Father Edicio de la Torre had been given some advice before he was sent to prison in the Philippines in December 1974. First of all, don't go quietly; make sure your arrest is noticed by whomever might be standing around. Second, try not to give your captors any information for at least 48 hours in order to give your colleagues a chance to escape.
In case of torture while in prison, the first rule is not to set a physical limit for yourself; if you do you will reach it. "Rather," De la Torre explained, "your body will just conk out by itself." Also, scream as loudly as possible; otherwise the officer torturing you will think he is having no effect and will become frustrated.
Father de la Torre, fortunately, was not tortured in prison; he said there is a rule that priests, even political radicals like himself, not be tortured. Of course there was the occasional blow, but in general "as maltreatment goes, mine was not bad."
Father de la Torre, who looks more like a matinee idol than a priest, talks about these things as though he was discussing insurance policies. He was here this week to thank people who helped win his release, including the Maryknoll Fathers, the National Council of Churches and the American Jewish Committee. De la Torre was interviewed in the office of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) who got involved in the case at the request of an old classmate of his from Harvard Law School. Levin, who co-hosted a reception for De la Torr last night, organized a letter about the priest from 23 sentors to then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance last December, and visited De la Torre in prison in January. Levin also wrote to Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Prison, torture, isolation cells, hunger strikes, informants -- experiences that the average person would treat with the awe with which we view extreme pain -- are not held up by Father de la Torre as merit badges of honor.
He was imprisioned for "conspiricy to commit rebellion" and "possession of subversive materials." His name was on a list of people to be arrested the day marital law was imposed by Marcos on Sept. 21, 1972 evidently as a result of his activities organizing farmers and other groups to press for land reform. He was caught after two years of living more-or-less underground, betrayed by a colleague who arranged to meet him for lunch in a restaurant and invited the cops as well. A modern-day Judas, he is asked?
"I'd rather not place such a religious connotation on it," he said.
The first thing he did in prision was to go on a hunger strike to protest torture of other prisioners and the use of indeterminate sentences. But De la Torre realized quickly that he had picked "too broad" a situation to protest with a hunger strike; he didn't want to die. "I lowered my demand to an investigation." He laughed and said, "My hunger strike lasted two weeks -- as hunger strikes go, that's chicken feed."
That was not the only hunger strike, however. One lasted 50 days; when it was over he and others in a group of political prisoners were transferred to another prision camp. When they arrived, prisioners there told them they were about to start a hunger strike. "We said, 'Oh, no -- we just did one!" But of course we had to help them . . . " He shrugged.
Last April, after five years in prision, De la Torre was released on the condition that he leave the country "to pursue his studies." At the time of his release, he was apparently the only priest still in prision, and had served more time than the sentence he would have received had he been tried and convicted. He never was tried, he said, merely arraigned.
He arrived in the United States, appropriately enough, on July 4. Soon after he celebrated his 37th birthday. "I'am a Cancer," he said and laughed. a
For a man who has dedicated his life to changing his country, who has considered making "grand gesture" of death and decided that martyrdom was neither the most practical nor the most selfless course, De la Torre laughs a lot. "After a while you stop getting angry at them, because it's futile. You laugh." He has been depressed in prison, but never in despair. Rather than missing the comforts of life outside prision, his depression came from feeling a lack of purpose.
"When you are underground there is a lot of humdrum work," he said. "Renting apartments, setting up covers and so forth. But you content yourself with the idea that you're making revolution. In prision I felt underutilized."
He kept himself in shape by doing yoga -- "also it was good for my image with the guards, to see me doing something meditative, more priestly." He was allowed to read theological books, teach a class in ordination and write letters. And he learned to paint -- first intricate designs on clay pots that his mother brought him, and then posters on the wall, in which he would incorporate messages like "Birds are Born to Fly, So are People Born to be Free."
He was born on the island of Mindoro. His father was a tailor, who died when he was 4, and his mother was a seamstress. He entered the seminary in Manila midway through high school. Fifteen years later, in 1968, he was ordained.
De la Torre became a priest in order to effect social change, not "to be a traditional priest with a parish." He does not wear clerical garb. Strongly nationalistic, he rejected offers to study in Rome because he wanted to study his country, its culture and its problems.
Among those problems is extraordinary poverty. Eighty percent of the people are malnourished, according to a report by the Catholic Bishops Conference in the Philippines. A doctor at the Nutrition Center of the Philippines said that malnutrition is so extensive that it is a factor in five of the 10 leading causes of death in the country.
The country is about 85 percent Catholic. De la Torre is one of a growing number of clergy involved in "liberation theology," convinced that their mandate to help the poor must include a change in the system that creates poverty.
The situation in the Philippines is a subject of increasing concern here, because the United States is closely linked to the island country as a strategic military ally and because so many American companies have large investments there. But protest against human rights violations and the Marcos regime are increasing.
In his country, De la Torre said, groups, such as the one he was working with to organize farmers to demand land reform, were banned after marital law was imposed. At the time of his arrest, he was leading an alliance formed to oppose the martial law.Members ranged from church groups to labor unions and Marxists.
Now he is facing, somewhat reluctantly, exile in Rome. "They wanted me to study theology. I wanted to study sociology. So maybe we'll we'll compromise on sociology of religion. The question is whether they will restrict me from traveling, writing or giving speeches."
Giving speeches is something that he is evidently rather good at. "It's supposed to be my strength and my liability," he laughed. "I talk to much . . ."
He has agreed to stay out of his country for a year. Then he will go back, he said, and start organizing anew.