As tributes after another consistently said, Ka Bel was of the working class and throughout his life remained steadfast to serving the workers, peasants, urban poor, the overseas workers and other marginalized sectors of the Philippine society. He was one of them: he had worked as a janitor, a gasoline boy, a messenger, a bus driver and a taxi driver, until he became a unionist, a labor organizer and leader. He was twice arrested and imprisoned: once in 1982 under the Marcos government until with the help of his wife he managed to free himself in 1984; then in early 2006 up to late 2007 under Arroyo’s state of emergency. He surfaced from the underground in 1987 to lead the Kilusang Mayo Uno or KMU after the brutal killing of KMU Chair Ka Rolando Olalia and since 1999 he chaired Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance). He served from 2001 on as one of the minority pro-poor legislators in the Philippine House of Representatives. He was also the founding chair of the International League of Peoples’ Struggles (ILPS), an anti-imperialist formation.
“Hindi lang siya sa kalsada, pabrika at kongreso nagpopropaganda, kahit sa loob ng bahay ay sinasamantala niya ang pagkakataong makapagpaliwanag sa kanyang mga anak, mga manugang at maging sa mga apo, kung ano ba ang mga ipinaglalaban niya. Kaya naman ang buong pamilya niya ay talaga namang full support sa kanya,” (He did not only expound on his principles in the streets, in factories and in Congress, even inside his home, he never missed any opportunity to explain to his children, in-laws and grandchildren what he had been fighting for that is why he had the full support of the whole family) explained a grandson of Ka Bel in a letter.
Close to the masses
A head of a labor committee from Taiwanese social movements, Hsin-hsing Chen, remembered when he personally met Ka Bel as chairman of KMU, “Even though we are not some big-shot honoured guest, Ka Bel took the time and came to where we stay to give us an introduction on the situation of the Philippine labor movement.”
Chen appreciated Ka Bel’s “sharp, succinct and always to the point answers to their questions,” even as he noted that like all Philippine activists they’ve met, “he told hilarious jokes that were difficult for me to translate, and one can quickly feel the warm friendliness glowing around him. The age gap dissolved in no time,” said Chen.
But what’s most unforgettable for Chen was when Ka Bel apologized that he had to leave because it was his turn that day to hand out leaflets to employees of a certain Shoemart store during a change of shift. “People of his position in our country don’t do this kind of rookie’s job,” said the surprised Taiwanese activist. It raised their confidence in the Philippine labor movement.
After he died, people affirmed Ka Bel in as many ways as they remember him. As Belgians active in Philippine solidarity said, Ka Bel was “the union leader who always made time for a chat with visitors, the congressman who lived the life of the people he wanted to serve, the politician who always defended the interest of the poor and the oppressed, the internationalist who was always curious to learn about social struggles in our country.”
“Kahit hirap ang aming buhay, napupuno naman ito ng pangaral sa amin ni ama, ‘na aming pamumuhay ay hindi dapat nahihiwalay sa kalagayan ng pangkaraniwang mamamayan. Dapat ay maisabay natin sila sa pagbabago ng ating lipunan,” (Even though we are poor, we have been enriched by our father’s words of wisdom, he would tell us that our way of living must be like that of the masses. He would always say that we should enjoin the masses in transforming the society.) Ofel Beltran-Balleta said on her last father’s day greetings to Ka Bel. She confessed her father’s message had been difficult to grasp at first, but as time went on she saw its correctness.
What happens now, then? “Tuloy ang laban!” (The struggle continues!) Ka Osang and her children exclaimed. As a Beltran grandson remarked, Ka Bel’s death is not something for the reactionaries to rejoice over, because it would only prod the people to press on with the struggle, to achieve freedom and equality that Ka Bel had also fought for. Everywhere, unionists and activists were in full agreement.
“The fact that the death of such a remarkable person can sadden so many people in his homeland and abroad stands as an accomplishment of Ka Bel’s individual dedication, gifts and skills,” said Barbara Waldern, representative of Canadian organizations to ILPS. But it can also be said that to produce such a leader signals an accomplishment of the Filipino peoples’ organized movements, she added. “It is a testament to the accumulating strength and capacity of those movements today. It is a sign of success and further victories to be had.” (Bulatlat.com)