HAPPINESS AND contentment radiate from Bernabe Buscayno these days, but there was a time when he would wake up thinking this day would be his last. In the mountains where he fought a guerrilla war, death was just always an illness or a bullet away. As a political detainee years later, a resigned Buscayno came to believing his isolation cell would be the very last place he would see in his life.
Listen to the interview with Bernabe Buscayno
But on March 8, 1986, Buscayno, who had been in prison for nearly 10 years, became one of hundreds of political detainees released by the new Aquino government. Then 42, Buscayno did what he allowed himself to imagine he would do since the first whispers began reaching him about the possibility of freedom should Corazon Aquino become president.
“I went home, ran through the fields, let my skin soak up the sun,” says Buscayno in Filipino. “I went back to where I grew up, I visited my relatives and friends.”
He hadn’t been able to sleep while the Edsa revolution was going on, he recalls. He kept an ear glued to the radio, constantly thinking, “Please, please, let this end, let Marcos fall.” And when that finally happened, Buscayno felt an elation he had never known before. “It was,” he says, “like a new dawn for me.”
It was indeed a new beginning not only for Buscayno, but also for hundreds of other political prisoners and for the country he professes to love. “The oppressive regime was gone,” he says of what Edsa meant, and to him nothing could have been sweeter. Never mind that in the background, the military was chafing at its leash, angered by the Aquino government’s decision to release Buscayno and his ilk.
A year later, Buscayno, founder of the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), exchanged the bullet for the ballot. With a few other Left leaders, he formed the Partido ng Bayan or PnB, which fielded candidates for the legislative elections that year; Buscayno himself ran for senator. “Everyone had a chance to offer a platform and have the people vote for the most deserving,” he says. It was also a chance to spread the word about what, to Buscayno, was the most important lesson of Edsa: that a people, united, could overcome the worst adversary.
Not one of PnB’s candidates won. Still, the 1987 elections were significant for the Left, which had boycotted the 1986 “snap” presidential poll. That exercise, said CPP leaders at the time, was “a noisy but meaningless affair between contending factions of the same ruling class.”
“They had a point,” Buscayno now says. “But as I said then, ‘If you’re right, let the people learn. That would be better than us not participating, going the other way. We would have a hard time explaining that to the people.’”
To this day, the decision to boycott the 1986 elections is still widely referred to as one of the CPP’s “legendary” blunders. As Buscayno predicted, it contributed to the alienation of the movement in a world where it was fast becoming irrelevant.
PERHAPS IT was because he had never considered himself an “ideologue” that made it easy for Buscayno to embrace the potentials presented by Edsa. He says he had joined the movement not even knowing “what a communist was. What I knew was, the Filipino should be self-sufficient.”
But it would take a rightist attempt on his life for the ex-NPA commander to leave the movement altogether. Minutes before midnight on June 9, 1987, two men opened fire on Buscayno’s car as it was leaving the compound of a broadcast station in Quezon City. Two of his four companions died while the other two were wounded. Buscayno ducked in time, and escaped getting shot. He was, however, hit by shrapnel from a grenade thrown at his car.
That ambush was one of a string of anti-Left attacks carried out in the uneasy transition after Edsa 1. Buscayno was among the luckier ones who survived these. Not so lucky were youth leader Lean Alejandro and labor lawyer Rolando Olalia. These cases remain unsolved, but many see the hand of the putchist RAM, which by then had morphed from the Reform the Armed Forces Movement into to the Rebolusyonaryong Alyansang Makabansa (Nationalist Revolutionary Alliance).
Three pieces of shrapnel remain lodged in Buscayno’s back, permanent souvenirs of the 1987 ambush; doctors do not dare remove them as they are very close to one lung. Buscayno says that as soon as he recovered from his wounds, he headed for his hometown of Capas, Tarlac, for good. “I thought it was time that I went home…and do as my father did — be a tiller of the land.”
He has lived in Capas since. “This is my territory,” he says. “Here I am safe.”
It was in Capas where he had joined the peasant movement Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan at age 17, a third-year high school dropout. It was also in Capas that the New People’s Army was born in 1969, after he had a meeting with CPP head Jose Ma. Sison. From a ragtag army of 35 that had just 10 rifles, the NPA grew under Buscayno, then already known as “Kumander Dante,” spreading first throughout Central Luzon and then north in Isabela, south in Negros and Camarines Sur, and other provinces.
But it would also be in Capas where the former Kumander Dante would attempt an alternative to armed revolution. In 1988, Buscayno set up the People’s Livelihood Foundation-Tarlac Integrated Livelihood Cooperative (PILF-TILCO) in a bid to help end the poverty of the peasants who formed the core of the NPA.
Eager to have a model other ex-rebels could emulate, the Aquino government pulled out all the stops in supporting Buscayno’s venture. By the end of its first year, the cooperative had over 500 member-farmers working on 1,019 hectares, all of them benefiting from low-interest loans, increased harvests, and the employment opportunities provided by the economic venture.
But the cooperative soon ran into problems, including mismanagement. In 1991, Mt Pinatubo erupted, ruining huge swaths of land in Tarlac and severely affecting the cooperative’s members who ended up defaulting on their loans. “The farmers could not cope,” Buscayno relates. In 1994 the cooperative folded up.
BUSCAYNO’S ATTEMPT at reconfiguring his life after 1986 was not really unique, given that the Left in general had faced a renewal of sorts after Edsa 1. Once dominant, the Left of the national-democratic variety found itself in a serious crisis–ideologically, strategically, and militarily. The Party would even turn on its own members, undergoing a bloody internal purge that resulted in the killing of many cadres.
Then in 1992, the CPP Central Committee issued a document that drew the line between those who continued to abide by the theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought (the “reaffirmists” or RAs) and those who did not (the “rejectionists” or RJs). Not long after, the Ras and RJs themselves would get fragmented. In the last decade, comrades who broke away from the main group have been assassinated, among them Filemon Lagman, Romulo Kintanar, and Arturo Tabara.
The NPA, which is estimated to have 10,000 guerrillas today, is still considered a serious threat by the government. But the communist movement itself has been unable to regain the strength it once had. Even Buscayno says, “It has really weakened.”
That’s even if what he calls the “fundamental struggle” remains “correct” to this day. “The dream to free the Philippines from poverty or outside intervention, to have it become an independent, progressive, and admirable nation? That’s my dream, too,” he says.
But he no longer believes in the primacy of armed struggle, which he says is “futile and suicidal.” Military might, he says, is simply too strong for the rebels. “They keep on going to the hills, and they just keep getting killed,” he says. “There’s no moving forward.”
He says he had already realized this even before he was captured by the military. For the longest time they had tried “surrounding the cities from the countryside,” yet still failed to capture state power.
The Left, however, has since extended its struggle to the electoral arena. Through the party-list system, prominent Leftists have snagged seats in Congress, which is why ex-detainee and former NDF spokesperson Satur Ocampo now sits in the same hall as his ex-military torturer, Amado Espino.
BUSCAYNO, FOR his part, remains concerned with the ills that continue to plague the country: graft and corruption, crime, poor leadership, underdevelopment. He says life has gotten worse for many families. To help out in his small corner of the world, in 2000 he set up the Tarlac Integrated Agricultural Modernization Cooperative (TIAMC), which seeks to promote the mechanization of farmwork, from sowing the seeds to harvest.
He believes that “Filipinos should remain vigilant in protecting the rights they had regained (after the revolution). This was their Edsa reward.”
But he has also been busy with his own farm, which he shares with other family members, including brother Juanito. In 1999, the Department of Agrarian Reform awarded them certificates of ownership for the seven-hectare plot, on which they have since been growing mangoes, bananas, and sugarcane. It is with pride that he shows his calloused hands. Just this December, Buscayno also opened a modest family resort.
“I have been so lucky,” he declares. Aside from the 1987 ambush, he had had five other serious brushes with death, four of them while he was still a rebel. The fifth came in 1995, when the furnace exploded in the brick-making facility he co-owned, burning his face, ears, nape, and arms. He jokes, quoting an old saying, “Bad grass never dies.”
Today he revels over being able to do what he wants and being with his family. And while he sometimes speaks of being old — “my hair’s gone white, my memory’s failing” — he looks forward to doing more.
His bliss is obvious as he pedals his old, rickety bicycle around his farm. One sees it, too, when he speaks of growing tilapia. “I love it when the fingerlings have to be transferred from the nursery to the growing pond,” says Buscayno. “I put them all in the trap, then I lift it while they wiggle, I put them down there, and tell them, ‘Okay, you’ll be getting big there.’” He allows no one else to do the work; it is his alone. Buscayno says it is fantastic — “ang sarap.”
He hardly contacts former comrades, and has kept friendships with very few of them.
In Capas, the wonders of simple living have conquered the heart of former Kumander Dante. — Vinia M. Datinguinoo