By FIDES LIM
His friends would often rib him during meetings for speaking about himself in the third person. “Itong si Ka Bel…,” he would start off a sentence then proceed to give the people around him a good laugh at his expense.
His friends would often rib him during meetings for speaking about himself in the third person. "Itong si Ka Bel…," he would start off a sentence then proceed to give the people around him a good laugh at his expense.
Crispin Beltran, self-effacing, jocular and a man of not a few words, would have enjoyed his own wake that has been running almost a week now and traded a barb or two about the eulogies that have come his way from those who had rebuked and rebuffed him all his life.
The 75-year old firebrand didn’t get his wish that he die by an assassin’s bullet or in the welter of some fiery action. But he could not have chosen a more dramatic denouement than falling to his death while fixing his leaky roof in the early morning of May 20.
In the end, the three-term party-list solon may be remembered most not for the 130 or so measures he filed – the highest by any congressman during the 13th Congress – but the money he did not steal that is the stiff price he had to pay for walking his talk.
His tiny house, unpainted and unfinished (which, as one broadsheet noted, "one will never ever believe that in it lived a congressman"), and the images of his widow, gray-haired and squat (who, as the same newspaper remarked, "certainly did not look like all the other congressmen’s wives"), left a deep imprint on a cynical public used to politicians living it up in the seat of power.
With a declared net worth of only P50,000, the consistently poorest of the country’s 238 congressmen left little else by way of assets. His only other declared personal assets were his two barong tagalog, a pair of eyeglasses, cabinet shelves and shirts. He declared as his liability the remaining bills from his lengthy "hospital arrest" at the Philippine Heart Center which amounted to P42,000.
Death as statement
Beltran was followed at No. 236 and No. 237, respectively, by two other leftist party-list members: Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo with a net worth of P618,147.33 and Bayan Muna Rep. Teodoro Casiño who declared assets worth P307,900.
Up to the time of his fatal accident, the "grand old man of Philippine labor" was still paying P5,000 a month for amortization for his 60-square meter one-bedroom home that was bought with a GSIS loan in 2004 in the workingman’s enclave of Barangay Muzon, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.
"His death is a statement, a statement of how and what he lived for," wrote one blogger. "To die fixing one’s roof is really much more heroic than to die counting millions from corruption."
The affable Ka Bel, as he was popularly called, was indeed known for being generous to a fault. His life and death illustrate how he lived out his ideals, paid the price and proved the politics of the possible.
Born on January 7, 1933 in Bacacay, Albay to poor farmers, he knew what it was to live in deprivation but did not allow his social condition to stand in the way of his search for a better life for himself and others.
At age 11, he volunteered as a guerrilla courier. After the war, he put himself through school by working as a farm hand and janitor. Trying to balance work and education, he was 16 when he finished elementary at Bacacay in 1949 and 20, when he graduated from the Albay High School in Tabaco in 1953. He worked as a gasoline boy, messenger and as a bus driver and jeepney driver to support his engineering studies at the Philippine School of Arts and Trade and later, at the Far Eastern University.
But he would not finish college as a new path opened up before him. At 20, he was hired by the Manila Yellow Taxicab Company. Here, he got his first taste of state violence when he joined his fellow drivers in a strike against unfair labor practices. Policemen and hired goons swooped down on their picket line, killing three workers.
The violent attack spurred him into the direction that he was to take for the rest of his life. He enrolled at the Asian Labor Education Center in the University of the Philippines to learn more about worker’s rights. But he became ill at ease with what he termed the "rice-and-fish" or "reformist" brand of unionism that is tied down to the good graces of the capitalist.
He decided to engage first-hand in organizing workers for their own sake. His politicization deepened when he met up with Felixberto Olalia and Feliciano Reyes, stalwarts in the militant tradition of Filipino labor. He became president of the Yellow Taxi Drivers’ Union and the Amalgamated Taxi Drivers Federation from 1955 to 1963.
Together, they also organized the Confederation of Labor of the Philippines (CLP), the Philippine Workers Congress and the labor organizations KASAMA and PAKMAP. He was CLP’s Vice-President from 1963 to 1972 until the imposition of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972 outlawed political organizations.
But the repressive conditions of martial rule did not dampen his fighting spirit. Beltran also helped form the Federations of Unions in Rizal and the Philippine Nationalist Labor Organizations until the Kilusang Mayo Uno was set up in 1980. From a small number, the membership of KMU rapidly grew to about 500,000 as more unions were organized and flocked to its helm.
The ensuing crackdown in August 1982 led to the arrest of militant labor leaders, including Beltran. "We already had 10 children when he was jailed," said his wife Rosario, in an interview with Ina Silverio, who would become Beltran’s chief-of-staff in Congress for a time. "We had no money, and my children lived on my small earnings from selling rubber slippers and fish at the market." She had to walk from their home in the squatters’ community in Gao, Commonwealth to visit her husband at Camp Crame where he was detained.
In November 1984, while on a pass to attend a nephew’s birthday at his home, Beltran escaped from his prison guards. Worried about her husband’s deteriorating health in jail, his wife Ka Osang, as she was known in their circles, had agreed to the plan. During the thick of the partying, he went to the toilet. He pulled out a loose board in the wall and squeezed himself through.
When the soldiers noticed the inordinately long time he was taking, they broke down the toilet door and saw the gaping hole. They quickly turned on his wife and began beating her. They dragged her outside to the nearby public basketball court. "They punched and kicked me, pulled my hair. They thought that by hurting me, I would scream, and my husband would come to rescue me. They didn’t know that Ka Bel and I agreed that no matter what happened, he wouldn’t turn back."
Earlier, Ka Osang had gone up to her husband’s lawyers, Joker Arroyo and Rene Saguisag, to inform them about the escape plan. The two men thought she was joking. They asked her if she was prepared for the consequences. "I said yes. I said I was even prepared to die. What was important was that Ka Bel escapes. They still didn’t believe me."
During Beltran’s wake at the Aglipayan cathedral, another of his lawyers, Jejomar Binay, now mayor of Makati, laughingly spoke of the incident. "I’ve always kidded Ka Bel about his escape. I told him, I too could have been beaten up, or worse, jailed in your place!"
For two years, Beltran sought shelter with rebels in the countryside. He took the nom de guerre "Ka Anto" after one of the fathers of the labor movement, Crisanto Evangelista. But instead of a rifle, the ailing 51-year old carried a portable typewriter. "I would type out documents, even the assignments and term papers of high school students in the homes where the NPA stayed."
In 1986, Beltran surfaced after the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship. When Rolando Olalia was abducted and murdered by suspected military operatives in November that year, he took over as KMU chair. In 1987, he ran for senator under the banner of the fledgling Partido ng Bayan, together with other well-known activists. They lost as the left-wing party’s grassroots program became a magnet for harassment and violence.
Beltran also served as president of the multisectoral Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) from 1993 to 1999. He held the position until his nomination as one of the three representatives of Bayan Muna for the 2001 party-list elections. This time around, the leftist neophyte party won, astounding everyone by topping the whole party-list polls on a platform of new politics.
The party repeated its feat in the 2004 elections, effectively disproving that leftwing parties are a "kiss of death" as traditional politicians competed for its support. That election year saw the genesis of more radical political parties with the victory of the Anakpawis and Gabriela party-lists. Beltran and peasant leader Rafael Mariano became the first elected solons of Anakpawis to represent its membership base among the "toiling masses."
Three terms in Congress
The spiral of summary killings and enforced disappearances that intensified in the wake of the allied victory of the leftwing party-lists did not faze Beltran. Neither did the withdrawal of the so-called countrywide development fund, a euphemism for the pork barrel, which had all but disappeared for the militant party-lists before their first term of office was over.
"My stint as a congressman opened my eyes to new lessons on how to serve the Filipino people in a different setting. Congress is one other venue wherein activists such as myself can ventilate people’s issues and register the strongest stands on matters concerning poverty, human rights, social justice and the struggle for genuine freedom and democracy," he said.
He introduced legislation batting for a P125 wage increase, genuine agrarian reform, revision of tax laws, and the repeal of the Human Security Act and the Electric Power Industry Reform Act. In 2004, he tried to fight the purchased power adjustment by not paying his electric bills to the Meralco. "Wala tuloy akong ilaw," he merrily remembered of those weeks when the electric firm cut off his power.
In February 2006, the country was placed in a state of emergency as the Arroyo presidency quailed under successive impeachment attempts and military unrest. He was arrested on an antiquated 1985 case for inciting to rebellion. He was detained for a year and a half – two months in Camp Crame then transferred to the Philippine Heart Center because of cardiovascular problems and diabetes. He was set free after the Supreme Court dismissed the charges against him and his five co-accused militant solons for being "baseless" and "politically motivated."
Beltran’s three-term stint in the House of Representatives, with a nearly perfect attendance in a notoriously absence-riddled Congress, garnered him awards such as Most Outstanding Congressman from 2002-2005. In 2006, he was adjudged part of the Congressional Hall of Fame.
In October 2007, Beltran exposed bribery attempts by administration allies, particularly by a KAMPI official. He was offered P2 million in exchange for his support to the weak impeachment complaint against President Arroyo. He just could not be bought. To the end, he opted to remain unsullied and true to what he believed in, without counting the cost.
Despite his loaded schedule, he found time to continue with solidarity work with labor and people’s organizations abroad. He became the chairman of the International League for People’s Struggles in 2002. During his wake, many statements were cited from labor groups abroad honoring "one of the pillars of international working class solidarity."
Said one commentator, "I doubt if Ka Crispin Beltran and I could have agreed in politics, religion or the great pumpkin. But I am certain that we have lost a great man. You may not agree with his ideology or his methods but he certainly made an impact as a man."
Concluded the editorial of a newspaper: "It is unfortunate that most impressions of Beltran would change only after his death, and only because the photographs finally showed how he lived. And because we were among those who misappreciated him, we say belatedly sorry. May you rest in peace, ‘Ka Bel.’"
The subject in question would have just taken all this statements in stride, with an irrepressible comment or two. After all, not many could have died the way he did which was the way he lived his life – "working, serving and not being served."