The spirit of citizenship

Former Finance Secretary Edgardo Espiritu did not have to testify at the impeachment trial.  He is not a principal witness in any of the Articles of Impeachment.  But with courage and determination, he did. He came out to say what he knew about the president.  It was, he said, a matter of conscience, of love of country, and of concern for the next generation.  I believe him.

His testimony carries great weight because as the most important member in the original Estrada Cabinet, he was in effect telling the nation what kind of person Joseph Estrada has become since he assumed the presidency.  The man he helped become president acted like a little boy counting his marble winnings, seeing everything in narrowly personal terms, and was completely unmindful of his responsibilities.

It was clear that Espiritu knew so much more than he was prepared to say.  Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. needled him about the seeming inconsistency of his courage when he hesitated to give out the names of suspected smugglers who, Espiritu said in an aside, were always with the president.  Senator Raul Roco pressed the issue by asking him to explain why he appeared to be afraid of smugglers but not of the president.  Senator Ramon Revilla, hero of countless macho movies, sensing that Caviteno manhood, if not the honor of their clan, was being put in doubt, stood up and commanded Espiritu, his nephew, to speak up.

When finally the witness spoke, every sound seemed like it was being wrung from a conflicted soul. He said he would name the smugglers he had seen in the company of the president if the court thought this was important.  But before he could say another word, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago intervened.  In a moment of redemptive splendor, she told the court that it was unfair to compel the witness, already under severe stress, to respond to a question whose answer could endanger his life.  This touch of kindness was a light in a chamber that had been darkened by relentless combat.  But it was all the more extraordinary because it came from someone who, just days before, imperiously asked the court to expel from the gallery three spectators she had unfairly accused of disorderly conduct.

Espiritu’s problem was not fear as it was the pain of having to testify against a friend whom he trusted implicitly and actually helped to become president.  Indeed they had a falling out.  But it was one thing to sever relations with the president, and another to turn against him.  The president had not threatened him.  He did not have a political career to promote.  He could enjoy retirement from public life, away from the problems that seem to permanently afflict this hapless country.

He feared for his family.  According to him, not a few friends and relatives had counseled him to stay away from a brawl that the president was sure to win anyway.  The president himself called him in December to subtly remind him of their friendship.   An inferior person would choose the path of least resistance and keep his silence.  But Espiritu shirked prudence and personal ties to follow his conscience.  That, to me, is citizenship.

It is what we have seen throughout the impeachment trial – a nation that is finding its voice through courageous witnesses so that it can speak the unspeakable.  Defenders of President Estrada say that the prosecution has treated the impeachment complaint as if it were a work in progress.  They are right, but how can it not be?  At the time it was filed, the case against Estrada had no chance of even getting past the House of Representatives.  Part of the evidence was in the form of newspaper clippings.  No one knew if there were citizens out there who would testify.  But solid evidence and intrepid witnesses have dropped from heaven.  And today we are on the verge of convicting the president.

A nation must call upon the spirit of citizenship in order to impeach a powerful president who had violated his oath of office.  Citizenship however is not a finished product; it is a work in progress.  It evolves each day from our own personal struggles and defining moments.

Former Speaker Manuel Villar had his epiphany when, staking his own position as Speaker, he cast his lot with the tiny impeachment bloc in the House.  Senate President Franklin Drilon knew he would be in trouble the day he decided to show up at a rally calling for the president’s resignation, and indeed he lost his job.  Rep. Joker Arroyo underwent what must be a wrenching transformation from being a senatorial bet in the administration party, chosen no less by the president, to become the prosecution’s most articulate leader. Emma Lim, Rufo Colayco, and Clarissa Ocampo are shining examples of the rebirth of citizenship in a time of demoralization.  So is Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson, the presidential buddy who opened up a can of worms. They are human too; they are not unafraid, and they are torn by divided loyalties.  But something great moves them. There are many more like them — Filipinos who decide at one point that life is nothing if it is not lived for an ideal.

Ed Espiritu is the synthesis of all these reborn Filipinos who have found their way through the dense system of corruption, patronage, and political power to answer the call to citizenship.  To them we owe the nation we are still trying to achieve.   They give courage and hope to young people like Ma. Jazmin Banal, who gave up a high-paying job as a junior lawyer assigned to set up dummy corporations for a corrupt president in order to remain true to the noble goals of her profession.

Espiritu is right: it is for the sake of the next generation that we must speak up.


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