Renato Redentor Constantino, 7 May 2020
As we step through the portal created by the pandemic, connecting us to an array of potential new worlds, some of which are nasty and brutish and others gentle and just, it is troubling to realize we will not have the likes of Roberto “Obet” Verzola around to guide us through this uncertain period. Obet passed away peacefully early evening yesterday from complications arising from surgery. He was 67.
Obet, as he is known to friends, was not just an ideal Filipino for many. To those who knew him, Obet was an ideal human who lived a life of integrity, one that reflected perfectly his political convictions.
Obet had an unshakable commitment to help bring about a gentler world where people can live with nature as part of it and not apart from the environment. He harnessed technology but always with care; he was never swayed by the false promises of purveyors who saw particularly in information technology the means for a few to further concentrate wealth and to secure control over the lives of the majority. Obet was active on several fronts, spanning electoral reform, intellectual property rights, agriculture and genetic engineering, and renewable energy.
Obet was always hopeful but never deluded. He was gentle beyond all measure and stubborn to a fault, and his quiet bearing always conveyed a character that eludes so many so-called leaders today, one that is defined by dignity and a healthy respect for life’s intrinsic complexities. Throughout his storied and accomplished life, Obet pursued and maintained a profound embrace of simplicity that few of us will ever in our lifetimes attain.
For over a decade Obet was part of the Constantino Foundation‘s Bulletin Board, working closely with its founder, the late Letizia Roxas Constantino, and other intellectuals from different backgrounds and political persuasions. The Foundation published his provocative book Towards a Political Economy of Information.
Overlooked often for the elegantly simplified presentation and discussion of complex issues of the day, for two decades the Bulletin Board produced small poster-sized issues propagated and mailed to tens of thousands at the initiative’s height throughout the archipelago, beginning in the late 80s. Affectionately known as BBs, the materials were posted regularly by countless BB volunteers on sari-sari stores, office water stations, work place meeting areas, schools, farms, and business establishments by tricycle drivers, laborers, clerks, teachers, vendors, mothers, students, activists, and government officials. Run before the age of the internet, the BBs’ aim was not just to ignite debate but to encourage greater public participation in the nation’s affairs. To a large extent, the efforts of Obet and others in the BB team succeeded.
Obet was a valued leader in the BB, and his sharp mind allowed the dissection of extremely complicated issues ranging from economics to climate change to food, the environment, world trade, gender, and human rights. Obet did not only live a simple life; he helped simplify the necessity of public involvement for others, understanding that an informed population is an essential means to encouraging and empowering genuine participation by the public in shaping their nation’s future.
That he is referred to as the father of Philippine email, or as a founder of strategies in agriculture that could increase farmer productivity without irreparably injuring ecosystems — these are things Obet would have laughed at. Because he never asked for any accolades. It was always enough for Obet to have the opportunity to contribute his ideas and to have the space, some space, any space however small, to test his ideas and to see them to their fruition.
He was also a pioneering student activist from the Philippine Science High School and the University of the Philippines. He was tortured brutally during the Marcos dictatorship but while he always fought to advance the cause of human rights, he was never vindictive or shrill in the way he articulated justice, which he never asked for himself.
Of his enduring legacies, one that Obet should be remembered by will be the wisdom in which he framed the multiple challenges faced by the still fractious, diverse social forces fighting for change today amidst the plethora of social illnesses brought about by rank inequality: once we begin to understand that many of us are running on several race tracks, we will also realize that there is little need to elbow one another or to pull one away towards another track. Those fighting for justice and striving to keep alive the memory of the dark days of martial rule so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past; those struggling to protect poor communities from the plunderers and predators of today — they are not competing with others fighting against the onset of dangerous climate change, or those fighting to protect ecosystems for the long-term, and those pushing the cause of an early transition to a sustainably powered economy.
Our objectives do not clash, Obet counselled. It’s just that some are in a sprint race while others are in a marathon and we must learn in the process to run together so we can run better and together reach our desired destinations sooner.
Obet passed away too early, which he might find humorous considering that many of his friends would have told him numerous times that he was a visionary and seemed to always be one step ahead of most in looking at elements needed to build a new and gentler future.
Obet was an ideal human being and he would be terribly disappointed if all we can do now is grieve, and extol the qualities that made him a beautiful person, instead of trying to imbibe them in order to help get others to provide the very thing our country today lacks: countless Filipinos acting out of love for their country with humility and a deep, abiding sense of selfless citizenship.