238. Airgram From the Embassy in the Philippines to the Department of State 1

SUBJECT

  • Discussion with Filipino Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., LP Secretary General.

SUMMARY

Senator Aquino, the hyperactive Liberal Senator with a “maverick” reputation, reported that he will visit the People's Republic of China for ten days in September with a group of Filipino journalists. He was pessimistic about the prospects for the Liberal Party in the November senatorial, provincial and local elections and about the future of the Liberal Party and the two-party system in general in the Philippines. Aquino does not exclude the possibility of some sort of revolutionary upheaval in the Philippines during the next four years and sought to leave the impression that he might “go to the hills” as one of its leaders.

During a long merienda and introductory meeting at the Army-Navy Club on August 11 for Political Counselor Maestrone, Senator [Page 507] Aquino made a number of interesting comments that are worth recording.

Trip to Peking. Senator Aquino said that he would be leaving on September 2 for a ten-day trip to Peking, Canton, Shanghai and, possibly, other cities in Communist China. Accompanying him will be six Filipino journalists and two TV cameramen who will stay in China for a total of thirty-five days and will try to make a side trip to Pyongyang. The trip, which Aquino said is being sponsored by a Chinese journalistic association, is for the purpose of familiarizing themselves with current developments on the Mainland. (Although Aquino said that he had gone to Canton with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce group that traveled to China in May, we have no information that he actually went further than Hong Kong with the group or received a visa to enter the Mainland. If Aquino does, in fact, make the trip he says he will, he will be the most senior Philippine official to visit Peking.)

The 1971 Elections. Senator Aquino was pessimistic about the Liberal Party's prospects for this November's elections. Only two Liberal candidates (Salonga and either Magsaysay or Osmena) would be elected to the Senate, and the Liberals would fare badly in gubernatorial and mayoralty contests. President Marcos, Aquino complained, is buying off Liberal candidates with money or political appointments and has already persuaded eleven potential Liberal gubernatorial candidates not to run; four of these were confirmed on the day of our conversation as new Court of First Instance judges.

Senator Aquino showed us the results of a recent poll conducted nationwide by the Liberal Party. The poll, which had 2,800 respondents, confirmed his conclusions that the Liberals would not do well in the senatorial election. Of the issues that respondents were asked to identify as the most urgent problems presently facing the Philippines, high prices and the need for public works ran far ahead of graft and corruption and criticism of the Marcos Administration. The Nacionalistas, according to Aquino, had conducted a separate poll with similar results, with Senator Almendras emerging as the most popular candidate from either party. When we pointed out that high prices and the need for public works were issues that the Liberals could readily use in their campaign, Aquino replied that this was not the case; instead, what counted was how the voters, two-thirds of whom live in rural areas, would respond to these issues at the time of election. Their memory is short and their impressionability high, and between now and election day Marcos would dispense considerable amounts of “pork barrel” funds for local high-impact public works projects and would import enough rice to keep the price of this essential commodity down. Aquino appeared to place great stock in the value of his polls. He went over them column by column and figure by figure and gave no sign of questioning the validity of the statistics he quoted. As a practical politician, [Page 508]he said, he has his office conduct a nationwide poll of issues every 45 days, paying particular attention to identifying issues connected in the popular mind with certain Senators. Little nationwide impact resulted, according to his poll, from his Congressional budget and fund transfer campaign; Senator Magsaysay, however, drew high marks on land reform even though, according to Aquino, Magsaysay “never opens his mouth on this issue.”

The Liberal Party is in danger of extinction, Aquino continued. President Marcos has changed the traditional rules of the political game in the Philippines by spending unprecedented sums of money to ensure the election of himself and other Nacionalista candidates. The Liberals can no longer compete on this basis; they need 500,000 pesos per province per year (68 provinces) just to operate their party organization, let alone to pay for the costs of an election, and raising the necessary funds is becoming increasingly difficult. President Marcos will spend freely on the 1971 elections, Aquino claimed, and has already started doing so by passing out two thousand pesos to each of the twenty-seven thousand barrio captains in the country. In addition, Aquino states that Marcos now owns directly or controls through various means, 220 of the approximately 290 radio stations in the Philippines and has managed to prevent criticism in all of the major newspapers except the Chronicle and the Times-Mirror-Taliba group. Mandy Elizalde (described by Aquino as a political nobody whose inclusion on the Nacionalista slate was intended to prove that Marcos can get anyone elected) puts the Elizalde Tri-Media behind the Nacionalistas. (Aquino's claim of the extent of Marcos' control over radio broadcasting is open to doubt since the Lopez-owned ABS–CBN system owns a sizeable percentage of the broadcasting industry. As for newspapers, his remark is misleading since the circulation of the Times, Taliba and the Chronicle is considerably greater than that of all the other major papers combined.)

Revolutionary Change. Aquino's comments on the future of the Liberal Party led him into a discussion of his own future political role and revolutionary political change in general in the Philippines. Since Marcos had, by his overspending on elections, blocked the traditional avenues of access to political power for the Liberals, Aquino said he was left with three choices for his own future: 1) allow himself to be bought off by the Nacionalistas (Nacionalista Senator Jose Roy, Aquino related, had recently orally invited Aquino on Marcos' behalf to be the Senate's representative on the GOP delegation to the UN General Assembly and, upon his return, become the head of the Philippine National Bank. Aquino said he asked for the offer in writing from Marcos, thus effectively declining the probe); 2) “hang up my shingle” and retire from politics; or 3) “go to the hills” and join the revolution. Aquino implied that he was considering the third choice. Polls conducted [Page 509]by his office had shown that in response to the question “How would you react if a senator went to the hills?” 34% of the respondents said they would approve; two years ago the response was only 19%. A question on whether or not the respondent would approve of a revolutionary change of government in the Philippines produced a similar response. Aquino stated that his fellow Liberal Senator Jose Diokno has decided against the idea of “going to the hills” for the moment; Aquino, however, left the impression that this course was not excluded for himself. He thought a revolutionary leader of sufficient prominence would have little difficulty in gaining support from the peasants and that financial support would come from the urban middle class and some of the wealthy who were disenchanted with the Marcos Administration.

Aquino said that he believed that there could be a revolution in the Philippines sometime between now and 1974 or 1975. Underlying his comments on this subject was a fairly clear indication that Aquino is in active contact with KM leaders both in and outside Manila. For example, he reported that radical leaders had decided to change the tactics of their guerrilla activities. Starting in September they planned to place their emphasis on increased urban terrorism rather than on terroristic activities in the provinces which they felt were not having the desired impact. (This tends to support similar reports heard from other sources.) He noted that the number of students who have received two or three months of guerrilla training in the hills and who have returned to the cities is growing, and their tactics have become more sophisticated. In the future, Aquino thought that there will be fewer direct confrontations with the police and Philippine Constabulary and more use of sniping, arson, bombing and other forms of selective terrorism.

Aquino said that Marcos was becoming more and more of a dictator and was gaining control of the government and the country in line with his alleged intentions of continuing to stay in power beyond the end of his second term in 1973. Thus Marcos' present actions and future ambitions, Aquino argued, were creating a revolutionary situation for the Philippines. While Aquino said he could not predict with precision when a revolution would occur, he said that one of the key factors that any revolutionary must consider and which at present was unclear was the position the United States would take in a revolutionary situation in the Philippines.

Comment: Senator Aquino can be prone to exaggeration, and his remarks on the possibility of revolution and the role that he might play as one of its leaders seemed quite farfetched. Aquino, who is a longtime and prominent critic of Marcos, has no political ideology beyond his own personal ambitions. In this respect, his discussion of revolution can be interpreted as meaning that, if the Philippine political [Page 510]system has been changed to the extent that his political clique cannot alternate in power with the Marcoses by democratic means, then it will become necessary to resort to violent revolution as the means of gaining power. Although Aquino is believed to maintain regular contact with the Huks and the NPA, the jump from being a potential Liberal Party candidate for the 1973 Presidential election to leading a revolution in the hills may be a bit too much for the “boy wonder of Tarlac” to make.

Byroade
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 12–6 PHIL. Confidential. Drafted by Forbes, cleared by Hulen (POL) and Kalaris (POL/R), and approved by Maestrone (POL). Repeated to Hong Kong.