Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Rene A.V. Saguisag

‘We cannot give up on the only country we have’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

A POSH motorcycle showroom in Makati is not a place one would expect to find a human-rights lawyer, but in the rare nights that he has time — and enough money — for a bit of fun, former senator Rene A.V. Saguisag can be found somewhere in its vicinity. Actually, Saguisag and wife Dulce are enthusiastic patrons of the ballroom-dancing club upstairs, and so he sometimes tries to squeeze in last-minute meetings with clients at the bike shop’s adjacent restaurant.

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When he decided to bow out of politics more than a decade ago, Saguisag had said he was doing so partly to give himself a chance to “smell the flowers.” He hasn’t done much smelling of any flower since, given his perpetually botox-tight schedule, but after he and his wife discovered ballroom dancing in 1996, he has been determined to take a few hours off each week to traipse around the dance floor with Dulce and foxtrot his frustrations away.

Now 66, Saguisag may have managed to remain sprightly and nimble as a result of his constant maneuvering through this country’s obstacle course of a legal system. It certainly hasn’t made him any richer, he says, a familiar refrain from someone who had taken pride in being the Senate’s poorest member. When he says he has never slept in a house that was his very own, he sounds almost pleased, even as he adds that he could very well kick the bucket without that setup ever changing.

Unlike many of his former cohorts among the pre-Edsa 1 human-rights lawyers, nothing seems to have changed much in Saguisag himself (except perhaps for a growing bald spot on the back of his head and hair that is now more gray than black). Just as in the days when he was Cory Aquino’s spokesperson and special counsel, and then during his first and only term as legislator, Saguisag is still addicted to florid and dramatic turns of phrase.

He also remains prone to off-the-beaten-track legal forays, which have ranged from rising before dawn to aid three provincianos arrested at three o’clock in the morning for drinking in public, to asking a compañera to hold off lowering the boom on the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines, which had been errant in paying its phone bills, to helping a deposed president attempt to impeach eight Supreme Court justices. He has drawn flak for his defense of ex-President Joseph Estrada, but Saguisag says he has always fought for the underdog, which he says the former chief executive has now become. Besides, he quips, ” I am not my client. Even if my client is Mother Theresa, I would still be the devil that I am.”

Edsa 1 or no Edsa 1, it’s unlikely that Saguisag would have strayed far from his chosen path, which he describes as mainly “street lawyering.” One could also look at it as an attempt to provide access to justice to those who would otherwise have none. Yet for a brief period between early 1986 and 1987, it seemed like a career that was about to go out of style. The new administration, after all, was heavy with human-rights lawyers. The Aquino Cabinet included legal luminaries Jose Diokno, Jovito Salonga, and Joker Arroyo, as well as a younger set that included Fulgencio Factoran Jr., Augusto Sanchez, Wigberto Tañada, and yes, Saguisag. The hope was that they would help usher in a transformation so profound it would be able not only to right many of the wrongs committed by the previous government, but would be able to prevent them from being repeated. There would, in other words, be little need for street lawyers, among other things.

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HAD THE likes of Saguisag had a formal mass of constituents, perhaps he would have had a headache by now from smelling hundreds of thousands of flowers. But Aquino’s human-rights guards had no mass constituency, making them easy targets for a restive military that had resented the president’s decision to free all of Marcos’s political prisoners, including communist leader Jose Ma. Sison. Bobbit Sanchez, who had been named labor minister, was the first to go. By the end of 1987, only Factoran would be left of the human-rights lawyers who had sat in the first Cory Cabinet.

Today many of them are remembered not for their contribution to government service or impact on official policies, but mainly for their struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. Far from becoming strong voices for the voiceless, those who cling to the same ideals they wielded as weapons against a dictator have since been reduced to being lone voices in the wilderness, quixotic dissenters who wage political and legal battles that they often do not win.

Saguisag, however, remembers 1987 as still a rather good year. He had gotten elected to the Senate that year, along with Salonga, his uncle, and other members of the ruling coalition, a feat he attributes to the lingering euphoria over Edsa 1. Yet that was also a year of several coup attempts, as well as of the infamous Mendiola massacre where some 15 demonstrators lost their lives. The next day, President Aquino joined rallyists mourning the tragedy, but Diokno would quit his two government posts in disgust anyway, including being the head of the government’s human-rights body.

Saguisag’s own general disillusionment with government would come much later, although he says that by the 1988 elections, “money politics” was back. Things could have turned out differently had what prevailed during those “four beautiful days” in 1986 lasted. But as he observes, “(At first) Filipinos were asking what they could do for their country. I (didn’t) realize that right after Edsa people would be asking what the country could do for them.”

“Beginning with Gringo (Honasan),” Saguisag says with some bitterness, referring to the then young army colonel who would later lead several coup attempts against the Aquino administration. “He never gave us space, he kept shooting at us.”

Saguisag says that just before the people power uprising, they had been having talks with Honasan and the rest of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement “right inside Camp Aguinaldo.” But he says he had not anticipated Edsa 1. He and Joker Arroyo had even planned to go back “to our own little practice” after the snap elections. Or maybe after they had finished carrying out a civil disobedience campaign, which they had just launched when Edsa 1 broke out.

It was not until the late afternoon of Feb. 22, when Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Gen. Fidel Ramos were already holed up in Camps Aguinaldo and Crame, that Saguisag learned something was afoot. But he and Dulce did not go to Edsa until evening, and even then they just drove around, wary that their presence there could be misconstrued as proof that Aquino had indeed been part of an attempted military coup against Marcos.

Three days later, two presidents were inaugurated, and it became clear to Saguisag that private practice would have to wait. President Aquino wanted him to continue being her spokesperson while Joker Arroyo was to be her executive secretary. They hesitated, but Aquino was not about to let them off that easily. “While we were looking down on our shoes,” recalls Saguisag, “she was saying, ‘You had me run and now you don’t want to help me.’ So what could we do? That was not the time to abandon (her).” And so they joined Aquino’s government, as did many of their colleagues in human-rights lawyering.

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DIOKNO AND Sanchez have since passed on, while Salonga has retired. Only Joker Arroyo, Saguisag, and occasionally Tañada remain in the public eye, along with Jejomar Binay, their former kakosa in court, who was named Makati’s OIC in 1986, and enjoyed being the boss of the country’s premier city so much he has yet to relinquish power there.

Arroyo has been a legislator for more than a decade while Tañada now heads a fair trade alliance and a rural reform movement. Saguisag, meanwhile, finally went back to private practice after his Senate stint ended in 1992, and later began teaching again as well. He says more than 50 percent of his practice is pro bono. Although he placed sixth in the bar and has a master’s degree from Harvard, Saguisag says he attracts many clients not because they see him as brilliant, but because his services are perceived to be either cheap or free. That’s why while he may no longer be driving an ’82 Mitsubishi Lancer, his Accord recently celebrated its 10th year on the road. “May inapamortize pa kami,” says Saguisag. “It will be paid off in 2009 yet.”

He says any lawyer now would handle “what few would touch with a 100-foot pole” during the Marcos years. But his firm still gets more than its fair share of human-rights cases — “mainly police abuse or people getting evicted, getting their place demolished.” Ironically, he says it’s not as easy as it was they were dealing with “torture, disappearances, salvaging.” Back then, Saguisag says, things were black and white, “you were for or against the dictator. Now there are many shades of gray. It is hard to secure justice for anyone these days, and more so in human-rights cases.”

To Saguisag, the promise of Edsa disappeared too soon; since 2001, he has even stopped going to the anniversary celebrations of the first people power. “I thought we had a very good beginning in 1987,” he repeats. “We assembled a very good Supreme Court. Our Senate I thought was a good one. We had a good cabinet. And I thought that our successors would build on these.”

“But today,” he says, “where do you begin really? In the judiciary, in the legal profession, it’s just so corrupt. Incredibly corrupt. When I was a young lawyer, wow, I was really proud to be a lawyer.”

Adds Saguisag: “Marcos really destroyed the institutions. And we have not recovered. And that’s my basic war with the current administration — that if you give up the moral high ground, if you do not set up the proper moral and ethical infrastructure, I don’t know where this country (is headed). Most anyone who can leave is leaving.”

For all that, he says, “We cannot give up on the only country we have.” And while life may be far from being perfect, at least his eldest son has now joined him in street lawyering, and there is always the prospect of doing the jive or the slower, more romantic bachata with his wife after his work for the day is done.

Saguisag says it helps that he has a “childlike faith in the Lord. He takes care of the lilies of the field.”

“I guess,” he says, “I’m still okay as a lily of the field.” — Cecile C.A. Balgos