Bikol and I go way back. When I was a child my parents would take me to visit my grandfather in Sagñay, Camarines Sur. The place seemed so enchanting then. Lolo’s modest house, made entirely of old darkwood, stood at the bottom of an escarpment at the end of a dusty, stony road. Surrounding it were citrus orchards, cacao, pili, and coffee trees, and bushes and vines of black pepper and chili that grew in dense profusion. In the yard there was a brick outhouse with a deep well and a hand pump from which clear, cold water joyously gushed. Anyone could use the pump and our neighbors, buckets in hand, came at all times of the day. My brother and I would harvest the trees, wade in the river, or go in search of early morning crabs on the black sands of nearby Nato beach, returning home to long lunches of goat caldereta and spicy laing. Yet, even this idyllic time was edged with danger. Army helicopters unsettled the tranquil skies and our gurang visitors, the old folks, would talk deep into the night about the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) and their deadly clashes with the military that terrified the neighborhood.
Bikol has long been an embattled region and an economic backwater. In early Spanish times, Franciscan missionaries successfully converted lowland populations to Catholicism while turning a blind eye to conquistadores who enslaved the forest-dwelling Negritos. Moro pirate raids, sickness, mostly malaria, gastrointestinal infections and respiratory diseases, and ferocious typhoons that destroyed rice harvests and brought about famine, were frequent scourges that devastated the population. Although some gold was mined and conscripted labor built ships and churches, no major economic enterprises were established until the 19th century when lucrative abaca production brought prosperity only to a few, spawning the first political dynasties. Elite rot spread and deepened throughout the American period and set the region on course for the carve-up we know today. A handful of families – the Andayas, the Arroyos, the Villafuertes, the Fuentebellas, and the Alfelors – share Camerines Sur as if it were a great cake, each slice retained for generations.
In a sense, Jesse Robredo’s mayoralty of Naga City did not break this dynastic chokehold, because he was himself related to the powerful Villafuerte family. However, from 1988 until his untimely and tragic death in a plane crash in 2012, he did, unexpectedly, break the elite mold. Robredo instituted reforms, brought accountability, instilled civic-mindedness, adopted a responsive and participatory style of governance, and collected taxes. A Bikolano word for to breathe is hinangos. Under Jesse’s stewardship, the province was resuscitated and it breathed again. He operated with charisma and flair, though essentially he was simply doing his job. As if nobody expects honesty, principles and integrity in government officials, awards were heaped on Robredo and he was lionized in death.
Much ink, and media attention, has by now been spilled over how Jesse’s widow, Leni, the current vice-presidential candidate who is rising in the polls, was thrust onto the national stage by our peculiar propensity for personal necropolitics. Initially, Leni predictably projected an anodyne image of female power. She was the dignified, grieving widow who vowed to continue her husband’s legacy of good governance. However, she stepped out of her late husband’s shadow and is spiritedly proving her own worth. She is a trained public attorney, has years of experience working to further the interests of the rural poor, and she scored a major victory against dynastic politics with her win over Nelly Villafuerte in 2013 for the congressional seat of the 3rd district.
Leni has in spades what too many of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates do not have – decency and standing. When she says she wants to address rural poverty, push for tax reform, subsidize tertiary education, get the Freedom of Information bill passed, tackle the dearth of infrastructure, and boost the implementation of the Reproductive Health law, you get the feeling that here is a woman who will work really hard to get things done or die trying. You also get the feeling that it’s manifestly unfair to tear her down along with her running mate, Mar Roxas, and the Liberal Party that supports them both.
Beneath the bogus tourist brochure-styled ‘Cam Sur,’ Camarines Sur suffers the agony of being one of the country’s ultra-poor provinces. Electricity and water are expensive and unreliable, there is a lack of innovation and investment in developing typhoon-resistant housing, primary medical care is threadbare, the educational system is decrepit, criminality abounds, and farmers get a raw deal. This is the context in which Leni Robredo cut her political teeth.
If she makes it to the vice-presidency, Bikol and the rest of the country will have at least one person in high office whose track record is not a toxic, lethal cocktail of lying, thievery, murder, misogyny, homophobia and oligarchic cronyism.