President B. S. Aquino 3rd’s strong words in Boston, while recalling his father’s three year- medical furlough there, and his assassination at the Manila international airport upon his return on August 21, 1983, compel me to reveal for the first time a conversation I had with Ninoy Aquino at Harvard in the summer of 1982.
As presidential spokesman, press secretary and information minister from 1969 to 1980, I had engaged Ninoy on television and in the print media many times before martial law. We stood on opposite camps, but we were never enemies. His sister Lupita Kashiwara, who used to be my neighbor, coursed some of her more urgent messages to Marcos through me. Ninoy and I spoke to each other again on June 21, 1977 when he was brought to Malacañang from his detention cell in Fort Bonifacio, by Brig. Gen. Josephus Ramas, commanding general of the Army.
In 1980, I resigned from the Marcos Cabinet after ten years of arduous work. But I remained in the interim Batasang Pambansa, where I had been elected as the first of 12 regional assemblymen for Bicol (Region V) in 1978. The following year, I flew to New York to speak before the Asia Society. On that visit, I met some of the Filipino “exiles” in Manhattan, like Ernie Maceda and Heherson Alvarez.
They suggested that I take a train to Boston to meet with Aquino. My schedule did not permit it, and I wasn’t sure I had much to discuss with Aquino anyway. There were three reasons for this.
First, of the two potential presidential materials from the Liberal Party, I thought Sen. Gerry Roxas, Mar Roxas’s father, (although he was never jailed or connected to the insurgency), was the more solid, the more substantial personality.
Second, although I now stood with the parliamentary opposition, I did not think I would be doing right as a former Cabinet member to put myself under Aquino.
Third, I was fighting Marcos by my lonesome in Manila, while they were safely ensconced in the comfort of their pads in the US. What guarantee did I have that none of the “steak commandoes,” as the exiles were then derisively called, would feed Malacañang with false stories about my meeting with Aquino?
A year later, I found myself at the Harvard Institute for International Development attending a program on parastatals—public enterprises. This was long before Osborne and Gaebler came out with their bestseller “Reinventing Government;” before privatization, liberalization, deregulation and tariff reduction became the mantra and dogma of the day.
The subject of parastatals absorbed my African colleagues, but left me cold. Yet given my political situation at home, it gave me something else to do. I wasn’t sure I would have done better learning Hebrew. Being past my precocious years, I had to do as much reading as I could just to keep up. This required regular visits to the Library or the Harvard “Coop” to buy some books.
On one of these visits to the “Coop,” I met Aquino. He came in with a lady who quickly receded unto the shelves as soon as we greeted each other in an “abrazo.”
He started talking at once, but he was quite distracted by reports about the coming visit of the UP president Edgardo Angara. “Who is this guy to be coming here with an advance party?” he asked. And he identified the advance party as our good friend and star columnist Louis Beltran, of happy memory, who was then teaching mass com at UP.
I tried to tell him that Angara was probably fundraising for UP, and not doing any long-distance or advance campaigning for the presidency. This tiny arrow found its mark, and he dropped the subject immediately. But he reproached me for failing to call him as soon as I arrived at the university. I explained politely that my program left me no time outside of study. Besides–and this was where my usual tact left me–I said I did not quite know how to reach him.
This was lese majeste. How dare I come to his city without knowing how to connect to its most important guest! I instantly stood reproved. I said sorry.
Then he said that a mutual friend of ours—-a Makati dentist who shall remain nameless here—-had written him to say that Marcos was now quite ill, and getting secret treatment from specialists who were being smuggled inside the Palace, without anything being said about it officially.
I said that even before he left Manila, Marcos was already having health problems, which the Palace tried very hard to keep from leaking out. But it would be a mistake, I said, for anyone to anchor their political plans on Marcos’ state of health.
He instantly flared up. “I’m not that stupid, do you think I’m stupid? I’m not going there to fight Marcos. No one can topple him right now. Until the economy crumbles, it would be crazy to think of fighting Marcos,” he said.
After a short pause, I asked him if he had seen former Sen. Jose Wright Diokno, his fellow detainee, on BBC. It’s a BBC film titled “To Sing Our Own Song” and about the Philippines, I said.
“Pepe Diokno? BBC? Where did you see this film?” he asked.
“At the Harvard TV station,” I said.
“How did you get there?”
“An American woman from class took me.”
“Who’s she? What’s her name?”
I gave him her name. She appeared in class one day, sat next to me, introduced herself as someone who had worked in the Philippines, and started talking to me in Filipino. Then, she asked if I would be interested in watching the film.
Let us just use “Louise Lewis,” for purposes of this story.
“Louise? Why that girl holds office right next to me. How come she showed this film to you, but not to me?”
“You should ask her,” I said.
“What about Pepe? Did they give him at least two minutes?”
“No, it’s a 50-minute documentary, and he’s the one narrating,” I said.
“The whole thing?”
“Yes, the whole thing.”
“This Lewis girl is really, really crazy.”
The next day I told Lewis about this conversation and repeated Ninoy’s question to her. Why did she invite me, but not Aquino?
“Come on, Kit,” she said. “Doesn’t he know he’s already passé?”
I stopped the conversation right there. I did not know what she meant, and I did not want to know. Who was she anyway? What was she trying to say about Aquino? And why was she saying it to me?
In their book, Subversion as Foreign Policy: The Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia, the couple Audrey R. Kahin and George McT. Kahin, quoting Diokno as their source, talk of Ninoy working for the CIA at a very young age during the so-called Permesta revolt against President Sukarno in the late 50s. He reportedly brought arms to the rebels from a third country, set up a rebel radio station in Indonesia, and opened his wife’s family plantation, Hacienda Luisita, as a training ground for the rebel pilots. This CIA operation failed after an American pilot was shot down, and under intense interrogation, sang like a canary.
This subject came up during the 1978 Batasan campaign when Ninoy ran for the Batasan from inside his cell and Enrile accused him of working for the CIA. He replied by saying that he never worked for the CIA, but only with the CIA. And it ended there.
Aquino’s distinction exists, but it is not helpful to him at all. The British MI-6, Israel’s Mossad, the German, French, Belgian, Scandinavian, Australian, Canadian, Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian or even Philippine intelligence agency could work with the CIA, and probably routinely do. But a young Filipino, who is not even part of his country’s intelligence agency, can only work for the CIA.
Now, was Lewis trying to say something about this when she said Ninoy was already burnt out—passé? And what was she trying to say to me?
Interestingly enough, while attending an executive program on national and international security at Harvard Kennedy School a couple of years ago, Vice President Binay and I were hosted by a kindly Filipino doctor one weekend in his home in Boston. He said he used to host Ninoy in the same home during his three years there.
After lunch, he took me to his den, where there were some pictures of Aquino. Then, pointing to a leather sofa, he said, “This is where Ninoy used to tell us, he was once the youngest CIA agent in the world!”
And his president-son has made him our national hero.