Editorial: Lito Osmeña

·4 min read

NOW that we remember, it nearly comes as a surprise that Emilio Mario Renner Osmeña Jr. or Lito Osmeña was governor of Cebu for a term only -- from February 2, 1988 to June 30, 1992. By today’s measure, the stint seems out of ratio with the scale of feats he left.

This week, July 19, 2021, he succumbed to Covid-19 -- our grief at once extends to all the shadows that the man casts in his glorious life as a visionary. He was 82.

One term in a Capitol seat, yes. All of three years to fuel that impetus that spurred Cebu’s unprecedented growth. We use the term “impetus,” since that was what the “Ceboom” brand, then his catchword for our new-found economic fire, was. It was in that seat, too, where he realized that his outsized imagination rendered him restive. He ran in two national elections -- first, as vice presidential bet with President Fidel Ramos, and second as President -- in both times lost to a showbiz idol. His immediate post-gubernatorial job was with the Ramos administration’s economic think-tank.

But what exactly was the nature of his vision? And what reach does its relevance have to this day? We read through a SunStar Cebu Q&A article published on February 4, 2012, and we caught notable points that might easily slip a cursory read.

When asked about how a Cebu success could be sustained, he proceeded to citing the archipelagic nature of the country, the sea rather as an opportune space for connection, and how location when properly understood is an advantage.

“Cebu’s safe harbor with the protection of the island of Mactan and its central location from northern Mindanao to the Visayan islands and the Bicol region in Luzon are decidedly huge advantages,” he said. The view was apparently informed by history itself as he traced our seafaring roots and how the waters had always been our real economic highway.

The country needed not look far as there was peninsular Singapore, a trading cusp hosting two hemispheres. This finds resonance today in understanding China’s interest over the West Philippine Sea. Its interest extends beyond the area’s vast resources, but also that the nautical highway hosts a multibillion-dollar goods movement for rich nations.

Osmeña’s vision was exactly of that nature—no small accident that the Cebu pitch was to be called “an island in the Pacific.”

“What is essential for our future growth, since we sit at the center of north and south America, Australia, Japan, China and Asean, is a destination/transshipment air and sea port not yet existing in the Philippines. A destination port should be able to handle mega container ships and mega tankers that have a maximum of draft 50 feet. An international destination/transshipment airport should have multiple runways and a major cargo handling facility,” he said in the Sunstar 2012 interview.

To support local growth, he envisioned a rapid transit system for the entire island. Cutting travel time means multiplying wealth, he said. “...my governorship came two years after Edsa I, and I gave Cebuanos the breath of oxygen that revived free enterprise and the potential for optimizing productivity,” he added. But that “free enterprise” and “potential” was to be seen from the point of view of one who understands economy of scale, of the nature of terrain and movement. “He was a businessman pretending to be a politician,” once wrote the late SunStar columnist Godofredo Roperos.

In the same interview, he was asked what he thought of too much politics muddling governance. He said, “A short, short answer: Too much egoism results in obstructionism at the expense of the people.”

Not to be forgotten is that “Ceboom” did not only invigorate economic activity, but it also inspired pride of place and in the Cebuano language. In fact, everything Cebuano.

Lastly, we recall an obscure moment in one of Osmeña’s public and political appearances. In a campaign rally for then presidential candidate Raul Roco in Tabunok market in Talisay City in 2004, he requested that all the lights be switched off. In the dark, he delivered his speech, perhaps his way of saying we should all get blind to the circus, and just listen to the message.

Now that the final lights of his life have been switched off, the message we hope gets more audible.

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