RENE Velasco, my best friend in the past two decades and comrade in both the activist Maoist days of our youth and in government in our adult life, passed away last Saturday from pneumonia caused by Covid-19.
It’s a surreal, terrible feeling that something in the news everyday in the past two months, about which I’ve written so many articles, would snuff out the life of a dear friend, whom I couldn’t even visit when I first heard that he was in hospital. It would be like reading and writing about a serial killer, who would then kill a close friend.
Rene and I were communist cadres in our college days, he the secretary of the party group in the University of the Philippines when I was head of the party organization in Metro Manila. Unlike many of our comrades at that stage in our lives though, our egos were not invested in the communist cause, nor in the camaraderie of the struggle, nor relying on it for our livelihoods.
When we realized Sison and his gang were as power hungry as reactionary politicians, when we realized that the party could be as ruthless as having undertaken the 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing of the Liberal Party just to create a “revolutionary flow,” when comrades with the slightest suspicion of being military agents were killed posthaste, and even tortured, we drifted away from the Party, and the movement.
Rene decided to move to the academe, and even got a PhD — an accomplishment he was proud of that I always called him to his delight “Doc.” For some reason I don’t know, he got a Monbusho scholarship and studied at Japan’s top university, the University of Tokyo. I would learn only many years later that he got to be proficient not just in Nihongo but also in the art of bonsai, as well as in the art of Japanese dining.
The revolution though never left our hearts and minds. We engaged the Maoists in debates on what kind of society the Philippines was — “capitalist and semi-feudal?” — he in the academe, me in my spare time from my livelihood as a journalist.
Rene and I would later share a certain view of how we could help change the world, and reform Philippine society: This we realized, definitely could not be through Maoist revolution which has and will result in thousands of Filipino lives lost, not through foreign-funded nongovernment organizations (where most of our former comrades went to), not through constant criticism of every administration that emerges, not through “human rights” groups whose activists get unbelievable tax-free income.
Rather, working in government would be for us mortals the most “cost-efficient” way of fulfilling in our small way our youthful self-assumed duty of, as Maoists put it, “serving the people.” After all, it is government that is the biggest organization with the largest resources in Philippine society.
Rene joined government much earlier than me, as I had thought that critiquing government as a media man was my role. Rene first joined the staff of Sen. Edgardo Angara and then as chief of staff of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in her positions as senator, vice president and president.
Rene was my deputy when I became Arroyo’s spokesman and a year later presidential chief of staff in the first half of her presidency. When I left the Palace to be ambassador to Greece, he would be the head of the Philippine Information Agency and then the Presidential Management Staff — to this day endeared by the staff of those units.
It would fill many, many columns for me to narrate those “interesting times” — but fulfilling ones — when Rene and I fought together shoulder-to-shoulder defeating Erap’s EDSA Tres, building up Arroyo’s communications and propaganda machine, undertaking reforms in a few crucial agencies, and fighting covertly and overtly the state’s enemies.
It was really only during the lulls in the many crises during Arroyo’s troubled administration that Rene got to be a dear friend, my best friend really.
He lived life to the hilt, in both its mental and physical dimensions, his love for the latter the reason for his obesity, and for some other things. He is the only person I know who could consume a lechon de leche in one sitting. He liked so much one task I had given him when we were in the Palace: to wine and dine media men we were befriending, especially in the Classmate Club kind of places.
Rene’s devotion to his two autistic sons was saintly. He even brought his elder autistic son Ninoy to dinners in hotels and to such spectacular sites as the Coron Island. Rene loved his son so much that he was totally unapologetic, nor did he scold him, in such embarrassing situations as when Ninoy vomited in a corner in a hotel restaurant after eating so much noodles, or when he pushed away the executive secretary who was handing him his appointment paper as deputy chief of staff in a ceremony in Malacañang.
Rene was so much fun to be with, his sense of humor so enlivening, his jolliness always lightening up a room. I admired his irreverence, his knack of putting down an official whom we suspected to be corrupt, through a joke.
We will miss his friendship, his humor, his wit and wisdom. He served the people. If he were reading this column from some dimension, I don’t think he would mind my writing: Comrade, your death leaves such a heaviness in my heart much, much more than you weighed.