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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.

October 28, 1989|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA RITA, Philippines — 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.

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