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It’s us who repeat history

Tradition dictates that an outgoing president descends the historic Malacanañg staircase for the last time when he is fetched by the president-elect on the morning of June 30, the date fixed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution for the inauguration of—and transfer of power to—the new president.

After the inauguration, the new president takes possession of Malacañang by ascending the staircase marking the first day of his six-year term. When Rodrigo Duterte enters Malacañang the first time as president in the afternoon of June 30, he will encounter the portraits of his 15 predecessors in the main ceremonial hallway. All of them, from Emilio Aguinaldo to Benigno S. Aquino III, will quietly watch the coming and going of the Duterte administration.

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Who will do the Duterte portrait? Ten of the 16 portraits were made by Fernando Amorsolo. If I were asked who can competently match these, I’d say, it would be the eminent Cebuano painter Romulo Galicano. If something more modern is desired, then National Artist BenCab would be ideal, except that he is from Luzon and it would be fitting to have a portrait by an artist from Mindanao or the Visayas for a change.

Fifteen portraits will have to be repositioned to make way for the new one, and I wonder what will happen when the Malacañang ceremonial hall runs out of space for additional portraits.

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As the new president gazes on his predecessors it will be timely for him to remember the first—the controversial Emilio Aguinaldo. It is not well-known that Aguinaldo, maligned as a power-hungry, power-grabbing president in history classes, considered resigning from the presidency and, in fact, offered his resignation in December 1898, asking his countrymen to accept it as a Christmas gift. To use the word Filipinos use for his request, Aguinaldo asked for this aguinaldo in 1898.

But Aguinaldo was prevailed upon to stay, and his resignation letter was shelved and forgotten, till it formed part of the archive captured by the enemy during the Philippine-American War and shipped to Washington where it was dug up from the dustbin of history by Capt. J.R.M. Taylor, who published a selection of key documents that is known to historians as the five-volume “Philippine Insurrection Against the United States” (Lopez Museum, 1971).

Part of Aguinaldo’s resignation is relevant to any new president. I have not seen the original of this letter, and I do not know if it was written in Spanish or Tagalog, but we have Taylor’s translation:

“You are all aware that there is no office superior to that of the president of the nation; he is honored, he is obeyed, he is the superior of all, distinct from all other eminent personages, so that public order is dependent upon him; one can desire nothing better; if he is to perform his duty rigidly of watching over the welfare of the nation, no other office is to be compared with it; but if he uses it as a means to further personal interests, there is no better office by which to obtain great wealth in a short time.”

To the Filipinos who are eligible to vote, Aguinaldo had this to say:

“Do deliberate thoroughly concerning the new president we are to proclaim. His previous history should be traced step by step, aside from his present behavior; our votes should not be cast for a candidate whose character has not been previously investigated and thoroughly known; and if we cannot refuse his solicitation, we can feign acquiescence and when the time for action comes, elect the one who deserves the office, for the choice must not fall on anyone by whom the country would be imperiled.

“To be wise is not enough; for a man may be wise and not be willing to share the fate of the country when in peril, either because he is wise, or rather, perhaps, because he may be called wise. To be rich is not enough—for there are rich men, and this is so in the majority of cases, who, although they see their country threatened by re-enslavement, are unwilling to aid with their wealth, just as though they did not notice the danger. And why? Because of these very riches and in case of any mishap they will repair to a foreign land. It is true that they have made contributions of war and have subscribed to the national loan, but many have not given more than a thousandth part of their entire fortune, when they very well know that the strength of the archipelago is in their hands, and they are the very ones who can hasten the recognition of our government, when in the sight of other nations we are thus reinforced.”

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We will never know what made Aguinaldo contemplate this drastic step of resigning, but from the text one can get a sense that his trust and optimism had been misplaced in some of the men around him. He says that in: “the majority of revolutions in any nation the rich men (had) been the leaders in the struggle to attain independence, but here the contrary has been true, for the poor men have taken precedence… . The men of whom I am proudest are above all the poor men who, with little or no pay, know how to endure in order to prevent the country from being again enslaved, and I am prouder still of those who put forth their efforts in its defense regardless of self-interest…”

History may seem irrelevant to millennials, but anyone who reads texts like the ones quoted above may be misled into believing that Aguinaldo foretold the future, because in the end history does not repeat itself, it is us who repeat it.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Emilio Aguinaldo, History, malacanang, Rodrigo Duterte
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