Sunday, August 30, 2015

Carlos P. Garcia in Retrospect

The nation was stunned in tears, with uncertainty afloat. On March 17, 1957, dubbed as the “blackest day in our history,” presidential plane christened as “Pinatubo,” bound for Manila, crashed in Mt. Manunggal just fifteen minutes after it took off in Cebu. President Ramon Magsaysay, the most likable of the towering political figures in the 50s, was killed and so was the entire complement in the plane save one. His vain death—which deserves a story of its own, for whatever it was purposed, was as widespread as his humble rise to power. Ultimately, his death had a profound impact on the masses not only because Magsaysay was their ‘savior,’ but he was also perceived to be one of their own.

But reality had to set in soon, no matter how dreadful. The next day, before a rapt and morose audience, a new president was sworn in to take over the reins of government for the remaining eight months. Against this background, the Herculean task fell squarely on the shoulders of Magsaysay’s subaltern— Vice President Carlos P. Garcia.

In the “Guy’s” shadow

Carlos Polistico Garcia was not a charming politician. That was the truth. Small, dark-skinned, curly-haired fellow, almost Moorish in appearance, Garcia lacked Magsaysay’s charm that had enthralled the hoi polloi to his side. Nor was he able to mesmerize the masses with bombastic oratory, create dramatic pauses and raised hubbubs. Though he always thought and spoke on his feet, Garcia’s poetic prowess was clearly overshadowed by Magsaysay’s magic. It was said that had Magsaysay lived to run for a second term, Garcia would have been replaced as his running mate with a better vote-getter candidate. Not that Garcia was unaware of these criticisms early on—quite the contrary. He found his supposed weaknesses to be his strength.

In a broader sense, it is not easy to classify Garcia. He had the mind of a chess grandmaster, eager to take challenges, grapple with facts through calculated moves, rather than a populist’s mesmerized by abstractions with their what ifs and wherefores. This was clearly demonstrated when Garcia, the seemingly uncharismatic candidate, confounded his opponents by winning his own presidential mandate in 1957 with apparent ease. All the same, if Garcia was ever anything, he was a nationalist.

Garcia’s politics

Born on November 4, 1896 in Talibon, Bohol, Carlos P. Garcia belonged to a middle-class family who valued education more than anything else. After high-school, he went on to pursue a preparatory law course in the prestigious Silliman University, and Philippine Law School where Garcia obtained his Bachelor of Laws degree. After placing first in the 1923 bar examinations, Garcia had a brief stint teaching law until politics caught up with him.

Elected representative of the third district of Bohol for six years, Garcia had gone the opposite path and became the provincial governor of Bohol for three successive terms. Then the turning point came when both Quezon and Osmeña, Nacionalista bigwigs at that time, drafted him to run for senator in 1941, and he won. His jubilation, however, was short-lived when the Japanese invaders arrived in the Philippines. Instead of collaborating with the enemy, Garcia went up the hills and fought the Japs as a leader of a guerilla force.

Garcia’s service in the trenches served him well when he resumed his political career after the war. While a senator, Garcia’s nationalistic fervor enabled him to function well as chairman of the Senate committee on foreign affairs advocating claims for reparation and war damages. He too was instrumental in opposing the “No money, no parity” policy that was being pushed by the Liberal Manuel Roxas. This was a brilliant move, and Garcia rapidly made himself one of the top honchos of the Nacionalista Party (NP). But the odds were stacked against him, at least momentarily.

After being elected three times to the senate, Garcia was tapped by NP as Magsaysay’s running mate for the 1953 presidential elections. Magsaysay was a true blue Liberal but jumped off to NP after disagreements with his erstwhile boss, President Quirino. Both won overwhelmingly. After Magsaysay’s death, Garcia completed his term and then won his own presidential term in the same year.
The nationalist president
Wafted by the winds of nationalism fanned by the likes of Recto and Laurel, Magsaysay was no match to Garcia’s fierce devotion to the ideals of being a true Nacionalista—“Country above all else.” For Garcia, the espousal of nationalism requires the convergence between words and actions; between theory and practice. In his own words, Garcia lamented so poignantly that, “A President must be deedless in words and wordless in deeds.”
The meaning was fairly simple: deeds must be louder than words and not otherwise. That was Garcia’s credo.

“Buy Filipino”

By the time Garcia became president, the specter of American colonialism was still very much in vogue in the country. But Garcia, an avid admirer of Quezon, would have none of it. More than his accomplishments in the realm of foreign affairs, Garcia’s name became synonymous with “Filipino First” policy, a nationalist policy that encouraged Filipinos to inculcate the much-needed national pride. In a word, Garcia’s economic nationalism gave preference to Filipinos over all other foreigners in the acquisition of land, capital and in the operation of business in the country.

Under the Garcia administration, almost all banks were in the hands of Filipinos; local industries began to flourish and landed estates exchanged hands. True to his ideals, Garcia espoused the policy of import controls by making sure that dollars were well used for economic needs of Filipino entrepreneur. As a result, by assisting new entrepreneurs to get dollar allocation, Filipino enterprises developed, which in turn led to the establishment of many Filipino-owned companies.
Of course, this did not sit well with foreign businessmen such as the Americans. They swear never to allow a nationalist like Garcia to win another election. He had to be stopped at all cost. Corruption charges then were hurled against Garcia, some even mocked him as a draconian fascist, but nothing came out of it. And so Garcia lost his re-election bid to Diosdado Macapagal, the Liberal populist candidate whom the Americans supported in the 1961 elections.

Carlos P. Garcia was tested by fate yet he faltered not. In fact, in so brief a time, his achievements as a “presidential caretaker” and later on as the president himself, became more significant than the bigger shoes he had to fill in. This month, we commemorate his death and celebrate his life – veneration duly accorded to a man who may not have saved a president from a plane crash, but who has saved the country from a similar downfall.

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