Zamboanga City

Zamboanga Mayor Climaco: ‘Our family was a victim of the Marcos regime’

Frencie Carreon

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Zamboanga Mayor Climaco: ‘Our family was a victim of the Marcos regime’

Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle "Beng" Climaco speaks during a gathering in her city.

Bong Serondo, Zamboanga City Mayor's Office

'It was the time in my life when we experienced personal tragedies,' recalls Zamboanga City's mayor of the Marcos years

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco brushed aside the possibility of her supporting the presidential bid of former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., saying that her family was a victim of abuses during the two-decade rule of his father.

But she stopped short of saying that she was rejecting Marcos’ presidential bid.

“Bongbong is a friend. I want the people to be free to make their choices with informed awareness,” she told Rappler on Wednesday, February 9.

Climaco’s late uncle Cesar was one of the most prominent critics in Mindanao of the Marcos dictatorship. He was shot dead in his city a year after the assassination of former senator and then opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

Cesar, a lawyer who was called the “Arsenio Lacson of the South” because his toughness and governance style resembled that of his friend and late Manila mayor, was a fierce critic of the Marcos Martial Law. 

When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he went into exile in the US but returned years later to seek public office again.

Cesar exposed electoral fraud in Zamboanga during the Marcos years, blowing the whistle when he found out that there were prepared ballots in boxes in a hotel.

His vow never to have a haircut until democracy was restored in the country was a strong political message against the Marcos dictatorship.

On Monday, the younger Climaco said her family “became a victim of the Marcos regime,” and recounted the time when “military men raided our house and planted subversive materials.”

She was a student at the University of the Philippines (UP) when Aquino was assassinated in 1983. When she went home because of her ailing mother, her uncle was passionately leading Zamboanga’s anti-Marcos movement and rallying Zamboanguenos in calling for justice for the killing of Aquino. 

But on November 14, 1984, tragedy struck when an assassin pumped a bullet into the nape of her uncle, the then city mayor, shortly after he rushed to a fire scene in downtown Zamboanga to oversee firefighting operations. The murder has become a cold case.

That was the same year when the elder Climaco won a seat in the Batasang Pambansa, defeating the strongman’s bet. In an act seen as defiance, he refused to serve in the Marcos-dominated parliament until he had completed his office term as Zamboanga’s mayor. 

“It was the time in my life when we experienced personal tragedies,” recalled the younger Climaco. 

But Climaco’s mood immediately changed and spoke differently when it came to another presidential candidate and friend of hers – Vice President Leni Robredo.

In late January, Climaco gave Robredo a red carpet welcome at city hall when the presidential bet visited the city.

WARM WELCOME. Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco (right) warmly welcomes Vice President Leni Robredo at city hall on January 26. (courtesy of Bong Serondo, Zamboanga City Mayor’s Office)

Climaco didn’t categorically say it, but her actions, like the shades of pink she wore when Robredo paid her a courtesy call on January 26, said it all.

When she was asked to categorically say if she picked Robredo as her bet for the presidency, a grinning Climaco gamely replied: “VP Leni (Robredo) chose me.” 

Climaco then went on to give an anecdote about a time when she and Robredo bonded when they served in the House of Representatives. She recalled that Robredo was a neophyte congresswoman who asked her for some help because the vice president was still unfamiliar with certain things in the Lower House.

“During her first term in Congress, she picked me to mentor her in the Development Academy of the Philippines training for new legislators. It was a most honored contribution to her office,” said Climaco, smiling.

She was in high spirits the day she welcomed Robredo outside city hall and gamely danced while members of a drum and bugle corps played just as the vice president was stepping down from a van.

The sight of the jolly mayor dancing was something Zamboanguenos don’t see often, and many saw that as Climaco sending a clear message: she was as pink as the face mask she wore that day.

Robredo was also visibly taken aback by the type of red carpet welcome Climaco gave her, something befitting heads of state.

From city hall’s historic balcony, Climaco invited Robredo to speak before a cheering crowd, mostly clad and waving anything in pink.

The last time Climaco did something close to this for another politician was on July 15, 2021, when Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, Marcos’ running mate, came over to forge a sisterhood agreement between the two Mindanao cities.

So, is it going to be a Robredo-Duterte for Climaco then? Climaco said she could not say yet because her group, the Partido Prosperidad y Paz (PPP), has yet to reach an agreement.

“I’m still waiting for my colleagues [to make a decision],” Climaco said. –

Frencie Carreon is a Mindanao-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship

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