Hacienda Luisita

It is a testimony to the power of modern symbols that the name “Hacienda Luisita” today evokes only images of a busy shopping mall, a sprawling golf club, and a techno-business park.  Not too long ago, it referred distinctly to the largest sugar land estate in all of Central Luzon, owned by one of the region’s wealthiest clans – the Cojuangcos, and encompassing in its vastness eleven barrios in three towns in the province of Tarlac.  Despite its veneer of modernity, however, the 6453-hectare Hacienda Luisita is still a sugar plantation, one of the last relics of the pre-capitalist era.

How the hacienda survived successive land reform laws and remained intact as a land estate controlled by the same family across generations dramatizes the essentially static character of the Philippine class structure.  When Tarlac Congressman Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, a fifthgeneration Cojuangco scion, protested that the trouble at the hacienda recently was an industrial dispute and not an agrarian problem, he was technically correct.  The workers both at the sugar mill and at the farm were demanding higher wages, not land.  They were negotiating with a management team, not with a landlord.  They were constituted as a workers’ union, not as a peasant movement.

But the memory of social identities long established is not so easily erased by a change in nomenclature.  The Cojuangcos are still looked upon in Tarlac as landlords.  And that term carries both positive and negative associations.  Their old workers still look upon them as moral elders. As sources of benevolence, it is to them they turn for all their problems.  The younger people who have gone to school however see them merely as feudal survivors who stubbornly cling to their traditional possessions and privileges.  The democratic view is that instead of seeking refuge in a stock distribution scheme, they should have transferred their landholdings to their tenants and workers, and moved on to become real industrialists in the new era.

The agrarian question was clearly not the issue in this dispute, but now it has framed, both emotionally and ideologically, the conflict that led to the violent death of fourteen people last Tuesday.  The public does not distinguish between the workers at the sugar mill who were not striking, and the thousands of farmhands and sacadas at the plantation who had put up the barricade.  When the police and military troops appeared on the scene with an armored personnel carrier, the simple message instantly communicated by this picture was that of a government coming to the rescue of an obsolete ruling class.

The classic themes of the Huk rebellion and the Maoist revolution have suddenly come to life. The class wars of the ‘50s and the ‘60s have returned to the political consciousness to interrogate the democratic claims of the intervening years. The two Edsa people power events are suddenly stripped of their meanings. And that serene icon of the first Edsa, Cory Aquino, is dragged back to the front stage to answer for the massacre of the peasants at Hacienda Luisita.  The Maoists would have been stupid not to see the potency of these images.

But the fact that the armed underground movement is exploiting these events for its own purposes should not diminish the public outrage over this brutal and unconscionable display of state power. This is what we fought against at Edsa – the arrogant use of armed troops of the state to break up the protest action of defenseless civilians, and the privileging of the rights of property over the lives of people.

This is not a fight between the legacy of Edsa and the promise of a real revolution waiting to happen.  Because of its urban middle class composition, Edsa I may not have been forceful about agrarian rights. But it was unequivocal in its espousal of human rights and political democracy.  Its image may have been tarnished by the decision of President Cory Aquino’s family to retain ownership of the Hacienda Luisita through a stock option maneuver. But the general spirit of social reform that Edsa I embodies has made it possible for social movements and people’s organizations to insert the people’s agenda in the public consciousness.

There is widespread horror and indignation over the cruel dispersal of the strike at Hacienda Luisita because of this.  There is renewed interest today in the fate of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law also because of this.  It is as it should be.  We must build from the democratic gains of all past struggles and uprisings.  Only by defending and remaining faithful to the values for which they fought do we honor the memory of those who offered their lives to these struggles.

All the same, there is no justifiable reason to picket the former president’s home on Times Street or to lay the blame for the Hacienda Luisita workers’ death at her door. She has no hand in the running of the family corporation.  We become a stronger people, I think, when we choose to remember Cory as the brave widow who, after her husband’s murder, accepted a role thrust upon her by history and catalyzed the unity of a nation against tyranny. We ultimately do ourselves a great disservice if we paint her as the enemy.