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Prinsipyo o caldero: Why Noynoy won in Luisita

At the height of the campaign season late last year and early this year, I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the 6,000-hectare Hacienda Luisita, owned by Noynoy Cojuangco Aquino’s family. After multiple trips to the plantation, I concluded that the heir to the People Power legacy would have a hard time winning in his own backyard. My respondents told me that, if Aquino did not distribute the land, the striking farm workers would shun him in the polls. Promises would not be enough, they said. Both Noynoy’s mother and grandfather had falsely promised to distribute the land. There was no reason to take this third Cojuangco at his word. I was, and still am, a supporter of Aquino. However, I was ready to accept that my candidate would lose in Luisita. I understood the situation of the farmers. The country’s redemocratization under Cory Aquino benefited me, but was detrimental to my respondents. After all, it was under Cory that the government implemented a broken stock distribution scheme in lieu of agrarian reform.
Noynoy Aquno, center without glasses, voted on May 10 at the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Elementary School in San Miguel, Tarlac where he won overwhelmingly. Rick Rocamora
To my surprise, however, Aquino won in 10 out of Luisita’s 11 barangays. Looking back, I regret being hasty in my conclusions; the signs of an Aquino win were right under my nose. By late 2009, Luisita residents were starving and desperate for work, creating the perfect opportunity for the Liberal Party’s machinery to step in and exploit the sorry situation. According to my respondents, leaders of the Farm Workers Agrarian Reform Movement of Luisita (FARM), LP-affiliated barangay captains offered campaign work to starving farmers. Some farmers were directly paid, while others, like one FARM leader, were ordered by their captains to vote Aquino. Such an order would have been difficult to defy. Since the strike and the massacre of 2003/2004, many Luisita workers have spontaneously occupied land on the plantation, independently farming crops such as corn and rice. Since it is largely barangay captains who allocate the land farmers occupy, disobeying them entails risking a source of livelihood. I should have predicted this. If anything, the history of Hacienda Luisita illustrates the power of patronage to weaken challenges to landlord power. Nothing summarizes this history better than a popular saying among the hacienda’s workers: “prinsipyo o caldero" (your principles or the pot). If you stick to your principles, forget about eating. Noynoy’s win was completely predictable because it was history repeating itself. In 1986, “prinsipyo o caldero" had manifested itself during the snap election that pitted Cory Aquino and Ferdinand Marcos. According to Aling Turing (all names are pseudonyms and all quotations are translations from Tagalog), a retired woman who began working in the hacienda in 1963: “Management forced us to vote for Cory. If you don’t follow the supervisors here, you’ll be out of a job. If you didn’t vote for Cory, you’d be out of a job." She concluded by claiming there was a simple rule in the hacienda whenever a Cojuangco ran for a regional or a national post: “If you want to starve, don’t vote for them."
The Sebastian family of Asturias town in Hacienda Luisita were among the farm workers who voted for Noynoy Aquino. This photo was taken on May 9, a day before the elections. Rick Rocamora
“Prinsipyo o caldero," and not the benevolence of management, is also the reason why grassroots agrarian reform movements fail in the hacienda. In my fieldwork, my respondents always referred to the “tradition" in the hacienda of labor leaders being bribed or threatened to cooperate with the Cojuangco family. “That’s why we rarely get anything done here," said Chito, a FARM leader, referring to the bribing of union leaders to cooperate with management. Tatang Jimmy, a retired farm worker, added, “Since I was young, all union leaders here have been bought off by management and placed in the supervisory group [the highest level of employment in the hacienda with the highest pay and the most benefits]." It is not surprising, therefore, that FARM’s first president is now an ally of management and no longer an advocate of agrarian reform. This same labor leader campaigned for Noynoy. I had initially thought that “prinsipyo o caldero" would not manifest in this election. The farm workers were on strike during the campaign, so management could not dangle the prize of a job in exchange for voting yellow. Moreover, the spontaneous occupation of land meant that farmers were in control of their livelihoods, earning, at times, thrice the money they made under the Cojuangcos (proof that an agrarian reform scheme can work). They could have both their prinsipyo and the caldero. But the situation had turned for the worse in late 2009. Ondoy and Pepeng wrought havoc on the crops of Luisita workers. My respondents say they would have survived these natural disasters had the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) provided them adequate support. However, a Supreme Court Temporary Restraining Order, which the Cojuangcos requested in 2005, prevented the DAR from providing any form of aid. In this context, most farmers were forced to “lease" their occupied land to external financiers, mostly local Tarlac politicians, who brought back sugar farming. These financiers, whom my respondents believe are paying cuts to the Cojuangcos, paid the farmers less than what they received before the strike (from roughly 200 pesos a day to 160).
Ka Pedring Laza is angry at the Cojuangcos—and at Noynoy Aquino—for the death of his son Jesus Laza in the deadly dispersal that marred a rally by Luisita farmers in November 2004. Rick Rocamora
It was in this context that “prinsipyo o caldero" reared its ugly head once more. Continuing to fight for agrarian reform was a fruitless enterprise if it meant starving. It was ultimately easier to work for the Aquino campaign and take the money from the barangay captain. There was no other alternative. The National Democratic Front and their candidate Manny Villar could not provide answers. My respondents report that in Barangay Balete, a supposed stronghold of Bayan Muna, residents were afraid to side with the Left, believing that doing so would only provide a pretext for increased militarization. This is the reason why Aquino won over 90% of the vote in Balete. The experiences of farm workers in Hacienda Luisita, as such, illustrates not only the failure of government but also of well-meaning progressive groups, who would do well to develop less incendiary ways of organizing. However, this is a minor failure compared to that of Noynoy’s family. Ultimately the next president should not be complacent just because he won in Luisita. He may be ignorant of his family’s and party’s dirty machinations, but ignorance is no excuse to continue turning a blind eye. The implementation of genuine agrarian reform in Luisita will serve as the ultimate proof that our new president can combat Kamag-anak Inc. Lisandro Claudio (“Leloy") is a PhD Candidate in the School of Historical Studies, the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is working on a doctoral thesis that examines the legacies of the People Power revolution.