The name of Jose Avelino is mentioned—almost invariably—with
contempt. That is because he is largely remembered for this quote: “What are we
in power for?”
He came down in history books as the guy whose candor
exposed the creepy nature of what he and his kind do for a living, which is
quite apart from the honorable moniker by which they are called.
To be sure, those words, by themselves, could be taken to
mean positively. But the context in which he was reported to have uttered them
made him hopelessly bane. He left a lasting mark on the consciousness of the public
that had to bear with henpecked stories of why politicians cannot be trusted. The
image built by such a stunning candor erects the naked dimensions of a scheming
politician—shrewd, crook, opportunist, and thoroughly deserving of people’s wrath.
In 1949, the country was crippled and trying hard to recover
from the devastating effects of World War 2. President Manuel Roxas had died
the year before and Elpidio Quirino, as Vice President, stepped in to fill the
The fledgling Quirino administration hobbled from external
and internal strife. Both global and the domestic economy were in shambles. The
Hukbalahap insurgency was on the rise, threatening full-scale armed conflicts
in northern Luzon.
Internally, key officials of government wallowed in
corruption scandals. Complaints by party mates (Avelino was both president of
the Senate and of the Liberal Party) that non-party members were being
appointed to key positions in government were creating tensions among Quirino’s
allies. Observers noted that Quirino’s hiring of Nacionalista Party members was
aimed at undermining Avelino’s control of the upper chamber.
As the November 1949 presidential elections approached, supporters
of Quirino and Avelino found themselves on a collision course. Both camps jockeyed
for position as the two leaders were seen as main contenders for nomination as
the party’s standard-bearer.
In January of that year, Quirino called the top guns of the
party to a “no-holds-barred,” and supposedly “no-notes-to-be-taken,” caucus in
Malacanang. It was in this meeting where Avelino was said to have uttered those
The next day the Manila Chronicle reported the verbal fracas
at the caucus, quoting Avelino at length: “Why did you have to order an
investigation Honorable Mr. President? If you cannot permit abuses, you must at
least tolerate them. What are we in power for? We are not hypocrites. Why
should we pretend to be saints when in reality we are not? We are not angels.
When we die we will all go to hell. It is better to be in hell because in that
place there are no investigations, no secretary of justice, no secretary of the
interior to go after us.”
By February the following month, Quirino succeeded in
dislodging Avelino from the Senate top post. Avelino went on to run for
President anyway but lost to Quirino and Jose Laurel of the Nacionalista Party.
Fernando Lopez, who was Quirino’s running mate and owner of the Chronicle, also
won as Vice President.
Avelino’s fall from power was as dramatic as his rise to
It was rare for a probinsyano
to scale the heights of prominence like Avelino did. His oratorical prowess and
impeccable academic credentials must have opened many doors for him. In college,
he and Claro M. Recto became friends and classmates. They got their bachelor’s
degree from the Ateneo, both graduating summa cum laude. They took law courses
at the University of Santo Tomas and took the bar in 1914, the year the
examiners dropped Spanish. Avelino passed the bar but Recto flunked it. Recto,
after taking English lessons, took the bar the next year and got perfect scores
in two subjects.
Before joining politics, Avelino organized labor unions in
Samar, his home province. As legislator, he authored key legislations like the
Philippine Workmen’s Compensation Law. He was key advocate in establishing
public high schools in every province, and was instrumental in the creation of
the Social Security System.
Subsequent accounts of that Malacanang caucus revealed that
Avelino was a victim of fake news. Faustino Tobia, who would later become a congressman
representing Ilocos Sur, was present in that meeting and quoted Avelino as saying
“Señor Presidente, ¿no es la verdad
que sin hacerlos vigorosamente es traicionar y negar esencialmente nuestros
deberes como sirvientes públicos? ¿Para que esta el nuestro mandato del
(“Mr. President, is it not the truth that not
addressing vigorously these problems [i.e., of losing the Liberal Party’s
insight into the postwar reconstruction, the country’s peasant plight that is
fueling the Huk’s insurgency, and the moral discipline of those who use their
position or influence in government to advance their selfish ends, like
appointing less qualified men from the opposition party] is to betray and
negate fundamentally our duties as public servants? What for is our mandate
from the people?”)
The Office of the President through Executive Secretary
Salvador Medialdea issued the other day Proclamation No. 762, declaring August
5 as Jose Avelino Day in all 3 Samar provinces.