IN 1989, Jim Paredes of the Apo Hiking Society walked into the United States Embassy and gave up his green card.
An astonished embassy official looked at him and said, “Are you sure? You know, a lot of people would kill for this. Maybe you should think things over.”
“I have thought it over,” Paredes answered.
It was the year of the bloodiest coup attempt against the Aquino government. Three years before, the Marcos dictatorship was ousted in a bloodless people power revolt that caught the attention of the world and the imagination of other countries also wrestling with authoritarian rule.
Such was Paredes’s devotion to the new democracy that he vowed never to lose it again. He had said so in one of his songs and, on that day in the U.S. embassy, he said so again through his deed.
It was just two days after the coup led by Gringo Honasan when Paredes surrendered his U.S. green card. “I told my wife, it’s unfair that we have an escape hatch,” he recalls. “Dito na tayo. I’m not going to allow a military takeover, at least while I’m here. And I stayed.” He wanted to tell the military plotters, “Putangina n’yo, you’re not gonna steal Edsa from anybody, not from me.”
That was 17 years ago. Today, after the Estrada presidency, the second people power revolt, and the Arroyo presidency, Paredes is leaving. Temporarily, he says, for two or three years. He and his family are off to Australia, which gave them immigrant visas.
During the Marcos regime, thousands of Filipinos emigrated to escape economic and political oppression. After 1986, many of them were lured back by the promise of a new Philippines. But that “brain gain” wouldn’t last long. Since the 1990s, the number of economic migrants has escalated. In recent years, as crisis after crisis hit the Philippines, even those who were not so hard up began packing their bags, declaring that they no longer saw a future in this country.
Now it seems Paredes, an established artist, is going the same route, although he explains his decision by saying, “I need a break from being a Filipino.”
But in 1986, that was the best thing to be — a Filipino. A grinning Jane Fonda acknowledged the people power revolt by flashing the Laban sign during the Oscars ceremony. Before long, South Korea, Romania, East Germany, and other countries followed the Philippine example.
Paredes remembers the first day of Edsa. When news spread that Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile had broken away from President Ferdinand Marcos, the members of the Apo Hiking Society — Paredes’s musical group that included Danny Javier and Buboy Garovillo — were having a pictorial. Immediately, the group packed up. Paredes says, “I went home and for the next three days I hardly slept.”
Marcos loyalist forces bombed Radio Veritas, which was broadcasting the news of the breakaway. Radio Veritas was located in Fairview, Quezon City, where Paredes lived, and he took it upon himself to gather civilians to protect the station. Despite being damaged, it was still working. While there, Paredes heard the voice of June Keithley over the radio. She wanted him to come to a station called Radyo Bandido.
“I didn’t even know where it was. She just said, you know where it is,” he says. On a hunch, he went to the old RJ building and there found the renegade radio station.
Throughout the revolt, Paredes and his wife shot videos of the crowd scenes and interviewed politicians. “There was a ‘This is it!’ feeling,” Paredes says. When the Marcoses finally fled, that feeling turned into euphoria, and Paredes joined the thousands trooping to Malacañang, where he took pictures of soldiers and tanks that just stood by as the people victoriously entered the palace.
FOR SOME time, the euphoria would last, along with images of confetti and yellow ribbons. But disappointment soon set in. For Paredes, it was when the censors board ordered a scene showing angry crowds hitting portraits of Marcos and his wife Imelda removed from the video of his Edsa song “Handog ng Pilipino.” According to a dismayed Paredes, the board’s chair reasoned that “Filipinos daw are not like that.”
“That was when I thought that dilution was beginning to happen,” he says. Recent history was being revised, persons who figured in the dictatorship “rehabilitated.” Still, Paredes, like many Filipinos then, felt such accommodations were necessary to achieve the bigger goal of national reconciliation and a return to normalcy.
Today he thinks the Aquino government squandered its opportunities. “I don’t think they (Aquino officials) were as bold as the people wanted them to be…Masyadong nagpapogi, masyadong nagpa-pressure,” he says, and enumerates the issues where he feels the post-Marcos government failed to act strongly: corruption, debt payment, the various coup attempts.
He argues, “If Cory had said, ‘Point out all the crooks,’ people would have done it.”
The Aquino government, he adds, could have taken advantage of its popularity at that time and repudiated the onerous debts of the previous regime. “But what did Cory say? We must honor it. So what did we get? A standing ovation from the U.S. Congress. But we had to pay up. Mali, ‘di ba?” he asks.
He is willing to excuse Aquino because of her lack of political experience. But he expected more from the human-rights lawyers in her government like Rene Saguisag and Joker Arroyo. When reminded that the latter’s presence in the government was the issue that provoked the rightist coup attempts, Paredes says scathingly, “They should have run to the people. But (they didn’t because) what happens is that when you sit in government, the people don’t count anymore. It’s the other forces that count — the armed forces, the politicians, the moneyed, business. The people don’t count. They should have run to the people and the people would have protected them.”
If the government had to err at all, Paredes believes it should have erred on the side of overzealousness. “I would have gone that way,” he says, pointing out that a greater injustice was committed by not acting at all.
Now that chance is gone. He says Filipinos have become cynical even about people power. Although Edsa 2 succeeded in ousting a corrupt president, Paredes says “it was very clear na trapo yung pumalit (a traditional politician took over).” And if the election of Estrada represented “the lowest point in my belief in being Filipino,” Paredes says the “Hello, Garci” tapes “was the lowest of the low” that a public official could do.
Yet, in the face of apparent hopelessness, he believes Filipinos still want the same things, “middle-class values,” as he calls these: “they still want better government, less corruption, progress. They still want a fair share for everybody.”
Like many among the disillusioned middle class who once yearned and fought for democracy, Paredes now believes that Filipinos need a strong leader. “The democracy that we experienced cannot deliver,” he says. “I don’t think the people care very much what the form is. You could put a strong leader there, who bends rules a little bit. I think you could take that as long as the outcome is good.”
He says Filipinos need leaders who can “kick ass,” who — like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, for example — can “walk the talk,” and who can truly lead by example. The future government, Paredes suggests, should be willing to do one thing that the post-Edsa government was not willing to do: “knock down some people.”
When asked if he means lining up the crooks against a wall and shooting them, he replies, “Oh, that would be nice, too. You know what? I wouldn’t cry over it if it happened.”
THIS EARLY, he thinks the search for such a leader should be on, so that that person could run in the next presidential elections. Thereafter, Paredes says, Filipinos should no longer be as forgiving. Politicians who figured in scandals should not be allowed back into office. “We should awaken memory,” he says.
And what about the repercussions that a strong government would have on the people’s freedoms — such as the freedom of expression, including artistic expression?
“There is no such thing as absolute artistic freedom, any freedom. Freedom is relative,” Paredes says. As an artist, “I would be willing to be more responsible about it…but I will not give it up. If it is the government’s duty to curb (artistic freedom), then let them curb it but I will not give it up.”
It is the dilemma of the despairing and desperate — what is one really willing to give up for what one wants to get?
In the world Paredes inhabits, there is no lack of things that need to be changed. He disagrees, for example, with the dominance of entertainment fare in television, pointing out that cable TV in advanced democracies like Britain and Australia offer entertainment shows only on weekends. In the Philippines, however, Sex Bombs and other trivialities rule the airwaves every day of the week. The situation is nothing short of tragic as more children rely on television for example and guidance, especially in the absence of at least one parent who has to work abroad.
Paredes says he would even “demand” a strong state policy that would regulate entertainment programs.
He says Filipinos need more than a political revolution. They need a cultural revolution that would enable them to appreciate and respect themselves. Only by being true to themselves can they contribute to the world culture, just like the Brazilians did and just like a Jamaican named Bob Marley did.
The Original Pilipino Music or OPM Paredes helped form tried to do this. But something must have gone wrong along the way because most radio stations still sound “like we’re in LA.”
Many things have gone wrong. And more than that, Paredes says, “Now, I’m getting old. I’m past 50.”
It is the worst possible combination: going through a midlife crisis in a country that is in perpetual crisis. He says, “I told my wife, takas muna tayo, we need a break. Why don’t we live abroad? So we applied and we got it.” Paredes says they have to move quickly because the window of opportunity is fast closing. “If we don’t do it this year, wala na.”
But he hasn’t decided to leave for good. “I’m not selling my house,” he says, because he wants to come back. It’s a temporary thing, he stresses, because “all my idols lived abroad — Ninoy Aquino, Jose Rizal, Juan Luna, every great Filipino, I think.” He says even Andres Bonifacio “would have wanted to, if he had a chance.”
By leaving, Paredes wants to give his three children more options: whether to remain as Filipinos, as he did many years ago, or to become citizens of another land. As for himself, he says: “It’s like driving on a road. In another country, there would be no potholes. Here, there are so many that your car wobbles. But you know what? They’re your potholes. And when you fix them up, it becomes a special thing.”
With all that’s been said and left undone, Paredes points out, “We can’t have paradise on a silver platter. We have to earn paradise and I would still like to be here when we earn it.” — Chit Estella