COMMENTARY AND REMINISCENCE

The plight of freedom fighters

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LONG after the 1986 February EDSA revolt, persistent American justice continued to bedevil the Filipinos of the opposition movement abroad who led the resistance against the Martial Law regime.

The pain of long exile for this group – composed of some Filipinos and Fil-Americans, mostly unnamed but led mainly by Heherson T. Alvarez, Raul Daza, Bonifacio Gillego and Charles Avila, along with a naturalized American citizen, Steven E. Psinakis (husband of Precy Lopez of the wealthy Lopez clan) — still weighed heavily in their hearts. Some mornings, a few would wake up in a sweat, haunted by nightmares of being chased by Marcos assassins.

Some of the unnamed Filipinos who directly supported or prominently participated in these desperate but ultimately heroic efforts were the Jesuits Toti Olaguer (brother of Ed) and Romeo Intengan SJ (also a doctor of medicine), Alfredo Yuchengco, Norberto Gonzales, and Danny Lamilla.

Two years into the Cory Aquino administration, US federal prosecutors in a San Francisco federal district court pursued charges that linked three Philippine officials to bomb-making conspiracy and interstate transportation of explosives in the early 1980’s. The three were Senator Alvarez, and Representatives Daza and Gillego.


In 1980, there was a rash of bombings in Metro Manila and the “Light-A-Fire Movement” was primarily suspected.

On September 12, 1980, bombs went off in Metro Manila, one badly damaging Rustan’s mall in Makati. The explosion at Rustan’s injured 70 people and killed an American tourist.

On the night of October 4, more blasts rocked the Philippine Plaza, Century Park Sheraton, and Manila Peninsula hotels.

Other collateral events occurred. The first was that of Doris Nuval Baffrey, who on October 19, 1980, detonated an explosive at the PICC while President Marcos was addressing an international conference of the American Society of Travel Agents.

The second was that of Victor Burns Lovely Jr., a Philippine-born American citizen from Los Angeles, California and a member of the Movement for a Free Philippines. On September 6, 1980 Lovely was almost killed and his younger brother, Romeo, was seriously injured, after a bomb exploded in his Manila YMCA room.

These incidents grabbed international media attention, belying Marcos’ claims of Philippine political stability and broad national support.

Later, the core group of the Light-A-Fire Movement was arrested while meeting in Quezon City. Among them were businessman Eduardo Olaguer, AIM professor Gaston Ortigas and a 60-year-old Ester Jimenez, mother of Jim and Ducky Paredes. They were all convicted and sentenced to die by electric chair in 1984.

Even before the Marcos regime collapsed, US federal prosecutors had hand-written notes and a draft indictment that would have allowed the United States Attorney to bring criminal charges against Alvarez, Daza, Psinakis, Gillego and Avila for activities to oust President Marcos. The possible charges included violation of the Neutrality Act, which prohibits launching private armies from the United States against nations with which US is at peace.

Interestingly, the hand-written notes indicated that Psinakis, Daza and Gillego were also giving weapons training in the Arizona desert to anti-Marcos exiles. The draft indictment also alleged that Avila, Daza and Alvarez practiced making bombs in Psinakis’s home in San Francisco.

From the fall of 1979 through December 1981, the documents claimed, various members of an anti-Marcos group, the Movement for a Free Philippines, practiced detonating explosive devices in Arizona and transported explosives in at least four states. They further alleged that the training was part of a plan to bomb targets in Manila in an effort to destabilize the Marcos regime.

However, US Justice Department officials astutely informed the United States Attorney, Joseph P. Russoniello, that the State Department was concerned that the fledgling Aquino government would be embarrassed if the charges were pressed against the Aquino officials.

When the indictment was finally filed in December 1986, it named only two naturalized American citizens, Psinakis and Avila. Avila, who entered Philippine politics, was never arrested or arraigned.

Only Psinakis was arrested. A native of Greece, Psinakis was seized in his San Francisco home in July 1987, and pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and $20,000 in fines. Psinakis had collaborated closely with Alvarez and his wife, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez. Alvarez, who was an exile for 13 years, was a close confidante of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. When the opposition leader was assassinated in 1983, Alvarez organized and headed the Ninoy Aquino Movement.

Psinakis’s trial brought focus to the allegations against the three members of Congress. In Manila, Congressman Daza laughed off the charges, saying US prosecutors had no evidence to sustain the indictment.

Senator Alvarez voluntarily flew to the US to attend the October 1988 hearing, testifying he had no knowledge or training with explosives. ‘’That’s not true at all,” Alvarez said of the bomb-making allegations. ‘’I’m scared of bombs.” Alvarez’s testimony, part of a defense strategy to show Psinakis was unconstitutionally singled out for prosecution while others were ignored, helped led to Psinakis acquittal.

In June 1989 the Philippine government, deeply interested in the fate of Psinakis, sent Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus to the US Manglapus, who also spent the Marcos years in US exile, told a jury that Psinakis was a “hero” in the revolution that overthrew Marcos.

Alvarez, a stalwart public figure in post-Marcos Philippines, is philosophical about the contradictory roles that freedom fighters must often assume. “Fortunately,” he muses, “we were never indicted. According to the New York Times, the US prosecution had filed its charges after the revolution had won. The accused had assumed leadership with the installed democratic government.”

Annually, the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM), organized by Alvarez while in exile and was called by the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor as the “biggest and best-organized opposition movement in the United States,” honors heroes – Filipinos and foreigners whose extraordinary courage and commitment to the restoration of Philippine democracy brought down the Marcos dictatorship – that long and agonizing era of human rights violations, numerous desaparecidos, political repression, and massive corruption.

Fernando Peña is a businessman, a past president of the Rotary Club of Makati West, a recipient of the Presidential Order of Merit in 2005, and a recipient of the 2014 Ninoy Aquino Medal of Valor.

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