Remembering the activist Karina David
She was an activist-intellectual, a respected academic, an artist and musician who performed at pretty much every rally I attended. In the 1980s. Karina David, who passed away recently, was a powerful presence on the UP Diliman campus.
But I must confess I also found her intimidating. In Diliman, I identified with the wing of the progressive movement that I gather she considered dogmatic and maybe even shallow.
I have a memory of Karina scolding a group of labor union protesters who staged a picket at the wake of late Pepe Diokno’s wake at Carmel Cathedral. They wanted to demonstrate their opposition to Cory Aquino’s government by picketing members of her cabinet who had come to pay their respects. And Karina was right: it was not the right time for something like that, and she didn’t hesitate to let them know how she felt.
This was after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, the regime that shaped the lives and political views of several generations, including mine and Karina’s. Suddenly, Marcos was gone. There were opportunities to push for reforms. There was, finally, “democratic space.”
It was a time of hope when activist-intellectuals like Karina appeared to declare: “Okay, we’ve devoted all these years fighting a tyrant. It’s time to give government service a try. It’s time to fight for change from within the system.”
It wasn’t easy.
The post-Marcos years saw a parade of trapo presidents, some of whom introduced needed reforms, but whose instincts and actions were generally geared to protecting and enhancing interests of their clans, allies, friends.
The parade included Cory and her son.
And this was certainly true with the leader who, many from the progressive movement believed would usher in an era of progressive politics: Joseph Estrada.
It was during Karina’s stint as Erap’s secretary of public housing that I got to know her a bit more. It was also then that she stood out among the activist-turned-public officials of the post-dictatorship era, many of whom appeared to have been blinded by the many perks of being aligned with the power-wielders: money, fame, privilege. “Yayaman ako dito. Tama na yang aktibismo, aktibismo (I’ll get rich here; enough of activism.”
Not Karina. This was became clear to me during the tumultuous Erap years.
I had covered the election of Erap, and the subsequent collapse of his government for the San Francisco Chronicle. One of the most memorable interviews I did was with Karina, who described what she and other former activists had thought would be the start of a new progressive era in Philippine politics.
“The first six months, apart from the scandal over the Marcos burial, were to me inspiring,” Karina told me in an interview that was so engaging it lasted more than two hours. “Erap gave us everything we needed. It was exciting. It was intellectually challenging.”
That last sentence was striking. Suddenly, an activist-intellectual who had spent years debating, exploring, picking apart theories about social and political change had a front-row seat to actually change things.
Erap’s push for reforms, and his slogan “Erap Para Sa Mahirap” seemed genuine. And he appeared to willing to work with former activists with bold ideas for overhauling Philippine society.
But then another Erap emerged.
What began as an inspiring and intellectually challenging stint as a member of Erap’s cabinet, quickly turned into a time of chaos and extreme frustration.
The leader who had declared that he was for the poor had a “penchant for luxury, and a habit of listening to his friends and forgetting that he should be listening to his official family,” Karina told me. “The greed was overwhelming, and his lack of preparation was too big a handicap.”
“I could see more and more on a larger scale that this guy had absolutely no respect for institutions, had no understanding of what policy meant, had no appreciation of planning and was running (the country) like a small town.”
Erap’s leadership style, she said, was “superficial and prone to political opportunism and patronage.”
The opportunism and greed she saw in government eventually forced her to quit. After she left, Erap’s government was hit by one scandal after another, culminating in a bitter impeachment battle that eventually led to his fall in yet another popular uprising.
I talked to Karina after the fall of Erap and the rise of Gloria Arroyo. In her eyes, People Power II, as the uprising that led to Erap’s fall came to be known, is both a wake-up call and a positive step forward.
“What it shows is that we are a young nation who have inherited so many bad habits, but that we have the capacity to continue improving this work in progress,” she told me. “It’s clear from what happened that our concept of democracy is growing more and more into a concept of holding accountable leaders in whom we put our trust. It is a much more vigilant kind of democracy.”
I never got a chance to revisit these views with Karina and many others. For clearly, in a nation where a president who has inspired mass killings and who has shown brazen disrespect for women, the poor, the gay and lesbian community, and pretty much any group opposed to the slaughter he inspired remains popular, the “much more vigilant kind of democracy” Karina was talking about no longer exists.
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