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News Commentary

Testimonials: Chito Gascon, the people’s advocate

Philstar.com
Chito Gascon
Commission on Human Rights chairman Jose Luis Gascon, seen here in a November 2017 photo, fought many battles for democracy and rights. It was COVID-19 that overcame him on Oct. 9, 2021.
AFP/Noel Celis, file

Gone too soon.

My fondest memory of Chito was our usual late-night binge after socio-civic or political meetings or a simple gathering with friends. Walang kyeme yang si Chito sa pagkain, kung minsan natutuluan pa ng sarsa yung T-shirt nya. Then, I would drive him home since he never renewed his driver’s license when he lost it twice, and lately, as being behind the wheels had become too physically taxing for him.

I’d never seen Chito relax in his years of work as people’s organizer and advocate of human rights. It’s a commitment etched in his heart and mind. To him, there was much work to do in this benighted land that’s slowly being torn to shreds by forces he had been fighting for generations. He had his triumphs; and his frustrations could be even more. Maybe that explains his vulnerability to sickness of the body, which thankfully had never affected his vision and strength of character.

"To him, there was much work to do in this benighted land that’s slowly being torn to shreds by forces he had been fighting for generations."

Chito had that magic, a charisma attracting people from various persuasions. We met at the time I was a member of Student Christian Movement and Artista ng Bayan, groups affiliated with national democrats. He was from the social democratic tradition (but turned liberal). I was taking up my MA in Women and Development at the UP-CSWD and he was in the UP College of Law. A brilliant speaker that he was, he persuaded me to join KALIPI (Liberal Youth), of which I eventually became secretary general. In 1995, I witnessed his steadfast advocacy for human rights and democracy when the Liberal Party, or LP, included former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in its senatorial slate. Chito raised a howl because he believed Enrile has a lot to answer for the human rights violations during Martial Law. His protest fell on deaf ears, so he decided to lie low in that mid-term election as his way of protest. He raised the same protest when LP adopted the late Manila Mayor Lim as its standard bearer in 1998 national elections.

You would know something was brewing in Chito’s mind when he called his friends to a series of meetings to discuss a concept or two. That was the way the Lawyers League for Liberty or LIBERTAS was born on 02-02-02, or February 2, 2002, coinciding with the 1987 Constitution’s 15th Anniversary. And yes, perhaps unknown to many, Chito had innate artistic gifts. He liked to draw logos, shirt designs, or sketches of office spaces and houses. In fact, we used to tease him that he’s a frustrated artist or draftsman. He designed the LIBERTAS logo and its other collaterals much to his delight. For him, it was like giving birth to a new baby.

He was a natural consensus builder. I saw him work up close and personal when he gathered teacher-groups belonging to different political ideologies. He focused on their commonalities rather than their differences until they agreed to unite on common causes. This effort founded the Teachers Consultative Council.

As Department of Education’s undersecretary for Legal and Legislative Affairs, he worked to improve the conditions of teachers’ cooperatives in public schools by resolving one issue that always served as an irritant between teachers and principals: the management of school canteens. It took him six months to arrive at the right formula for a win-win solution, which resulted in the issuance of DepEd Order No. 17.

The moment he took the helm as chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), Chito restructured the organization, which resulted in 204 new plantilla positions that beefed up the human resources of this constitutional body. It only happened, after 25 years of the commission’s existence, under Chito’s watch.

In this Oct. 13, 2016 photo, Commission on Human Rights Chair Jose Luis Gascon speaks to journalists at the Philippine Senate on the sidelines of the inquiry into extrajudicial killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's so-called war on drugs.
PRIB/Joseph Vidal

Furthermore, he started the renovation of the old building that housed CHR and created space for a freedom park, in which NGOs and POs, of any political colors, could gather and hold discussions and seminars. It was also under his watch, as chair the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, that the construction of the Freedom Memorial Museum in the University of the Philippines – Diliman Campus was approved. Too sad, he won’t be around anymore to see it rise.

"He became cool to the idea [of a Senate run] considering the resources needed to mount a sustained campaign. He didn’t want to get funds from shady businessmen at magkaroon ng utang na loob."

Life after CHR would have been predictably exciting for Chito. He dreamt of putting up an Academy of Democracy—oh, very Chito, as Atty. Bong Montesa revealed of late in our group chat. Chito was not spared from the lure of politics. Years ago, we were discussing his future bid for a senatorial seat where his qualifications would be best used, and Chito allowed us to imagine. He would join in the discussion, but eventually be cool to the idea considering the resources needed to mount a sustained campaign. He didn’t want to get funds from shady businessmen at magkaroon ng utang na loob.

Looking back, Chito would have fathered more NGOs, academies, big projects that would promote democracy and human rights, were his life not cut short by COVID-19. But we his friends and comrades who are left behind, I believe will eventually put up a program in his name as an ultimate tribute to a good, amazing man that he was It felt bitter sweet to drive for him to CHR office for the last time – but this time with his remains in an urn.

Rudy Santos is with the Office of the Chair for Human Rights Violations Victims' Memorial Commission or MEMCOM concerns.

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Thank you, Chito Gascon.

I first met Chito Gascon when I was in high school. He was then a member of House of Representatives representing the youth sector. I was part of a small group when he spoke to us about participatory democracy. Since then, our paths crossed multiple times. When I returned to the Philippines to work on elections research in 2007, Chito was very generous with his time and knowledge. He helped me navigate and understand contemporary Philippine power dynamics. He was always, always brimming with ideas and ideals.  Over many Grande sized sweet drinks, I learned from Chito about attempts at reforms, what ought to be, what went wrong and what can be done. Each time we spoke and met; I always took notes of new things I learned.

"He was always, always brimming with ideas and ideals."

In 2010, I met with Chito at Greenhills to talk about the recently held elections. Over cake, multiple slices, he was giving me his take on what went down in the elections and how the Liberal Party fared. What was supposed to be a one-hour meeting became a three-hour swapping of stories and possibly debriefing with senatorial bet Neric Acosta joining us. Conversations with Chito can go anywhere from democracy to Depeche Mode, from Philippine local politics to party politics in Italy. All topics were dissected, turned over and thrashed till there was nothing left to discuss. There are many reasons to get disheartened as a political scientist. Almost always, after talking with Chito, those thoughts go away.

It is easy to feel at ease with Chito. There is a goofy side to him that he is quick to show and share. And Chito loved to share. I once bumped into him in Rockwell (still very new at that time) and he was grinning ear to ear as he was peering into his shopping bag. They were filled with discs of 80s music he got on sale. Like muscle reflex, Chito hands me a stack of CDs. I protested and said, you haven’t even opened these yet, but he wouldn’t hear any of it.

"It is easy to feel at ease with Chito. There is a goofy side to him that he is quick to show and share. And Chito loved to share."

At another time, I sat next to him in a meeting I was not particularly thrilled to be in. Chito looked genuinely excited. He was gingerly bringing out his pens, opening a brand-new yellow notebook, arranging them neatly as the meeting was about to start. Again, like muscle reflex, hands me a brand-new yellow notebook and with his usual grin says, “it’s yours.” He seemed always thrilled to be in the moment. And always seemed to be around. When you invite Chito, he comes. Bringing with him his optimism and idealism.

There is one story that Chito always enjoyed and never tired of hearing. I bumped into Chito in a supermarket where I introduced to him my friend. Chito always gracious, says some things, shakes the hand of my friend and we part ways. As we were walking away, my friend gushes, “You are friends with Chito Gascon!” And I shrugged. By then Chito was Chito. You forget that he has this tremendous contribution on democracy. By then he was a friend who indulged in sweet drinks, who never let go of the menu in a restaurant (there was always something else to order) and would always need to cap a meal with dessert. As my friend and I were walking away from Chito, my friend casually walks up to the actor Richard Gomez, and they talk. I then get introduced to Richard Gomez and he shakes my hand. As we were walking away, I exclaimed, “You are friends with Richard Gomez, and you get impressed with Chito?” Chito breaks into his goofy smile whenever he hears this story.

I write this as I mourn the passing of Chito. I am one of many. He touched so many lives. I was fortunate to have witnessed his magnanimous spirit, his idealism. Thank you Chito for your loyal and generous service to our country. I hope our generation and the next can honor your service.

Dr. Cleo Calimbahin is an associate professor with the De La Salle University’s Department of Political Science.

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A friend, a leader, the CHR chair.

As a friend: Chito Gascon would come to our house and dine with my family. He always made me feel I’m part of his. We did argue many times, but after a while he would give me a hug.

Image courtesy of Jason Carmona

In my schooling, he challenged me by using some reverse psychology. He’d say, "Hindi ka papasa sa UP (University of the Philippines)." Later, I would show him my flat 1.00 grades for my first semester of post-graduate degree at the university’s National College of Public Administration and Governance (UP-NCPAG). He also agreed to help me win a Development Academy of the Philippines Scholarship to take my master’s degree. He showed genuine care and expressed with his actions and words how that he wanted me to succeed. He’d always tell me, "Jason, magpaka-dalubhasa ka, at pagkatapos ay ibalik mo sa mamamayan ang natutunan mo."

"He’d always tell me, 'Jason, magpaka-dalubhasa ka, at pagkatapos ay ibalik mo sa mamamayan ang natutunan mo.'

As my boss: Chito would always ensure those of us who were working behind the scenes would also enjoy the same food that he eats with his dignified visitors. Even when he was already the eloquent Chito people knew, he would sometimes me after an event if I found his speech good. What could I say? He was the best, most articulate speaker I've ever known. And he speaks with his heart, without codigo. He was fun-loving and enjoyed little things even at work. Once when we went on a road trip together, visiting regional offices, we would sing 80s and New Wave songs playing on the radio out loud.

"Even when he was already the eloquent Chito people knew, he would sometimes ask me after an event if I found his speech good."

As CHR chair: Human rights and the dignity of all persons was his deep passion. He never got tired working because he was doing what he loved to do. He gave the commission a new and permanent home. Sayang nga lang at hindi ito natapos bago siya umalis. The construction is still ongoing and will soon be finished. In his first year as the chairperson, he was able to add 200 plus new positions for the agency. The annual budget almost doubled. The last time I saw him was on TV where he successfully defended our budget before (administration senator) Sen. Bato dela Rosa. He secured the CHR Budget in 2017 at the Senate despite the P1,000 proposal pushed by the Lower House.

"The last time I saw him was on TV where he successfully defended our budget before (administration senator) Sen. Bato dela Rosa. He secured the CHR Budget in 2017 at the Senate despite the P1,000 proposal pushed by the Lower House."

To our Boss Chito Gascon: Napakabigat sa dibdib na umalis ka na. Ang hirap i-process. Napakabuti mong tao eh. Kaibigan at kapatid ang turing mo sa akin. Last time na nagkita tayo, sabi ko pa sayo, "I miss you, chair." Kasi nga nagpalipat muna ako sa Region 3 para sa Capstone Project ko. Sumagot ka na, ‘I miss you too, but we cannot hug kasi pandemic." Ayun nga at tuwang-tuwa ka naman sa pasalubong ko syo na chicharon laman.

For now, I bid you farewell, Chair Chito, for your peaceful journey back to our Creator. Your existence was indeed a very meaningful and a purposeful one. Until we meet again.

Jason Carmona is special investigator III of the Commission on Human Rights.

CHITO GASCON COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS OBITUARY
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