Henedina Abad: The Reluctant Politician and the Politics of Conscience

Feature24.04.2019
Henedina Abad
FNF SEEAsia

“The truth of the matter is that Dina was not a politician and up to the time that she left us, she was a reluctant politician. And I think she became a politician because of I think one trait that really led her to where she is right now, and it was her willingness to give off herself,” thus said Florencio “Butch” Abad during one lonely, rainy night, executing a task that is one of the most difficult and painful for a man to do—deliver the eulogy for his wife. Batanes Rep. Henedina “Dina” Razon Abad succumbed to cancer on 8 October 2017. 

It was not coincidental that the wake and memorial services were held at the Ateneo de Manila University’s main campus in suburban Manila. Dina, a long-time university professor, was the Founding Dean of the Jesuit institution’s School of Government. 

The reluctance in politics was understandable given Dina’s long-standing career in the academe and civil society, and by being a “parliamentarian of the streets” even before becoming a member of parliament. 

Henedina Abad
Ateneo De Mania University Official Website

“I first encountered Dina Abad in my youth at the height of the Marcos Dictatorship when I was a student leader and she was a young professional, as we found ourselves marching together and protesting in the streets,” Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon, current chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, narrated. “She, along with her husband Butch, were part of the group of people we looked up to as men- tors. Dina struck me then as a firm and steadfast person who had a clear understanding of the problems in Philippine society and had a vision of how to go about transforming it. Her steadfastness was equal parts encouraging as she engaged others to follow her path, and unnerving as one could be intimidated by her demeanor. Her resoluteness was admirable!” 

Henedina Abad
CALD Archives

Her predecessor as Dean of Ateneo School of Government (ASOG), Dr. Ronald Mendoza, asserted, “Dina Abad, the educator, was also a visionary development entrepreneur, growing the only private sector run school of government in the Philippines. Along with like-minded leaders, (she) helped to lay the institutional groundwork for lasting change, by producing and influencing leaders that would carry the Ateneo’s distinct brand of servant leadership. Our commitment to what Dean Dina started is reflected in the school’s new motto: ‘Forming leaders. Leading reforms” (Ateneo de Manila University, 2017). 

Her multifarious and multidimensional roles became more evident as she never really gave up being an educator, a development worker and an activist even when she joined mainstream politics, reaching her pinnacle as deputy speaker during the presidency of Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino, III. 

As Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid (2017) observed, “Her early years in development advo- cacy were focused on rural development and agrarian reform – as a valuable partner to her husband Butch, who later held three critical cabinet posts as agrarian reform, education, and budget secretary. But it was not long before she began to do things on her own – engaging with NGOS and civil society on critical national concerns including human rights. She was elected representative in Congress where she became Deputy Speaker during the 17th Congress. She chaired the Committees on Energy, Government Reorganization, and Rural Development and was active in the crafting of bills on reproductive health, freedom of information, among many others.” 

The reluctance in politics and with it, the unwillingness to achieve power no matter what the cost made Dina, the politician, more conscientious, and diligent than most of her colleagues. She was truly honorable, a title compulsorily affixed to all Filipino congressmen whether they deserved it or not. 

Former President Aquino himself acknowledged the invaluable contributions of Dina, as legislator and deputy speaker, in pushing for a key legislative agenda of his administration—the women’s health and reproductive rights law. It was an issue that was close to Dina’s heart as Dina wore another hat—as an advocate of women’s rights. During his eulogy, the former president who also served as legislator in both houses of congress, expressed his admiration for Dina’s steadfastness when it came to issues she was passionate about, narrating how he and a few others were once given a lecture on gender sensitivity but no one had the guts to offer a rebuttal. 

Indeed, the reluctant politician was determined to be and do her best in this new frontier of her life, and she never ceased from being the stern teacher she had a reputation for. 

Henedina Abad
CALD Archives

“This is my story about Dina. I was really afraid of her. I was scared of Dina Abad. In fact, I was scared and still am scared that I actually wrote out what I was going to say not wanting to disappoint her,” confessed MAR Roxas, former senator, secretary and LP president in his eulogy. “I was scared I would not live up to her expectations, to her high standards, or that I would fail her. She had a gentle, yet firm way about her: supportive, encouraging, enabling. She made me want to do better--to do my best.” 

In the same memorial service, Vice President Leni Robredo recalled that it was her late husband, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who introduced Dina to her during a Liberal Party event. She later privately told her husband that she was surprised that Dina was only a few years older than she was. The vice president recalled that “though Jesse called Secretary Abad as ‘Butch’, Jesse would always address Rep. Abad as ‘Ma’amDina’. I would overhear Jesse talking with Dina on the phone and when he spoke to her it was as if he was talking to his mother, there was always this reverence. And in these discussions, there was always some form of consultation as Dina’s advice was always sought after. 

Henedina Abad
Leni Robredo Official Facebook Page

It would not take long before the vice president and Dina would become close friends as well, just as their husbands were especially since the two women were both members of the 17th Congress. The two shared a lot in common: they were married to very successful and principled public servants and before becoming politicians themselves, they were in careers that were more altruistically rewarding that gave relatively little financial compensation. The vice president was a human rights lawyer representing the poor and underprivileged before she run for congress. And, they were nurturing mothers who raised accomplished children who eventually studied in ivy-league universities in the United States and leading schools in Europe—all on scholarship grants. 

Even outside the House of Representatives, the two would often meet and share their stories, their hopes and frustrations, especially with what was going on in the country. “I had a very difficult time making a decision (when asked to run for vice president). And Dina would always say to me ‘just follow your heart because what is in your heart is right.’ And I did just that, she was right, and I followed what was in my heart,” said Vice President Robredo. 

Indeed, these two remarkable women shared many things in common: they were both reluctant politicians who not only followed their hearts but answered the call of destiny. 

“You know precisely where Dina stands,” President Aquino further narrated, “(though we were) almost always in complete agreement, you might have very spirited and heated discussions. There might be even a raising of voices. But at the end of every debate no matter how hard it was, no matter (if) your blood is boiling, Dina always had a ready smile.” The author has, in many occasions, observed Aquino addressing Dina as “Atche”, meaning “older sister” in their native Pampango (The Razons are from Lubao, Pampanga while the Aquinos are from Tarlac). 

“Dina was a loving person. Even if she disagrees with you, you would not take it personally. She never made you feel less of a person,” Vice President Robredo recalled. 

Butch and Dina were a power couple both in the Liberal Party of the Philippines and the Council of Asian Liberals & Democrats (CALD). Butch was a founding member of CALD who previously served as the international organization’s secretary general and chairman. Dina was the founding chair of the CALD Women’s Caucus. It was Butch, as CALD Secretary General, who hired the author to run the then rotating secretariat of CALD which was previously in Bangkok and Taipei before Manila became the base of the permanent secretariat. 

Butch previously served as LP Secretary General before becoming Party President while Dina was previously Vice President for Policy and Chair of its old think tank. But Dina will be remembered most in the Liberal Party for a position that had no official title—as the party’s moral compass. 

Henedina Abad
CALD Archives

“Right and wrong, that was what it was all about with Dina Abad,” MAR Roxas asserted. “I feel Dina’s high standards for herself as well as for others who are the products of her all-out commitment to everything she did. Her family, her friends, her beliefs and advocacies, her love of our country, which bring us together tonight. We are gathered as Dina’s colleagues and allies in the LP. It was her love of country that brought her to us at the LP. First as a supportive wife to Butch, and then as a principal herself. Somebody with her own identity, not just appended to (someone else) no matter how great Butch was but Dina stood out on her own. She is like Xena Warrior Princess, fierce and unrelenting in her struggle for what’s right, for what’s fair.” 

Henedina Abad
CALD Archives

“When I look back at my mother’s life, I said—before I’m sure everybody’s heard this passage from the second letter of Paul. It says: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,’” the second President Aquino reminisced about the late democratic icon. “And you cannot but look at Dina and her life and how meaningful she lived her life, how purposeful this life was, and we cannot help but say, this is so apt to you and how you lived... All the pain, all the suffering, all the hardships that she had to undergo, she will be receiving multiples of recompense for all that she has done. So, we who are seeing her on this passage the better aspect of our existence. Perhaps we should not be sad that she has departed. Shouldn’t we be glad that we had the opportunity to have interacted with her, to have had a life that was enriched by her, to have been supported by her at our own darkest moments.” 

“Our political culture will not reward a person like Dina,” Butch Abad lamented. “In fact, our political culture makes people like Dina suffer a lot. But to her, if that’s what needs to be done, she was willing.” 

Henedina Abad
CALD Archives

Aside from public service, Butch and Dina were also civil society stalwarts and political activists especially in times when they were needed most. Butch and Dina had done so many things together, and this is not just in terms of their family life. They protested against the Marcos dictatorship together; they studied in Harvard together; they were in CALD and LP together; and they were even imprisoned together. 

“Before the dreaded secret police of Marcos was able to capture me, I was constantly on the run with my wife Dina,” Secretary Abad narrated in the Inaugural Freedom Speech of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in 2011. “For days and months, we were on the lam, moving from one town to another, seeking refuge in relatives and friends. Fleeing north, we ended up in the Cordilleras, under the care of Episcopalian priests. It was there in the mountains of Sagada where our first child—later on to be named Julia Andrea—was conceived. Finally, the berdugo caught up with us, and we were transferred from one prison to another for interrogation and deten- tion. My greatest fear at that time was that Julia would be born and raised apart from us. That she will never know how it is to be free.” 

As former President Aquino again narrated, “Whether it was conscious or unconscious, Dina always seem to exude the motherly instinct of not producing tensions or unnecessary tensions or unnecessary conflicts. Dina always had the supportive work or action at times of intense crisis. Dina perhaps, also like any other mother, can scold you. But (she is) the type of mother who will scold you now and give you ice cream afterwards.” 

Henedina Abad
CALD Archives

The vice-president remembered the last few times she spent with Dina. “If she were not in the hospital or had she not lost so much weight, you wouldn’t suspect she was sick at all. She was the same Ma’am Dina—lively, telling a lot of stories and still giving advice. And I was telling her: ‘Get well, Ma’am Dina because in January, there is a family wedding in Batanes, if I go there, I hope you’re there. And she said, ‘If I’m still around, I will be in Batanes. But if not, I’m fine with it. Whether I get well or not, I have accepted everything.’ It was as if she didn’t take it very hard.” 

But the rest of her friends and colleagues did. And so much so for Butch, Julia, Luis, Pio and Patsy, and the rest of the Abad and Razon families. 

About five years ago, the author and two of his siblings vacationed in Batanes. Dina hosted a dinner at the Abad home. At the veranda, the author pointed out the manicured garden that seamlessly blended with the rest of the land and seascapes. “That (the garden) is all Butch’s work,” she said with appreciation, love and pride. 

After attending the 54th Liberal International Congress in Marrakesh way back in 2006, a small group from the Taiwanese, Burmese, Canadian and Philippine delegations toured the Moroccan countryside. Dina noted with sheer astonishment the abruptly changing landscapes—from vast desserts to snowcapped mountains to lush greenery with flowing streams—an incredibly diverse spectrum of scenery confined within a limited space and explorable in such a short period. 

All that beauty in such a confined space. So much like Batanes. And just like Dina Abad. 

References 

Ateneo de Manila University. (2017, October 10). Tribute to Henedina Razon-Abad, ASOG Founding Dean. Retrieved from Ateneo de Manila University: http://www.ateneo.edu/aps/news/tribute-henedina-razon-abad-asog-founding...

Braid, F. R. (2017, October 17). Dr. Q and Dina Abad. Retrieved from Manila Bulletin: https://news.mb.com.ph/2017/10/17/dr-q-and-dina-abad/ 

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First published on the book, Compelled by Duty, Conscripted by Destiny: Portraits of 16 Asian Women at the Frontline of Democratic Struggle, authored by John Joseph S. Coronel. 

In cooperation with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (www.cald.org)