A Tribute To Dodong Nemenzo
Today is the last day in office of a great man: Francisco Nemenzo, universally known as Dodong. He is retiring from his post as president of the University of the Philippines, the country's top university. He has served the University in many different capacities for more than forty years, primarily as a wonderful teacher of politics but also as someone committed to the necessary tasks of institution-building at a time when the very ethos of UP - as a secular, progressive, publicly-funded place of learning and scholarship - has been under attack from many quarters. He has skillfully met all these challenges and taken UP into the new century in robust health. His legacy will be enduring.
I have known Dodong for a number of years and I owe him a great deal. There is an official tribute to him - in video format - at the UP website. It gives a sense of the public man and the testimonies are warm and unaffected, in keeping with his character. And there is a lovely piece on him from Bonn, as one of his inspired students, over at A Good Game. But I want to offer here a less formal set of reminiscences - both personal and political - that I have culled from conversations usually propelled by drinking whisky and listening to jazz (two of his passions, modestly indulged).
Dodong did his postgraduate studies at the University of Manchester in the early 1960s as a result of a political accident. As with most Filipino students in those days he had applied to study in the United States but was turned down for a visa because of his political views - he was already a committed Marxist bent on revitalising the moribund Left politics. He has some lovely stories of his time in Manchester - stories still fresh in the memory and told with an infectious chuckle: the cold rooms in Whalley Range and Salford he shared with Princess that were heated by a single-bar electric fire; his encounters with students committed to the CPGB as well as those who were already forming the "New Left"; his passion for the English school of Marxist historians - Hobsbawm, Hill, Thompson - which never left him; the music bar on Brazenose Street where he first heard four relatively unknown lads from Liverpool; and the birth of his son, named for Fidel Castro, in St. Mary's Hospital.
After his return to the Philippines Dodong was inevitably drawn into the labyrinthine world of Philippine Left politics. With all modesty, he recalls his years on the run from Marcos's thugs and his eventual imprisonment. And after the return to democracy in 1986 he struggled to rebuild the chronically divided Left, helping to found BISIG [Bukluran sa Ikauunlad ng Sosyalistang Isip at Gawa] as a non-sectarian, participatory socialist party, often organising in the face of bitter hostility from the dogmatic Stalinists of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
And all the while Dodong fought, with clarity and no little courage, his natural enemies from the self-appointed elite of Filipino politics who returned to power with alacrity after Marcos's fall. This predatory elite has indulged in the usual red-baiting while actively trying to undermine his much-needed reforms of UP. I remember one story which must have been excruciating for him. Dodong was invited to Malacañang in 2001 by the new president, Gloria Macagapal Arroyo, the latest incarnation of what Ben Anderson once called "cacique democracy". Arroyo then deliberately spoke across Dodong to the man sitting next to him for two hours, rendering him silent, a humiliation he accepted with stoicism. His exemplary response was to successfully redouble his efforts to defend UP's rights against a government bent on eroding its funding and commodifying higher education. And he did it in his well-trusted way: by mobilising the huge well-spring of support for his humane vision of education.
I once asked Dodong what he would do next. As I expected, his mind was full of fresh and fertile ideas: the possibility of a visiting fellowship at the University of Havana to give himself the time to research the remarkable parallels in the political histories of Cuba and the Philippines; the establishment of a leftwing think tank in order to create a space for young socialists to thrash out new ideas and strategies; and many more. Last week he sent me a present - a bottle of best Filipino tapuy (rice wine). I'll be raising a glass to Dodong tonight - not just to a past well lived but to a future to be struggled for.