When he received word that then-Senate President Ferdinand Marcos was in town, businessman Tony Floirendo, on a siesta in Cagayan de Oro City, turned frantic.
Marcos had announced he would run for president in 1965 and would like to meet with young leaders in Mindanao who could help support his presidential campaign.
It was a short notice, and Floirendo, who would later become the Philippines' “banana king,” thought of no one but an idealist lawyer in the city to introduce to Marcos: Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr.
Half-Ilocano, because his mother hailed from Ilocos region, Pimentel was perfect for the man who would be president, Floirendo thought.
In an interview with ABS-CBN News early this month, Pimentel recalled how he met Marcos and later the thousands of men and women who fought Marcos’s dictatorship.
Pimentel recalled that Floirendo excitedly accompanied Marcos to his house. Shocked and humbled by the unannounced visit of the then-Senate President, a celebrated 1939 bar topnotcher and a shoo-in contender for the Liberal Party for the 1965 elections,
Pimentel wore his Sunday clothes but had to skip a shower. The mountain had come to Mohammed, and Pimentel felt obliged to rise to the occasion.
There, the two promising men met: the rising political star of the Liberal Party told the rising lawyer of Cagayan de Oro city of his presidential ambition, promising him that he would remember him when he's already in Malacanang.
But some things were not meant to be.
Pimentel chose to support the young, idealist, Ateneo schooled-and-bred Raul Manglapus of The Progressive Party of the Philippines or PPP, a ragtag party otherwise known as the “Patay-Patay Party.”
Marcos later bolted the Liberal Party (LP), which refused to endorse him for other more senior LP leaders, moved and ran for president under the Nacionalista Party (NP), the GOP or Grand Old Party of Philippine politics at the time, becoming the first celebrated political gadabout—and won.
Woe unto the 32-year-old Pimentel who didn’t support his fellow Ilocano. Marcos probably didn’t forget, especially when he placed the entire archipelago under martial rule in September 1972.
“Naturally, Marcos did not have me in mind when he proclaimed martial law,” he said. "As a small-town dabbler in politics, I was surely outside his political radar screen. Still, I had this problem with one-man rule and perpetuating one’s self to power.”
While the Dioknos, Tañadas, Salongas, Aquinos, Mitras, Arroyos, and thousands of nuns and priests, journalists and students and activists fought Marcos’s one-man rule in Manila, Pimentel staged his own fight against the dictatorship in his home city. They would later see each other in various detention cells, exchanging notes.
The Marcos administration arrested and incarcerated Pimentel not just once but four times, each time nearly breaking his family’s hearts.
In his book, “Martial Law in the Philippines: My Story”, Pimentel detailed how he and other Marcos’s critics suffered in the hands of Marcos’ military, all a result of their refusal to embrace the dictatorship. The book narrates these people’s martial-law experience, a story of courage, daring and much faith to stand up to the dictator when it was extremely dangerous to do so.
Pimentel entered politics as a delegate in the 1971 Constitutional Convention. He was detained in Camp Crame for three months for opposing the 1973 Constitution which gave Marcos dictatorial powers.
He was jailed again for leading a demonstration against the farcical Interim Batasang Pambansa elections in 1978, and again in 1983 on charges of rebellion. In 1985, he was arrested anew, this time for allegedly participating in an ambush in Cebu City.
If only for that, the late Sen. Joker Arroyo called him the “face of martial law”—or the poster boy of defiance to Marcos’s one-man rule.
“If experience is the best teacher,” Arroyo wrote in Pimentel’s book, “Nene seemed impervious even to life’s simplest instruction.”
Arroyo recalled Pimentel did not enjoy the incarceration.
“Indeed, as far as Nene was concerned, life was not trying to teach him the obvious, which was to quit, a lesson he couldn’t learn,” he said.
Dictator and heroes
“On the contrary, it was Marcos who just couldn’t learn—in election after election that the dictator stole from Nene and the Filipino people —to uphold the Constitution and the laws. Nene wasn’t just being bullheaded. He was just being persistent, like a tireless teacher of mentally challenged students of democracy like Ferdinand Marcos.”
Marcos died in exile in September 1989 and was buried at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani in November 2016.
Some of his prominent critics died quietly, among them: Jose Diokno in February 1987; Lorenzo Tañada in May 1992; Jovito Salonga in March 2016; Ramon Mitra in March 2000; and, Arroyo in October 2015.
Benigno Aquino Jr was assassinated in August 1983.
Pimentel, probably the last of the civil libertarians of his time, is now turning 84, mindful of his own mortality.
Marcos was no hero, Pimentel said, and the dictator’s burial at national pantheon last year desecrated the hallowed ground reserved for heroes.
“My marching days are over,” he said in an interview.
The fight goes on, but the next round inevitably belongs to the next generation.