Walden Bello: Still crazy just like Bernie Sanders
Walden Bello and Bernie Sanders are both waging what many see as crazy crusades. One is making a bid for a Philippine Senate seat, the other running for president of the United States.
The coincidence is not surprising. They’re old allies, after all.
In 1998, following the Asian financial crash, Sanders, then the socialist congressman from Vermont, invited Bello, an internationally known expert on global finance, to testify before the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C.
The hearing focused on an institution the two progressive activists have long criticized: the International Monetary Fund, or IMF.
Referring to a recent controversial comment by a former U.S. Trade Representative, Sanders asked Walden: “Now, if you are sitting in Asia and you have suddenly been unemployed or you are now going hungry and you read Mickey Kantor’s statement that this crisis should be seized as golden opportunities for the West to reassert its commercial interests, what does that say?”
“Let me just say, Congressman Sanders, that this view now is widespread, that the Fund is being used by the United States to push through bilateral investment and trade objectives … around what it calls opening up the Asian economies,” Walden answered.
Not exactly a riveting exchange, but it’s a moment the two activist intellectuals clearly relished for it was a chance to turn the spotlight on an issue they’ve always felt passionately about — how big corporations and powerful international financial institutions take advantage of, and even cause, economic crises that wreck lives of ordinary people around the world.
That was 17 years ago when Walden and Sanders were in their 50s.
Sanders who has shaken up the democratic presidential primary with a surprisingly strong and popular challenge to Hillary Clinton is now 74. Walden turns 70 this month.
They’ve been at it since they were young men, waging sometimes quixotic battles against powerful forces.
Sanders has been an activist for workers rights and civil rights having joined such organizations as the Young People’s Socialist League in Chicago and the Congress on Racial Equality. He’s known as a tireless campaigner, speaking out on progressive issues that are often ignored in mainstream media.
“Bernie’s the last person you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with,” a friend quipped in a New Yorker profile on Sanders. “Two weeks of lectures about health care, and you’d look for a shark and dive in.”
Walden is not that grim and determined. I know this for a fact: We shared a house in Oakland in the 1990s before he returned to the Philippines. But like Sanders, he can be intensely passionate about his beliefs.
Before he became well known in the Philippines as a maverick Akbayan party-list congressman, Walden Bello was known as a U.S.-based activist against the Marcos dictatorship.
He’s famous for a somewhat quirky episode in 1977, when he led activists in taking over the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco to protest Marcos’s sentencing to a firing squad exiled Ninoy Aquino, Bernabe Buscayno (Kumander Dante) and Lt. Victor Corpus, declaring, a bit overdramatically, “I hereby claim this building in the name of the Filipino people.”
He’s also known as a staunch critic of American foreign policy and the role of the World Bank and the IMF in perpetuating inequality and underdevelopment in poor, struggling countries like the Philippines.
In fact, long before his appearance before Sanders’ congressional subcommittee, Walden was trying to expose the IMF in more creative ways. He once dressed up as Kermit the Frog during a protest picket outside the IMF headquarters in Washington D.C.
In fact, I’d even say this: Walden is crazier than his ally Bernie Sanders.
Take what he did earlier this year.
In a stunning move, he resigned as Akbayan’s congressman and publicly broke with President Aquino whom he accused of “engaging in a brazen cover-up of his responsibility” in the Mamasapano tragedy.
“This is the latest development in the shrinking of a man I once admired from a credible president to a small-minded bureaucrat trying desperately to erase his fingerprints from a failed project to save his own skin,” he said in a statement. “This man, I must conclude sadly, knows nothing of command responsibility or of honor.”
Now, if you’re a conventional Filipino trapo, focused on gaining more power and prestige, carefully calculating the next steps that would advance your political career, you wouldn’t do what Walden did.
But then again, being a congressman was never about personal power for Walden. It’s a duty, one that usually entails sacrifice and risky gambles.
This became clear six years ago when he criticized Inquirer columnist Randy David for backing out of a plan to challenge Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the congressional elections of 2010. David’s potential candidacy had excited the Akbayan movement, including Walden, who became so upset with David’s change of heart, he wrote an open letter.
“It is natural for all of us to get cold feet,” Walden told David. “But the mettle of people lies in their overcoming their hesitations, gritting their teeth, and pushing on.”
“Plunging into politics is no picnic,” he said. “It is rough, it involves you in uncertain calculations, in complex grey areas where one has sometimes little guide but one’s instinct in achieving the balance between principle and pragmatism. There are no ifs and buts–once you’ve made the commitment to be engaged, you grit your teeth and plunge into the fray, conscious of the possibility that you may, after so much sacrifice, may be left in the dust.”
I remembered this when I met Walden last week in Berkeley during his brief visit with friends in the Bay Area.
For what he said in the open letter pretty much summarized his own foray into electoral politics in which he found “little guide but one’s instinct in achieving the balance between principle and pragmatism.”
It’s clearly been a tough balancing act. I saw how it’s taken its toll on Walden when we met. His hair is all gray now, and his frustration with the Aquino years was evident in his voice.
He never had any illusions about electoral politics in the Philippines. It’s a game, after all.
But “there’s a principled way of playing the game,” he told me.
I must confess that when Walden helped form Akbayan in 1998 and later became a partylist congressman, I thought: You’re crazy to join that snakepit.
But he proved me and many others wrong.
In a crowd of trapos, many of whom had no idea what legislating was all about, who merely wanted the title and the perks or the position, and who didn’t even bother to attend meetings and hearings, Walden stood out.
He drew attention to issues that would otherwise be ignored, and showed that a former street activist could make a difference in the electoral arena.
Walden shook things up. Even more important, he gave Filipinos, especially the youth, an alternative, more engaging image of a mainstream politician as a progressive activist-intellectual.
I’m guessing he even learned from his old ally, Bernie Sanders, who as a neophyte congressman, did not immediately become a popular figure.
In the New Yorker profile, fellow Democrat Barney Frank recalls how, “Bernie alienates his natural allies. His holier-than-thou attitude—saying, in a very loud voice, he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else—really undercuts his effectiveness.”
Eventually, Sanders learned to be more flexible. And so did Walden.
The Akbayan alliance with Aquino was an example of this, of what Walden called “uncertain calculations” and a “principled way of playing the game.”
PNoy was clearly not the perfect ally for Walden and Akbayan. He was clearly not a progressive when it comes to foreign policy and U.S.-Philippine relations or other issues related to economic equality or social issues.
But Aquino embraced an issue Walden and Akbayan also strongly believed was important: the fight against corruption. “Daang Matuwid” was the reason he and Akbayan joined the Aquino coalition, he told me.
He understood the rules of coalition politics. It meant he could continue to disagree with Aquino on some key issues (like the U.S. military presence in the Philippines), but focus mainly on the issues on which he and Akbayan are united with Aquino.
As Walden recalls in his essay, “The Conscience of a Progressive,” “A strong momentum for reform did mark the first years of the Aquino administration.” Akbayan even got a “pleasant surprise” when Aquino endorsed the Reproductive Health Bill.
But as Walden himself said, “Plunging into politics is no picnic.” And this is true even when you’re part of a ruling coalition.
In some cases, the challenges are trickier when you’re aligned with the party in power. The temptation not to rock the boat, to keep silent in order to maintain that alliance is great.
It could take guts and vision for a longtime progressive activist to take the plunge into electoral politics. It could take even greater courage to say: “I can’t be part of this anymore because it is wrong.”
That’s what Walden did as bumps and detours were exposed on Daang Matuwid and Aquino fumbled his way through a series of scandals, from DAP to Mamasapano.
Meanwhile, Akbayan’s leaders became more uncomfortable with Walden’s maverick positions, including his call for the resignation of key Aquino allies like Butch Abad.
“Spoiled offspring of the ruling class like the Aquinos and Abads will come and go, but Akbayan is a precious child forged in the historic struggles of the Philippine Left and heir to its finest traditions. Will it find the courage to follow the harsh dictates of its progressive conscience and cease being hostage to a coalition that has lost its raison d’etre?”
Akbayan leaders continue to embrace Aquino and his allies “as if the last few years did not take place,” Walden told me.
Again, if you’re just another trapo, you don’t say things like that.
But Walden is not a trapo. He’s not even just another politician. He will speak out against abuse and political dishonesty.
He won’t just shut up.
Not about corruption at the highest levels of government, or human rights abuses within a movement that’s supposed to represent the fight for human rights.
Not even when a friend is being treated unfairly.
I saw this firsthand when we were still housemates. He and I had accompanied another housemate who had to take a driving test in Oakland. It turned into a nasty experience. The man who gave the test, who was white, was openly rude to the point of being racist to our friend. Walden blew up and openly complained about the way she was treated.
A strong sense of justice and fairness also was a key reason for why he broke with yet another political movement to which he devoted much of his life: the underground left.
He had been a CPP activist since the ‘70s through the early ‘80s until he left the party in the early ‘90s.
A major factor was the blood purges within the UG movement when cadres who were either suspected of being enemy infiltrators or who challenged the official party line, were subjected to all sorts of abuse, including torture. Many were executed or made to disappear.
Walden was clearly personally affected by the atrocities, which he explored in a 1992 essay, “The Crisis of the Philippine Progressive Movement.” He called the essay, which was based on interviews with twenty current and former cadres, “my own quest to salvage some meaning for my own activism in the progressive movement over the last two decades.”
Walden continues to reject the violent dogmatism that eventually dominated the UG, telling me, “Whatever class anyone comes from, they have human rights.”
The break with the UG movement led him to others who wanted to build a new, truly democratic, progressive movement. Akbayan was a product of that.
Walden is still a member of the party and says he has enormous respect and admiration for Akbayan’s rank-and-file activists.
But the Akbayan leadership has not endorsed his senate bid. His campaign is supported by a coalition of activist groups, including labor unions and organizations for overseas Filipino workers.
But he is not aligned with any major party or political organizations. Just like Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Walden’s senate run is pretty much an uphill climb.
In other words, it’s yet another crazy battle, one of those that Walden is used to waging.
On Twitter @boyingpimentel
Like us on Facebook
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.