Column: Political accommodation: a lesson from 1890

Published on March 11, 2014.

The more things change, the more they remain the same—especially in politics. I was reminded of this constant truth all over again when I reread an unusual letter Marcelo del Pilar wrote Jose Rizal in 1890. The letter is out of the ordinary not because it is written entirely in Tagalog (as I have noted before, Del Pilar, Rizal and Mariano Ponce, the real third pillar of the Propaganda Movement, exchanged about 50 letters in Tagalog, the subject of an on-again, off-again book I am writing), but because it details an attempt by the friars in Manila to enter into a political accommodation with the propagandists.

The proposal makes unsurprising reading (it is a strategy of cooptation), but the process the friars used to reach out to Del Pilar is not unfamiliar either. They got a high government official in Madrid to talk to a mutual friend, who agreed to relay the message to the Filipino leader with a pragmatic (that is to say, most political) reputation. At a time or in a situation where the distrust between the parties had reached a new depth in public, a conversation between friends, in private, seemed like the way to move forward.

On Feb. 12, in the midst of editing La Solidaridad in Madrid, Del Pilar wrote his “piling kaibigan” (chosen friend) a bemused account of the attempt. Del Pilar had that quality of the best letter writers, the sense of spontaneity which allows his readers to imagine the writer at the particular moment of writing. In this letter, after a few quick paragraphs on editorial matters, he suddenly remembers: “Ah, nalilimutan ko pala,” and then draws a sketch of a hurried meeting with Antonio Regidor. A member of what Rizal took to calling the Generation of ’72 (the radicals who suffered in the wake of the execution of Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora in 1872), Regidor was a lawyer who was exiled to the Marianas and who then eventually settled and made a life for himself in London. But in early 1890, he met Del Pilar in Madrid, and told him, with a wink (“sinabi na lamang sa aking may kindat pa”) that they had a lot to talk about (“marami, aniya, tayong pag-uusapan”).

They never did get the chance to talk again, but another mutual friend, the Spanish lawyer Pedro Govantes, told Del Pilar that a high government official had told him that the friars wanted to reach an agreement with the young Filipinos (“may isa aniyang mataas na tawo sa politica na ang sabi sa akin ay ibig daw makipagkasundo ng manga fraile sa manga binatang filipino”).

And later that same day, Del Pilar ran into Regidor’s brother Ricardo at the Café Suizo. Ricardo told Del Pilar he was a true representative of the Augustinian Salvador Font and the new Archbishop of Manila Bernardino Nozaleda (“sugong talaga ni Font at Nozaleda”), and outlined the friars’ proposal:

1. They will lead a campaign to establish a colonial council in the Philippines, which the colonial government will be compelled (Encarnacion Alzona’s preferred translation) to consult and (Del Pilar’s own addition) which will divest the governor-general of his power to exile anyone without a court decision.

2. They will set up a new party, open to the young Filipinos.

3. They will start a daily newspaper, which Rizal, Del Pilar et al. should write for.

4. In exchange, the only concession they want is for the young Filipinos not to oppose the proposed program.

* * *

Del Pilar’s four paragraphs detailing the proposal, in the original, make for interesting reading:

“Sila raw ay siyang mangungulong lalakad na magkaroon sa Filipinas ng Camara Colonial, na siya ang sasanguniing sapilitan ng gobierno sa ano mang kaotosang ibig ilagda; ang manga filipino ay makikain sa presupuesto, at ito’y dugtong ko na tatangapin daw ng fraile—maalisan ng kapangyarihan ang general na makapagdadala sa destierro ng walang hatol ang Tribunales de Justicia.

“Sila raw ay magtatayo ng isang partido, at pumasok daw tayo sa partidong iyan.

“Sila raw ay magtatayo rin naman ng isang periodico diario at tayo raw ay magsisulat sa periodicong ito.

“Ang hinihingi raw lamang nila ay huag natin silang bangain.”

* * *

We don’t know what Rizal’s response was; or at least I haven’t found anything from Rizal that could be understood as a reply to Del Pilar’s curious letter.

It’s possible Rizal did not in fact receive it; on Feb. 12, he was just newly settled in in Brussels (that same day, he wrote a letter to Ponce). It is conceivable that Del Pilar sent the letter to Rizal’s old address in London, and it was never forwarded.

It is also possible that Rizal did not see it deserving of a reply—unlike Del Pilar, he had already lost faith in the wisdom of fighting for political reforms in Spain, when the field of battle (“ang parang na paglalabanan,” as he memorably wrote in a later letter) was in the Philippines. Possible, but considering Rizal’s character, unlikely.

To be sure, Del Pilar’s reply to Ricardo Regidor was clever, politically astute. He told him the friars should publish their program under their own name. But my guess is this would have struck Rizal not as astute, but only as political.

By May 1890, Rizal was writing Del Pilar to say he was temporarily withdrawing from writing for La Solidaridad, to allow other Filipinos to come forward and become known. A panicked Del Pilar replied immediately, and perhaps sensing that the time was not yet ripe for a true break, Rizal wrote to mollify Del Pilar. But the rupture between the two fast friends was only a matter of time.

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