Pimentel: The statesman shapes the nation
At many of those moments when his life intersected with the course of history, Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said No.
It could not have been easy to say No — not when you’re barely 40 with a young family, and knowing full well that voting as a delegate of the Constitutional Convention against the 1973 Constitution engineered by Ferdinand Marcos carried dangerous consequences. Not when you are arrested four times, under Marcos’ martial law regime, for refusing to accept that your liberties, whether as citizen or as mayor of Cagayan de Oro, have been in any way diminished. Not when, as President Corazon Aquino’s interior minister tasked with the Herculean task of sweeping the Augean stables of the government bureaucracy clean of Marcos’ enablers after the Edsa Revolution, refusing offers meant creating (many) political enemies. Not when, as one of the Magnificent 12 senators who rejected the US bases treaty in 1991, doing so meant saying No to Cory’s personal entreaty. And certainly not when, as the first Senate president to copreside over the impeachment trial of a president — Joseph Estrada, a friend of his, and another one of the Magnificent 12—he voted to open an envelope with potentially incriminating evidence, a Yes that was also a No directed at his friend.
Nene Pimentel did not speak often about the political or personal cost of these No’s, but sometimes he would let up a little. Speaking to one of his favorite journalists, Gerry Lirio of ABS-CBN, who had assiduously covered for the Inquirer the “dagdag-bawas” (add-subtract) scheme of election fraud that cost him a Senate seat in 1995, he described the day the Magnificent 12 voted against the US bases treaty. He watched his president, Cory Aquino, on TV, campaigning futilely, in the rain, for approval of the proposed new concord. “It was one of the saddest days in my life,” he said.
Psychological research tells us that the human person learns to say No at a young age because doing so helps to define the limits of one’s personhood. When small children say No, they are learning that they are not our extensions, that they are separate from us. (And when they say No repeatedly, maddeningly, it is likely because they are discovering their own selves in the very act of saying No.)
Pimentel was not by any means a political toddler throwing a tantrum; in fact, the self-described “small-town dabbler in politics” was precocious. He was named dean of the Xavier University Law School in Cagayan de Oro in his early 30s, and his friends and colleagues would attest to his lifelong driving curiosity, like that of a tireless child, about sundry things. But I understand his difficult No’s to be in truth the acts, merely exercised through him, of a still-young, even infantile nation discovering itself.
When he rejected the Constitution that Marcos had compromised, or when he refused to succumb to pressure from Marcos and his underlings, he was helping the country separate itself from its own monstrous, undemocratic version. I believe that the stirring demonstrations of people power that protected him as mayor from the dictator helped inspire the people power revolution that ousted Marcos and stunned the world.
When he rejected the US bases, or when he refused the claims of friendship during the Estrada impeachment trial, he was helping the country define the limits of its own sovereign, democratic self. I believe these acts of statesmanship helped steady an uncertain nation in moments of crises, reminding us we are not extensions of the Americans or our political allies.
But I recognize that Pimentel—my late father’s old friend, our family’s beloved icon, my own personal hero—could say No because he had already said Yes: to living the full life of the committed lay person. He belonged to that generation of Filipino Catholics who assumed responsible positions in society in the first heady flush of Vatican II.
In “Gaudium et spes,” the Second Vatican Council exhorted Christians, “as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities.” That was a mistake that Pimentel, never ostentatious about his deep faith, never made.
For all his No’s, including his heroic resistance against the Marcos dictatorship, his lasting legacy may be a Yes: the Local Government Code, which built on his experience as mayor (I remember him then saying he needed Manila’s approval to change a light bulb in Cagayan de Oro) to turn the country’s local governments into real loci of political participation and power. He championed federalism because it would have been the completion of his vision to make governance truly local; it is a tribute to the comprehensiveness of his legislative achievement that the opponents of federalism use the Code as their own argument—the single most consequential law passed since Edsa, for all that it has made possible, has not yet been fully realized.
Because of the Code, we are all living in the country that Pimentel helped shape.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]
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