Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CRISPIN BELTRAN: MOST OUTSTANDING LEGISLATOR

CenPEG ISSUE ANALYSIS No. 8
May 23, 2008
Series of 2008

In session, Beltran stood tall and dignified among many, untainted by the corruption that soiled many multimillionaire- congressmen' s seats.

As the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG) prepares its assessment of the first 10 years of the Party-list system this year, we deemed it apt to devote this issue analysis to the life and struggles of Crispin Bertiz Beltran, first nominee of the Party-list group Anakpawis. Beltran, a charismatic labor leader who died in a fatal accident last May 20 in Bulacan, was a central figure in the Party-list system - defending it from subversion by the powers-that- be yet tirelessly asserting the people's right to democratic representation in governance.

Crispin Beltran is an exemplary product of his times. Trained in genuine unionism, steeled in the parliament of the streets, and more defiant after Marcos imprisonment, he brought new politics in Congress. Through it all he remained at the forefront of the workers' struggle – and that struggle has produced a hero.

Beltran, known to many Filipinos as Ka (short for kasama or comrade) Bel, was adjudged Most Consistent Outstanding Congressman from 2002-2005 and was elevated to the Congressional Hall of Fame by the Congress Magazine in 2006. He filed the most number of bills in the 13th Congress among the Party-list representatives and would have achieved the same record in the present one had he not met a fatal accident on May 20. The Philippine press and the whole nation – ruled by a government seen as one of the most corrupt in the world - were astounded to find that he died a poor man and had maintained an even frugal life.

But why was Beltran tagged and imprisoned as an "enemy of the state" by two Presidents – Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s and, for a year-and-a-half, by Gloria M. Arroyo? What kind of politics did he wage that provoked state authorities to believe that by neutralizing him – either by arrest or physical harm (he had faced countless attempts on his life) – they would put an end to his ideology as well?

Humble beginnings

Born of humble beginnings in Bikol in 1933, Beltran's life had been etched by struggles whether as a young guerilla courier fighting the Japanese imperial occupation or as a farm worker, office sweeper, gasoline attendant, messenger, bus driver and later, as a cab driver to support his education. His legacy as one of the country's outstanding labor leaders traces its roots to when, at age 20, he joined fellow drivers in a strike. From thereon, there was no looking back. He either helped organize or served as leader of pioneering labor organizations, the last as chair of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in 1987 following the abduction and brutal murder of Rolando Olalia and his driver by military operatives. Three years earlier, he escaped Marcos torture and imprisonment and went to the countryside to organize workers and farm laborers.

For Beltran, working alongside the country's proletariat did not only mean going on strikes for bread and butter or facing company executives in tough wage negotiations. The years spent in labor leadership also produced hard-fought lessons in ideological skirmishes with "yellow" or compromising trade unionism and also linking up with organizations of farmers, youth-students, urban poor and other sectors in a nationwide cause-oriented movement. It meant taking up the cudgels of the poor through peaceful but militant engagement with state authorities in denouncing oppressive policies while advocating for genuine social, economic and political reform. He knew that any picket or street protest would be met by police truncheons, water cannons, or even bullets but Beltran never for a second vacillated in the frontline of the struggle, as colleagues in the street parliament would narrate.

Known for his solid pro-people leadership in the labor movement, Beltran was invited to join the senatorial slate of the Partido ng Bayan (PnB or people's party) in the 1987 elections – the first to be held after 14 years of Marcos dictatorship. Reminiscent of the fate suffered by the Democratic Alliance (DA) whose six representatives elected in the 1946 elections were unseated for opposing onerous economic and military agreements with the United States, the PnB came out badly bruised from the polls with many of its volunteers killed and most of its candidates for Congress and local positions victims of fraud.

Beltran and the Party-list organizations that he represented (Bayan Muna and, later, Anakpawis) garnered significant seats in elections for the House, with BM topping both the 2001 and 2004 polls. House records show that the labor leader championed the issues of the poor in privilege speeches as well as by filing bills and resolutions on their behalf. The speeches, bills and resolutions penned by Beltran, among others, called for investigations of violations of the rights of workers, farm laborers, urban poor, migrant workers, consumers, GSIS members as well as public employees and victims of human rights violations. He was most vehement in opposing the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Arroyo's support to the U.S. war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Vindictive Arroyo

These initiatives inevitably antagonized government agencies, big industrial and agricultural corporations, energy companies, and military authorities. Consequently, the congressman earned the vindictive ire of Mrs. Arroyo as she watched her centerpiece policies and bills sponsored subjected to condemnation one after the other by the labor leader - together with Party mates and other legislators - inside and outside the halls of Congress. Co-authoring three impeachment initiatives and denunciations against scams linking the Arroyo couple also cost Beltran's office access to the countrywide development fund, among others.

The denial of CDF funds became part of what the progressive Party-list bloc denounced as a systematic campaign to unseat them from the House through demonization, election fraud, and the use of physical violence. The campaign was integral to a national security doctrine that seeks to neutralize the underground Left's alleged political infrastructures resulting in a series of summary executions and forced disappearances. Beltran was picked up and jailed by Arroyo authorities in February 2006 in a crackdown mounted by the President's attack dogs against the progressive bloc. After nearly two years in detention, he was set free by the Supreme Court which dismissed the trumped-up charges. By then, however, Beltran had physically weakened - a result of harassment, threats, and stress he suffered under a government that considered him "a threat to national security" and only because, as workers in the labor movement said, he stood by his principles and refused to be cowed by Malacanang through bribery and other pressures.

The last public performance that he did was when as a minority member of the House energy committee he spoke against attempts by the President to place Meralco in the hands of her business cronies in the guise of state nationalization. Before that, he filed a bill calling for a genuine agrarian reform program in place of CARP which for two decades he had denounced as a hoax. Just like the P125 legislated wage increase that Beltran and the militant labor groups had been asking for nearly 10 years, the genuine agrarian reform measure that the progressive legislator filed will be shot down by Congress' dominant conservative members and Arroyo allies. Ever a leading figure in major rallies even while he was already in Congress, Beltran delivered what turned out to be his valedictory – wearing a white T-shirt and a red cap together with co-workers at the May 1 rally in Liwasang Bonifacio, Manila.

Tributes

In a tribute to the fallen labor leader, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano said Beltran is probably among the few members of Congress deserving of the title "Honorable." People who visited him while in detention to lend moral support left being inspired instead, a fellow activist leader recalls. Down with ailment, he still took pains serving food or coffee, a former KMU public information writer also says. "Don't deprive me of my wanting to serve you – no matter how small it is - if that's the only way I'll be of service," Beltran told him, quoting Golda Meir.

There are at least two lessons that can be drawn from the legacy left by Beltran. One is that his participation in the Party-list system led to the infusion of new politics in an elite-dominated Congress and with it a sterling record of legislative work for social and economic reform for the poor. A member of the legislature once noted that the entry of the progressive Party-list bloc into Congress gave the body the meaningful role that it never had. In session, Beltran stood tall and dignified among many, untainted by the corruption that soiled many multimillionaire- congressmen' s seats. But the political repression that Beltran and his colleagues endured – and continues to endure – all the more unmasks not only the state's subversion of the Party-list program that aims to represent the poor in policy making but also the continuing dominance of elitist politics that denies the poor a role in governance participation.

Beltran is vindicated for devoting his life to labor militancy alongside other marginalized classes – building power from the bowels of poverty and injustice – from where people's governance will rise. The labor and legislative record of Beltran proves that the breed of people's leaders is bound to increase – as it now appears - and that elitist rule will be a thing of the past. And that is the second lesson.

Reference:

Bobby Tuazon
Director, Policy Study, Publication and Advocacy (PSPA)
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)
TelFax +63-2 9299526; mobile phone: 0915-6418055
E-mail: cenpeg.info@gmail.com; info@cenpeg. org
http://www.cenpeg. org

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