LAND AND JUSTICE FOR THE PEASANTS AND FARM WORKERS OF HACIENDA LUISITA

By Prof. Jose Maria Sison
Chairperson
International League of Peoples’ Struggle
16 November 2009

Today, the working people of the world are launching various forms of protest actions to mark the International Day of Action against Trade Union Repression. This provides a meaningful context for commemorating and protesting the massacre of striking peasants and farm workers in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac province in the Philippines in 2004. The working people of Hacienda Luisita exemplify the plight and struggle of the working people of semicolonial and semifeudal countries, who still comprise the majority of the world’s population.

Hacienda Luisita is the vast 6,000-hectare tract of land in Central Luzon owned by the wealthy and powerful Cojuangco family to which former Pres. Corazon “Cory” Aquino belonged . It stands as a bulwark of feudal and semi-feudal exploitation and oppression within the context of the world capitalist system. It demonstrates how the big comprador-landlords exploit the working people and wield state power to oppress them. It exposes as a sham the so-called “comprehensive agrarian reform program” that the Aquino ruling clique had launched since the 1980s.

Earlier the Cojuangco family bought Hacienda Luisita from the Spanish Tabacalera corporation with a loan from the government in the 1950s. The loan was granted with the provision that a major portion of the land (2000 hectares) would be distributed later on to the peasants, within the frame of the government’s “land reform” program.

The Cojuangco family not only failed to distribute the designated portion of the land, it maneuvered to keep it and used violence to suppress those who demanded land reform. In 1985, a trial court ruled that the lands be distributed to the peasants, but 1986 saw the ascent to the presidency of Aquino. The Aquino regime crafted an agrarian reform program which was riddled with so many exemptions, including one called the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) that was used to exempt Luisita from land distribution.

In this context, we can fully appreciate the significance of the strike launched by Luisita peasants and farm workers in November 2004. They were protesting the P9.50 take-home pay per day at the hacienda – a result of the Stock Distribution Option scheme hatched by the Cojuangcos and the landlord class to gain legal exemption from the fake agrarian reform program being implemented by the government. They were also protesting the dismissal of 300 workers from the hacienda’s sugar refinery, an act intended to bust the local union which was then becoming militant.

Before and during their strike, the peasants and farm workers of Luisita – with the active support of patriotic and progressive mass organizations and alliances throughout the country, and with the help of alternative media – won the attention and sympathy of the working people of the country and the world. Many among the urban petty-bourgeoisie in the Philippines were shocked to learn about concrete forms of feudal exploitation and oppression that were persisting in the countryside. The working people of the Philippines and the world applauded and encouraged the working people of Luisita .

The Cojuangcos, the big comprador-landlord classes, and the reactionary state were all shamed by the justness of the calls of the Luisita peasants and farm workers. They reacted swiftly and viciously to the strike. Patricia Sto. Tomas, then-labor secretary of the US-backed regime of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, issued an Assumption of Jurisdiction order on the issue, ordering the strikers to go back to work and authorizing the deployment of military and police forces to dismantle the strike. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., who was widely believed to have been promoted to his post for helping Mrs. Arroyo cheat in the 2004 elections, was the military’s chief of staff.

The military and police forces went to the hacienda, bringing tanks, tear gas, and high-powered rifles. The Luisita peasants and farm workers stood their ground. With their unity and militance, they repelled various attempts at breaking the strike. Thousands upon thousands of workers, peasants and farm workers, together with their women folk, locked arms and pushed away with their bodies the military and police who were armed with shields. After reaching the ground, canisters of tear gas thrown by the military were immediately covered with soil. A farmer, speaking to the military, summed up their spirit: “Since you are already killing us, we might as well die fighting.” These could only have aroused fear and panic in the hearts of the oppressors..

In the afternoon of November 16, 2004,after the strikers promised in a negotiation with military and police officials to lay down the pieces of wood they were holding for defending themselves and to defend the strike with just their bodies, the military and police forces opened fire. A few minutes of gunfire left Jhaivie Basilio, Adriano Caballero, Jhune David, Jesus Laza, Juancho Sanchez, Jaime Pastidio and Jessie Valdez fatally wounded. Some of them could have been kept alive, but hospitals in Cojuangco-dominated Tarlac refused to admit patients from the hacienda. Calling for land to the tillers, they died fighting for the just cause of the peasants and farm workers of Luisita and the country.

The owners of the hacienda, the reactionary government and the bourgeois mass media tried to spread the canard that it was the Luisita farmers and farm workers who started the violence and that it was fighters of the New People’s Army,.who started the shooting. Their propaganda could not stand up to the truth of the audio-visual evidence taken by progressive filmmakers who covered the strike. The bursts of gunfire came from the ranks of the military and the police. Subsequently, death squads of the military went on a spree killing strike leaders and supporters, including a bishop and a city councilor.

While the touters of the reactionary justice system in the Philippines often cite the adage that “justice delayed is justice denied,” justice has clearly been delayed and has been denied to the peasants and farm workers of Hacienda Luisita. Five years after the massacre, no one has been punished for the crime. There are many victims, but none of the criminal perpetrators is imprisoned. Investigation of the cases has been proceeding at snail pace, and the only significant development is that de facto president Arroyo, her labor secretary Sto. Tomas and the military butcher Esperon have been removed from the list of those charged. The ones remaining on the sham charge sheet are the police and military officers who tested positive in paraffin tests. But they are scot free and biding their time.

The power of the labor secretary to issue Assumption of Jurisdiction (AJ) orders remains in place – despite the graphic demonstration by what happened in Luisita of its lethal consequences for working people. After the massacre, the labor secretary issued AJ orders for numerous workplaces in Central Luzon, thus facilitating the militarization of that region. Since it was approved as part of the Labor Code in 1989, the AJ has been used as license to suppress workers’ actions in workplaces throughout the country. It is being imposed even before a strike is initiated – when collective bargaining negotiations end in deadlock or when notices of strike are filed before the government.

Pressured by the strike and the widespread condemnation of the massacre locally and internationally, the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), in December 2005, revoked the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) scheme being implemented in the hacienda and placed the lands previously under the SDO into the “compulsory coverage” scheme of the government’s agrarian reform program. The Hacienda Luisita management, losing no time, filed for a Temporary Restraining Order in January 2006 against the resolution. In June 2006, the Supreme Court issued a TRO and ordered the PARC and the Department of Agrarian Reform to implement the revocation of the SDO.

Seeing the opportunity in this deadlock, and knowing that waiting for government intervention will get them nowhere, the peasants and farm workers of the hacienda took the initiative and launched their “kampanyang bungkal” or campaign to till, which called on all working people of the hacienda to plant crops that are necessary for everyday nourishment, such as rice and vegetables, and can be sold for added income, such as fruits. With the participation of more than a thousand families, the hacienda land, which used to showcase sugarcane, now boasts of golden fields of rice. The campaign caused an improvement in the lives and livelihood of the working people of Luisita.

The Cojuangco family, however, has not given up on the fight to own the Luisita lands. Last December 2008, emboldened by the passage of a law extending the government’s anti-peasant agrarian reform program – which still contained the SDO as one of the (non-)distribution schemes – the Hacienda Luisita management issued a memorandum to the peasants tilling the 2,000-hectare portion of the hacienda which ordered them to stop using the lands for whatever purpose. After a public clamor directed at Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III – a member of the Cojuangco family who’s running in the 2010 presidential elections – the Hacienda Luisita management was forced to backtrack.

Now, the Hacienda Luisita management is carrying out what it calls an “enlistment” of peasants who would become the “beneficiaries” of agrarian reform in the hacienda – as if it were the authorized body to implement agrarian reform in that area and as if it were authorized to do so despite the TRO. It is complaining of “illegal tillers” encroaching upon the hacienda, who are actually the working people of Luisita. It is also undertaking land-use conversion schemes in various parts of the land. The creation of a vast highway that passes through the hacienda is being seen as an opportunity to increase the value of hacienda land and an opening to commercial uses of portions of the hacienda.

Five years after the massacre, the struggle of the Luisita peasants and farm workers for justice, including the junking of the Assumption of Jurisdiction power of the labor secretary, and land continues. They deserve the full support of the working people of the Philippines and the whole world. We hope that our International Day of Action against Trade Union Repression and the fifth anniversary of the Hacienda Luisita massacre will be an occasion for working people everywhere to discuss and raise the issues of trade union repression in their work places and countries. We should not allow trade union repression to weaken our ranks and spirit. It should goad us to fight back and gain strength through struggle.

We have to continue and intensify our struggle not just against trade union repression but also against the forms of feudal and semi-feudal exploitation which are aligned with the world capitalist system. Let us keep in mind that monopoly capitalist control of global agriculture and the food system has now created a global famine afflicting over a billion people for the first time in world history.

The struggle of the Luisita peasants and farm workers is instructive. It is only through the militant struggle of working people that they can gain strength and aim for their national and social liberation. We may win victories in our struggle for reforms within the present world capitalist system but these will continue to be at risk until we, the people of the world, are strong enough to overthrow the exploiters and oppressors.###

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