Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sing, ‘fiat justitia ruat coelum’

Indeed, one can say, “nessun dorma”. No one sleeps as this benighted country awaits the rising of the sun and the day of judgment of former president Joseph Estrada.

In Puccini’s last opera “Turandot”, no one sleeps as Calaf, the “Unknown Prince”, waits for Princess Turandot’s life-and-death answer to a riddle. Calaf’s fate hangs in the balance.

I am starting to write this piece on the eve of the Sandiganbayan’s judgment on Estrada, accused of plunder and several other crimes. I continue writing tomorrow (yesterday, that is) after either his conviction or acquittal.(Now, as I continue writing, he is being judged guilty of plunder, but not of perjury, and is being sentenced to reclusion perpetua or 40 years. It takes less than 30 minutes to read it all to him.)

Out of the window goes the piece I had intended to write. That is, my two cents on the great tenor of our time Luciano Pavarotti whose death last week was mourned by music lovers worldwide. I soaked the world’s grief and mine in his music in the past days, deriving comfort from the sacred arias, to the flirtatious and “brindisi” ones, to even the Hollywoodish “Yes, Giorgio”; from his vintage 1965 recording to his recent crossovers from opera to pop.

Well, he got to sing (“Panis Angelicus”) at his own funeral, didn’t he?

But it is the end of what has become Pavarotti’s signature song from “Turandot” that will linger for all time. He soars and explodes in the end of “Nessun dorma” with “vincero…vincero!” followed by the blare of trumpets that heralds victory.

Who is the victor, who the vanquished?

Estrada is no Calaf. The similarities end in their waiting in the night. But this plunder case in the trial of the century is indeed operatic in magnitude and I can visualize and hear in my mind an opera chorus, like the chorus of the prisoners in Verdi’s “Nabucco”, breaking mightily into song as judgment on Estrada is being rendered. I imagine the song to be “Fiat justitia ruat coelum.” Let justice be done though the heavens fall.
So much for trying to mix and mesh on this day of days.

My thoughts go back to May of 2001 when Estrada was arrested, handcuffed and brought to his prison cell. What happened after that was totally unexpected. The throng of poor people who adulated Estrada went berserk. It stunned and jolted many, even those who had worked and immersed themselves among the poor for most of their lives.

They wept for the people and for themselves. Church workers, most of whom had accompanied the poorest of the poor for many years, shed tears while reflecting on the violence on Mendiola, where thousands of Estrada supporters went wild, destroyed property, and hurt and were hurt by those who stood in their way.

"Where have we failed?" I remember the church workers who worked among the poorest asking almost in unison at a reflection session. “How have the poor come to this? Who led them there? Why couldn't they understand that their idol, Estrada, committed a grave crime against them, the very poor people who put him in power? Where were we?”

"Like sheep without a shepherd" was how a priest described the throng that went on a rampage. "We looked at the thousands who massed up at the Edsa Shrine and dismissed them simply as a mob-unwashed, uncouth, uncultured—and saw and heard only their ravings and the threat to us 'peace-loving and educated' citizens. When this mob finally moved, we congratulated one another and said our judgment was deadly accurate."

But the priest used the biblical parable of the Good Shepherd to point out that many failed to see the so-called mob "as Jesus would have wanted us to see them—as people who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Because the angry poor were not the enemy.

A community organizer in poor Christian communities for two decades wept unashamedly and expressed his frustration. "Why, why?" he cried. "Have all our efforts gone to waste? I have poured out my life for the poor, and now this. Should I give up?"

But it was different in a poor district in Malate and Paco in Manila where Good Shepherd nuns have lived for 20 years: No member of a Christian community in the area went to the pro-Estrada rally.

When asked why, a woman answered they knew Estrada had stolen and they did not want to side with evil. Seminars, reflections and prayer had brought them to this kind of conviction, she added.

"We knew on Monday that the (Estrada followers’) takeover would not happen because God would not allow that," the woman said.

A Franciscan nun sobbed as she recalled how relocated squatters with whom they had lived for seven years turned against them. "We lived side by side with them, lived the way they did, but they still thought Estrada was their savior," she said. "Kulang na lang palayasin nila kami (They did all but drive us away) and they blame us for Estrada's downfall."

"We should not give up," a sobbing church worker said, "we have to be shepherds, not only to the poor, but also to one another. We need to be more compassionate."

The work will be hard and will take a long time, someone added. "We cannot leave and give up now. We have to examine ourselves and find new ways."

Others expressed hope mixed with disappointment. "This is a wake-up call," a church worker said. A wake-up call, indeed, for those who were asleep and those who were already awake. That was six years ago.

It’s just been an hour since the judgment was read. Who knows what the aftermath would be this time.