‘ACTION, NOT WORDS’
Governor Gwendolyn Garcia on taking the Province of Cebu to higher ground by empowering the grassroots movement, building up tourism, and leading with no-nonsense politics
A festive medley of Cebuano songs and dances welcomes Gwendolyn Garcia at the stakeholders meeting in Brgy. Bojo, Aloguinsan on a midweek morning in October.
The first woman (and now the longest serving) governor of the province is clearly prepared for action—clad in jeans, rubber shoes, and a plain blue blouse.
A portable air purifier dangles around her neck. With her at the event are some LGU officials— Aloguinsan Mayor Ignatius Moreno and Vice Mayor Raisa Moreno, two board members, Trade and Industry Asec. Asteria Caberte, and Tourism Regional Director Shalimar Tamano. Her 30-minute speech, almost entirely in Cebuano, is jovial and lighthearted, peppered with jokes in between.
Her lively voice, energetic hand gestures, and animated facial expressions are enough to make even a non-Cebuano speaker chuckle. At that instant, we see the soft side of Cebu’s Iron Lady that perhaps is unknown to many.
After the Bojo River Cruise, the governor visits three more locations within Aloguinsan— to inaugurate a cemented road and a constructed bridge.
The heat is draining and most people are visibly tired but the seasoned Governor isn’t breaking a sweat. She smiles and talks to the people around her, repeatedly offering them snacks. Her energy and vigor are amazing. Later in the afternoon, the LEAGUE team meets with the governor again at her rest house in Pinamungajan. She speaks candidly, saying she prefers to shun media interviews. “Been there, done that,” she tells the team nonchalantly. “What I want you to highlight in your feature is Cebu.” She tells us that her trip to Aloguinsan earlier that day was intended to boost its tourism. “During my first term as governor, I realized tourism was focused mainly on Cebu City and Mactan Island,” she recalls. “And yet my having gone around the province proved that there are so many other beautiful sites. So I defined the direction of tourism, focusing on our culture and our heritage.”
The lady chief points out the importance of cultural mapping in harnessing the full potential of the province— that is, identifying the heritage sites, relics, and structures that they have to develop, and organizing their festivals in accordance with the legend of their towns and their key products.
The governor mentions the Cebu Provincial Government’s “Suruy-Suroy Sugbo” tourism program encapsulating this idea. “You stop at every town and, at every stop, you eat. You watch their festivals, you look at their handicrafts and their delicacies,” she says. But in order to succeed in this program, she knows the importance of focusing first on building their tourism infrastructure. That is why, during her initial nine-year term as governor, she asphalted the roads and converted all the wooden bridges to concrete. This is the reason, she says, she is well-loved by people in Bantayan and Camotes Islands. “I would personally visit these islands to check the developments,” she tells us.
GOING BACK TO GOVERNORSHIP
If Gov. Gwen can have her way, she would have wanted to continue her term at the House of Representatives, where she had an outstanding performance for two consecutive terms as congresswoman of the 3rd District of Cebu. She was also the very first woman to be elected Deputy Speaker for the Visayas. She had authored 28 bills and co-authored 64 bills and resolutions throughout her stint, addressing the improvement of the tourism industry and protection of the environment, poverty alleviation, improvement of transportation, sports and youth development, improvement of our criminal justice system, and economic development.
The list of infrastructure problems she had completed during her term was nothing short of impressive: almost 1,000 classrooms built; over 30 kilometers of national roads concreted, 15 kilometers of farm-to-market roads concreted; 10 bridges retrofitted, six district hospitals upgraded, 37 health facilities built and 23 flood control projects constructed, 30 multi-purpose buildings constructed, and more.
But the hardworking former congresswoman says she couldn’t ignore the people’s call for her to bring back the province of Cebu to its old glory. And by that, it’s not merely being on top of the “Richest Province” list in terms of assets, but really allowing the people even in the far-flung barangays to feel this benefit.
The total assets of the province, as of their last reappraisal, now stand at P202 billion. “But what will it mean to someone living in Brgy. Zaragoza or Rosario or Bojo, or Cantabugon?” she asks rhetorically. “When I was governor for the first nine years, I asphalted all of the roads there, because that’s all we could afford back then. Now, my target is to finish concreting all the 880km of provincial and barangay roads. So that’s about at 100km per year [if I get to complete my three terms as governor],” she says.
The lady governor says there are also misplaced priorities she can’t ignore. She cites an example: “When you enter the capitol, may magandang heritage garden dyan. The previous administration wanted to put a P1.2 billion, 22-story building. Ilo-loan pa gyud. E magagamit ba ng taga Aloguinsan yan? Is it going to help people from here? I had to fight that. People were begging me to run. So I ran against [Agnes] Magpale, who was my vice governor before.”
RUNNING A GOVERNMENT LIKE A CEO
When Gov. Gwen first ran for governor in 2004, many expressed doubts in her capacity to lead because she had not held any government position prior. “Kahit man lang barangay kapitan,” the naysayers would opine. But she tells LEAGUE that she never doubted herself in that aspect because, at that time, she had 20 years of experience already running her own businesses, which ranged from construction, equipment rental, running a port, security services, and general services. “Running a government is like running a business,” she points out. “It demands efficiency, and efficiency translates to quality service, which will in turn benefit the people.” She continues, “Just like running a business, you have to know how to multitask and understand every facet of it—from human resources to budgeting. And your goal is to continually enhance your business. Similarly, that is also your end-goal in running a government, to improve the lives of the people.”
Like a CEO, she would regularly meet the department heads and the latter would report their accomplishments to her. “They have to review their presentation multiple times because I am so OC (obsessive compulsive); I can see a mistake immediately,” she says, holding a smile. Also, her team can’t be sitting on their jobs, lest they’d be embarrassed not to have anything to report during the meeting. In government, budgeting is very important. Fortunately, she earned her training in that area when she served as a consultant under the administration of former Mayor of Ormoc, Eufrocino “Dodong” Codilla, who was her ex-father-in-law. “The budget officer there taught me everything—the budget, the continuing appropriation, the five-year-development plan, etc. I know all that,” she says. For three years, she also served as a consultant to her own father, Pablo “Pabling” Garcia, who previously served as governor of Cebu. “Kaya I never felt inadequate when I won as governor.
That was the least of my worries because I knew what I could do. And I immediately defined the direction that we will take,” she shares.
A WOMAN FOR THE JOB
The limitations of the Cebuano language and culture have the propensity to shape people’s characterization of the sexes, says the lady governor. “In the English language, feistiness implies strength, and we usually use it to describe a woman. In Cebuano, the equivalent term we use for men is maldito—meaning, magaling. But if we use maldita for the women, it would have a negative connotation,” the governor points out. Cebuanos also have a maledominated culture as can be gleaned from the history of its government. “We have rajas and datus, and the queen would always be second,” she says. Even so, Gov. Gwen never had a dichotomized appreciation of gender while she was growing up. “I was never told that ‘If you are a female, you could only do this.’ My mom and dad would always tell me, ‘You can do this, Gwen!’”
The eldest among eight children of former Gov. Pablo Garcia admits she initially didn’t have the inclination to run for public office. “I hated politics,” she admits to LEAGUE. She hated the fact that it was intruding their private time as a family.
In his government stints, the older Garcia had served as vice-governor of Cebu from 1969 to 1971; as representative of District 3 of Cebu from 1987 to 1995, and District 2 of Cebu (2007- 2013): and as governor from 1995- 2004. Her dad used to accept a lot of visitors in their home. “I would wake up one day, and I would see a stranger at our breakfast table,” she recalls. Little did she know that she would one day plunge into politics as well. “During my dad’s third term, he asked me to serve as his consultant. At that time, I just finished my first year at UP Law,” she remembers. She knew it was because she had already served as a consultant to her ex-father-in-law, Mayor Codilla, during his term from 1992 to 1996.
The eldest child eventually relented to the request of her dad. Her plan was to help him for a year, and then go back to pursuing her dream to become a lawyer. But that didn’t happen.
Public service rubbed off on her. She fulfilled her functions—as consultant on financial affairs, assisting her father in expanding the province’s resources, and later on, instituting various reforms at the Cebu Provincial Capitol as a Consultant on Systems Promotion and Development.
For her strong leadership, she earned the monikers “Super Gwen,” the “little governor,” and the “Iron Lady.” After serving as a consultant for her dad, she was asked to run as vice governor. She instead decided to take the higher road and run as governor. “I was fatalistic about it. Sabi ko, ‘Lord, I think you want me to run for governor. But if I read you wrong, it’s okay. If I lose, it’s okay.