Thursday, February 26, 2015

Almonte's journey: 'passing on the baton'

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

And I thought I had first crack at “Endless Journey: A Memoir” by Jose T. Almonte as told to Marites Dañguilan Vitug. The Inquirer beat me to it with the excerpts on 1986 events, and so did two other columnists, in the runup to yesterday’s 29th anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution. An important chunk in the book deals with how the military uprising was plotted and carried out, and the role of Almonte, then a colonel, in it.

But I am glad for Vitug, a friend of more than 30 years and an investigative journalist par excellence, that the book is getting a lot of media attention. The book was launched yesterday at the Club Filipino, the historic place where, in 1986, Cory Aquino took her oath as the new president and head of the revolutionary government after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by People Power and flown, with his family, to exile in Hawaii.

When I read memoirs and autobiographies, I always love the part about the authors’ childhood memories, whence they sprang, their ancestry and the land of their birth. The heavier historical and political stuff is for later. As they wax sentimental and attempt at the literary when describing their growing-up years, my imagination goes cinematic.

Take South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela’s “A Long Walk to Freedom.” More than his years in prison and his struggle to end apartheid in his country, it is his growing up as a herd boy in Qunu that is colorfully etched in my mind, like how he drank milk straight from the udder of a cow and frolicked in the fields. Here, he was at his best as a storyteller. And as one proceeds to the historical stuff, one begins to understand the character and the beauty of the struggle.

Almonte’s childhood is one for the movies—the rustic village in Albay, the rice paddies, his dying mother—but so are his suspenseful adult forays into dangerous zones as a soldier and intelligence expert. Used to secrecy and covert operations, Almonte had to be repeatedly prodded—by Japanese academic Yutaka Katayama who would write the book’s introduction—to put between covers, if not his entire life, at least his involvement in this country’s becoming. What he knew, saw, heard, felt and experienced, and most important, what he did.

Used to the shadows, Almonte’s repeated response to the prodding to write was: “I am just a soldier. It is not my style.” A 1956 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, he is going on 84, but even as the sun begins its descent and the shadows lengthen, his mind remains sharp and undiminished. His older colleagues in the military-defense profession had come out with their version of history, some even with revisionist slants in it, so why not Almonte’s version?

Now the book is here, and we are the richer for it. (It is not yet in the bookstores. Those interested can contact or 09175539569.) “Endless Journey” is a memoir, not an autobiography that covers an entire life.

Almonte’s book is a collection of what he remembers about selected important moments and events, both private and public, which happened in his life. His recollections are not only footnotes to history, they also provide context, analyses, meaning and lessons. As he says in the book, “Building our nation is a continuing struggle, a collective work in progress. It is an endless journey, like a relay, without end. All we can do is pass on the baton—forged in the core values our heroes died for: dignity, honor, freedom, justice, self-determination, peace—to the next runner, to the next generation.”

The book’s blurb describes him thus: “Seen by many to be the gray eminence, Jose T. Almonte—audacious, uncommon, otherwise known as ‘JoAl’ or ‘the General’—recounts in his own words, the steps that brought him to the corridors of power, and the steps and his principals took to address the age-old inequities in Philippine society and to level the playing field in business and politics.

“The book contains many stunning revelations, but none more absorbing than the heart and mind of Almonte himself—as soldier, as commando, as warrior, as citizen, as reformer as thinker, and as crafter of national policy in some of contemporary Philippines’ most critical years.”

Almonte had personally served several presidents: Diosdado Macapagal, Ferdinand Marcos and Fidel Ramos (as national security adviser from 1992-1998). Although he walked the corridors of power, this had a downside to it. “During the Macapagal years, officers made a beeline towards me, like I was a VIP. Under President Marcos, they ran away from me… I had always thought that, as professional soldiers, we did not assume the political beliefs of the president we worked for, nor were we under his personal mantle.” To his surprise, he was not perceived that way.

Among the suspenseful portions in the book are Almonte’s experiences in the Vietnam War (crossing over to Vietcong territory and engaging them in dialogue) and Operation Big Bird that was hatched during the Cory Aquino presidency and which was about tracking down the Marcos hidden and stolen wealth stashed away in Swiss banks. If you relish some juicy stuff, you can read about Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas, for whom Almonte acted as “Baby-sitter.” Also about PR practitioner Bubby Dacer who was murdered along with his driver. There is so much more than can be shared here.

Almonte’s post-Ramos reminiscences (Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo presidencies) and the epilogue that touches on the Noynoy Aquino presidency propel into the future, like images in a crystal ball.

As the writer Vitug reminds: “Memoirs can raise awareness on issues that affect our lives. They can cover history and [help us] look forward.” #