Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Do you know Cesar C. Climaco?

“Reserba uno de ese para comigo (Reserve one of these for me),” he jokingly said upon seeing the coffins displayed in a funeral home after inspecting the scene of a fire just across the street. For his constituents, there was nothing unusual with his demeanour on that fateful morning as he would always love to crack jokes, playing pranks on people, and guffaw like a clown even on the face of many adversities.

Yet, for all his supposed uncanny ways, he was a spellbinder and an insightful sage who minces no words when corruption in government was in the saddle. In a time where even lowly men in uniform strutted like generals and generals like congressmen, he would relentlessly pounce on them and denounce each abuse openly.

But of all his many endowments, the most admirable and effective was his sense of humour. This gift was all too clearly manifested in his black-on-orange felt paper sign in front of his office desk that reads: “I’m not a dirty old man; I’m a sexy senior citizen.” Thus equipped, this once celebrated clown of the anti-Marcos Opposition would humour anyone -- even the strongman in Malacańang to no exception− on the blatant realities of life under a tyrannical regime.

Murder in broad daylight

At 10:30 a.m. on November 14, 1984, however, that lasting cruel joke as the song goes, was on him. Moments after leaving the funeral home, he boarded his Honda blue motorcycle and slowly waded through the traffic. Unknowingly, lurking behind him was a man in denim pants and blue checked shirt, tasked to stealthily walked up to him, and fire at him in close range. Bang! As quick as the fatal bullet, the lone gunman fled, almost leisurely amongst the milling crowd, leaving the 68-year-old victim not even a hint of life.

As any assassination movie, we suspect, if not assume that his enemies must have thought they had the last laugh, a one big laugh. But I beg to laugh it off too.

Who is Cesar C. Climaco?

Cesar Cortes Climaco is a modern-day hero; I mention this fact not only with pride as a fellow Chavacano but, more importantly, to highlight the dearth of information we know about him. I was barely 4 when Climaco was mayor of Zamboanga City, a position he loved dearly until his death. But my naivety was never a hindrance to appreciate the endearing stories about him, recounted not by politicos of today, but of simple folks –of true Zamboangueños− who were there when it happened. Thus, it is always with great pride that I talk about a valiant man from the South against a history largely muddled by the North.

Starting as a lowly janitor in the Court of Appeals while taking up law at the University of the Philippines, he was to rise by dint of his extraordinary abilities to hold local elective and national appointive positions. He began his political career as city councilor of Zamboanga in 1953 and in the same year, he was designated mayor of the city. From then on, Climaco became the first elected city mayor (1956-1961) for two consecutive terms. His bravery and integrity in public service, however, did not escape the watchful eye of President Diosdado Macapagal. Suddenly, Climaco was fished out of local politics and was made to handle delicate positions in the national government. In no time he was appointed by President Macapagal as commissioner of the Bureau of Customs, Economic Coordinator and head of Presidential Assistance on Community Development Office, among others.

Pillar of the anti-Marcos opposition

But it was his role, as one Filipino statesman put it, as “pillar” of the anti-Marcos opposition that Cesar C. Climaco shone the brightest.

When President Marcos imposed martial law, some opposition figures went scampering and running like rats for fear of incarceration and sought refuge in the US. And though he was initially one of the many who did actually, he grew restive as the sharp nails of the martial law rule continue to pierce his beloved country and countrymen. It was time to come home.

In 1980, Cesar Climaco founded the Concerned Citizens Aggrupation (CCA), a regional political party that was supposed to be a rallying point for those who were opposed to the Marcos regime. Responding to the popular clamor, Climaco once again ran for mayor and won the race handily. Later in 1984, with the opposition in Manila seemingly fragmented over the recurring issue on whether to join or boycott the Batasan elections, Climaco chose the former. Pitted against two formidable candidates closely identified with the Marcos regime, his opponents were no match for Climaco’s charisma. As a sign of protest, however, he refused to serve as member of the farcical Batasan Pambansa until after he served his full term as mayor of Zamboanga much to Mr. Marcos’s chagrin.

Probably however, the most indelible mark left by Climaco- that that irked his fiercest enemies was when he set up in front of the city hall a scoreboard which noted all the kidnappings, holdups, and murders that had taken place during his last stint as mayor. The scoreboard was eventually smeared with red paint by unidentified persons in early October of 1983, but the glaring figures spoke for themselves: 899 residents killed, 95 kidnapped, 817 robbed. Undoubtedly, flaunting these unsolved crimes and human rights violation was Climaco’s strife against the god in Malacanang.

“No, Marcos did not lift martial rule. He only tilted it.”

But Cesar Climaco could not be bullied nor cowed by anyone, not even by a home-grown despot. After all, he was not dubbed as “the Arsenio Lacson of the South” for nothing. While reservations for this moniker is being entertained in my end for the reason that the man deserves to be placed in our popular history as simply the “Cesar Climaco of Zamboanga,” incomparable to no one, this humble recognition is being welcomed whole heartedly. After all, he should not only be remembered for his promise to have his gray hair cut vis a vis the repeal of Marcos’ infamous decree. He, more importantly, must also be accorded the honor to be included in the galaxy of heroes that led to the reclamation of our democracy. In fact when martial law was lifted many years later, Climaco remained apprehensive, brushed the discharge of his promise and instead tossed a repartee: “No, Marcos did not lift martial rule. He only tilted it.”

Indeed, the 45.-caliber bullet that crashed his nape did not ultimately crash his spirit. He knew they were out to get him sooner or later. In fact, he left traces that could untangle the shrouded mystery and myth of his death; he was spot on when he said that those he fought because of abuses, including the military, could one day strike back. And yes, they did. But who’s really laughing now? In less than two years after his ignominious death, the militarized regime of Mr. Marcos collapsed; dictatorship too went inside the casket paving the way for the resurrection of democracy in the country.

Photo credit: LA Zamboanga Times courtesy of Mr. John Shinn III