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 vacancy.
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 infamous words.
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 fame.
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 pueblo?”
(“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.