An interview with the social activist Peter San Juan Gonzales by Dr. Rainer Werning (January 2020)
1. Can you please briefly introduce yourself and give us a background of your family.
I am known as “Tata Pido” (Father Pido) but my full name is Peter San Juan Gonzales. I was born on April 14, 1944 in Barrio Villa Padua, Gumaca, Quezon Province in Southern Luzon.
My father, Marcial Gonzales, a coconut farmer died of pneumonia when he was 22 years old. My mother, Senen San Juan raised me and my two half-brothers. As a young widow she worked in a small desiccated coconut factory. Later after she separated from her second husband, she took in laundry to wash for other people in the barrio. She washed clothes in the river and when clothes had to be ironed, she used an iron heated by burning charcoal. Later when my brothers and I were young adults, my mother worked as a housekeeper for a rich Chinese family in Manila. She was nearly 80 years old when she stopped working.
2. What were the most intriguing experiences during your childhood and youth that left a strong imprint on you?
My mother had a very big influence in my life. My mother believed that it is very important for each person to work. One must stand on his/her own feet and earn one’s livelihood by honest work.
Once she told me about her life as a factory worker. She said that her co-workers formed a union. She did not want to join because she did not want trouble with her employer. She just wanted a job so she could support herself and me. In the last years of her life, she would change her attitude about unions and workers’ struggles. Then my mother learned to appreciate the importance of revolutionary struggle. This made me happy.
When I was about 11 years old, I would work part-time in traditional small fishing boats. I would go with the fishermen during school summer vacations. Our house was in a coastal barrio so my job was to clean the boat when we were at sea, or when the boat was beached, I was paid to watch the boat – payment was in the form of a share in the fish caught. Because I was a child, I received only one-half of the pay/share of a regular fisherman. Instead of money, I received a few fish as my payment. I was happy to have work, because then I could help my mother.
3. After finishing school what did you do?
I completed elementary education (Grade 6) at the Gumaca Elementary School. I studied my First Year in High School in Cubao, Quezon City – this was through the help of my mother’s relatives. Then I stopped schooling. I wanted to work so I could help my mother. I went back to Gumaca, and took odd jobs – I sold bread to our neighbors very early in the morning; in the afternoons, I went around and sold ice popsicles. I also worked as a shoe-shine-boy in the market place, church plaza and the train station. When I was 15 years old, I went to Manila and worked in a restaurant – first as a dish washer and later as a waiter. After 4 and a half years, I went back to Gumaca and became a full-time fisherman.
I was 21 years old when I got married and by the time Marcos declared Martial Law, I already had (3) children. My family and I were really very hard-up during those times. Often there was not enough money to buy rice and the basic necessities. It was especially difficult when one of my children would get sick. There was no health/medical services available in our barrio and I had no money to buy medicines much less to pay doctors’ consultation fees. I would think –“Why is our life like this? I work hard every day and yet I can never earn enough? And yet I see in the town– the mayor, the politicians and the rich people have so much money.“ I felt very bad and was angry. But I could not explain, even to myself at whom or at what I was angry.
4. How were you politicised?
By 1970, I heard more and more news about the rallies and demonstrations happening in Manila. But since Manila is 200 kms from Gumaca, Quezon, news of political unrest happening there did not have much impact on me. More and more I heard from my friends, the terms – “Activists” and “Kabataang Makabayan”.
One day, my next-door neighbor who was a high-school student approached me and we started to talk. At first we talked about our daily life in the neighborhood. Then he asked about my work as a fisherman, my family, my children. I shared with him – the difficult times when our catch was very small and I could earn barely enough to buy rice. It was particularly hard when someone in my family would get sick. Then in times of bad weather e.g.–typhoons, when we cannot go to fish, I would have to borrow money from the fishing boat owner/operator. There would be months when I was always in debt.
My student-activist-neighbor explained to me – the situation of fishermen is almost the same as that of the farmers, and other low-income sectors of society. He said I will tell you the root cause of your problems. He said the root causes of hunger and poverty are Imperialism, Feudalism and Bureaucrat Capitalism. These words meant nothing to me. But what hit me was – “I will now learn the root cause of my very hard life.” I had so many questions to ask but my fellow-fishermen were calling me. We had to go to sea. So he told me – in your next free time, come to our Kabataang Makabayan (KM) headquarters. We will talk some more. I decided– in the next Full Moon, there would be one week when we will not be going out to sea (we usually spent the time mending our nets, making small repairs in the boat—the engine, the peeling paint etc.) then I would go to see my KM friend.
In the following months, I would go to the KM headquarters when I was free. Whenever we had a good catch, I would bring the Kabataang Makabayan friends some fish.
We would have discussions and they let me read their books. One of the first books I read was “Lipunan at Rebolusyong Pilipino“ (Philippine Society and Revolution) by Amado Guerrero and books by Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong. Slowly I began to understand—the history of the Filipino people; the reason why the Philippines is a rich country and yet the majority of the Filipinos are so poor. I began to understand the meaning of the words — Imperialism, Feudalism and Bureaucrat Capitalism, activists, and why Filipino revolutionaries like Andres Bonifacio, Gen. Antonio Luna, and Macario Sakay fought against Spanish colonialism and later American imperialism. During this time, my anger and desire to fight grew—because now at last I knew –who are our friends; who are our enemies. I realized it is not enough just to be angry. One must be organized; there is strength in numbers. One must study and one must learn the principles which are the guidelines for the struggle. To be a revolutionary, one must be willing to give time, one must be willing to work, one must be ready for hardships and sacrifices.
From then on, from 1971 to 1994, while I worked as a fisherman I also did organizing work among my co-workers in the Basnig – fishing boat. I also acquired many other skills. I became makinista –engineer of our basnig. I learned how to be an electrician, I acquired carpentry skills. I supported the revolutionary movement in our barrio.
In 1994, when I was 50 years old, I decided to work full-time in the fisherfolk organization PAMALAKAYA (National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines). At this time, I became known as “Tata Pido” since in our group, I was the oldest and the only one with grandchildren.
As a member of PAMALAKAYA I did organizing work in the fishing communities. I helped to explain the laws like the Fisheries Code of 1998 (or RA 8550) to the fishermen and why these laws were actually against their interest. I studied the different issues affecting the lives of not only the fisherfolk but the whole Filipino people. I learned how to be a public speaker, speaking during rallies and demonstrations. I think I am now a fairly good public speaker.
5. What in your personal view were the most annoying and most hilarious moments in life?
I am very angry about the exploitation and oppression of the Filipino people, especially the workers and the peasants; I am very angry at the successive US puppet regimes in the Philippines. I become especially angry whenever I read or hear the government-people say that our economy is improving; that the Filipinos are no longer hungry; that their lives are improving.
A funny episode in my life –When I was young, I often wondered how it felt to ride in an airplane. When I was still a fisherman I would look up and watch an airplane as it traveled above me.
In October 2000, when I was invited by the Deutsch-Philippinischen Freunde (DPF) to go to Germany, I traveled by plane for the very first time. I was alone. I was filled with excitement. I traveled by Malaysian Airlines. The plane left Manila 16.00 hours, and there was a stop-over in Kuala Lumpur. By 20.00 hours we were in the air, bound for Frankfurt, Germany. I kept looking at my watch, and when it was 6.30 hours (Philippine time) I began to worry because when I looked out the window, it was still very dark. I kept wondering – “what happened? When will it be morning?” Finally after a long time, the plane landed at Frankfurt airport and I learned it was 6.00 hours (German time). It was still not very light. It was so strange to me — the time difference. But there was no one to ask. Because immediately, I had another experience I will never forget.
The German immigration authorities asked me where I was going from the airport. I cannot understand and cannot speak English well. I could not understand the question very well. So I showed them my invitation letter from DPF, signed by Dagmar Eberhard. When the authorities asked who and where is Dagmar Eberhard, all I could tell about her is that she is a medical doctor and that she lives in Düsseldorf. Finally after about thirty minutes of questioning which got nowhere, the immigration authorities began announcing my name and Dagmar’s name over the public address system. Then Egon Winkler, a DPF member from Mülheim came to get me from the airport’s immigration office. Ed Sanque, a Filipino from Agusan del Norte, Mindanao, was with Egon. Oh, how relieved I was, and happy to see another Filipino.
6. You became a target of an assassination attempt. What were the concrete circumstances of this attempt? When and how did it happen?
I was the target of an assassination attempt on 12 May 2004.
This was the time of Gloria Arroyo regime. Since the end of 2001 the Arroyo regime had unleashed the torturer and murderer Philippine Army General Jovito Palparan to attack the members of the progressive peoples’ organizations. The attacks started in the provinces of Southern Tagalog region. In December 2001, the leader of the Dumagats and Remontados in Rizal was killed in broad daylight. Then in 2002, more Dumagats in the upland barrios of Rizal and Laguna were killed. Then members of Bayan Muna Party list, Gabriela Women’s organization, Kilusang Mayo Uno, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas in Laguna. In the latter half of 2002, Palparan was transferred to Mindoro island. Killings almost weekly, happened. In April 2003, Eddie Gumanoy, the chairperson of the regional Farmers’ organization Kasama-TK (Federation of Farmers’ Organizations in Southern Tagalog) and Eden Marcellana the head of the human rights organization Karapatan-ST were abducted by the Philippine Army soldiers in Mindoro and the next morning they were found dead. Killings in Mindoro were very frequent. In the first half of 2004, PAMALAKAYA provincial leaders became the targets. We received reports that Palparan was transferring his murderous rampage to Quezon.
I was then the provincial Quezon-chairperson of Pamalakaya and the ANAKPAWIS (Toiling Masses) Party list. The headquarters of the ANAKPAWIS Quezon chapter was in Gumaca. My wife, Medy and I moved to Gumaca in February 2004 together with five party-list members from different towns of Quezon to start the election campaign work. Presidential elections was set for 10 May 2004.
We were receiving reports from our Party-list members in the upland barrios that they were being harassed by the Philippine Army soldiers and paramilitary groups like the CAFGU (Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit). The ANAKPAWIS party list organization was being branded as New Peoples’ Army (NPA) and the members as NPA supporters. Their membership cards were confiscated by the soldiers. There were incidents when the Philippine Army soldiers stopped them at the checkpoints and took away their farm tools (for copra making) and even the cooked food they had prepared for several days’ work. In March 2004, I went to the Quezon Provincial Board Council to file complaints against the Philippine Army Infantry Battalion stationed in the 4th district of Quezon. The Provincial Board council held (3) hearings on our complaints. The farmers and ANAKPAWIS members from the barrios came to Lucena (provincial capital) to attend the hearings.
In the third and last hearing, the commanding officer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Southern Luzon Command (SOLCOM) Gen. Pedro Cabuay arrived with a group of farmers from Bondoc Peninsula. During the hearing, Gen Cabuay and the other officers openly called me a Communist and an NPA. Gen Cabuay asked me: “What can you say about the reports that you have been in the mountains, in the NPA gatherings?”
I replied: “The agenda in these hearings are not about me. The agenda is about the complaints of the farmers and the ANAKPAWIS members against the abuses of the Phil Army soldiers.” I think we should let the hearings proceed according to the set agenda”. The Provincial Councilors agreed with me; and refused to let General Cabuay derail the discussions. When the army officers persisted in bringing the discussion to my being a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP); the provincial councilors refused to back down. The Councilors took turns in explaining that the Anti-subversion law has been repealed in 1992. This is the law during the time of the Dictator Marcos which outlawed the CPP. When the farmers and the other rural folk heard the explanations, they clapped and cheered the councilors.
One week later, the AFP-SOLCOM in a nationwide radio broadcast again called me a communist and an NPA.
During the election campaign we received many reports of harassments of our party list municipal and barangay chapters. The other candidates also warned me that they had received reports that I would be attacked by the government security forces. On 10 May 2004, election day, we decided I should leave Gumaca immediately after casting my ballot. So Medy and I left for Manila. But two days later, 12 May, we had to go back to Gumaca to supervise the post election work –getting reports on the vote counting, the ANAKPAWIS staff had to go back to their own barrios, etc.
We arrived at our office in the afternoon. A while later, around 17.00 hours, I was standing by the little corner store and waiting for a tricycle, to go to town. I suddenly felt something hard hit my head. I fell into a small ditch. Then I opened my eyes and I could see two men shooting me. So I closed my eyes. After a while the shooting stopped. Then I heard my kasama (companion), Ka Rudy, shouting: “Tata Pido has been shot! Help! Help!” Then I felt Ka Rudy and a tricycle driver lifting me out of the ditch. They put me in a tricycle and brought me to the Gumaca district hospital. The hospital is about 500 meters from Camp Natividad police camp. There I was put on a metal trolley bed, in the lobby of the hospital. I could see many plainclothes police standing around. So I got very angry and said in a loud voice, ”You, policemen, you will not hear me begging for my life!” Then I saw my wife and my daughter had arrived. I told my daughter, “I don’t want to see anybody crying. These murderers will be happy if they see us crying.”
The initial diagnosis of the resident physician was: there is a bullet inside the patient’s head, possibly in his brain. Since there is no surgeon here and we do not have the needed equipment. It is best to get an ambulance and bring the patient to Manila at once. The district hospital had no X-Ray machine; also no ambulance. So the kasamas decided to bring me first to the other hospital to rent their ambulance. Then the doctor from the private hospital arrived with the ambulance. He talked to Medy and told her—“I don’t think the wound on the cheek is entry point of the bullet. There are no gunpowder burns around the wound. The patient is losing so much blood, if we bring him to Manila, he might die before we get there.” (Manila is nearly 200 kilometers from Gumaca).“ I want to bring him to the other hospital where there is an X-Ray machine, and I can operate on Tata Pido if necessary,” the doctor told Medy. Medy was asked to sign a waiver/agreeing to the doctor’s plan to operate.
The X-ray report showed that in spite of the nine gunshots I sustained, there were no shrapnel in my brain, or any vital organs. There was shrapnel lodged in the abdominal muscles under my ribs. The doctor decided to operate at once. After the operation I stayed in the hospital for five days and then the doctor said I may leave for Manila and be cared for by the doctors in the progressive medical organization .
After the attack Medy and I discussed what we should do when I recover from my wounds. We decided we should go back to our political work. To stop and in political lingo ”lie low” would mean we gave the fascist Arroyo regime what it wanted—to “silence me”.
By the end of 2004 I decided I was well enough to go back to political work. So Medy and I asked to be given work assignments once more.
7. Did you know who were behind this murder attempt? Were the culprits ever caught and held responsible for their crime?
I am positive that Gen. Pedro Cabuay, Gen. Alfonso Dagudag and the officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Southern Luzon Command in cooperation with Gen. Jovito Palparan were behind the murder attempt.
On 29 June 2004, I filed my formal complaint against them at the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) Monitoring Committee –Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law.
On 25 September 2006, together with many other victims of human rights violations, I filed my case before the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC).
As far as I know the Gumaca police have made no moves to even identify the two gunmen much less find and arrest them. After sixteen years. I know that justice will come when the Filipino people’s movement achieve national liberation and democracy.
8. I understand you and your wife Medy have been visiting political detainees regularly. How many political detainees are currently behind bars and what about their physical and mental condition?
Medy and I are now in our 70’s and so our political activities have limitations. Aside from going to political demonstrations and meetings, since 2012 we decided that visiting our political prisoner friends can be a regular activity for us.
All the political prisoners are charged with common crimes –murder, multiple murder, robbery in band, arson, illegal possession of firearms, illegal possession of explosives. As of this writing, there are more than 600 political prisoners in jails all over the country. Except for the political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa, Bicutan, Taguig City, they are mixed with common criminal prisoners in the prison cells.
Physical conditions in the jails are very bad. The jails in Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Metro Davao are very overcrowded. Sunning and physical exercise in the open are limited to one or two hours a week. Water supply is unsafe and limited. The food is very bad. Prisoners must buy their own personal hygiene needs—bath and laundry soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.
The corruption is very rampant in the Bureau of Corrections (in charge of prison facilities for convicted prisoners) and Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (in charge of jails for detainees still not convicted).
In the Maximum Security Compound in national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, in spite of the pronouncements of the Duterte government, the illegal drug trade continues—conducted by the drug lords confined there.
According to the authorities the Maximum Security Compound can accommodate 6,500 inmates, but now there are more than 19,000 inmates there. There are 45 political prisoners in the Maximum Security Compound, they are confined in a brigada attached to the church building of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.
In October 2019, the Bureau of Corrections chief Gerald Bantag, ordered that the make-shift shacks of the prisoners in the Maximum Security Compound be demolished. As of this writing, hundreds of prisoners have to stay in the open spaces, with pieces of tarpaulin, or plastic sheets for protection from the sun, rain and now ash fall from the Taal Volcano.
The political prisoners (PPs) have very high morale. Among themselves, they have regular study and discussion sessions – on the economic and political situation in the Philippines, developments in other countries. In many jails the political prisoners conduct literacy-numeracy lessons for the non-political prisoners.
In all the jails, the PPs are regarded with respect by the non-political prisoners, because they are disciplined and they are always ready to help. The non-political prisoners ask the help of the PPs in appealing their cases in court, e.g. writing letters, getting what are the necessary documents and knowing where to get them, etc.
9. Are you in one way or another still active in trade unions or political organizations?
Yes, I am still active in the Fisherfolk organization, Pamalakaya. I am Vice-Chairperson Emeritus. This means I am asked to speak in demonstrations or meetings whenever the other officials cannot attend. I am still active in the Southern Tagalog chapter of Anakpawis .
Even when I am not a speaker, I still attend demonstrations, political meetings whenever I can. Sometimes, student and youth groups invite me to speak in their schools, or in the urban poor communities. I am especially glad to be with the young people because then I can really feel and see the bright future of the revolutionary struggle. In these young people—many of them as old as my own grandchildren– I see the fruit of my generation’s 50 years struggle.
10. How do you personally assess the three and a half years of the Duterte administration?
I agree with Jose Maria Sison: “Conditions are such that Duterte was able to pretend as being patriotic and progressive in order to win the 2016 elections.” But like his idol, Dictator Marcos, Duterte has brought so much misery to the people.
Duterte regime’s fascist drive is a brazen display of force and abuse of state powers. He seeks to terrorize the people and to silence the broad masses against worsening oppression.
In the face of Duterte’s brutal fascist drive, more and more Filipinos, especially young people, are encouraged to join the New People’s Army. To quote Jose Maria Sison: “Duterte, like Marcos, has become the best recruiter for the New People’s Army.”
After three and a half years of the Duterte regime, I can say that Duterte will surely end up in the garbage bin of history. Even now the majority of the Filipino people hate him and speak of him in ridicule.