Lutz Barbo – the peacemaker was also published by The Manila Times on 1 December 2021 (Part 1) and on 8 December 2021 (Part 2).
I was relatively young when I got some kind of baptism of fire as a local government errand boy. Then Eastern Samar Governor Lutgardo “Lutz” Barbo hosted one of President Fidel Ramos’ out-of-town cabinet meetings, and I was one of the former’s Executive Assistants.
The provincial sorties became one of the governance innovations introduced by the Ramos presidency. It aimed to accomplish many things in one setting: to re-assure the people—even if the message it conveyed was merely symbolic—of government’s commitment to facilitate people participation as a way to promote inclusiveness and social leveling, to know first-hand the plight of ordinary folks in the countryside, and to bring his cabinet secretaries to places where local governments were making commendable progress in the implementation of their respective development agenda.
Earlier, Ramos had called Barbo a “do-something” governor. The president wanted to know how Eastern Samar had transformed itself from being a hotbed of the communist insurgency to a beacon for peace and development.
(For context, let me hasten to add that Ramos, despite his shaky mandate—he got only about 23 percent of total votes—had been credited for achieving a significant degree of national unity during his term, and for being successful, again to a significant extent, in rallying public support for his strategic “Philippines 2000” vision.)
The downside of provincial cabinet meetings is that they abound with logistical risks which, as you can imagine, could be nightmarish for those coordinating with Malacanang. And I was one of Malacanang’s provincial counterparts, although the level of input required by my role was much lesser than those who arranged security.
The go-to guys of the Presidential Management Staff under Ramos impressed me as stickler for details. They demanded CSW (complete staff work) for all presentations that were proposed to be brought up during the meeting. And they wanted everything rushed.
At one point during the powerpoint presentation by my boss, the computer feed sputtered, unable to read the content of the floppy disk for which I spent several days to develop. Upset, the PMS lead staff looked at me inquisitively, as if blaming me for not following his instructions that the disk be thoroughly tested before the meeting. But Ramos, probably used to seeing such glitches in remote locations, saved me from embarrassment. He joked about being hungry, pointing to a long table where merienda food was ready.
I assured the PMS guy that the floppy disk had a duplicate copy in my bag and I only needed to locate it so that the presentation might be able to continue after the break. Just the same, I asked him—almost in a whisper—if an overhead projector and acetate could take the place of the laptop in the event the disk was similarly damaged. He acted like he heard nothing from me.
Days after the Ramos meeting, the governor ribbed me for the powerpoint gaffe. Good thing, I said, the president was ready with his rescue repartee, like a Boy Scout. Barbo countered: good thing you had a duplicate copy, always prepared, like a Boy Scout.
At some other time, he told me that being a Boy Scout had probably saved him from summary execution.
Years before becoming a public servant (Cory Aquino appointed him as OIC Vice Governor in 1986), he was being groomed as the first Filipino Vice President of Pepsi Cola Philippines. Unluckily for him, his arrest and detention during martial law got in the way.
We often hear that martial law was a good time to be a rebel, and the radical ones went as far as to take up arms to resist it. Barbo, a young lawyer, chose to be closer to being a reform advocate than a revolutionary hunk, driven by force of reason rather than by reason of force. He was counsel for the Brotherhood of Nationalistic, Involved and Free Attorneys to Combat Injustice and Oppression (BONIFACIO).
Then one day he found the building where his office nested (in Pampanga) to be swarming with men in military uniform. They were looking for him.
As soon as his identity was established, they seized him.
“I am Lt Robert Bayona, graduate of the Philippine Military Academy,” the leader of the arresting group menacingly confronted him. “I am arresting you for rebellion, on the basis of this Arrest and Seizure Order.” The same dreaded ASO that had sniffed out many a Marcos critic like him.
He took a look at the piece of paper and saw his name in a list of six people, and one other name which he recognized. Was he being charged by association?
At Camp Aguinaldo where he spent the next 26 hours without food, deprived of sleep, but generously cursed and yelled at, his captors, led by one whom he vaguely remembered as Major Collado, ordered him to strip. “Gusto namin makakita ng puwet ng isang abogado!”
Wretched, physically drained and roundly humiliated, he was barely awake when he said something that angered the interrogators even more.
“Leftist ka ba?”
“Putang ina, pinatagal mo po, aamin ka rin pala!”
Boxing champion Joe Frazier said something about being thankful when, as one traded heavy blows with an opponent inside the ring, he could feel the pain. “If you get hit and you don’t feel the pain, that means you are close to being dead.”
He did not feel any pain at all when Collado hit him on the chest. Thankfully, he cried his gut out when another blow caught him in the liver.
“Leftist ako Sir, pero hindi ako komunista,” he tried to explain.
“Putang ina, pare pareho lang yan!”
Lutz Barbo knew of red-tagged desaparecidos who never re-appeared, assumed to be dead. None of his family members knew where he was. His wife, Rebecca Arambulo, with whom he eloped months earlier to the gross displeasure of his mother-in-law, was pregnant with their first child. Fear, anger, pain, humiliation and helplessness combined to leave him groping for self-preservation devises. At this point, he said he was leaving everything up to fate.
“Boy Scout po ako, left po ang ginagamit namin sa pakikipagkamay, dahil mas malapit ang kaliwa sa puso.”
“Gago! Tang ina ka, tanda mo na, Boy Scout ka pa!”
“Kasi kami po, once a Boy Scout, always a Boy Scout.”
“OK pagbibigyan kita. Pakita mong Boy Scout ka nga, i-recite mo ang Scout Law!”
With gusto, Barbo obliged:
“On my honor, I will do my best: to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
“A Scout is: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
Barbo could almost tell that Collado had become a Boy Scout himself by the way the latter eased up on his prey. Lutz Barbo lived to fight another day, as the saying goes. When he became governor years later, he fought for peace.
One bright morning Lutz Barbo found himself alone, and couldn’t hold back his tears. He had grown desolate as he waited for the order that would transfer him to Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, which houses one of the top security prisons in the Philippines, to be enforced.
He was allowed to go out of his detention cell for a few hours each day—a welcome perk for detainees like him—but the time to otherwise enjoy the open air, and sometimes under a clear sky, was often lost to the pain of being awake as he grappled with the thought about his family that up to that point had no clue of where he was.
He sat down on a solitary stool and started to recite a prayer when somebody poked from behind his ears. He spun around playfully, like a kid. He saw no one but his shadow. Was he hallucinating?
Then he remembered the last time he prayed with similar focus was when he was about to take the bar. He mused that somebody was telling him he learns to pray only when he needed something that badly.
Then the next day, to his surprise, his wife and mother-in-law appeared. The latter happened to have spent her whole civil service career (already retired at that point) as pharmacist at the clinic in Camp Aguinaldo. She knew who to call for help.
The immediate benefit of the mother-in-law’s intervention was the stay of his transfer to Bicutan. She also mentioned that she had a classmate who was a sibling of Metrocom Chief Prospero Olivas, and assured him that through her his case was on its way to people who made decisions on who lives or who doesn’t.
In the meantime, Rebecca, his wife, made it a point to visit him daily, bringing along with her some extra food provision for three (sometimes more) hungry bellies. His captors, who rotated among themselves but now comprised mostly of officials that were taking up law courses with the aim of becoming lawyers themselves, including one Major Raul Bacalzo (he landed 12th in the 1984 bar exams and became chief of the Philippine National Police in 2010), were aware of his attempts at bribery in the form of free meals. But they didn’t mind. “We only have 4 pesos for meal allowance,” one of Barbo’s new-found buddies quipped.
And they reciprocated him for his kindness. When Olivas came over to check on the prisoner, Bacalzo et al remarked to the effect that the ASO might have made a mistake in the enumeration of charges levelled against Barbo. That was enough to facilitate his eventual release, which happened a week later.
Two years later, in 1983, Ninoy Aquino—also a political prisoner before he left for the United States to seek medical treatment—was not as lucky. He fell from an assassin’s bullet at the tarmac of what is now known as the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on his return from the US. His murder sparked mass protests that reached their peak during the 1986 People Power Revolution. The bloodless uprising catapulted his wife, Cory Aquino, to the seat of power, supplanting Marcos.
Turning now to our home province of Eastern Samar, we see an area that had been ravaged not only by natural calamities (a typhoon path) but also by a communist insurgency that left thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Estimates culled from police records showed that a monthly average of two bloody encounters happened in the area from 1980 to 1985. In one upland municipality, total population shrunk from 1,950 in 1982 to 356 in 1986. Overall, provincial population from 1980 to 1990 managed to grow by .27 percent (or from 320,637 to 329,325 in absolute numbers), an anemic figure in comparison to the national growth rate of 2.58 percent for the same period.
When Barbo won his first electoral mandate in 1988 as provincial governor, his mission to end the armed conflict did not find a receptive environment. Nagging local tensions mimicked that which gripped the national government: some factions within the military that remained loyal to Marcos mounted at least 4 coup attempts against the Aquino government in 1986 alone, citing as grievance her appointment of cabinet members who were perceived to be leftists. She parried ten such coup attempts throughout her term. The last one, led by Gringo Honasan, lasted for 2 days on November 30-December 1, 1989, claiming at least 99 lives.
Ironically, it took a military man in Ramos for Barbo to find the support he needed to push his peace agenda. Through the Provincial Peace and Order Council, the governor leveraged his moral suasion to rally multi-sectoral support for the declaration of a Unilateral Suspension of Military Operations (USOMO) in the entire province. His chant of “without peace there can be no development, without development there can be no peace” resonated among civic leaders, media, the academe, the religious and, most importantly, among the hierarchy in the military.
While the peace process remained contentious and time-consuming, the confidence-building offensive brought dividends. By 1995, it was hard to argue against the results. Rebels surrendered to authorities, initially in trickles, then later in droves; the number of deadly encounters between rebels and government forces dropped from twice a month to zero; IDPs gradually returned to their communities; and the local economy slowly got back to its feet.
Lutz Barbo had been credited for leading his constituents to press multi-sectoral solutions that ended years of bloody conflicts in their midst. He received numerous awards for the accomplishment, highlighted by the Presidential Lingkod Bayan award in 1997.
If something good came out of his martial law ordeal, that would be two things: one, the detention at Camp Aguinaldo brought him and his mother-in-law to friendly terms and, two, his unique experience and perspective enabled him to drive a peace process that both the military and the rebels believed in.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus Christ said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Lutz Barbo, who is a senatorial candidate in next year’s elections, had shown the path to peace and development. Voters who believe in a God that has a ready “Peace-be-with-you!” greeting for everyone may do well to embrace the task of peacemaking as their own, in keeping with their faith, and show their confidence in and support for the one who once won the peace for his people.