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Carlos Garcia: Unheralded nationalist

Ed Malaya, Apr 21, 2004

(Last of a series)

ASK THE average man-on-the-street about Carlos Polestico Garcia, and chances are that not much would be recalled other than his having been a Philippine president. There are no notable monuments dedicated to the nation’s eighth chief executive save those in his native Bohol province.

There is no major biographical work on the man at present. The absence of high-profile siblings, unlike other presidential families, kept him out of current discourse.

Yet this unheralded president is fondly remembered by nationalists for his “Filipino First” policy. How this came about is itself a surprising story.

Garcia started as a cautious caretaker after the tragic death of the popular Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash. It was even bruited that for the 1957 elections, President Magsaysay – had he lived — would have replaced the seemingly uncharismatic, 61-year-old former school teacher as running mate with a better vote-getter.

However, Garcia confounded skeptics with the political savvy he showed by winning his own presidential mandate. He also charted an often-nationalistic course for the nation over his four-year stewardship.

Carlos came from the Central Visayas, born in 1896 in rural Bohol. After studies in local public schools, he went to Silliman University in Dumaguete City and then to Manila’s Philippine Law School. An impressive student, he placed among the top 10 examinees in the 1923 bar examinations. Oratory, debate and poetry were his forte. In time he was regarded as the “prince of Visayan poets,” so well known for his “balak” (vernacular poems).

After a two-year teaching stint at a Bohol public high school, he entered politics with the Nacionalista Party, acting as congressman representing Bohol’s third district, and for nine years, served as provincial governor.
Garcia wed Leonila “Inday” Dimataga, a charming pharmacist from Lapu-Lapu, Cebu. It was a relationship that was both romantic and political.

Historian Lewis Gleeck rates Inday as “undoubtedly the best-loved first lady of the Third Philippine Republic”. Writing of the Garcia years in Malacañan, Spanish journalist Jose Rodriquez observed, “Except for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, no other presidential couple reveled and abounded in the public attention to their romance.”

Garcia won a Senate seat in 1940, but the outbreak of World War II prevented him and others from assuming office. Rather than collaborate with the Japanese invaders, he chose to fight against the brutal occupiers. Garcia at age 45 became a leader in the guerrilla resistance in the jungles of western Leyte and in his native province – a rarity among the nation’s senior officials. With a price on his head, he eluded capture by Japanese pursuers in three separate incidents.

Garcia resumed his political career after the country’s liberation, with an image burnished by war exploits. When Congress reconvened, he busied himself with legislation.

Accidental President

In 1953, the Nacionalista Party’s nominating convention tapped Garcia as running mate to presidential bet Magsaysay, former secretary of national defense and a fellow guerrilla hero. In a bitterly fought election, the Magsaysay-Garcia tandem won over the Liberal Party’s ticket of reelectionist President Elpidio Quirino and Jose Yulo.

As vice president, Garcia was appointed by Magsaysay as concurrent secretary of foreign affairs. He was attending a SEATO Ministers’ meeting in Australia when news reached him of Magsaysay’s passing.

Hurrying home, he was sworn as president on Mar. 18, 1957 to serve the nine-month unexpired term of the fallen chief.

Exhibiting caution, patience and deliberation, Garcia unpretentiously considered himself as a caretaker for the next nine months. He made no proclamation of great changes. In contrast to Magsaysay’s charisma and predilection for direct action, Garcia was deliberative in his decision-making and composed even under stress.

His working habits were exemplary. All these qualities served him well, for in the ensuing campaign, he showed political savvy by winning his own electoral mandate. His running mate, Speaker Jose B. Laurel, Jr., however, lost to a rising star from Pampanga – Representative Diosdado Macapagal of the Liberal Party. For the first time in Philippine history, a president was elected with a vice president belonging to a rival party – a phenomenon that would recur a few times.

It is well known that Magsaysay was greatly helped in his rise to prominence by the Central Intelligence Agency. However, the spy agency was not as eager to support his successor Garcia.

In the 1957 presidential election, the local CIA station preferred the opposition Liberals’ Jose Yulo or even third-party bet Manuel Manahan who was supported by Magsaysay’s close aides and followers.

Observed nationalist historian Renato Constantino, Garcia “did not represent any large vested sector, local or foreign; and he was not beholden to the Americans for his vice-presidency nor for his presidential victory. It was therefore possible for Garcia, once he had secured his own mandate, to make some initial efforts to steer the country toward a more independent path.”

Filipino First!

Two priorities marked the Garcia Presidency — austerity and the “Filipino First” policy. Garcia wanted to build up industries and fulfill the spiraling needs of a growing population, but he was faced with an often-critical balance-of-payments problem.

In response, the National Economic Council, the government’s top economic policy body, enunciated in 1958 the “Filipino First” policy to “enable Filipinos to eventually attain a substantial share of the commerce and industry of this country.”

Under the policy, Filipinos were given preferential treatment in the allocation of dollars for use in buying imports. Joint ventures between Filipino and foreign businesses were also encouraged so that Filipino participation could reach at least 60 percent ownership of the capital stock. “Buy Filipino” became the buzzword to encourage domestic production and trade.

An import-substituting industrialization thus became the cornerstone of the Garcia administration’s economic program.

The period of import and exchange controls led to a rise in manufacturing activities, from 10.7 percent of domestic product in 1948 to 17.9 percent in 1960. These gave tremendous boost to Filipino economic enterprises, and led to the establishment of many Filipino-owned companies, including Filoil, the first locally-owned oil firm.

The “Filipino First” policy alarmed the resident American and Chinese business communities and their governments. It was assailed as outright discrimination against foreigners in support of economic monopoly, and as an obstruction to the efficient free-flow of capital.

The inflow of foreign investment slowed, and the administration’s economic managers eased the program. Garcia made assurances that there was room for foreign capital in the economy. The policy was “not anti-alien, much less anti-American,” he said.

A gradual “de-control” policy was later adopted by the Central Bank.

Pursuing a fairly independent foreign policy, the administration addressed irritants over the U.S. military bases, including the withdrawal by the U.S. military of its presence from the Manila port area. The country began to pay more attention to its immediate Southeast Asian neighborhood. Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines established the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), precursor of today’s Asean, to foster economic and cultural cooperation among them.

Issue-based Campaign

Garcia sought reelection in 1961. To do this, he faced off with a formidable contender – Vice President Diosdado Macapagal. Not having been given a portfolio in the Garcia cabinet, the latter didn’t waste time in connecting with voters in the countryside, and, as leader of the opposition Liberal Party, became the administration’s fiercest critic.

Nationalism and the “Filipino First” policy were the Garcia administration’s banner issues. The opposition countered with free enterprise and “full decontrol” (lifting of import and foreign exchange restrictions) as the better route to economic development. They also alleged rampant graft and corruption in high places. Macapagal and running mate Emmanuel Pelaez won.

Garcia retired from active politics after the election loss.

A decade later, he was elected as delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention. The convention members gave their elder statesman-colleague the singular honor of presiding over the convention proceedings.

Three days later, on Jun. 14, 1971, a fatal cardiac arrest felled him.

The presidency of the Constitutional Convention was, according to some, a vindication of Garcia. Perhaps the man had no need of vindication. After all, he was, to the very last, a gentleman in the nation’s service.

Jose Rizal is hailed as the “First Filipino” for having awakened a common consciousness among the disparate peoples of the archipelago. Here was Garcia, thru the “Filipino First” policy, attempting to impart added meaning to what Rizal and others struggled for. For him, there were no better courses of action than those based on nationalism and national interest.

During elections, Garcia laid out clear platforms and waged issue-based campaigns. In this day and age of media-driven, personality-based political environment, one gets to miss the bard from Bohol.

Philippine News presents this series to reacquaint readers with past Philippine presidents. It is hoped that these articles will aid the voters among them in discerning the qualities of leadership deemed vital when choosing their next leader at the May 10 polls.

These profiles are excerpted from the forthcoming book “So Help Us God: Presidential Inaugural Addresses from Aguinaldo to Macapagal Arroyo” to be published by Anvil Publishing (Manila).

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