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120 years of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce

120 years of the spanish chamber of commerce 816x427 - 120 years of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce
Masigan 051519 - 120 years of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce

Last week, the Spanish Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines celebrated its 120th anniversary. La Camara, as the organization is fondly called, predates all other business groups in the country including the Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce and even the Rotary Club. It was the first Spanish chamber to be established in Asia.

La Camara was founded in 1898 and was originally called the Manila Chamber of Commerce. It was set up to preserve the interest of Spanish enterprises following the release of the country from the colonial administration of Spain. It will be recalled that Spanish-owned companies controlled the most important industries of the era including public utilities, shipping, food and beverage manufacturing, the tobacco trade and the sugar trade. It was vital not to disrupt these industries so as not to destabilize the economy.

In 1989, the name of the organization was changed to the Spanish Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines and was housed in Casa España in the financial district of Binondo. Early records dated 1917 show that La Camara’s members were composed of the business elite of the time. Among them were Luis Llanso who was President, Santiago Elizalde, Juan Camahort and Anicieto Ruiz.

From its founding up to the Pacific War, La Camara was noted for its quarterly bulletin called El Boletin Oficial. It was among the few publications that provided in-depth analysis of the economy and of various industries, opinions on public policy and recommendations on how to improve the country’s business climate. Back then, La Camara had a strong sway over commercial legislation and public policy. It could be said that La Camara played an important role in the Philippines’ ascent towards becoming the second most advanced economy in Asia from the ’30s to the ’60s.

The second world war interrupted La Camara’s operations and the organization remained virtually inactive during the Japanese occupation. After the Philippines gained its independence in 1946, however, La Camara was reincorporated upon the initiative of Tabacalera & Co., Ayala Corporation, Elizalde y Cia, Roxas y Cia., San Miguel Corporation and Philippine Airlines, which was then controlled by Andres Soriano.

In October 1951, President Elpidio Quirino visited Spain to mark the reestablishment of Filipino-Spanish diplomatic relations. The Philippine Chief Executive was welcomed by the Spanish government with full diplomatic honors and regale. The fact that the Philippine economy was growing at double digit rates following the war reconstruction efforts and that companies of Spanish origin were predominant in the business scene bolstered Quirino’s profile and that of the Philippines. It was a proud moment for the country.

From the ’50s to ’90s, El Boletin Oficial continued but with decreasing gravitas. Publication eventually ceased in 1998. Since then, La Camara’s efforts have been focused on developing commercial relations between the Philippines and Spain, forwarding the interest of companies of Spanish origin, data banking and paving the way for Spanish investors into the Philippines.

While La Camara has kept a relatively low profile in the last few years, its importance in the business scene cannot be denied. Its members are still among the elite of the business community, albeit now considered Filipino (although still of Spanish origin). Among them are Aboitiz Equity Ventures, the Ayala Group, Roxaco and Elro Corporation of the Elizaldes, Tabacalera de Filipinas, Rayomar, Fundador, the MFT Group, DM Wenceslao and Associates, Solid Cement and Lhuillier & Co., among many others.

These days, the real contribution of La Camara to the country lies in facilitating the entry Spanish investors. The number of Spanish companies operating in the Philippines is on an all-time high and they include technology behemoths Indra and Amadeus; energy giant Gamesa Eolica; engineering firms Acciona, Inclam S.A, and Alsina; financial services providers Mapfre Insular and Ibero Asistencia; healthcare provider Sanitas S.A.. The influx of Spanish companies is due to the many opportunities brought about by governments Build Build Build program, a growing middle class and vibrant consumer demand.

Those born before 1975 will still remember how our American textbooks vilified everything of Spanish origin and romanticize everything that is American. I was one of them. Now I recognize that it was all part of an insidious campaign to Americanize the Filipino people.

This is why most Filipinos belonging to older generations still associate Spain with the abuses of the friars, plundering of our natural resources and perpetuating an inefficient governmental system where the church and state were one and the same. We were made to resent the Spanish way of life and scoffed at such traditions as the afternoon siesta and monthly religious fiestas.

Meanwhile, the American way of life was romanticized. Through the Hollywood propaganda machine, glamour and the hedonistic lifestyle were made sexy while chastity and piousness were made out-of-date. From singing Ave Maria, the Filipinos were made to boogie to the tunes of Glen Miller. Worse, we were made fans of all products of American origin

We know better now and recognize how the United States has indoctrinated the Filipino to forward its own agenda. While the allegations of Spanish abuses may be true in isolated cases, it does not tell the full story. What the American never told us was that Spain actually set us up to be a modern republic.

Unbeknownst to many, it was Spain that unified the archipelago from one composed of several fiefdoms into a united country, duly governed by a central government. It introduced civil, criminal, administrative, labor and corporate laws based on the roman template. It established the country’s financial system including the use of notes, taxes and the banking system. It built roads, bridges, city gates, water reservoirs and sewer systems to enable local societies to thrive. It established the country’s educational system and the first university.

All these were colonial contributions that the Americans conveniently relegated as a mere footnote in our history.

Lesser spoken of is the fact that as early as the 15th century, the Philippines would have been a Japanese colony if not for Spanish intervention.

Records show that in the year 1573, the Japanese were already trading gold and silver with the inhabitants of Pangasinan, Cagayan and Manila. In 1580, the leader of the Japanese flotilla forced the natives of Cagayan to give Japan their fidelity and submission. They used violence through iron weapons to coerce the natives into submission. The Japanese established a stronghold in Cagayan and embarked on a series of bloody raids of surrounding territories within the island of Luzon. Slowly but surely, the Japanese were taking political control of the island.

The Spanish governor-general at the time was Gonzalo Ronquillo Peñalosa. With permission from King Philip II, the Spanish navy, led by Juan Pablo de Carrion was ordered to launch an attack against the Japanese forces, first in the West Philippine Sea and then in the Cagayan River. Forty Spaniards in five vessels battled close to 400 Japanese troops led by Tay Fusa, a Japanese feudal lord, who came with 19 ships. Despite the overwhelming number of Japanese, their katanas and muskets proved no match to Spanish cannons.

The Japanese attempted to surrender on the condition that they be recompensed with gold fort their losses. Carrion refused and ordered them to leave Luzon. The Japanese waged two separate attacks after that. They were defeated by the Spaniards in both instances.

Luzon was pacified and Japanese looting ceased. To commemorate Spanish-Philippine victory, the city of Nueva Segovia was established in Cagayan. Today, it is known as Lal-lo in the Cagayan Administrative Region.

Persistent, Japanese chieftain Toyotomi Hideyoshi demanded on several occasions in 1590 that the people of Philippines surrender to the Japanese flag. Their efforts were blunted by the Spaniards on each occasion. The Japanese ceased from invading Philippine territories as the Spaniards were faithful in protecting the Philippines.

Another fact not mentioned in American textbooks is that the Philippines would have been a full Muslim nation if not for Spanish intervention.

Islam first came to Southeast Asia by way of Muslim traders from the Middle East, Turkey and Armenia in the 9th century. By the 12th century, the Sufi order waged a massive conversion campaign of Southeast Asia beginning with Northern Sumatra and Melecca. Eventually, both cities became the nerve center of the Muslim movement.

By the year 1380, the Muslim movement spread to the Philippines via Brunei and Borneo, first in the island of Sulu, and then in southwestern Mindanao. The conversion of the Visayas and parts of Luzon was gaining momentum if not quelled by the Spaniards who perpetuated Christianity.

As we celebrate La Camara’s 120th year, of which I am a proud member, I hope we could all objectively appreciate what Spain has contributed to the Philippines.

The future is bright for both nations. If the projections of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Goldman Sachs and HSBC are to be believed, the Philippines is poised to be the 19th largest economy in the world by the year 2050 and Spain the 26th (the 5th largest in the EU). It serves our best interest to cooperate, collaborate and conspire for mutual benefit. After all, that is what close friends do.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist

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