LOUIE BELTRAN (1936-1994) was a broadcaster and newspaperman who, like Ninoy, was also detained during Martial Law. Beltran guested Ninoy in his popular public affairs program, “Straight from the Shoulder,” on which the Senator became a regular. After the EDSA revolution, Beltran led the Philippine Daily Inquirer as its first Editor-in-Chief.
The following excerpt was taken from “Memories of a Hero” by Cynthia Sycip.
Q: Why did you invite him to guest so often in your show “Straight from the Shoulder?”
A: Well, you know, Ninoy was always in the thick of everything. Since he was a senator he was always concerned with almost every public issue which erupted. He did a lot of studying of most public issues. He did his homework in other words. So whether by choice or by accident of the fact that he was always involved, he was always appearing on my show. For example, the matter of the Monkees in Central Luzon, he was one of the major resource persons. Then you’d have something like OPLAN Sagittarius, the prelude to martial law, he was involved in it. He was the one who exposed the Jabidah massacre in Corregidor. He was a very active, a very vocal, a very studious oppositionist, and therefore he was always being invited to public affairs programs.
Q: Wasn’t it because you liked him personally?
A: Oh, I also liked him personally, but it wasn’t because of that. It was mainly because he was involved in most of the major issues erupting in the country. And so he was in the middle of most of it.
Q: What are your personal impressions on Ninoy?
A: You know, my favorite story about Ninoy is this: I remember one time they were holding a golf tournament in Hacienda Luisita. To my knowledge, Ninoy had never handled a golf club in his entire life and the night before, because he wanted to be a good host, a perfect host, he read three books on golf. The following morning he was having breakfast with three of the golfing greats in the United States – I think it was Ben Hogan, Jim Littler and some other people. In other words, the best golfers in the world – And here was Ninoy who did not know an eagle from a bogey or whatever the terms are in golf. He read the three books and the following day he sat down and had breakfast with these three golfers. Afterwards when they broke up I was walking behind some of these golfing greats and one of them was saying to Esting Teopacio, who was a brother-in-law of Ninoy, “you know, your brother-in-law Senator Aquino must be a scratch golfer.” In other words he must be one of the best golfers in the Philippines. And Ninoy had never held a golf club.
What was his main virtue? He could absorb information as a sponge absorbs water. He could retain it. He could selectively cull it, pull it out and make use of what was. In other words he could make use of his reading ability, ability to absorb information.
Q: So, he’s a very intelligent person?
A: He’s a very intelligent person.
Q: But aside from that, his personal integrity, and values like that?
A: Well, I covered Ninoy actively, from the time he became Senator, as a columnist, from the time he became governor. When he was mayor I met him on a personal basis as well as on an official basis. And I can’t recall of anyone charging him of any violation of the anti-graft act. Never in his entire political life. Nobody ever said that Ninoy Aquino ever stole anything. And that was the amazing thing. They accused him of a lot of things… that he was a communist sympathizer…
Q: Do you think he was a communist sympathizer?
A: Well, let’s put it this way. In terms of ideological sympathy, I don’t think Ninoy had even a drop of it in his veins. But if you are governor of Tarlac and a mayor in Tarlac, you better be a communist sympathizer if you want to stay alive, because the government at that particular point was unable to do anything about the New People’s Army or even the old Hukbalahap army. If you have to work there as a local official, you didn’t have to actively give them aid and comfort, but you better not oppose them or you’re going to wind up dead. I think Central Luzon has one of the longest list of mayors and officials who were liquidated by the NPA and by the Hukbalahap and Ninoy didn’t want to be one of them.
Q: Did you cover him then when he made Taruc surrender?
A: No, he was a lot older than me, although I look a lot older than him. But he was a very young reporter at that time. He was a correspondent for the Manila Times.
Q: Would you know anybody who was close to him?
A: Well, Jim Austria, but he passed away. Most of the people who were in the newspapers now who were in the ‘50s, late 40’s, early 50’s who would be in the newspapers then would be mostly close to Ninoy. Ninoy never thought of himself as a politician. He always thought of himself as a newspaperman. I remember when we went to Vietnam together with Senator Gerardo Roxas on invitation of the Vietnamese government, that he acted more like a newspaperman than a politician. Although he was already a Senator, he wanted to go flying away in some helicopter, go to some battle zone. He was always asking questions that most newspapermen would ask. So right now, I would say that a lot of the editors in the newspapers were close contemporaries of Ninoy – one reason why a lot of them were very angry when their own newspapers would not cover the Aquino funeral or the assassination.
Q: What about government censorship then during the “Straight from the Shoulder” days? Did they react negatively to your guesting government critics?
A: Well, I don’t know what you mean by reacting negatively. There wasn’t any censorship in the days before martial law…
Q: But according to my research you received a couple of bomb threats…
A: That was normal at that time. It was fashionable. In fact, in one show where Ninoy was, we had to vacate the studio because somebody threatened to bomb the studio. I cannot say the government was doing that. It could have been just anybody and there was no bomb to speak of. But, it was a point shortly before the declaration of martial law when all kinds of buildings were being bombed and there was this constant danger that a bomb would be exploded somewhere.
On that basis, as far as reacting to Ninoy negatively, the government had ample time to present its side. In most of the shows where I invited Ninoy, there was always a whole row of government men on the opposite side, either the Chief of the Constabulary, the principal spokesman of the Marcos group, the Cabinet ministers, this was the format of the show so, he had ample opposition…
O: Do you have any old tapes of “Straight from the Shoulder”?
A: We don’t have any tapes of that. Unfortunately, in those days, we thought we would last forever so we never taped any shows. And there weren’t then any Betamax at that time. They only invented the Betamax in the ‘70s and we ended in ‘72.
Q: So, your tapes have not been confiscated pala…
A: Walang tape.
Q: I heard you were arrested, or “invited?”
A: I don’t know whether those two terms are actually accurate. Arrested or invited? I was invited. I wasn’t arrested. I was detained. I was asked to go to the Metrocom and then detained.
Q: Did they question you about Ninoy?
A: Not specifically. No, no. Well, they questioned me about the opposition figures and the members of the New People’s Army who appeared in my show. They claimed, for example, that Jose Ma. Sison was a member of the New People’s Army and asked how come I invited him. And I did not see any disparity in the idea of inviting any member of the administration and inviting a member of the opposition. At that time, Jose Ma. Sison was publicly walking around town.
Q: So, how long were you detained?
A: Three and a half months…
Q: How did you manage to get out?
A: I did not. I think there was so much pressure from the newspaper men abroad as well as American Congressmen. I recall Senator Daniel Donuhoe asking that we be tried immediately or released immediately. The same thing with the publisher of the Luiebi Courier. The same thing with the Chairman of the Press Foundation of Asia, the International Press Institute. So I thought the administration felt very uncomfortable about detaining 24 of us.
Q: Why didn’t they feel uncomfortable detaining Ninoy for seven years?
A: Well, they probably felt very uncomfortable, but they probably also thought that it was politically necessary as far as they were concerned because Ninoy was always the rallying point of the opposition even when there were so many other Liberal senators and so many other opposition Senators. Ninoy just emerged as the natural leader. He studied harder than most of them. He had a better background than most of them. He worked harder than most of them…
Q: Do you think anybody can replace him?
A: Well, its like saying “Can anybody be replace Marcos? Well, being a Filipino, Ninoy was just one of fifty two million people and somewhere out there there are probably three or four hundred Ninoys. It’s just a matter of giving them the means, the opportunity, and probably, the motivation.
Q: So, what is the most memorable thing you remember about Ninoy?
A: Well, the most memorable thing I remember about him is that that crazy fellow, you know, in 1978, when he was finally allowed to go home to celebrate his wedding anniversary, he played a practical joke on me. I was watching television at home. I remember it was the Centennial series on television and all of a sudden the phone rang and when I answered it this voice from the telephone said, “Is this Louie Beltran?” I said, yes, and asked “Who’s this?” and he said, “I don’t know if you remember me but we used to look alike,” he said. “But now I look like Robert Redford and you look like Sidney Greenstreet.” And then I remembered that was his favorite joke. He was always saying “We both looked like Sidney Greenstreet but after detention we’d look like Robert Redford.” So I said, “You’re crazy. You’re not supposed to call on my phone. It’s probably tapped and its alright for you to be in jail but not me.” And he said, “No, I’m not in jail. I’m in the house celebrating my wedding anniversary and if you have any guts, you come to the house. But I don’t think you have any guts, I understand you’re now afraid of Marcos.”
Q: Did you have any guts? I mean, did you come?
A: Well, of course if somebody tells you, you have no guts and you are afraid of Marcos, what are you going to do? You’re gonna prove you have guts and you’re not afraid of Marcos. I went.
When I got there, you know, there was wall-to-wall security in jeeps and trucks. They wouldn’t let me walk to the corner of Times Street. When I finally got to his house, there was the huge table barring his driveway and there were three or four military people there and they took pictures of me asked my biodata and then after they got through, there was Ninoy standing and I remember he was standing by his doorway all in white. He was wearing a white t-shirt, white pants, white shoes.
And from the doorway, which was about a distance of five yards from where I was standing, he started shouting, he said, “Louie, you’re not afraid of that guy Marcos, you came!” And he said a couple of unprintable words and I thought the whole thing was funny until I walked in to his dining room. His dining room was also lined with security, and I’m talking of lined, they were standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder. There must have been fifty on each side of the dining room and they had tables in the middle which had microphone and Ninoy pulled me to one table and then started telling me the story of his life for the last seven years. It was so interesting, we must have talked for three hours. And he talked as if the security wasn’t there, as if Marcos didn’t exist, as if he wasn’t going back to jail the following day. As if we were having a conversation in the Taza de Oro, and you know, it was funny, because he, the guy in prison, was apparently not bothered by any of all of that. But me, who was temporarily free, I was scared to death, and he kept talking about it because I’d whisper. When I’d talk to him, and he’d be shouting in his usual voice.
“Ninoy! You’re crazy.” I was telling him, “You can’t talk about this all of the time, they’re gonna get mad at you”, and he said, “The trouble with you is you know you’ve always lived in fear for such a long time. Maybe it could have been better if you had stayed in prison with me because when you are in prison you’re not afraid. I’m not afraid. You see…”
Q: Was that the last time you saw him?
A: I saw him in New York, almost exactly one year before he died because in August of 1982, we were in New York with President Angara of the U.P. to raise funds for the Diamond jubilee.
He called me at my hotel. You know, he had this penchant for being able to find people. You know, it was so surprising because I had just arrived and I presumed nobody knew where I was.
All of sudden, the phone rang and there was Ninoy. He said, “let’s have lunch” and he picked me up and he was driving his own car and we talked about his coming home.
I remembered the question he asked me, “What do the UP students think of me?” I said, ‘You know Ninoy it’s not just you in particular, but they have a very dim view of people who do their fighting here in the United States because a lot of them do their fighting publicly in the Philippines. They get picked up, some of them get killed, some of them are in jail and its very hard to accept the leadership of somebody who’s enjoying the American way of life and enjoying the real meaning of democracy, and enjoying freedom, and then railing out against somebody who’s trying to destroy all of those. He paused for about five to ten minutes. He didn’t seem to be able to talk, which was rare for Ninoy, and then finally he said, “You know Louie, I think they’re right, I don’t think any leader can pretend to be a leader while leading from another foreign country. That’s why I’ve more or less made up my mind, I’m going to come back whatever happens”. And he asked me “What do you think will happen if I come back?” and I said “The options should be very clear to you by now,” and my own projection was that he’d be sent back to jail…
Q: Do you think he believed he would be killed?
A: Well, Ninoy was a realist. I think he accepted the fact that there were people here in the Philippines who were capable of killing him but he also had a lot of faith in the leadership, in the major leadership in the sense, that they had always been constitutionally oriented. Many of them knew him personally, on a personal basis, and therefore, he hoped that they would back down the hand of the assassin and, perhaps, they were not able to. Or he made a bad estimate of the situation. But I was watching all of the video tapes of him before the incident happened and it looked as if he knew he was going to be killed. I think, by the time he got on the plane, he had an almost definite certainty that he was going to be killed. If you can believe the interviews he gave to the people before and he mentioned that you know, probably…
Q: “Prepare your cameras and…?”
A: Ya, and he’s telling somebody the scenario, “I will be assassinated and some guy will be shot whom they claim will be my assassin,” and all of the testimony in the Agrava Commission tends to bear him out.
Q: So, that was the last time you saw him?
A: The last time I saw him was August of 1982…
Q: What did he tell you?
A: Sometimes a lot of people think that he was always criticizing and finding things which were bad with the administration. But you know, the one quality I always thought Ninoy needed to modify or at least to tone down was his being so optimistic. He was sort of pollyanic about the future of the Philippines. He thought we could weather anything. We could take anything, and at the end the Filipino could emerge just like the carabao and continue to do exactly what he had been doing live in freedom, wrest himself away from dictatorship, Ninoy believed in that passionately. He felt that, you know.
He used to just talk about us as just “cogs in the wheel, we’re just one little knot holding the thing together, if we go, some other guy will take over.” And he had this national perspective. He felt that no matter who did the leading, the Filipino people would emerge triumphant in an atmosphere of freedom and productivity.
Q: Did he tell you that the last time he saw you?
A: Well, on almost every occasion, he talked about this: His main obsession when I talked to him in August of 1982 was to prevent violence. Because apparenly, a lot of his leaders in Tarlac and a lot of the people here in Metro Manila who were in the opposition, had been talking revolution to him. He was very perturbed because his main thesis was that once the killing begins there will be no stop to it until a lot of people are killed. And he just didn’t want to see that. Well, of course, sometimes he ego-tripped. But he said “I don’t want to become President over a mountain of bodies. After all the bodies have been piled up, they’re going to put my presidential chair on top and I’m going to be president? I don’t want to be like that”. He used those words, it’s funny if you really think about it. For a while, I thought he was being insincere because Ninoy comes from a tradition of political violence. He comes from Tarlac where people are killed every election and it would have been logical for Ninoy to have emerged with a perspective of, you know, “just shoot everybody and then let’s just pick up the pieces.” Ninoy never did that. He was always for peace, and that was strange. And I think more so after he emerged from jail. The one thing that really struck, I couldn’t accept it, you know naman newspapermen, they’re always saying how tough they are, how irreverent. And religion, it doesn’t matter. You know, the one thing, that stuck they last time I talked to him in 1978 and in 1982 he said he had found God, and that God was now in charge of his life and that he was just an instrument of God’s will.
Now, you know this is weird. I mean, coming from a guy who’s been a newspaperman for twenty or thirty years. Most of them don’t believe in God, they believe even less in the church and they’re very irreverent, and yet, here was Ninoy. That time he said, “God’s gonna find a way”, and “God’s gonna make use of me, He’ll teach me what to do, if I have to die, He’ll give me the perfect moment…”
Q: Do you think he died at the perfect moment?
A: The way it looks, it was the perfect moment. There were so many people here who were willing to sit down, I for one, I was willing to. Very frankly, a lot of people asked me why I didn’t write, you know, after martial law. I never wrote until this year and it was because I had accepted it. I said, “you know, the Filipino people want this, they like this, or at least they’re prepared to live with it, with martial law, so what’s the point?”
Q: Personally, how did his death affect you?
A: Oh, very much, I think because you know it awakened in me the realization that if they can shoot a person like Ninoy – that blatant, public, arrogant, merciless, inhumane, display of power at high noon on a clear day with thousands of people watching – it has just made me realize that it has reached a point where some people will have to die in order to restore freedom in this country. Some people will have to die so that freedom of the press will become a reality. Some people will have to go to jail. Before that, you know, I felt that it was pointless. But you know when you have two to three million people attending a funeral, most of whom didn’t even see Ninoy, it wouldn’t be out of a sense of personal loss or personal grief… I think a lot of people who were there went there to pity themselves more than Ninoy.
A: Well because they realized that the situation had been reached when they had lost everything, and Ninoy’s death proved it. They lost even the option of when to die…
Q: And Ninoy had that option?
A: Yes, until it was shown that he didn’t have it. I think Ninoy wanted to die at a ripe old age like everybody else. When you don’t even have the option to die and they have already taken away your option to live the way you want then, it is time to reexamine the priorities in life.
Q: Was he a good friend?
A: I think he was one of the nicest, most likeable people. Well, I’m not only saying that because he’s dead. I think Ninoy would kick me in the ass if I said it. But you know he was so thoughtful. I remember every time he’d go abroad, I was covering the Senate. Now most of the Senators, when they go abroad, will give you all kinds of gifts to get into your good side, really expensive gifts, things that they picked up probably in the tax-free or duty free shops, but Ninoy never did that. He’d always come back with a book that he had read, that he enjoyed, that he profited from, that he learned from. He’d give it to me. He’d say ‘This is what it’s all about, ganyan, ganyan, I’d like to share part of it with you, You tell me what you think.” Sometimes, impulsively, I remember, I still have it, I have a swiss knife, which, since he was killed I’ve carried along everyday, he gave that to me. You know I don’t even remember the occasion…we were together sometime and we were talking about knives and all that. He had this fondness for all kinds of gadgets and he suddenly pulled it out of his pocket and he said, “You see this swiss knife? Anyway I’m going abroad next month so you can have it na lang,” sabi niya. But it’s what I was telling you about, so he was not in my perspective, he was not so much a Senator, I think a lot of people regarded him as their friend. He could do outrageous things…
Q: Like what?
A: Well, one time, I had a birthday and I didn’t invite him. I mean, I never invite anybody and two people I didn’t invite arrived at the same time. One was Ninoy. Or course, he just got off his car, walked in and said, “Hey, it’s your birthday, what have you got to eat?” and I said “Nothing, we have to send out for something”.
Five minutes later President Marcos came in. I was covering Malacañang at that time so… the two of them were there, and then another friend of mine, Amando Doronilla, columnist for the Mirror, arrived. And you know I was staying in a small place in Seventh Avenue and I only have this table in they yard and so they sat on a “bangko”. The president was in the middle, and Ninoy and Doronilla were in both sides and both of them have been attacking him only the previous week. I remember the President saying that, looking at Ninoy and Doronilla, “Now I know how Jesus Christ felt, and Ninoy said, “No, I wanna sit in the middle”. Things like that. He was outrageous in that sense.
He would walk into your house at three o’clock in the morning and be perfectly at home. He’d wake you up and he’d say, “Were you asleep?” and I’d say, “No, I was waiting for you to bother me.” He never took himself seriously. He never took us seriously, which is why we were all friends. He was that sort of a guy.
Like, imagine, I’d go to New York, he picks up a phone and he says, “I’ll pick you up for lunch”, just as if I was waiting the whole year for him to invite me to lunch. He felt he was my friend and I accepted that, and I also felt that I was his friend.
In fact, the other funny incident that happened was, he had to go back to Boston with Ernie Maceda and me. We were all together the following day and then he said, “Well, I have to go back to Boston so, can you just take me to the airport?”
We were talking and talking and talking and we never got finished talking even while waiting for the plane and when the plane was about to take off he said, “You know, we haven’t finished talking. Why don’t you go up to Boston and sleep with me there?” And so I said, “I don’t even have a ticket. We have no reservation”, and Maceda was saying the same thing. And then Ninoy pulled out from his pocket a while sheet of tickets and he said “Here, you’re Benigno Aquino Jr., Ernie, and you’re Benigno Aquino Jr., Louie.” And then he walked in and he was running, he went through the guard, and Ernie presented his ticket and the guard looked at him, “Benigno Aquino Jr?”, he said. “You’ve got the same name?”, and Maceda said, “He’s my father”. So, Maceda got in. Now when I went to the guard and gave him the ticket, he said, “Hey c’mon, there’s something funny going on. You’re not going in there until I verify.” So I got left behind. And he (Ninoy) was laughing. That’s the last time I saw him. He was standing there at the end of the walk…
Q: What airport?
A: Kennedy airport… They have this walk like the walk that he didn’t take and he was standing at the end of it and he was laughing like mad and he said, “Sabihin mo anak kita!” he was shouting in Tagalog. So I said, “I’m his son!” and the guard said, “There’s no way I’m going to believe you, there’s something funny going on around here,” so, I got stuck in the airport. That’s the last time I saw Ninoy.
Q: So, thank you for the interview…