EDITORIAL | Jesse Robredo: Local Hero
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He is known globally and now celebrated nationally, but in the end, Jesse Robredo was a hero and symbol for the power and promise of 'local'.
From 1988, when he first became mayor of Naga City, until his untimely passing this week, Robredo represented and - by his example - led, a rising generation of mayors, governors, and yes, barangay captains, who live and give evidence to the wisdom of the Local Government Code.
Ever a pioneer, Robredo actually made his mark as mayor before the Code was enacted in 1991. But his memory will ever be tied to that landmark law, a bold Bicolano to a bold piece of legislation – each rising on the impudence that local communities, if they are, and are to be, true communities, do not need Manila and the national government for their own dreams, dynamism, and determination. They can be better.
With local sons and daughters who are willing to make the sacrifice, communities have everything they need. Robredo studied in all the country’s best universities – he was a product of La Salle, Ateneo, and the University of the Philippines – and was on track for a corporate career with San Miguel Corp. But he shunned the capital and its pretentious, deluded, misprioritized cosmopolitanism, not only for a gamble on local politics, but local politics in Bicol.
Bicol we knew coming out of the 1980’s for nothing more than coconuts and pili nuts feeding impoverished farmers and communists. Fast forward through two and a half decades, a TOYM and a Magsaysay Award for Robredo’s public service, and it is not only Naga City training cities all over the Philippines and Asia on how to improve public service, how to raise efficiencies in bureaucracies, how to rise from being a third-class city to a first-class community by any definition.
Provinces like Camarines Sur, or, excuse us, CamSur, today owe Naga City their temerity – apog, as we say in Filipino – to even conceive of the notion to "rebrand". Camarines Sur used to be a reference point for typhoons. Today it projects itself – projects itself – as a tourism hotspot, a mecca for sports and active lifestyle junkies. Do we even care which parts of that statement are true or need to be qualified? They dream it, and they do so because Robredo and Naga City showed them the power of the dare.
From Puerto Princesa building on a made-up title as "Wonder of Nature" to Kalinga-Apayao where they dream of sons and daughters opting to come or stay home to be the Cordillera’s new caretakers, the loyal can-do spirit of Robredo has infected every corner of this fractured archipelago. Cities and provinces from Isabela to Iloilo and Gen. Santos City – and for that matter, Saranggani, that impoverished strip of coast that actually wanted to be a on its own, independent not just of Manila, but of the pineapples and tuna industries in GenSan – they are all betting on their own capabilities not only to survive, but to compete.
Cynics will say municipalities are being gerrymandered only so there's more corruption to spread. But August 21 is not a day for cynics.
Even the appetite for more corruption cannot come from nothing. Even that comes from the realization that things are looking up. The buko pie is growing wherever cities, provinces, municipalities wake up to the riches they should manage best.
So yes, there’s corruption. The question is: How to manage? How to lead?
Speaking at the La Salle Institute for Governance on August 12, Robredo spoke of what we so desperately look for on the national stage:
"Hindi lahat ng matino ay mahusay. At hindi lahat ng mahusay ay matino. Ang sukatan ho namin sa mga lokal ngayon ay dapat hindi lamang siya mahusay, kundi dapat siya ay matino rin."
(Not every decent person is capable. And not every capable person is decent. In the local level, our measure of leaders are now such that it is not enough for one to be capable, he or she must be decent as well.)
"This is the only way to move forward," he continued. "They must show performance and take the straight path at the same time. It's not enough for them to be straight. They also have to be smart."
Which is to say, we're not quite there yet. Not on the national level, we're not.
National government frustrates us. Very often, what keeps us going, what makes us stand up and take notice in genuine excitement, is what comes popping out from some city or municipality we’ve never visited or probably never even heard of.
We find our inspiration outside of Manila. For traffic. For tourism. For education, healthcare. Heck, for dynamic and visionary leaders.
Freedom of Information? Robredo had Naga City posting its budgets and projects online before your parents had email addresses.
Reproductive Health? Implicitly and initially, one of the main arguments of the Catholic Church against the passage of the RH Bill was that local officials had the power to implement their own RH programs. It is a disingenuous argument, to be sure. (Priests are more conservative and more powerful in the provinces.) But coming from the other side of that relationship, it was the same point being made by bolder mayors and governors: "We can do it." RH, FOI, whatever Congress and the President don't have the balls to pass – give up on all that only when all sons and daughters give up on their own communities.
Jesse Robredo did not. Jesse Robredo thought he would live to see the day of the capable and decent leading us all.
In La Salle, Robredo wasn't speaking of some hypothetical leader. He was stating a fact: We measure our local leaders by capability and goodness, by smarts and decency, all at once. He was speaking of himself and yet not of himself. Make no mistake, that was his self-confidence coming through, tempered not by denying himself the truth of his brilliance, but by spreading the possibility of brilliance to other people. Hindi lang naman ako…
We know that is true. It cannot just be Robredo. And it is not. There are others in his mold. They are not even too hard to find anymore. A rising generation of local leaders that do not need the foot-dragging of an overweight and self-deluded Manila.
In the local levels, Robredo and his believers could have it all. Health, education, security, peace and order, and above all, a community that behaves like a community. He wanted to bring that to the national stage. He wanted the Philippines to be his hometown. That place where you could have it all. Neighbors that care and that participate. Clean air, sustainable economies, decent, even exciting lifestyles – maybe even your own malls – and still the fulfillment that can only come with genuine public service.
And at the end of the day, you still get to go home. Doesn't matter where you live. Doesn't matter where you work. In the Philippines that Robredo lived in, he could be a whirlwind 24/7, proving himself in the private and public sectors, working to eradicate poverty, meeting MDGs, and still have enough left in the tank to literally go home.
Because it's a long weekend. You can do all these and still have the time and the means to come home. To a loving family. To a daughter with her father's winning ways. To share with them the impossible things you did today, and the impossibilities you'll take on tomorrow.