Saturday, March 19, 2016

Growing up in Martial Law Negros"

Jon Ray Fernandez, 2016 

(Photo by Jay Fermin FMG)

I grew up in a mixed political household (also a mixed religious one) My maternal grandmother  and my mother were  staunch supporters of the Partido Nacionalista because her sister Ma. Lourdes was the nacionalista mayor of Valladolid in Negros. My maternal grandfather was a Quirino (cousin of President Quirino) from Ilocos which makes it self explanatory why he was rock solid Marcos.  My maternal grandmother and mother were closely linked to RSB-Roberto 'BOBBY" Salvador Benedicto and his wife Julie both powerful Marcos cronies, Bobby or RSB as he was popularly known, was the comptroller of the Negros Sugar Industry and Traders Royal Bank- both were not only my moms god parents (and my own) but were my grandmothers constant travelling companions all through out the 1960’s and 70’s.

On the other side of my family-my fathers family were all partido liberal and deeply anti-Marcos.  I think you can safely assume that politics and religion divided our family.  I came into political consciousness in the very turbulent years of the 80’s, though I was politically immature, my brother and I were deeply interested in politics.  But we were influenced by my grandmother-who blamed the communist insurgency on the leftist and student protesters, which was a giant headache for the sugar planters on Negros. She felt they were out to destroy the feudal system which made sugar planters rich beyond the dreams of millions of Filipinos. It was safe to assume she failed to connect that the reason why her farm hands went to the mountains to join the NPA in the first place was because of deep corruption and the eventual collapse of the sugar industry brought about by her friends-the Benedictos and their big boss in Malacanang –President Ferdinand Marcos.

I do not think UP politicized me ( my Lola and Mom were not very happy), even before entering the state university I was already politically opinionated.  But after reading many books and seeing and hearing for myself the many screaming matches in my own house about the Marcoses and the Aquinos. I decided to find my own truth.

I see a new generation of young  Filipinos constantly praising the Marcos dictatorship and talk about the good old days during the 20 years of conjugal dictatorship- most of these young people were not yet born, but I was around and knew what was going on. 

( Philippine Airforce UH-1H flying North over Negros Occidental. Photo by Jay Fermin FMG )

Let me talk about my experience from a Bacolodnon or Negros point of view. During the sugar boom of the 1940s, 50s and 60s the sugar industry made all the Negros planters rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  These were the boom years because the USA bought their sugar from the Philippines, and Cuba the other sugar producing island was out of the picture, America imposed trade sanctions on the newly communist Cuba. So sugar only came from the Philippines and other small  sugar producing islands like Puerto Rico,  but still not even close to what the Philippines was sending to the USA. So we had a monopoly. 

Negros was called the richest island in Asia!

Back then if you were a Negros planter, your life was good,  beyond good it was great. All the planters were super rich, these were the boom years- I remember my grand parents and relatives buying houses in the newly developed Makati business district- Forbes park, Bel Air, Urdaneta and Magallanes village- and all out kapit bahays  in these gated villages were all Negrense.  They even had apartments in New York and San Francisco (we had a house in Chicago).  I knew of planter families in Bacolod who had small airplanes and helicopters.   All the the other planter families in our gated Village in Bacolod (Sta. Clara) went to Europe every year in huge tour groups-the Sarosas, Maranons, Lacsons, Jalandonis, Cuencas and so many other Bacolod families.  My grandmother used to say they she went around the world 12 times with my mom, staying for months in the best hotels.  You have to remember this was in the 1950s and 60s when there was no such thing as piso fares or budget airlines.  Back then traveling via PAN AM or TWA was a white gloved affair.  It was reserved for the rich.  The Negros planters were thus called “HACIENDEROS”  

Then Ferdinand and Imelda entered the palace in 1965- he was young and dynamic, she was beautiful and gracious.  Filipinos thought it was the dawn of a new era, Marcos and Imelda were like the JFK and Jackie Kennedy of Asia.  The first 5 years of their reign were uneventful.   

Then around 1970 things started to change in Hacienda Sugarlandia Negros: the economy was failing, and we had a law and order problem in Negros even at the height of Martial Law,  the NPA started to grow in number, from a small force of 2 thousand they grew to around 30 thousand,  the people working in the farms started leaving their jobs and joining the NPA in the mountains,-  the decades long feudal system which had made all the planter families super rich began to crumble.  My Moms ninong and Marcos best friend Roberto Salvador Benedicto was siphoning billions of pesos from the Negros sugar industry to Imelda’s private shopping sprees. The Benedictos were sooooo rich they had a private Lear Jet ( not the Cessna two engine) in their own small airport terminal ( the old cebu pacific terminal in the old airport was their own private airport)  I remember my grandmother used to travel with them, the airport had a red carpet from airport terminal to the airplane stairs  . This I remember because I was on that plane several times.

The once thriving and unfair sugar industry began to disintegrate right before our eyes.   By the 1980’s things had gotten worst in Bacolod( I remember these dark years)   The gracious garden parties in Sta Clara were replaced by super high walls with electric barbed wire- even the richest hacienderos did not feel safe in their huge houses.  The law and order situation in Negros had gotten so bad, that if we drove to our farm, there was a possibility of being abducted by the NPA’s new armed group called "The Sparrow Unit".   I remember that we had to change our telephone number at least once a month because we would get death threats very often on the phone.   Then one day in the early 80’s- my dad disappeared and there were whispers that he was abducted by the Sparrow Unit. He re appeared after 2 days (I assume my grandmother had paid some sort of tribute fee to the NPA for his release)  Til the day my father died-he never mentioned this incident-maybe trauma (I don't know).  My best friends family  (another haciendero family) and their farm home was entered by the NPA, they were all tied up and made to kneel- thankfully, nothing bad happened to them.

Negros in the 1980's was a dark, dismal and in many ways lawless. We were so desperate for safety that all the rich planter families had private armies called CAFGU's- ex military men willing to be private security for Haciendero families.  It was a dark time.

But the worst was yet to happen, around 1982 a famine hit Negros.  There was no food left in the farms except for coconut and camote. We planters were as helpless as our farm hands- many Negrenses left their huge haciendas to go to the USA to work as nurses aides or clerks- it was that bad in Negros- ika nga tapos na ang happy days.   

Then Newsweek magazine used the picture of a starving Negros child for its cover-  the child was malnourished, bone thin, almost close to death, this child looked like a victim of the genocide or famine in  Africa,  but it was not Africa, it was in my province, we could not believe it-  Negros the island that once bred millionaires by the truck load had turned into an island of hunger, violence and death.   The once proud sugar industry had collapsed. Because RSB and Marcos had strangled it and stolen every peso they could get.  Imelda used the Bacolod money to purchase several buidings in New York, not units- BUT BUILDINGS on 5th ave considered the most expensive  block of real estate in the world.

I am not an Aquino fan. I don't like Noy Noy or Kris or any of Corys cronies who were also thieves,   but lets be real about the Marcoses.   I am not taking sides in this argument. I am only talking about my experiences as a child of Bacolod in the 1980’s.   

 Life was not good and if you dare debate me about it.  All I can say to you is  “Where you there?, kasi I was there.”

Text by Jon Ray Fernandez
Printed with permission