Ex-Rebel 'Commander Dante' Enlists in a New Revolution : Philippines: The founder of a rural insurgency once was sentenced to death. Now freed, he is helping farmers run a successful co-op.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The old farmer had died peacefully, and dozens of villagers filled the house, sipping Cokes and playing cards. But over by the white casket, a thin, soft-spoken man paid his own special respects.

"He used to hide me in his house many times," said Bernabe Buscayno. "He was a true believer in what we were fighting for. He was one of our best NPA cadre."

That's high praise since Buscayno is better known as Commander Dante, founder of the New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party. For more than a decade, he was the best-known and most-feared guerrilla in the Philippines.

Son of a peasant farmer, Dante had joined pro-Soviet rebels by age 17. He soon ran the "Beatles," a terrorist gang that fought the rival "Monkees" for control of central Luzon. In 1969, the young revolutionary turned his few dozen ragtag guerrillas into the core of an insurgent Maoist army that is still active today in one out of every five Philippine villages.

Then, in 1976, Dante was captured. Sentenced to death by firing squad, he spent 10 years in solitary confinement. He was released with two other Communist Party leaders after President Corazon Aquino granted amnesty to political prisoners shortly after she came to power in 1986.

And therein lies a tale. Now 46 and fighting an ulcer, Dante has returned to the dusty villages and green rice paddies of Tarlac province, 50 miles northwest of Manila, where he was born and where he founded the New People's Army, to lead another revolution.

This one is peaceful. In one year, he has helped 3,700 farmers, many of them former NPA soldiers, to organize what may be the nation's most successful cooperative. Using high-yield seeds and Dante's guidance, the farmers have tripled output, paid debts, bought trucks and tractors and opened co-op stores.

"It is what I always wanted to do, even before I joined the underground," Dante said, sitting on sacks of rice in the co-op's busy new warehouse. "My goal was always to help farmers better their lives. Just the method has changed."

"When I joined the underground, we fought landowners first," he said. "We couldn't get our rice from the land. We were exploited by usurers and by traders. So we had to steal, we had to fight. When they sent the army and the police, we had to fight them too. When I came back from prison, many problems were the same."

But one thing had changed. Thousands of Tarlac farmers had gotten one- or two-hectare plots from the NPA, or under President Ferdinand E. Marcos' land reform.

"Now there is no need to fight for land, or die for it," Dante said.

Instead, each farmer tills his own land. Members share pest control, irrigation and fertilizer. Working together, they won higher prices for their rice. Moreover, Dante secured four 12% loans from the government-owned Land Bank. Since farmers paid loan sharks up to 300% a year, the low-interest loans alone revolutionized life here.

"Before, never was there a time when we didn't have debts," said Fausta Maglaqui, a farmer's wife and mother of 11 in Santa Rita. "Sometimes, there was not enough for food. Now, we can pay."

The results are visible all around. Tractors compete with water buffalo in the muddy fields. Cement-block homes are replacing flimsy huts. Televisions blare at night. And Dante's political ties snared bigger prizes. A government agency is paving dirt roads. A charitable foundation built the warehouse and rice mill. The Netherlands Embassy gave a computer.

"Before Dante came back, we were very poor," said Benito Manalang, a barefoot, toothless farmer in neighboring Manga village. "Now we have roads. Now we have electricity. He has helped a lot of people."

Indeed, after Dante repaid more than $500,000 in co-op loans ahead of schedule, the Land Bank ran newspaper ads praising him for turning "a revolutionary idea into bountiful harvests."

Once-skeptical officials give grudging respect. "I'd like to think the farmers are responding to the program and not fear of Commander Dante," said Emanuel Espinosa, secretary of the Serve Tarlac Foundation that has supported the co-op. "They know he will not fool them or cheat them."

Farmers in other co-ops rarely repay loans, said Clemente Flores, a rural banker in Tarlac's provincial capital. "The co-op movement in the Philippines is nothing to be proud about. The failure rate is 90%."

Though Dante plans to start up two more co-ops next year, even supporters are doubtful. "Maybe it can't be replicated anywhere," said Dr. Francisco Nemenzo, a chancellor of the University of the Philippines. "The Dante factor cannot be duplicated. He's operating with people who are used to action, and who are loyal to him."

Eventually, Dante wants the co-op to sell and distribute its own rice and produce, bypassing local millers, truckers, traders and other middlemen. He and his aides admit the plan may be their downfall.

"We know we are going to fail," said Dante's wife, Fatima. "We are hurting a lot of businessmen. We are working against their interest."

The predicted failure may not be long in coming.

"The military is only waiting for an opportunity to cut the distribution," warned Father Videl Cruz, a self-described "pistol-packing priest" in nearby Bamban village. "For them, it is an abuse. For me, it is an abuse. He's a killer."

Others question whether Manila is propping up Dante's showcase co-op in exchange for peace with the New People's Army in President Aquino's home province.

"If Cory is not president, what will happen?," worried former Bamban Mayor Ricardo Ignacio. "An NPA is always an NPA."

In fact, Dante's ties to Aquino are long and deep. When he was 11, he cut sugar cane on her family's sprawling Hacienda Luisita. Later, he followed her young husband, Benigno S. (Ninoy) Aquino Jr., entranced by his campaign speeches. The two became friends, and Dante admits now that Benigno Aquino's support was crucial to his guerrilla movement.

It was Aquino, he said, who arranged his first meeting with Jose Maria Sison, founder and chief theorist of the fledgling Communist Party of the Philippines. "It was really Ninoy who made Sison and me talk," Dante said, acknowledging the tie for the first time.

Dante said Benigno Aquino took Sison to the Hacienda Luisita and had two aides take him to meet Dante by a twisted mango tree that still stands in Manga village. The NPA was born that night, March 29, 1969. It had only 45 armed soldiers.

"Dante needed a political party to give leadership to his group," said Nemenzo, the university academic who is also a scholar of the NPA and longtime friend. "Sison was looking for an army. It was a perfect match."

Though fighting was fierce in Tarlac, the NPA never attacked Aquino's hacienda.

"They brought most of the wounded to Ninoy's house," said Fatima. "They borrowed money from Ninoy. And he would pay doctors not to tell on the NPA."

Once, Dante said, Aquino helped get jobs for dozens of NPA soldiers as guards and workers at a giant Voice of America radio relay station being built near the hacienda. When it was complete, Commander Dante's troops stole every radio, phone and transmitter.

"We couldn't use them," he recounted with a laugh. "When I tried, someone would answer from VOA. Everything was on their frequency."

Such exploits became legend. Dante was a Robin Hood to peasants, giving land and hope to the landless. He was a terrorist to the military, accused of dozens of murders and said to torture and cannibalize his victims. He escaped capture again and again, once gunning down the four soldiers who had surrounded him.

Dante's ideology was just as fierce. He taught at the guerrillas' "Stalin University" in the rugged Zambales Mountains, quoting both U.S. Army field manuals and Mao Tse-tung's Red Book. He coolly executed longtime friends in party purges. He named his four children Revolutionario, Communista, Serve the People, and May First.

After his arrest, Dante was tried for murder together with Benigno Aquino, who was also charged with providing guns to Dante. Both were sentenced to death in 1979. The two old friends swore in court to care for both families if the other died. Benigno Aquino was later allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment, and was assassinated at Manila airport in 1983 as he returned from exile.

Ultimately, Dante was released from prison in the custody of Aquino's mother, Dona Aurora. She also guaranteed Dante's hospital bills when he was ambushed and nearly killed by gunmen in military uniforms in June, 1987. At the time, President Corazon Aquino said she had phoned to make sure the hospital "gave special attention to Dante."

"The funny thing now is Ninoy's wife is taking care of Dante," said Fatima. "She's helping the co-op. It couldn't have taken off so quickly without her help."

Dante didn't forget that debt. He is surprisingly supportive of a controversial land reform program at the 16,000-acre Hacienda Luisita. Although landowners with smaller holdings must surrender all but 12 1/2 acres in 10 years, the president's family offered to issue workers stock certificates over 30 years instead.

"It is the owner's right," Dante said. "They should divide the stock equitably among the owners and workers."

Looking back, he said, Benigno Aquino was simply trying to survive under the Marcos regime.

"All along, I thought he was sympathetic to us," he said. "But he was using us for politics. He was very pragmatic."

Dante's own politics are still evolving. Shortly before he went to prison, he said, "I learned that many friends who were poor, when they rose up in the village, they became exploiters. Exploiters! I realized there were no fixed-class enemies, or fixed-class friends. That's when I began to doubt."

In prison, he read everything from Charles Darwin to Karl Marx's "Das Kapital." His English improved when he read Webster's Dictionary from cover to cover. The tattered, dogeared book is the only remnant of his old life in the simple house that he and Fatima share with co-op workers.

Over a dinner of fried crickets and roast deer, Dante declined to rule out picking up his gun again. But he called armed struggle unnecessary now that the rural economy has improved.

"It was necessary to take up arms to take land," he said. "That issue alone made the difference between then and now. They no longer need us."

Dante dismisses as propaganda government claims that the NPA still fields about 23,000 soldiers. He said the NPA had that force only at its height in 1985.

"Now, they have 7,000 men, mostly in the jungle," he said.

The Communist boycott of the 1986 elections that helped topple Marcos was a critical error, he said. Bloody purges have revealed bitter factional feuding. And support for China, even after the Beijing massacre of June 3-4, has cut appeal further. Dozens of NPA cadre and troops have been captured or have surrendered in recent months.

"I think the NPA is eliminating itself," he said. "They have made mistakes. They have lost touch with the people. They do not see reality."

And in the end, Dante said, even revolutionaries must face reality.

"When I was young, I dreamed of progress, of an egalitarian society where there was peace and democracy," he said. "I was an idealist, a dreamer. But real life isn't like that. Real life is more of a struggle."

BACKGROUND

For nearly two decades, the Philippines has been racked by a Communist insurgency. Born in Tarlac province northwest of Manila, the New People's Army spread to three-quarters of the nation's 72 provinces, and today is active in one village out of five. Government troops and economic programs have had limited success against the rebels. Now the NPA's founder, long its best-known guerrilla, has turned to another revolution, this one peaceful.

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