Saturday, August 05, 2006

Raul Roco: In Memoriam - Tales from the 2004 Presidential Campaign Trail

Today is the first death anniversary of Raul S. Roco. A mass is scheduled tonight at the Dela Strada Parish Church, Katipunan, Quezon City to mark his death anniversary. I did not even realize that it has already been a year since his demise until I received an email from Mrs. Roco inviting me to join the commemorative mass. It seems that it was only yesterday that we were all shocked to hear the news of his passing. As my first boss, RSR (as we his staffers called him which stands for his initials) was not only my employer but my political mentor and, ever since my father died, a surrogate father as well. His death has had a profound effect on me.

I was on the campaign trail with RSR when he first complained of back pain sometime in April 2004, which doctors eventually diagnosed as a remission of his prostate cancer. He was running for President and we were in Zamboanga Sibugay province campaigning for votes there. I was the staff in-charge of preparing for the entire Zamboanga Peninsula-Negros Island Sortie. Even when we were just planning the trip, things were already not good. We were having problems sourcing a helicopter for our candidates' island-hopping sortie, supposedly because Petron (which holds a monopoly on aviation fuel in the country) would not sell us aviation fuel. We suspected that this was part of MalacaƱang's "dirty tricks" designed to handicap our campaign. Nonetheless, Campaign HQ bosses decided to push thru with the Zamboanga-Negros leg BY LAND! Those familiar with Philippine geography would know that travelling the Zamboanga provinces by land is not only dangerous (because of MILF and Abu Sayyaf rebels) but also back-breaking (because of its mountainous terrain and long stretches of bad roads). But orders were orders, and we had to make do with what was given to us.

While we were in Naga, Zamboanga Sibugay, an over-excited, middle-aged woman suddenly hugged RSR. I then saw his reaction: instead of smiling (he loved to be hugged by adoring women), RSR grimaced painfully. Later, when we were already on the road travelling to our next whistlestop, he was constantly complaining of a jarring pain in his lower back. Seeing his condition, we then decided to cancel our scheduled whistlestops and hastily motored to Pagadian City, the capital of Zamboanga del Sur province. That night, we arranged for a local masseuse to massage him at his hotel room, thinking that it was just muscle "wear-and-tear" caused by all the prolonged travelling. But the massage did not ease his pain and the following day, RSR had to fly back to Manila leaving the rest of the candidates and their staff to continue on with the campaign swing without him.

With the sortie finished, I reported back to our National Campaign HQ in Manila. The youth volunteers were all joking and kidding me for arranging a "very demanding and back-breaking" itinerary for our candidates. But about a week later, our jovial mood was shattered when RSR announced that he has prostate cancer and that he was leaving for the U.S. to have it treated. RSR made the announcement just when he was about to board the plane to Houston, Texas and absolutely no one in the campaign staff (except I think for Mrs. Roco and Atty. Lorna Kapunan) knew about it beforehand. Needless to say, we all felt bad and some of our most rabid campaigners decided to leave the HQ.

But I interpreted his leaving as a political gamble and a calculated risk: Roco was already slipping in various surveys and the only way to reverse the trend is if we can pull off some sort of miracle comeback. If we can show people that Roco is cured of his prostate cancer after his trip to the US, maybe we can still salvage our faltering campaign by stage-managing his "triumphal return." I say it was a gamble because RSR could have kept his ailment a secret and just go on campaigning. We knew that if we did not do something drastic and dramatic, we will lose the elections. For one, the major national media networks, which have been largely ignoring us, finally RSR's departure front page treatment.

Our scenario for RSR's "triumphal return" involved a grand motorcade along Metro Manila's major thouroughfares and a confetti parade along Makati's Ayala Avenue. I was assigned the task of arranging the "confetti shower" and was given only 48 hours to accomplish the task. With limited time and resources, I hastily assembled a team of youth volunteers to shred paper and to throw confetti off office buildings in Ayala. When the day of his arrival came, a huge throng of supporters in "dressed up" vehicles greeted RSR at the airport. The "Flower Power" Motorcade then slowly snaked its way to Makati to announce the "ressurection" of Raul Roco. The motorcade was so long that its head was already in Ayala Avenue while its tail was still in Roxas Boulevard-Baclaran, ParaƱaque. It was a glorious sight and that day, I truly believed we can still win.

I was running back and forth along Ayala Avenue frantically issuing last-minute instructions to our "Confetti Brigade" when RSR saw me in the crowd. Amid the noise of jubilant onlookers and the shower of confetti, RSR beamingly winked at me: his way of acknowledging and thanking me for a job well done. That was the last time I saw him alive.

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