Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Op-Ed, Today/
September 15, 2004

He retired first in his mid-thirties - a successful businessman whose goal was to achieve financial independence early so he could serve his country and family and live the way he wanted to.

The next retirement came when he already had three grandchildren, a quadruple bypass, and the kind of public prominence that could only be bestowed by the singularly belligerent, mordant, street-smart brand of activism he wielded against the Philippine government.

Twice he has retired and both instances he met on his own terms: he desired it, he looked forward to it, he willed it; and one day it was in place. He lived the words of the English novelist John Galsworthy, who said that "if you do not think about the future, you cannot have one."

For friend and foe alike, his surliness was legendary. On the occasion of the State of the Nation presidential address almost a decade ago and marching towards the Batasang Pambansa at the helm of a demonstration numbering a hundred thousand, he was warned by the Secretary of Justice in a live radio news program that though they were free to march, freedom of expression and assembly had limits. The warning he took as an incentive.

He thanked the secretary rather politely on the air and once off the air he proceeded to march with his group through five menacing police barricades each manned by water cannons and fully armored, truncheon-wielding crowd dispersal police units. At the last barricade, bruised and bloodied, he went straight to the line of shields, thrust his head right in front of the helmeted police and pulled the truncheon of a policeman and dared the policeman to hit him on the head as other policemen had done in the barricades they had just passed. The policeman stared at him, completely befuddled by the activist's impudence, and refused to use his truncheon. No other truncheon was used again that day.

Another time, just days after his heart surgery and still weak and recovering in his hospital room, he asked to be transferred to another area after the cooling system in the intensive care ward conked out.

Over an hour later and after many unheeded requests, still in the same room and already sweating and worried he may develop pneumonia - but actually more infuriated that his requests had been ignored - the patient whose chest was cut open just days ago goes up a flight of stairs, walks straight to the admitting section in his hospital gown, lifts and hurls a couple of computers to the floor and tells the shocked personnel politely "Do I have your attention? I need a place where the aircon works otherwise my health may deteriorate." He refuses to leave the room, which he found quite cool. Orderlies swiftly bring in a hospital bed and he tucks himself in and in a minute is snoring in the admitting section.

Of the many vital moments in his life, the battles with the powers that be he enjoyed the most; the higher they were, the more he relished the political skirmishes. He always said this to his only son - always respect your opponents - a stance he combined with trademark savvy, contagious optimism, maddening meticulousness, moral purpose and epic stubbornness.

National Security Adviser Joe Almonte and President Fidel Ramos disrespected him once by underestimating him and they paid dearly for it when they attempted to ban the Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) he had led in organizing in 1994 - a watershed assembly, it would later turn out, which amplified the plight and cause of East Timor globally and helped accelerate the independence of the newest country in Asia today.

He was alone mostly in his doggedness - more so when signals from the Philippine government that they disapproved of APCET and did not wish to upset Jakarta and the despotic ASEAN consensus of silence became more ominous and increasingly threatening - signals which finally led to the Ramos administration announcing their intention to ban the East Timor conference. "Well, we will defy the ban," the activist replied publicly.

When sections of the Philippine media came out in support of the Ramos ban and condemned the activist's hard-headedness, the activist became even more determined to hold the conference. And thus earned the respect of some in the media, including a national daily by the name of TODAY, which had just begun to publish that year.

That Filipino journalists "should join the jubilation over the . . . ban on the APCET conference only shows we do not deserve the freedom and rights that groups like APCET helped to give us," wrote TODAY in its May 14, 2004 editorial titled "Constantino correct".

"What RC Constantino and the other APCET organizers put together was the sort of conference that all decent and intelligent men and women, and all honest writers, should support," the editorial continued. "The obligation of every journalist is to stand alongside RC Constantino in exposing and denouncing a brutality that cannot - unless you are an animal - find any justification or mitigation in reasons of state . . . the moral rationale for the conference is unimpeachable."

But the ban remained. And so did RC Constantino's defiance of the ban. As the East Timor meet neared its end and it was clear they had been outflanked, Ramos administration officials threw in the towel. By June 5, on the front page of the Manila Times - similar to the front pages of other newspapers - a photo above the front page story reporting the successful conclusion of the APCET meet showed a beaming RC carrying his first grandchild, Ia, on his left arm and holding in his right hand the gavel that would end the conference.

RC Constantino turns 60 today - a warrior in retirement (try as he might, he cannot shed his warrior ways) and an accomplished full-time lolo (grandfather), the chairman of the board of a prestigious language school and a generous adviser to the many who continue to seek his counsel - through text messages, phone calls, lunches and dinners and, as before, through visits to Panay Avenue.

"Old age, to the unlearned, is winter," a Yiddish proverb goes, and "to the learned, it is harvest time." RC continues to harvest what life has to offer, at 60 years of age, even as he continues to play Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo each noon on his Mac with his six-year old grandson Rio Renato, merienda frenzies with his other grandchildren, the rambunctious affections of his children, the unfettered love of his mother, the graceful Letizia, and the extraordinary love of Dudi - nurturing mother, woman, wife, nationalist and writer, whose dreams RC passionately shares.

Happy birthday, Pa, from a grateful son. An American, President Theodore Roosevelt, captured best the example you have so generously shared to so many:

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, who knows the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows in the end the high achievement of triumph and who, at worst, if he fails while daring greatly, knows his place shall never be with the timid and cold souls who know neither victory or defeat."[i]

[i] Isyu, August 14, 1996.

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