‘A mistake for progressive candidates to join party of Marcos’

By Cristina DC Pastor

In between speaking tours and writing his memoir, former Bayan leader Baltazar Pinguel ponders Philippine politics 20 years after he left the country.

TF: Tell me about your journey from the Philippines to the U.S., specifically Philly where you now live.
BP: I have lived here these past 19 years. Next to Manila, Philly has been my longest place of residence. From April 1, 1992 until October 30, 2009, I worked at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace and justice organization founded in 1917. But as a result of the economic crisis of 2008 which drastically affected the funding of non-profit organizations, I was laid off. My last title was program analyst for peacebuilding and prevention of conflict.

TF: What exactly did you do?
BP: Some of my accomplishments in the peacebuilding and prevention of conflict program was organizing the April 20, 2002 Stop the War Mobilization in Washington, D.C. AFSC was also at the forefront of organizing the No Bases Conference, in Quito and Manta, Ecuador, March 5–9, 2007.

TF: What are the circumstances behind the grant of your political asylum?
BP: I was traveling in Canada and Europe in 1989 to 1991, moving around, giving talks on human rights to students, church groups. I came to the U.S. in 1991. In 1992, there was a new president, Fidel Ramos, and since I may be arrested when I got home because I was still technically on temporary release, I filed for political asylum. Amnesty International helped produce documentation for my application. My wife, whose mother is a U.S. citizen, would join me. My application was denied in 1997, and I faced deportation proceedings. We appealed, and because mine was a compelling case it was approved the same year.

TF: You and Lean Alejandro were very close.
BP: Lean was secretary-general and I was his deputy. Tandem kami, we’re always together. In 1987, he was assassinated. It happened on my birthday, so we’re not together that day. I was with my family. After that, I became sec gen of Bayan till 1989 when there was this abduction attempt on me. I was riding a jeepney when two men boarded; one of them sat near the driver. The jeep just stopped accepting passengers although there were empty seats. When it slowed down to a corner, I jumped out and took a cab. I was with my 2-year-old son.
Whenever I celebrate my birthday, I reflect on my very close friendship with Lean.

TF: Have you been home since?
BP: Two times. The last was July last year when my mother died. I’m an only child.

TF: I remember from our dinner last year about your leg and how it’s giving you some problems. The result you said of beatings when you were in detention.
BP: Because of my reputation as an ‘escapee,’ my military captors made sure that I was disabled from escaping again. One of my interrogators kicked me violently on my left knee injuring my knee cap. My captors, from time to time, would apply pressure to it during tactical interrogations causing me excruciating pain. When I was about to be ‘surfaced,’ a military medical officer injected me with steroids to make the swelling subside. I thought it was healed. Unfortunately, as I age, my injury has developed into osteoarthritis.

Bal, a KM firebrand in the '70s.

TF: The Philippine government is resuming talks with the communist rebels of the National Democratic Front yet again. Should they keep trying?
BP: I’m glad the Aquino government is having this conversation with the NDF, and I hope it will be successful. It’s been a while. People should be able to come in the open, legal process.
I was the last open and legal national spokesperson of Kabataang Makabayan (KM), the largest militant youth and student organization in the country then. When martial law was declared in 1972, KM was forced to go underground, and it was one of the organizations that formed the National Democratic Front. KM stayed as an underground organization since that time and up to now.

TF: What was your reaction when some of your former colleagues in the underground movement joined the Nacionalista Party, the party of Ferdinand Marcos and now Manny Villar, said to be the most corrupt
presidential candidate in 2010?
BP: I have a sense that Satur (Ocampo) and Liza (Masa) tried approaching other parties to be their candidates but were not successful. I think it was a mistake for progressive candidates to associate themselves with the likes of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. I am reminded of my readings on Mao during the 1970s about the ‘united front principle’ in dealing with reactionaries of the Bongbong and Manny Villar type. The principle is simple: in dealing with reactionaries, make sure it is ‘on just ground, to your advantage and with restraint.’

TF: Did you ever imagine as an activist that you would one day come to live in America?
BP: I always had the Philippines in my heart. However, circumstances in my life changed and I had to adapt to new situations. As an activist for peace and justice, I believe I can be at home in any place where there is a need for organizing.

TF: The Philippines has been described as a “corruption tainted but enduring democracy.” Is this fair comment?
BP: Corruption is still a big problem in Philippine society just as feudalism is still a social reality there. The fact that a feudal land-owning system still exists in the country, it is antithetical to being a democracy. Regarding corruption, it is a manifestation of what progressives in the Philippines call bureaucrat capitalism where people in government use political power for their own needs.

TF: Do you think Philippine-American relations have reached a certain level of maturity?
BP: We still have remnants of neocolonial relations which were put in place by one-sided agreements made as conditionality by the U.S. in granting us ‘independence’ in 1946. The presence of US military bases in the country and the enforcement of Visiting Forces Agreement are clear manifestations of these neocolonial relations. We also had onerous economic agreements with the US, for instance, pegging the Philippine peso to the U.S. dollar came out of such an agreement. Now that the dollar is in trouble, it affects the real value of the peso.

Baltazar Pinguel and wife Rosario are empty nesters in Northern Philadelphia. They have three sons, all single and living on their own.


  1. […] October 2009, Baltazar ‘Bal’ Pinguel was the director of Peacebuilding and Demilitarization Program of the American Friends Service, a […]

  2. […] Bayan chair Baltazar ‘Bal’ Pinguel said people are writing their memoirs “for fear that they will soon forget the details of their […]

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