Twenty-nine years ago, at the height of the bloody Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, then–first lady Imelda Marcos was an honored guest at a piano concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington. During a break in the program, Walden Bello, a leader of the anti-Marcos activists in the United States, slipped down to the front of the auditorium with a handful of others and unfurled a banner reading Down With the Marcos Dictatorship. Walden pointed up at Imelda Marcos, sitting beside Van Cliburn, and shouted, "There is a fascist in the house!" The police were called. A chase around the orchestra seats ensued and, eventually, the police hauled Walden and the others off in handcuffs.
Fast-forward to July 23 of this year: Walden and Imelda, newly elected members of the Philippine Congress, met once more, this time in a plush Manila hotel for the inaugural gathering of the new majority coalition, of which they are both members. "She walked right over to the table where I was sitting," Walden told us two days later in Manila. "The Kennedy Center incident flashed through my head, but I looked up and I saw an old woman [she is 81], and I thought, she is almost blind and doesn’t know who I am." So he decided simply to shake her hand. Perhaps even stranger, the man convening the coalition meeting was the new Philippine president, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, the son of the politician whose 1983 assassination was widely believed to have been sanctioned by Imelda’s husband, President Ferdinand Marcos. That killing unleashed the "People Power" revolution, which brought millions onto the streets, exiled the Marcoses to Hawaii and ushered Noynoy’s mother, Cory Aquino, to power in 1986.
Walden invited us to be his guests at Noynoy Aquino’s first presidential State of the Nation address, on July 26. We were driven down Commonwealth Avenue in Walden’s Congressional car to the Congress, where the speech would be delivered. Alongside us, thousands of protesters, many of them allies of Walden, carried colorful banners and effigies of President Aquino. Indeed, one of the protesting groups, the Freedom from Debt Coalition, boasted Walden as its president. In this country of militant activists, it was a significant statement of the "space" the new administration commands that no one burned an effigy of President Aquino. Moreover, the protests paused during the speech so that the activists could listen by radio. Similar to Americans’ reaction in the weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, most progressives in the Philippines want to give their new president a chance.
Walden has a slight build and looks younger than his 65 years. Four decades ago he and tens of thousands of bright young Filipinos at the best universities gave up dreams of conventional careers and joined poor farmers to create a vast network of organizations to fight what they called the "US-Marcos dictatorship" and its egregious human rights abuses. (We were active in a vibrant US support movement, Robin having first lived in the Philippines in 1977.) Many were communists, all were nationalists and thousands of them formed an armed peasant movement in the rural areas, the New People’s Army, which aimed to follow the example of Mao in China and take power by force.
Walden was in the United States for graduate studies, and after finishing a PhD at Princeton in 1975, he helped build the anti-Marcos movement from the United States as a scholar and activist. He also played a central role in the high-profile fight to remove from the Philippines two of the largest US overseas military bases, which had been key staging areas during the Vietnam War. In 1991 the Philippine Senate finally voted to remove the bases, but there is continuing controversy in the country over roughly 500 US troops in the southern Philippines who provide training to the Philippine military in the fight against armed groups with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. In the 1990s Walden became a leader of the broader anti–corporate globalization movement and helped spark protests around the world against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Throughout this period he was a frequent contributor to The Nation (a June 2, 2008, article, "Manufacturing a Food Crisis," led to his 2009 book, The Food Wars).