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WATCH: ‘Never Again to Dictatorship’ commemoration, Philippine Consulate San Francisco
The Philippine Consulate in San Francisco once was a target in the fight for democracy.
Nowadays, it’s a place where Filipinos gather to celebrate that struggle.
How the mood at the building on Sutter Street near Union Square has changed.
Take last Friday’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Uprising when Filipinos kicked out the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Consul General Henry Bensurto set the tone for the evening by affirming what those of us who attended the gathering strongly believed: “Never again” to dictatorship.
“In the sharing of your experiences, we are reminded that we should not allow such atrocities and human rights violations to happen ever again,” he said.
Although Bensurto became consul general only in June 2014, he’s already known as perhaps the friendliest and most accessible top Philippine diplomat ever to serve in the San Francisco Bay Area.
That’s true even when he’s put in awkward positions.
Like when the evening’s emcee, my friend Edwin Batongbacal, inadvertently misidentified him as a vice consul.
It was no big deal. The consul general seemed just as amused as the rest of the audience.
And Bensurto was able to maintain a pleasant demeanor even when the administration he is serving was taking hits.
This was evident at last week’s gathering to remember the uprising.
It’s become fashionable to argue that the revolt did not lead to meaningful changes in the Philippines.
It’s a point I underscored by pointing to two controversies that plagued two Aquino presidencies, including the current one: the 1987 massacre of peasants at Mendiola and the plight of Hacienda Luisita farmers.
Bensurto probably disagreed with some of the things I and the other speakers said. But he was a graceful host throughout the evening, engaging guests with a warm smile and a friendly handshake.
In another era, visitors criticizing Malacanang would have prompted a different kind of con-gen to kick the offending speaker out of the building.
In fact, the Philippine Consulate was once a hostile place for Filipinos in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Some of the guests at last Friday’s gathering knew this firsthand.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, activists opposed to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos routinely held protests outside the consulate.
One of them was documentary photographer Rick Rocamora. He once tried to deliver an anti-dictatorship petition to the consul general of the time. He was promptly arrested and thrown in jail, he told me.
During the Marcos years, other consulates in the U.S. were viewed with fear and loathing.
Edwin Batongbacal, who had organized last week EDSA celebration, remembers protesting regularly outside the Philippine Consulate in Los Angeles.
“What I remember was not even knowing what it looked like inside, except that Marcos agents and apologists resided within,” he told me.
In San Francisco, the EDSA revolt led to a dramatic confrontation at the building on Sutter Street.
“When Marcos left the Philippines, the anti- Marcos forces took over the Philippine Consulate,” Rick recalls. “The following day, we went back to the consulate and then Consul General Ramon Arguelles was crying.”
Rick says a consul even quickly approved a new passport for one of the leading activists of the anti-Marcos movement in the U.S. Rene Ciria Cruz, now U.S. bureau chief of INQUIRER.net.
Nowadays, the Philippine Consulate is no longer in the business of harassing or canceling the passports of opponents of government.
Filipinos can even gather there now to express displeasure with how things are being run back home. They can even inadvertently demote the consul general.
No big deal.
How the times have changed.
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