“The People’s Interests Come First”


I WAS BORN to Antonio Zumel and Basilisa (Bessie) de Leon in Laoag City, Ilocos Norte on Aug. 10, 1932. My father was a lawyer while my mother used to be a schoolteacher. I am the second of their six children — three boys and three girls. My father had a relatively good law practice and could afford to send us to a private school, the Holy Ghost Academy in Laoag.

My father, having come from a family of modest means, had to work his way through law school in Manila.

Early in our lives, our parents taught us the virtues of honesty and integrity. They were also against extravagance of any kind. “Don’t allow other people to oppress you, but don’t oppress other people either,” was a solemn exhortation we often heard at home. Beneath my father’s stern countenance was a kind heart. Traveling along a barrio road in his car on his way to town, he would pack up old peasants hiking to the market with their heavy load of vegetables and fowl.

Both my parents were disciplinarians, true believers in the maxim that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. When we were kids, I used to be administered the belt whenever my younger brother Yob (Jose Maria Carlos) and I played hookey from our violin lessons for some length of time. (My eldest sister Nena [Maria Luisa] studied the piano). Sa ilog kami naglalagi ng utol kong si Yob at mga kabarkada namin. Siyanga pala, si Yob ay naging “Jim” nang pumasok siya sa PMA. Ngayo’y isang heneral siya sa AFP.

Days of hardship

The family’s livelihood plummeted when my father died in 1945. Talagang bumagsak. My widowed mother had a trying and desperate time raising the six of us. She had to sell the few pieces of jewelry she had, and soon was disposing of the few pieces of land my father had bought out of his earnings as a lawyer.

My sister Nena who had studied at Sta. Scholastica’s College now had to go to work as a clerk to support her studies. Another sister, Charito (Rosario Angeles), was just a little girl when she went to stay with a childless aunt and uncle in Baguio City. They cherished her as their own.

In 1947, when I was not quite 15, I went to stay with a spinster aunt who ran a boarding house in Manila. I was her pet. I matriculated at the Far Eastern University high school. Later, my mother’s load was lightened when Yob passed the PMA entrance examination.

Despite the adversities — or probably because of them — my brother and two sisters studied hard. Yob graduated first captain or “baron” of PMA Class ’59. Both my sisters graduated magna cum laude, Nena at the University of Sto. Tomas in Manila and Charito at the St. Louis University in Baguio. I cannot say the same of myself, my youngest brother Danding (Eduardo) and our bunso Bobbie (Ma. Consuelo); we were average. Danding, known as Eddie among his friends in Manila, did manage to become a CPA, while Bobbie and I just settled for the “university of hard knocks.”

Life continued to be difficult for me in Manila. Rarely did I have baon going to school, and I absolutely rejoiced whenever a favorite uncle of mine called at the house now and then and slipped P5 or P10 into my pocket. This uncle of mine was patron, or pilot, of the water taxi — a launch shuttling from shore to ship and from ship to shore — near the Manila Hotel.

I soon had the satisfaction of earning money of my own as a “semi-proletariat,” as we say it in the movement. At one time, I worked as a casual laborer at a dump for war surplus equipment near UP in Diliman. At another time, my uncle took me in as his assistant in his water taxi. Mahirap din ang buhay sa pier. I would work all of 24 hours in one day, take a break the following day, then work 24 hours again. Magulo sa pier. Madalas ang away sa pagitan ng mga lasing na marino. Kung minsan ang kaaway nila ay mga taga-Philippine Navy na tumatambay doon. Nagtatago ako sa lantsa kapag nagliliparan ang mga bote.

Joining a newspaper

My aunt’s boarding house was not doing well by 1949. I was about to stop schooling and return to the province when I got a lucky break. As it turned out, my uncle Salvador Pena was the personnel manager of the Philippines Herald which was about to resume publication (it had been closed by the Japanese occupation forces for the duration of World War II). The paper was owned by Don Vicente Madrigal, a senator.

My uncle had me called and said he had a job for me. Halos mapalundag ako sa tuwa. There was an opening for a copyboy, or “printer’s devil,” (gofer) in the newsroom. Not quite 17, I hurried to the City Hall, lied about my age and got a cedula. I worked in the day and went to school in the evening, at the Lyceum of the Philippines which was within spitting distance from the office.

I considered myself a lucky boy indeed, and went about my work with unbounded enthusiasm. I was working — and learning — under such crackerjack editors, copyreaders and reporters as Joe Lansang, Osi Abad Santos, Caring Nuguid, “Tec” Tecechian, “Judge” Felix Gonzalez, Charlie Nivera, Nitoy Quesada, Doroy Valencia, Mac Vicencio, Teddy Benigno, Larry Vibal, Henry Quema, Chitang Nakpil, Consuelo Grau Abaya, Naning Querol, and many others. Our publisher was Modesto Farolan, respected newsman even in prewar days.

I learned a lot about newspapering right at the newsroom, and from avidly reading a couple of books on journalism that I bought. Most supportive of me were Caring Nuguid and “Tec” who regaled me with stories about former copyboys who had gone on to become good journalists.

Soon after the Herald resumed publication, the workers and employees organized a union with Teddy Benigno as president. I signed up immediately when my Manong Teddy asked me to join in. I was careful though, not let my uncle, the personnel manager, know about it, since he was with management. And I was living with him and his family at this point. At one time, we were about to go on strike, and my uncle would have found out since I was determined to join the picket line, but the dispute (Mac Vicencio had thrown a punch at Charlie Nivera) was settled amicably.

I was promoted to proofreader after serving two years as copyboy. We did our work in the Mechanical (Composing) Department, and I soon developed a close affinity with the workers there — linotypists, bankmen, makeup men, mechanics, pressmen, etc. I quit schooling at this point and concentrated on my work. My simple logic was that one went to school to be able to get a good job later, and I felt I already had a good job, no matter that I was not going to be a lawyer like my father, as my mother had prayed I would become.

I became a reporter two years later. Among my first assignments were the police and DND-AFP beats. I also covered City Hall where the colorful graft-busting Arsenio H. Lacson held sway as mayor. It was a most lively beat then. I was later to cover the courts and politics, which included Malacañang, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the two major political parties.

There was so much temptation covering the political beats. Although I tried to keep my nose clean as my parents had preached, I was not totally free of the corruption that were (and still are, so I hear) a fact of life in these beats. Even so, I tried to be as impartial as I could in all my stories, and gained some reputation as an uncompromising reporter (“mahirap pakiusapan”). I worked according to a simple rule of thumb: to be close enough to the sources of news to be able to get the news, but to keep some distance so that proximity or even affinity to them would not color my stories.

My political standpoint then, like most of my colleagues in the press, was bourgeois liberal. Pumuputok ang butsi mo sa mga depekto at injustices sa lipunan, pero sinisimangutan mo naman ang radikal na pagbabago. I regret today that I wrote many a story prodding City Hall to go after the sidewalk vendors and squatters. Somehow it did not occur to me at that time that the social problems went far deeper than what they seemed then, that people were driven to vend on the sidewalks and squat on others’ properties because of poverty inherent in the prevailing decadent system.

But politically naive as I was, I soon felt stirrings of nationalism as I kept track of the nationalist preachings of Claro M. Recto, my own editor Joe Lansang, and Ka Amado V. Hernandez. I looked up to such writers as Tato Constantino, Ernie Granada and Yeyeng Soliongco. I voted for Recto for president the very first time I was qualified to vote. Alam kong matatalo siya, pero ibinoto ko pa rin.

In 1950, at the height of the old revolutionary movement and also of fascism under Quirino, I saw Lansang and some of the Herald staffers arrested (“invited”, was also the euphemism then) as “subversives” by the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). Perhaps, such reporters as Teddy Benigno, Mac Vicencio, Ralph Tagle, Ben Peñaranda and Ben Potenciano were friends of the revolutionary movement. I don’t know for sure, but they were hauled in. As I recall it, Jose Lansang and Kuya Mac were tortured at the Panopio compound near Camp Crame.

By the advent of the 1960s, our union headed by Teddy Benigno had died a natural death, from neglect. Teddy had moved out of the paper, and those left behind didn’t have as much interest in it as he had. There was an objective need to unionize, however, since we — reporters, workers, clerks and secretaries — were badly paid.

Our union efforts

With a small core of close friends in the Herald and the other Madrigal publications — Mabuhay and El Debate — I started talking union again. We secretly went on a membership campaign, calling on fellow employees and workers at their respective homes to solicit their signatures. Management somehow got wind of our project. It was a paternalistic setup we had at the office, and Osi Abad Santos, brother-in-law of two Madrigal brothers, called us to a meeting. Our newspapers were losing a lot of money, he said, and would be forced to close down if we made undue demands. Perhaps because of our naivete or stupidity, or both, we allowed ourselves to be talked into foregoing a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in exchange for small salary increases that were wiped out soon enough by inflation.

Things changed in 1962 when the Madrigals sold their newspapers to the Sorianos of San Miguel Corporation. Paternalism went out the window and we were now dealing with some of the most businesslike and ruthless big capitalist hereabouts. Still, we energetically resumed our union activities. We registered with Cipriano Cid’s PAFLU. Charlie de la Rosa of El Debate was president and I was vice-president.

The Sorianos, who had refined their techniques at dealing with workers, immediately proceeded to bust our union. Through their hirelings in the Herald Management, they set up a company union and affiliated it with the federation of the labor aristocrat Roberto Oca. There was bad blood between us and the company unionists. There were shouting matches and near-fisticuffs, mostly provoked by us because we were the aggrieved party. The company ceded the blue-collar workers to us, but insisted on a certification of election for the white-collar employees. We gave the company union a sound thrashing at the election.

In the ensuing period, we were to be exposed to more of the capitalists’ tricks. They moved to exclude the section editors, copyreaders and other minor supervisors in other departments from the bargaining unit, even if these were “supervising” only one or two subordinates. We resisted most vigorously, but we just as well have been tilting with a windmill. The pro-capitalist Court of Industrial Relations ruled in the company’s favor. We were soon to see the full impact of the capitalists’ maneuvers.

Deadlocked in our negotiations for a CBA, especially as they pertained to salary increases, we went on strike in September 1962. It seemed a hopeless case from the start since the office could — and did — muster a sufficient enough personnel complement from among the editorial people excluded from the bargaining unit, and scabs from among the company unionists.

Trouble erupted at the picket line right on the first evening when, with the protection of the Manila police, the company used its vans to transport scabs into the company premises and, later, to bring out the bundled newspapers. Our union secretary, Nilo Mulles (now a copy editor of the Inquirer), tried to argue for a fellow striker who was being arrested for allegedly having slammed a dos por dos at a company van. Nilo, too, got arrested, “for interfering with police work.” We were to learn later that aside from eating at the company cafeteria at company expense, the policemen on detail at our picket line also received cash envelops daily from the company.

There were more proof that we were dealing with big capitalists who had developed union-busting into some kind of an art. In addition to the regular company guards, they also hired armed goons from Bulacan and criminal elements from the urban poor community in Intramuros to create trouble at the picket line. In an explosion of anger at the picket line one evening, I challenged Captain Abad of the Soriano security force to a gunfight. It’s a good thing Abad refused the challenge, since all I had was an unlicensed and defective .22-caliber Bernardelli-Gardone pistol while Abad and his cohorts packed .38-caliber revolvers.

On another evening, a company-hired hoodlum from Intramuros, plied with liquor by the company, was again creating trouble at the picket line. The PAFLU “picket commander” shot him right smack in the chest with a .22-caliber paltik. The sonovabitch survived with a superficial wound. The “picket commander” had asked us for money to buy a .45-caliber automatic but we hardly had resources to feed the strikers at that point. Sinisi niya ako. “Kung kwarenta’y singko ang ginamit natin, hindi na sana nakabangon pa ang putang-inang iyon,” he said. In their frustration and anger, some of our comrades at the picket line actually broached the idea of killing company officials, including Andres Soriano Jr., or ambushing a delivery panel somewhere. We disapproved.

The strike lasted three months. Everybody was full of enthusiasm in the early days even if we could not paralyze company operations. Help in the form of rice, canned goods and money poured in from fellow unionists in other PAFLU unions, especially in SMC, and even from friends in public office. San Miguel workers also helped man our picket line and scare the wits out of the scabs. But as the days wore on, the aid dwindled. Kokonti na ang pagkain sa picket line, kapos sa sigarilyo. Kung minsa’y pasa-pasa sa iisang sigarilyo.

Some of our fellow strikers who had stuck it out at the picket line for over two months started surreptitiously returning to work. Gutom na ang pamilya. They, too, became the object of scorn from those holding out at the picket line. Unti-unti nang nawasak ang unyon. As Christmas approached, a proposal was made to take a vote on whether to return to work as a union or stick it out at the picket line and run the risk of having our union hopelessly fragmented. I agonized over the choice, but eventually voted against. The majority chose to return to work. Dejected, we did return to work, but our union had lost the bite it once had. From that time on, I could not pass a strike area without contributing to the strike fund and giving the strikers a few words of encouragement. Also, I developed a special hatred for big capitalists as a class, but I didn’t know much about scientific socialism.

One other effect the experience had on me was that I lost much of the enthusiasm I previously had working for the Herald.

Two and a half years later, I accepted an invitation from a journalist I held in the highest esteem, Bulletin editor-in-chief Ben Rodriguez, to join his staff. I later became vice-president of the Bulletin union. Also, after covering a variety of beats, I was promoted news editor, but there was some complication. Ben said being news editor made me a management man. If that were the case, I told Ben, I was declining the promotion. He made me assume the position, sidestepping for the moment the issue of whether I was union man or a management man. I remained with the union.

That was how matters stood when, on the night of Sept. 22, 1972, I got a call from our DND-AFP reporter, Joe de Vera. Enrile had been ambushed, he said. Luckily, Enrile was unscathed although his car was riddled with bullets. I told Joe the whole thing sounded like a lot of bullshit, and to get more details.

Beyond midnight that night, I was quaffing beer with friends at the National Press Club bar when soldiers swooped down on mass media offices, including the Bulletin, and padlocked all of them. I went underground that same night.

My one big regret is that martial law overtook our plan to set up a federation of mass media unions. Our preparations were complete for the organizational meeting scheduled at the NPC’s Bulwagang Plaridel the following Sunday, September 26. But Marcos beat us to a draw, in manner of speaking. Sayang!

My NPC days

I and my barkada in the Herald and in the other papers were habitues of the NPC from the very day the clubhouse was inaugurated in 1955. We were fixtures at the bar or restaurant. Mga batang klub talaga. We naturally got interested — and were actively involved — in press club politics. At first, I was just content supporting candidates. But I was soon running for a seat in the board of directors myself. I’ve lost track of the number of times I served in the board — perhaps as many as 12 or 13. I should have run for the presidency earlier, but I kept deferring to friends and seniors in the profession who were interested in the position.

I remember an occasion when, as chairman of the NPC House Committee, I was approached by Dr. Roberto Clavecilla, president of the RCPI Communications which was renting space at the NPC’s ground floor. There was a strike at the RCPI at that time, and Clavecilla wanted me to drive out the strikers from the NPC grounds and unto the sidewall. I glared at Clavecilla and said no, the strikers had our permission to stay within our premises. I went down to the picket line later that day and gave the strikers a pep talk. On another occasion, I stopped food deliveries to scabs at the RCA Communications, another tenant of ours. My affinity for the working class was undergoing consolidation.

After so many stints in the NPC board, I finally ran for the presidency in 1969 and won. It was soon afterwards that I had my first contact with people in the national democratic movement. How this came about is a story in itself.

One day, my attention was caught by a news item saying the entire staff of an obscure newspaper in Dumaguete City — the Dumaguete Times — had been arrested by the military and local police and was being held incommunicado. We tried to make contact with the imprisoned newsmen, but were refused by the authorities. We — the NPC, the various beat clubs in Manila and the provincial press clubs — raised a ruckus. I rang up an old friend, Doy Laurel, then chairman of the Senate Committee on Justice, and together we enplaned for Dumaguete City and later, Bacolod City. We traveled overland to Cadiz City in northern Negros Occidental where we finally met the young staffers of the Dumaguete Times — Hermie Garcia, his wife Mila Astorga, Noel Etabag, Vic Clemente and Philidore Quinco. They were being held by Armando Gustilo’s terrorist blackshirts. Gustilo was the reigning warlord in northern Negros even then.

Mila, who was only 20 years old and not long married, said Gustilo had wanted her to admit being a “subversive.” He had threatened to let loose his blackshirts and do as they pleased with her unless she confessed. Hayop talaga. Offers of legal assistance came from various sources, notably the lawyer-members of the Negros Press Club. We later launched a fund-raising campaign to bail out the imprisoned journalists who turned out to have been members of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). It did not matter much to me whether they were journalists of the committed or “objective” type. What mattered was that they were fellow journalists in trouble who urgently needed the help of their colleagues.

After their release, Hermie, Mila and Vic furnished me printed political materials from time to time. We also sat down now and then for short political discussions. I thus had my first exposure to national democratic thought.

Our people were witnesses to — and participants in — the explosion of popular political energy in the first three months of the following year which has come to be known as the First Quarter Storm of 1970. The surging mass movement was committed to extirpate the roots of our country’s problems — imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism — and attain genuine national independence, democracy and progress.

More and more, I attended national mobilizations by the national democratic organizations and alliances. We made the NPC accessible to the mass leaders who had something to say to the press.

I ran for reelection in 1970. Our political opponents tried to make an issue out of my political commitment. I decided to meet the issue squarely. In the club’s annual convention that preceded the election, I and other progressive journalists introduced a resolution aligning the NPC with our people’s movement for fundamental change in our society. The resolution was adopted without any serious opposition. We won a second term in office.

Very soon, I was in more serious and systematic political discussions with colleagues whose political awakening had preceded mine — Satur Ocampo of the Manila Times and Bobbie Malay of Taliba and Manila Times, and Heny Romero of Taliba. I was soon getting invited to speak before political gatherings. I often obliged even if I could not get over my stage fright, and my political education had not been as extensive as might have been desired.

A subject of discussion and debate at that time with some of our conservative colleagues, among them columnists, was the political involvement of journalists and the NPC. The NPC was a purely social club, they said, and should stay that way. And reporters are supposed to be “objective,” they added, and how could they be so if they were “committed”?

Our reply was that the NPC was not just a clubhouse, a bar and a restaurant. It was people, and not just people but Filipino people who should care for their country and people. Just because a Filipino happened to be a journalist did not mean he should abdicate his responsibilities as a Filipino. As for being “objective,” nobody was completely that since one’s standpoint and viewpoint were molded by one’s social class, upbringing and environment. If the self-righteous columnists could be so free in voicing their opinions on any subject, the reporter could not be less free in voicing his opinions and taking a stand on matters directly touching the lives of our country and people.

Before the end of our second term, we figured in another controversial case, that of Quintin and Rizal Yuyitung, publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively, of the Chinese Commercial News, or plain “CCN” as it was nicknamed. Sons of the CCN’s founder who chose death rather than collaborate with the Japanese fascists, Quintin and Rizal refused to toe the line of the Chinese Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) in Manila.

As a result, they were framed by the Kuomintang, with the connivance of the Marcos regime which was a recipient of Kuomintang largesse. In the distorted logic of the Kuomintang and Marcos, the fiercely independent Yuyitung brothers were “subversive” because they printed stories not derogatory to the People’s Republic of China.

In solidarity with them, I often attended hearings at the Commission on Immigration at which their lawyers, Joker Arroyo and Johnny Quijano, ably-argued their case. Before the conclusion of the case, however, the Yuyitungs were kidnapped by the regime and flown to Taiwan where they were virtually fed to the lions. They were tried in a kangaroo court and were convicted. Rizal was sentenced to three years in prison, Quintin to two.

We raised a cry of outrage that reverberated worldwide, but to no avail. We were in Taiwan for the trial — me, Chino Roces of the Philippine Press Institute, Max Soliven of the Manila Overseas Press Club and Anding Roces of the Philippine-Chinese Friendship Society. Anding was so disgusted he junked the PCFS. He later helped found and headed the Association for Philippines-China Understanding, with links to the People’s Republic of China.

I continued to be the object of criticism by some of our conservative colleagues, but my commitment merely grew firmer. And the NPC remained open as a forum for the national democratic movement as well as other progressive forces.

On the following year, 1971, we supported for the presidency an outstanding colleague of proven progressive sentiments, Amando Doronila of the Daily Mirror (later of the Manila Chronicle). He won hands down. His own political convictions were to be further sharpened in August of that year when, after the infamous Plaza Miranda bombing, Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus and ordered a roundup of progressives and other opponents and critics of his regime.

Amando and other colleagues in the NPC took an active part in the formation of the broad-front Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties (MCCCL), which was based more or less at the NPC. Our national chairman was staunch nationalist Senator Jose W. Diokno. More and more of our colleagues, as well as other mass media workers and employees, joined marches and other mass actions under MCCCL auspices. Amando served a very eventful term, but begged off from a second term.

Our candidate for the presidency the following year, 1972, was another progressive colleague, the veteran political writer Eddie Monteclaro of the Manila Times.

Eddie won and, like Amando, was in the thick of the MCCCL’ s struggles.

Amando was among those imprisoned by the Marcos regime in the first days of martial law, while Eddie was placed on city arrest. As already mentioned, I went underground on the night of martial law (Satur Ocampo and Bobbie Malay had gone underground earlier).

Before then, Satur and I had joined a small collective which was the original Preparatory Committee for the National Democratic Front (NDF). We had a few sessions, mostly exploratory, and it was not until we were underground that we and other comrades could work in earnest on our tasks. I’m happy to say that I was part of the first collective that put out Liberation, the NDF’s official publication, in October 1972, thus helping break the Marcos dictatorship’s mass media monopoly.

In the first days of martial law, Satur, Bobbie and I shared in the agony and anger of colleagues in the Philippine press whose freedoms had been so blatantly and ruthlessly violated. We cheered them on, from where we were, in all their efforts to regain those freedoms.

Since going underground in 1972, in our guerrilla zones and in the urban underground movement, I have been making my own humble contributions to our people’s overall revolutionary struggles for national liberation and social emancipation.

Some footnotes before we conclude this long interview:

I have three children. I have been divorced from my previous wife due to lack of political and personal compatibility, in large part because of my own faults and shortcomings. I have since remarried, and my wife is a comrade in the national democratic revolutionary movement.

During the Marcos years — before and during martial law — some colleagues suggested in their writings that I was proving to be an “embarrassment” to the Marcoses due to my activities in the anti-dictatorship struggle. I did have kith and kin — near and distant — in the Marcos regime. These included my brother Yob, Marcos himself, Gen. Fabian Ver (my father was from Sarrat), and Maj. Gen. Ignacio Paz. In addition, there were numerous boyhood friends and contemporaries in Laoag who held high office in the civilian government. I have never denied them, and I don’t intend to. The point I wish to make is that our people’s interests come above all else; the personal or political embarrassment of individuals is of little consequence.

Friends and even comrades have sometimes asked me how come my political development took a path completely different from that of my brother, the general. Before martial law, our colleague and friend Tibo Mijares even joked that we Zumels were seguristas, that we were placing our bets on all sides. The simple truth is that my brother and I were separated early (I was not quite 15, and he was only 12), and our training and environment differed. While I could only shake my head in sadness over his service to the regime, I’m happy to learn that while a great many officials in the regime were plundering our people’s wealth, he generally kept his nose clean and leads a simple life — in keeping with our parents’ preachings from childhood. If I could make a wish, I would wish that my brother liberate his mind from the narrow training he got at the PMA and elsewhere in the AFP, and cast his lot with our people instead of continuing to serve in an institution that oppresses them. That fond wish would go not only for my brother Yob, but for his fellow officers and the entire rank-and-file of the AFP.

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