(This is an account of the first day of the four-day transport strike in Cebu. This is part of an attempt to write a book on those dangerous years when we risked our lives to fight for nationalism and democracy. I am posting this in the hope that others who were also these would also write their versions in the comments space below or send me their narratives via email.)
The noise woke me at around 7 in the morning of October 22, 1984. People inside the apartment were looking down the street. A barricade had appeared early that morning outside the building. A familiar voice barked using a loudspeaker.
It took me a minute to figure out where I was and the people around me. Perhaps this was because I dozed off at 4 am. I had just three hours sleep. Today’s digital natives might joke about my semi-catatonic state as loading, or even booting up. But those were the days when I moved around a lot carrying a sling bag containing an extra shirt, a pair of pants, a book, and some notes. I often bring with me a portable typewriter but not at that moment.
I might find myself waking up in retreat houses or sleeping quarters of seminarians, the residences of some members of the Professionals Forum, or former political detainees.
Still, I would spend days on the typewriter at home — the Mongaya residence at the lower middle class community behind Chong Hua Hospital.
Many nights, though, would be spent a block away at the urban poor communities of Sitio Manzanitas and Sitio Kawayan, Sambag II. Several core group meetings went overnight. However, the EDs – education and study sessions – sometimes lasted several days. Thus, I could brag about sleeping all over Metro Cebu.
The tempo quickened after the Aquino assassination in August 1983. I was then part of the alliance and mass campaign core group of Nagkahiusang Sugbo Alang sa Demokrasya (NASUD), the Coalition Against People’s Persecution (CAPP), the Cebu Oust Marcos Movement for Nationalism and Democracy (COMMAND) and the Professionals Forum (PF). After moving around hangouts of PF members and some media friends in Sanciangko and Pelaez Streets, I would attend late night meetings together with Fr. Rudy Romano at the residence of Inday Nita Cortes-Daluz. During the early jogging protests, the dawns would be spent at the St. Alphonsus Seminary that served as the assembly point for the student groups. The core group meetings would transpire in nearby religious residences arranged by Fr. Romano.
Once, I met Gerthie Mayo (then a law student who was also a reporter at DYRF) for a week-long meeting with regional mass campaign organizers many of them priests in Bacolod City.
Gerthie used to be a student leader at St. Theresa’s College (STC). I first came to know her as part of the student support group for an urban poor community threatened with demolition at the North Reclamation Area in 1979. I later joined her in mobilizing support for human rights victims in 1981. She was then connected with the Visayas Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (VEMJP) while I volunteered as a writer of the Nagkahiusang Sugbo Alang sa Demokrasya (NASUD). NASUD was then squatting at the VEMJP office located beside a creek behind the St. Alphonsus Seminary.
There was still no direct Ceres bus to Bacolod City from Cebu City in 1984. With barely enough money for transportation and snacks, I got on board a bus to Toledo City just before noon one day, transfered to a ferry to San Carlos City, and took a tricycle to a bus stop. I arrived at the Bacolod City bus terminal at around 9 pm.
I recall taking a cab and arriving in front of a house that was actually a convent. A nun around 5-feet tall met us at the gate and brought me inside through a side door. After the simple but welcome meal, the nun guided me to an empty dorm.
She woke me up before daybreak and instructed me to wash up before the others in the convent would be up. When I was ready, she led me to a foyer and introduced the man who would drive me to the regional alliance and mass campaign meeting. The driver turned out to be a priest involved in organizing rallies and mass campaigns in Bacolod City. I could no longer remember his name. But he showed me Bacolod like a tour guide along with the political situation. I met Gerthie – whom the NASUD staff would call Manang when she was not around – at the conference venue.
The loudspeaker outside the building blaring knocked me out of the stupor. I woke up at a youth-student hangout, a cramped apartment atop a building at the Taboan market area. It was home to student leader Debbie Almocera and her family. A barricade, something I did not notice some three hours ago, had appeared at the corner of T. Abella and B. Aranas Streets at the Taboan Market. Like a shot of adrenaline, the tense atmosphere brought me back to the fast unfolding present. The transport strike had advanced into something beyond what we expected.
All over Metro Cebu that dawn, multi-sectoral groups identified with the militant NASUD and CAPP set up human barricades in key city choke points. However, military and police units swooped on the militants even before the sun was up. The strategy apparently was to nip the protest action in the bud.
Then the unexpected happened. Public vehicles, including buses and taxi cabs, usually plying city streets on an early Monday morning were eerily nowhere to be seen. Ordinary folk from Talisay to Lapu-Lapu City were spontaneously moving to put up instant barricades. Used tires burned as thick, black smoke billowed all over the metro. Ordinary folk took the cudgels while the militants were being hauled off to jail. It was a transport strike so unlike previous transport strikes.
The local media kept on calling what happened a transport strike until we began using a term that emerged from Mindanao. That same Monday, Davao City protesters heeded the transport strike call. However, they baptized their two-day protest, the Welgang Bayan.
A year had passed since the assassination of former senator Benigno Aquino Jr. Cebuanos turned out in huge numbers in response to calls for mass actions. The Reds, those belonging to militant organizations and alliances, organized giant marches and rallies in coordination with the Yellows, the organized and spontaneous following of anti-Marcos leaders and groups.
There were dawn jogging protests. We marched from Plaza Independencia to Fuente Osmeña. There was the reenactment of the Ninoy assassination in front of tens of thousands at Fuente. Though we normally did not seek permits for these protests, local law enforcement authorities generally observed what they called ‘maximum tolerance.’
However, it was different when the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) chapter in Cebu emerged. The Visayan Glass chapter of the ALU-TUCP broke away from the labor federation, announced its affiliation with the newly-formed militant labor alliance in Metro Manila, and staged a labor strike at the Visayan Glass Factory in Guadalupe, Cebu City. The police were hardly tolerant at all. The violent dispersal operations saw the local anti-riot police use tear gas on Cebu protesters for the first time. The state violence schooled local labor leaders, along with student activists who came to pledge support for the strikers, in confrontational protests.
As these transpired, the militants with their red banners organized bigger joint mobilizations with political leaders and organizations that sported the color yellow. Coordination among the militant groups with friends in the local mass media, organizations of the middle forces, and the “Yellow” anti-Marcos groups were carried out through the alliance and mass campaign committee.
The group included Fr. Romano, youth-student organizers, journalists, and myself. The committee served as a core group among leaders and staff members of NASUD, CAPP, the Visayas Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (VEMJP), the local youth chapter of the Justice for Aquino, Justice for All (JAJA) headed by Ronald Baquiano, and a community youth group based in Sitio Kawayan, Sambag 2. Lending us a hand during the mobilizations were businessmen Winston Monzon and other members of the Professionals’Forum (PF) as well as urban poor leader Jorge Barrioquinto.
Providing us logistical support were religious contacts and supporters of Fr. Romano along with a network of former political detainees composed of FQS activists. We likewise closely coordinated with lawyer Democrito Barcenas, the local leader of Pepe Diokno’s Kaakbay.
I was involved, among other things, having been a staff member of NASUD and CAPP. Gerthie and I were instrumental in the early discussion groups that evolved into the Professionals’ Forum headed first by Joe Mateo and later Mrs. Zenaida Uy. Those early discussion sessions were held at the CAPP office at a building that soon gave way to the present One Mango complex at Maxilom Avenue.
A day before he suffered a heart attack that caused his death, veteran journalist Job Tabada asked me to write about the secret meetings of several reporters and editors at the office of The Advocate along Zulueta Street during those dangerous days. The office located at the Cebu City’s Parian district was just a block away from where military men swooped on opposition leader Ribomapil Holganza Sr., son Ribomapil “Joeyboy” Holganza Jr., journalist Felimon Alberca, and a couple of companions two years before. Across the Parian plaza meanwhile lived human rights lawyer Meindrado Paredes. Perhaps, the reporters who attended those meetings then (they are now senior journalists) might prefer to write their own stories. Tabada, a political detainee in Dumaguete City during the early martial law months, was coordinating then with Fr. Romano and Rex Fernandez who worked briefly at the Republic News.
The Marcos dictatorship sought to control the surge of popular protests towards the electoral channel with the Batasang Pambansa elections of May 14, 1984.
In a way, the parliamentary elections split the protest movement even at the local level. Many street parliamentarians called for a boycott. Populist protest leaders Cebu’s Inday Nita Cortes-Daluz and the detained Ribomapil ‘Dodong’ Holganza Sr. decided to participate. However, we managed to maintain communications and cooperation with Inday Nita and other pro-participation leaders during the electoral campaign. Our broad alliance core group composed of Debbie Almocera and Ronald Baquiano coordinated with Inday Nita. We organized the Marcos Resign March from Danao to Cebu City to demonstrate the continuing unity of pro-participation and pro-boycott partisans. To consolidate the pro-boycott groups, we launched another long-march from Carcar to Cebu City.
Widespread electoral fraud brought the protest movement together in bigger, more militant protests after the elections.
Tension particularly spiked on May 19, 1984 when a bullet killed 17-year old Raul Pintoy during protests over tabulation anomalies at the Cebu Provincial Capitol. The killing sparked an overnight riot in uptown Cebu City that left 27 injured, including eight soldiers, and scores arrested. After this incident, protest actions became more regular and spontaneous. Coordination between the “Red” cause-oriented groups and the “Yellow” protesters identified with Inday Nita became closer with regular meetings at her residence in a subdivision along V. Rama Avenue. This time, the Marcos Resign March organizers baptized the group the Cebu Oust Marcos Movement for Nationalism and Democracy (COMMAND).
Moreover, the protests turned more confrontational. Even jeepney drivers resorted to wildcat strikes in July 1984 to pressure, for instance, the Lapu-Lapu City government to abandon an anti-overloading policy.
By mid-September 1984, two presidential decrees increasing registration fees and imposing a road users tax pushed even transport operators to action. Local transport operators sent Malacanang a letter asking President Marcos to repeal the two decrees. The signatories were significant: Ramon Atillo of the Metro Cebu Taxi and PU Operators, Benjamin Somilla of the Cebu Jeepney Operators, Julian Vercide representing the bus operators, Manuel Granada of the trucking services sector, and Julito Roden of the Cebu Contractors Association and Aggregate Suppliers and Haulers. Signing as coordinators for owners of private vehicles were Sonny Espina, Victor Elipe, and lawyer Manuel Paradela.
Meanwhile, local drivers groups called for a strike September 28, 1984. The transport operators joined the crescendo of protests as a result of the imposition of a road users tax. Together, the transport sector paralyzed the province with a deafening day-and-a-half transportation standstill.
The weeks that followed saw local militant protest leaders calling for a wider transport strike.
Meanwhile, national protest leaders set a nationwide strike on October 22, 1984. Being at the forefront of the street protests, a tambay in urban poor communities in Sambag 2 and Sitio Kawayan, and privy to internal NASUD and CAPP meetings as well as the meetings at the residence of Inday Nita, I felt in my guts more than just a transport strike was taking shape in Cebu.
The other two persons in the three-man strike core group – Rex Fernandez and Bonnie David – also felt Cebu was ready for a heightened confrontation with the dictatorship though at that particular moment, we did not know how exactly bulk of the population would respond.
That fateful morning of October 22, 1984, several communities all over the metro looked like movie scenes of Latin American uprisings. The local press and even our spokespersons then called the rising as a mere transport strike. At that moment, I still have to read about the term “Welgang Bayan.” The Davao Welgang Bayan erupted that same day and lasted two days. This is a story about the Cebu version — a people’s strike that raged four days.
Bonfire at Colon
October 21, 1984, the day before the strike, was a long day.
Two marches commenced from Tabunok, Talisay in the south and the other from Lapu-Lapu City that Sunday morning. I joined several thousands from Tabunok as we marched along the eight-kilometer route along the south highway, now Natalio Bacalso Avenue, then Candido Padilla Street. We had late lunch at the San Nicolas Church grounds as I, being a member of the mass campaign and alliance committee, awaited word from the marchers coming from the north. Because of the longer route from Lapu-Lapu City, we had to wait for them. The plan was to stage a rousing simultaneous arrival at the Gaisano Metro junction of Cebu City’s oldest street named Colon.
For several years, the destination of many protest marches in Cebu City was Fuente Osmena. The first human rights day rally I joined was dispersed at Fuente Osmena. This was the rally in December 1979 when the police picked up and later released Fr. Rudy Romano. I watched opposition figures who joined a Freedom March got drenched with red-tinted water at Fuente Osmena. The dawn Jog for Freedom protests that lasted several weeks in September 1983 transpired around Fuente Osmena.
That Sunday however, we transformed Cebu City’s oldest and busiest street into an arena of struggle. Standing at the makeshift stage at the Gaisano Metro junction, one could see a sea of protesters reaching the Lane junction to the south, Sanciangko Street along Osmena blvd., and beyond Pelaez Street to the north.
“Katawhan! Ang Nasud! Karon Nakigbisog!” “Marcos! Hitler! Diktador! Tuta!” The familiar chants sounded different. Expressing pent up rage of tens of thousands, the collective roar shook the ground at the heart of Cebu City’s the central business district. The scene gave this rally veteran goosebumps.
In a statement to the press, driver leader Eddie Ferrer outlined the strike demands:
Decrease the taxes on oil;
Abolish the new registration fees on private vehicles;
Reduce the drivers’ license fees and penalties for traffic infractions;
Increase the salaries of government and private employees;
Repeal Amendment No. 6;
Release all political detainees like Ribomapil Holganza;
Stop IMF-World Bank intervention in the Philippines.
It was already evening when the rally ended. But the long night had just begun. The student sector took over for an overnight vigil. Pushing the ante further, they built a giant bonfire at the center and tied a rope around the Colon-Osmena blvd. junction. Amid songs and speeches presented by student leaders from various colleges and universities, there were lots of meetings and last minute arrangements right there at the heart of Cebu City’s business district. Those wanting to rest spread carton strips on the road and took naps near the raging fire. The junction looked like a small commune. We owned Colon Street that night.
It was at the middle of Colon Street where I awaited news from Rex and Bonnie who were at a meeting of transport operators at Pete’s Kitchenette. The meeting went on deep into the night. Redemptorist priest Fr. Rudy Romano represented the cause-oriented groups as the operators discussed whether to support the strike or not. With Fr. Rudy was Vic Elipe, a transport operator who was already committed to the strike. In fact, he lent an office located across the old bus terminal that we converted into the strike HQ.
Rex and Bonnie likewise coordinated with sector leaders of NASUD and CAPP who were tasked with setting up human barricades.
While some operators hemmed and hawed, the bonfire at Colon signified the die had been cast. As militants silently moved to set up human barricades in key city choke points, the Colon bonfire symbolized the call on the Cebuano population to put up barricades. How they responded surprised us, hardened protest veterans.
Debbie Almocera, a militant student leader, and I left the Colon bonfire at dawn. Together with Ronald Baquiano of the Justice for Aquino, Justice for All (JAJA) movement in Cebu City, Debbie and I composed the core group of COMMAND or the Cebu Oust Marcos Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism and Democracy. The team coordinated closely with Redemptorist priest Fr. Rudy Romano and Prof. Zenaida Uy of the Professionals Forum. Our job was to establish and maintain the unity between the national-democratic organizations and the anti-Marcos opposition identified with Inday Nita Cortes Daluz. Sometime before the May elections, we coordinated with Daluz and Fr. Romano to stage a 20-km long march from Danao City to Cebu City that called for the resignation of President Marcos. The march, participated by both boycott and participation advocates, sought to portray that the elections failed to break the unity of the parliament of the streets in Cebu.
Located a few blocks from the Colon bonfire and the strike HQ across the south bus terminal, I decided to wash up and get some rest at Debbie’s residence — a space at the top floor of an old building at the Taboan area where her family and some relatives lived. The place also served as a hangout of student leaders. I dozed on the sofa at around 4 am thinking the next few hours would be a much longer day.
The sun was up and so was Debbie when the noise outside agitated the household. A big crowd had gathered around a big tree trunk barricading the corner of T. Abella and B. Aranas Streets outside Cebu City’s Taboan Public Market. Nagkahiusang Sugbo alang sa Demokrasya (NASUD) and Coalition Against People’s Persecution (CAPP) officials Raoul Doroteo and Zac Campaner were negotiating with a police team. Raoul and Zac later briefed me about spontaneous barricades sprouting all over the city. They decided to go around Metro Cebu to get a sense of what was fast unfolding, identify local leaders, and establish communication lines.
As Debbie and I moved fast along Sanciangko and Panganiban streets towards the strike HQ, only tartanillas plied the streets. Used tires burned in the middle of the road as an expression of anger. Cebu City streets looked like an uprising scene of a Costa Gavras movie.
At the strike HQ, Rex and Bonnie along with Vic Elipe and Greg Nilles of DYRF were huddled around a radio set and a DYRF microphone. CAPP and NASUD were our organizational links to organized militant sectoral organizations. Meanwhile, the direct access to DYRF broadcasts provided a voice and a central leadership to the scattered and largely spontaneous protest actions. The barricades set up by the militants in key choke points were easily dispersed. Police forces arrested several students sleeping around the Colon bonfire as the others scampered. The next day’s papers listed 33 arrested during the strike’s first day.
However, spontaneous barricades – physical blockades by spontaneous, unorganized elements — sprouted all over the city.
After a quick meeting, Rex and I hitched on board the DYRF service vehicle to link up with Inday Nita who was in her radio station booth located along Ramos Street.
The next stop that morning was the Redemptorist convent to coordinate with Fr. Romano who was then working with church-based groups to set up a logistics assistance center at the Bradford Church of the protestant United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP). As these developed, the student leaders regrouped and organized a contingent of some 500 militants marching around the Colon area. They later went to the Cebu City Hall with Rex Fernandez. The group later marched to the Ramos police station to protest the arrests of protesters.
Not content with coordinating behind the scenes, I joined the students march around the Cebu business district late that afternoon.
By evening, thousands of spontaneous protesters joined the militants at Colon Street. People filled up the whole stretch from the Cinema Theater to the Lane area.
As this developed, news reached the strike HQ that a similar scene had spontaneously developed at the Tabunok area.
Later that night, I retreated to a safehouse at the pier area for a late meeting with two senior community organizers who witnessed the developments in Tabunok.
(Yes, this account is incomplete. I plan to make this into a book. Please help by contributing your stories, photos, and memorabilia)