Remembering Cornelio Balmaceda

FROM THE STANDS By Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star)

What a coincidence that I got hold of a copy of the book about the late Cornelio Balmaceda a couple of days before the birthday celebration (yesterday) of his daughter Rosemarie Balmaceda Lazaro.  Rose’s invitation to a merienda (expected to be a lively dancing party) said gifts to the Cornelio Balmaceda Foundation would be appreciated. If allowed, this piece is my gift.

The author of the small biography is another daughter, Gloria Balmaceda Gozum, who describes her dad as “the writer, economist and statesman who never stopped dreaming of doing great things for his country and with dedication and diligence, achieved them.”

The slim bio prints comments of presidents of the Republic, statesmen and United Nations executives expressing admiration for Balmaceda’s accomplishments and his qualities as a government official.  A writer wrote that close associates of the man were “unanimous in their praise of his integrity, honesty, loyalty, perseverance and far-sightedness.” Such virtues are sadly lacking in most government officials today.

Of his accomplishments, highly  praised is his having been instrumental in the selection of Manila as the permanent site of the Asian Development Bank of the Philippines (ADB). He led the Philippine group in waging a relentless campaign among the contending Asian countries for the site, winning just one vote over Japan in the third and final balloting for the selection of Manila.

Cornelio Balmaceda had come a long way – from the little boy born in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, to Santos Balmaceda and Crispina Agor, who made a living from farming.  Gifted with an intelligent mind, he finished high school in Laoag, the capital town seven kilometers away from Sarrat.

In 1915, he was among the first graduates of Manila High School. At 18, with a high school diploma, some typing skill and a good knowledge of the English language, he applied for a job at the Manila Times whose editors were Americans. He was hired as a cub reporter and was assigned to cover City Hall and other government bureaus.

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Two weeks after he was hired, he was given a permanent run as a regular reporter. He wrote interesting articles about government officials. With a good income, he enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts of the University of the Philippines and became city editor of the Philippine Collegian with Carlos P. Romulo as the editor in chief.

In 1919, he received a scholarship to study at Harvard University School of Business where he graduated with a master’s degree in business administration, major in foreign trade.

Early in his writing career, he pushed for the economic development of the country. Prior to his joining the government, he was a prolific writer and editor of the Commerce and Industry Journal, encouraging “a common spirit of nationalism among producers and consumers,” aspiring for a bustling trade and commerce dominated by Filipino enterprise and increased local and foreign demand for Philippine products, and giving Filipino retailers and farmers a strong voice in business by forming themselves into cooperative groups. He advocated participation of the Philippines in international trade fairs and the appointment of commercial attaches to promote Philippine products.

These dreams he turned into reality when he was appointed, at age 37, as director of the Bureau of Commerce, a post he held for 11 years. He launched the National Economic Protectionism Association (NEPA) which became synonymous with Philippine-made products. He went around the country speaking to farmers on how to form cooperatives.

He stayed on as Bureau director during the Japanese Occupation, resisting the Japanese by employing prisoners of war. After the war, he took up his law practice and engaged in private business. He became director of the Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines and organized its trade service department.

As an aftermath of the war, the Chamber involved itself in a big transaction of war rehabilitation and construction materials. The US Foreign Liquidation Commission offered several shiploads of army supplies consisting of assorted equipment, construction supplies, foodstuffs, medicines and other cargoes. The Chamber gathered 36 Filipino businessmen, assisted by two government-owned corporations, and formed the Philippine Chamber of Commerce Syndicate.

The syndicate was able to finance a P5-million transaction, winning for the group five shiploads of merchandise easily costing more than P10-million. He said Filipinos were able to buy goods which could have fallen into the hands of alien merchants.

In 1947, President Manuel Roxas created the Department of Commerce and Industry, appointing Balmaceda as undersecretary serving at the same time as acting secretary.

Balmaceda set the moral precepts for men in government. In his “Guide to Public Service,” he stressed that “public service is an opportunity to serve and not an opportunity for personal gain.” Government employees must practice honesty, avoid “red tape” and observe morality in and outside of work.

When Elpidio Quirino became president of the Philippines in 1948, he appointed Balmaceda as secretary of commerce and industry, a post Balmaceda held for more than five consecutive years.

One of the secretary’s first acts was to organize a foreign trade promotion unit in the bureau of commerce that would attend to the vigorous and effective promotion and expansion of Philippine export trade. Thus the Import Control Measure set limits on the importation of luxury items like expensive cars, liquor and other non-essential goals. The aim was to conserve Philippine dollars for more essential imports.

To give the small Filipino retailers a fair chance to compete in the country’s trade and commerce, the department established the Philippine Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (PRATRA) that would act as the sole supplier of retail goods imported directly from foreign manufacturers to be sold to retailers at low prices.

A feather in the cap for the Philippines was the holding of a three-month international fair that showcased Philippine products in pavilions, which drew the participation of foreign countries. The fair was a huge success, but was not followed by another one.

In 1962, when Diosdado Macapagal became the 5th president of the Philippines, he asked Balmaceda to serve once more the government, appointing him as first chairman of the National Economic Council, and later as secretary of commerce and industry. As NEC chair, he implemented the abolition of foreign exchange controls known as the Decontrol Measure.

Balmaceda led many international trade missions and conferences.  His able leadership and statesmanship, particularly in the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECCAFE) brought honor and prestige to his country.

In his twilight years, Balmaceda told his family that his greatest source of satisfaction was his “modest role” in the establishment of the Asian Development Bank and Manila’s choice by representatives of member countries of Manila as ADB’s site more than 40 years of government service.” He died on April 17, 1992.

Next to his mother, a strong figure in Cornelio’s life was his wife, Monica, of the opulent Ver-Jamias family of Sarrat. She finished nursing at the Mary Johnston Hospital in Manila, and a proficiency course at the Wesley Hospital and Cook Country Hospital in Chicago. Monica gave him seven children, named Cornelio Jr., Erlinda, Zenaida, Virginia, Gloria, Grace and Rosemarie.

Grace founded the Cornelio Balmaceda Foundation which holds yearly outreach programs for the residents of Sarrat. Gloria, author of her father’s biography, has a BA, English major at the UP and an MA in speech communication from the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., lives in Masbate with her husband Tony. Yesterday’s birthday celebrant, Rose, is married to the famous affable Justice Manuel “Lolong” Lazaro.