 that roused politicians in hibernation.
Opposition to Marcos reached its peak in 1983 when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on his return from self-exile in the United States. Marcos had allowed Aquino, who had been under detention for nearly eight years, to undergo heart surgery in the United States on a promise he would go back to his jail cell.
‘Pact with the devil’
Aquino ignored the deal, saying a “pact with the devil is no pact at all.” But he came back to rally a fractured opposition and try and talk to a lupus-stricken Marcos to call an election to avert a fate similar to strife-torn El Salvador or Nicaragua. He was shot dead after his plane landed in Manila.
Three years earlier, Laurel himself had organized above-ground political opposition, cobbling together a dozen disparate groups under the United Nationalist Democratic Organization, or Unido, and offering an alternative to armed groups seeking the violent overthrow of Marcos. As protests over the Aquino assassination widened, Marcos stunned the nation with a surprise announcement that he was calling a snap election in three months, on Feb. 7.
At the Araneta Coliseum in December, packed with 25,000 supporters, Laurel was named the Unido’s presidential candidate. But soon Unido fell apart as calls were made among the opposition ranks he called the “gathering of Davids” for Ninoy’s hugely popular widow Corazon to contest the presidency.
At the last minute, Laurel, looking at the example of his father who stepped aside for Ramon Magsaysay in 1953, gave way to Cory Aquino and ran as her vice president. The event moved the Archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, to say upon Laurel’s death: “He gave of himself so completely to the quest and helped recover freedom for the people, not by forwarding himself, but by volunteering to slay his own personal ambition.”
All of those events are portrayed in the video walls in the programmed walk through a forgotten political persona.
Officially, Cory lost the fraud-marred 1986 balloting. The breakaway of Enrile and Ramos two weeks later in the midst of her civil disobedience campaign sparked the People Power revolution that ousted Marcos and installed the widow as president, with Laurel as her vice president.
As she had promised, Cory appointed Laurel as her prime minister and concurrent foreign minister. She had told him all she wanted was to get rid of Marcos and that she would step down after two years and hand to him the reins of government.
Soon after she took power, Aquino abolished the Constitution and declared a revolutionary government without consulting Laurel, who was effectively stripped of his post as prime minister. But he soldiered on, ever true to the dream he had given up everything for, quietly nursing his wounds.
Parting of ways
In September that year, Laurel unburdened himself to Cory, not as a political partner but as Ninoy’s childhood friend, of the promises unkept, in a Palace meeting in the presence of her mother-in-law Dona Aurora Aquino, brother-in-law Butch Aquino and her brother Jose Cojuangco.
“Cory looked down and gave a halting reply,” Laurel, writing in his diary, said in reply to his question about what had happened to those promises. “I was told that the Edsa revolution … erased all those promises,” he quoted the President.
As he stood up to leave, Cory asked what he would do. He replied, “I want this government to succeed. I don’t want it to fail. I’ve worked so hard, sacrificed so much, to bring it to power. I’ll wait for a year. I’ll support you when you’re right. I’ll disagree with you when you’re wrong.”
Friends who had visited the museum shed a tear on entering the study, said Celia. She said students from the San Pedro elementary school, who came for the initial tour recently, came away impressed. “One said it was very inspiring. One of them said I’m glad to be a Filipino,” she said.
“This is what we want to evoke. If we inculcate in them love of country, then there’s hope in the future … They never knew who Doy was. I know how he felt about the country. I know how he sacrificed, and then suddenly, they’re going to erase him from history,” she said.
Daughter Suzie Laurel-Delgado recalls in a published article how her father was “never vindictive towards those who maligned him and dishonored agreements, those who betrayed and abandoned him.”
“He suffered the stabs of ingratitude in silence and still managed to smile while the rest of us wept over the many undeserved injustices heaped upon him.”
And she quoted her father telling her, “In the end, it is not money, position or power that matters—it is your faith in God, the love of your family and the continuing concern for your country.”
Old world of honor
At the relaunching last month of a book on Laurel by the novelist Nick Joaquin, former Rep. Teddy Boy Locsin Jr., a relative of Celia, was asked to introduce the late author and star writer in his father’s influential Free Press magazine of the pre-martial law days. Locsin, Cory Aquino’s speech writer, used the occasion to speak about an honored tradition his father had taught him: Never attack or in any way hurt a man who breaks bread in your house.
“The Laurels, of course, were worthy of this tradition, because through many long years of their fame, fortune and power, no Laurel ever did anything but serve our country with distinction, with honor and integrity.
“When Ninoy ran from his prison cell against Imelda Marcos (in 1978), Tito Doy organized a massive noise barrage. We showed the world how the Filipino people would vote the next day even if their votes would not be counted. Tito Doy, his nephews, I think one or two of his kids, and I would spend the night in jail,” Locsin said.
“The 1986 Freedom Constitution was drafted in Tito Doy’s house, in his library. He never imposed his views but if we had listened to his advice, we would have saved our country destruction and anarchy. He wanted a symbolic reopening of the Senate that Marcos had padlocked. He even had the wood. He wanted it nailed back unto the Senate door again and then have it torn away and the Senate reopened to clearly establish the link between the Old Republic and our New Democracy. I pleaded for his idea, but I was defeated and the result was one coup attempt after another.
“When Tito Doy passed away, that world, that old world of honor passed away with him. It is fitting that the man of those times and a talent without peer should have written his life’s story and that it should reappear in a format worthy of the writing and of the life it celebrates.” With a report from Inquirer Research