Cebu: 10 years after her suspension, even former enemies unite behind Gwen

Ryan Macasero
Cebu: 10 years after her suspension, even former enemies unite behind Gwen

CEBU POLITICIANS. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia and Vice Governor Hilario 'Junjun' Davide III watch the performance of the dancing inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Cebu City on August 12, 2022.

Jacqueline Hernandez/Rappler

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CEBU, Philippines – Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia arrived at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) on the morning of Friday, August 12, with Vice Governor Hilario “Junjun” Davide III.

This sight would have been unimaginable six years ago, when the two were with rival parties, and would often trade barbs and criticisms through media statements, with Davide being a longtime member of the Liberal Party (LP) – the party she, Garcia, blames for a trove of cases filed against her when the LP was in power.

Today, Davide is aware of the mandate and the tremendous influence she holds over local politics and her constituents. From being a former critic, he now works side by side with his former political foe.

After the world-famous inmates performed their dance routine for the governor and the VIP visitors, she went down to the courtyard to shake hands and talk to each of them.

Most of these inmates are awaiting trial or are already convicted on drug charges.

But despite Garcia’s feisty public persona, she has a way of making the average Cebuano, even the most marginalized members of society, feel seen.

Speaking to inmates who were drenched from the rain after their dance performance, the fifth-term governor talked about why she feels the dance program, and visiting the inmates, are important to her.  

Nidesidir na ko nga panggaon nako ang tanang Sugboanon (I decided I was going to care for all Cebuanos),” Garcia said in her address to the inmates.

Sugboanon man sa ilang tagsa tagsa tagsa ka panimalay, lungsod o dakbayan o mga Sugboananon nga gipahamtangan og kaso nga naa sa sulod sa CPDRC. Kay bisan tuod nga nahimo kamong mga inmates, nagpabilin kamong Sugboanon,” Garcia said. 

([Whether they are] Cebuanos in their homes, towns or cities, or Cebuanos who have court cases and are being held here in the CPDRC.)

It’s been two years since the inmates had performed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The inmates first gained world fame after a video of their Michael Jackson routine in 2006 went viral on YouTube. 

Garcia proudly claimed the program as an initiative that started after her first term began in 2004.

On this visit, she told the inmates that they would be receiving accounts with the local Cebu Cooperative Bank. And any income they receive from visitors who come to watch their dance routines would be deposited here.

“We want you to leave here with the right skills and savings for your families,” she told the inmates.

While she has been in politics for the past 18 years, she is starting off her strongest in this term. 

After all, she won the biggest mandate any Cebu governor has ever won with 1.4 million votes, with the backing of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who won in Cebu by a landslide. (READ: ‘Anti-Marcos country’ no more: Bongbong to beat Robredo in Cebu by landslide)

Her biggest priority this term is to reboot Cebu’s  economy, which, she said, had been battered by the COVID-19 restrictions.

She plans to do this by reopening tourism, supporting entrepreneurship, and improving agriculture in the countryside.

Her mass appeal and policy priorities, are for the most part, why she retains strong public support from Cebuanos, despite her controversial, and sometimes combative stances, against the national government’s pandemic quarantine measures.

Her critics said she was downplaying the pandemic and slammed her for calling tuob a “tambal” or treatment for COVID-19. While the Commission on Human Rights in 2020 called the governor’s attention for supposedly publicly shaming a critic and resident of Cebu province. (READ: CHR slams Gwen Garcia for publicly shaming netizen)

In 2021, she took even bolder positions against national COVID-19 task force policies by shortening the facility-based quarantine protocols in Cebu. She also made masks optional in Cebu province in June sans approval of the IATF.

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Still, these controversies did nothing to stunt her popularity.

This is evident in how Garcia defeated in 2022 her opponent for Cebu governor, former tourism secretary Ace Durano, by a landslide – 1.4 million votes to Durano’s over 341,000.

That’s why this term, she has every reason to feel confident that nothing will stand in her way.

Addressing a meeting of mayors days earlier on August 9, Garcia said: “[N]ever before has Cebu been so united. Never before have political leaders moved in one direction. Believing that beyond political considerations, affiliations and color, the good of Cebu, what’s good for the Cebuanos is more important, and will take precedence, and that will also be the guideline for other places in the Philippines.”

This is a far cry from when she was governor in 2012, when most of the local officials were aligned with the then-ruling Liberal Party.

That year, she was suspended by the late president Benigno Aquino III, which led to the infamous incident where she holed herself up in her office at the Cebu Provincial Capitol, when authorities attempted to serve the suspension order.

Her political career has taken a 180-degree turn since then.

Garcia emerged unscathed, surviving the most controversial charges filed against her.

In December 2020, the Ombudsman dropped criminal charges against her in the P830-million Cebu International Convention Center (CICC) complaint.

Meanwhile, the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan acquitted her in the P98-million Balili property case.

Today, those associated with filing those cases against her are no longer in power. Garcia, on the other hand, has become a force to be reckoned with in Philippine politics.

Consolidating power

Aside from Davide, another local official who was not a part of her family-led One Cebu Party, Democrito Diamante, spoke at the mayor’s meeting on August 9.

He thanked Garcia for inviting him and promised his support for the provincial governor’s programs.

Other notable cities and towns that have not joined One Cebu’s ranks nor expressed support for Garcia are Bogo City, led by the Martinez dynasty in northern Cebu, and Danao City, led by the once-powerful Durano dynasty. And these towns that have not come under One Cebu’s fold have not become opposition nor critics, but have instead focused on governing their own localities.

Marcos alliance

Prior to his inauguration on June 28, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. himself credited the leaders of Garcia’s party One Cebu for sweeping the province in the 2022 election with 1.5 million votes for Marcos and 1.7 million votes for then-vice presidential candidate Sara Duterte.

“This win in Cebu is history in many ways. It has never fallen to [a] Marcos to win this big in Cebu before,” Marcos said, acknowledging the sweep Garcia helped deliver in the 2022 election.  

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The party is present in all 50 cities and municipalities of Cebu province.

Members of the party include barangay councilors, municipal and city councilors, congressional representatives, and provincial board members. Almost all members who ran for their respective posts under One Cebu won their election.

“If you are able to align with whoever party or individual – it comes down to who you believe in – then you can, in fact, deliver that vote. And the only reason why anyone can deliver that vote is because voters trust them, and the voters trust them because they know that those leaders bring good things to their community, that they have been effective, worked hard and performed well,” Marcos said, recognizing the role Garcia played in helping him win Cebu.

In 2016, the party was also credited for helping deliver 1.1 million votes for former president Rodrigo Duterte. 

Cebu: 10 years after her suspension, even former enemies unite behind Gwen

But the case was different from Marcos’ win in that Duterte has roots in Cebu.

“The only time a Marcos [had] won in Cebu was in 1969, when he won against a Cebuano,” Marcos said.

Marcos was referring to the presidential race between his father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, and the late Senator Sergio Osmeña Jr. 

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Expanding Garcia dynasty

The alliance also benefited the Garcia dynasty in several ways. 

For one, Garcia was able to boost her already high popularity even more this election. Garcia’s daughter Christina, who won her reelection bid for Liloan town mayor, is now his tourism secretary. (READ: Marcos picks Christina Frasco as next tourism chief) Her husband Duke Frasco (Garcia’s son-in-law), is Cebu’s 5th District representative and current deputy speaker.

While in the past, Cebu’s independent cities would assert their autonomy from the province, One Cebu’s alliance with Cebu City and Lapu-Lapu City gives Garcia influence over these LGUs, even without direct administrative authority. 

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The governor’s nephew, Raymond Garcia, also won his first bid as Cebu City vice mayor alongside Mike Rama, who won as Cebu City mayor.

The last time a Garcia sat in Cebu City Hall was when his father Alvin was mayor from 1995 to 2001.

Should Raymond become mayor in 2025 or 2028, it would be the first time since 2001 that the mayor of the capital city and the governor of the province would both be Garcias.

Dying dynasties

The Garcia dynasty is a fairly young one.

The family patriarch, the late Pablo “Pabling” Garcia, first ran for public office in 1969 as vice governor of Cebu, before becoming a congressman and governor of Cebu starting in 1987.

His children Gwen, Pablo John, Nelson, and Marlon only began to run for local office in the early 2000s.

While the Garcia dynasty continues to expand its influence and presence in Cebu, the old dynasties of Cebu no longer have any heirs.

Rama’s children have not expressed interest in running for office so far. Margot Osmeña was not able to reclaim the Cebu City mayorship for her family after losing her election in 2022.

Tommy Osmeña, once a popular tough-talking mayor and critic of the governor, has not been in the spotlight since losing his reelection bid in 2019.

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What does Garcia’s alliance with the Marcoses mean for her ever-growing dynasty and her local political party?

According to political scientist Cleve Arguelles, for as long as both parties are benefitting, the alliance would remain stable, and would keep the family’s power intact.

“As always, local political families are in this alliance because they think they will benefit from it. It’s stable,” Arguelles said, and keeping them intact would be key to a repeat victory in the 2025 and 2028 election.

“The alliances they formed during the election is a key ingredient to their electoral victory,” he added. –

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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers Cebu and the Visayas for Rappler. He covers all news in the region, but is particularly interested in people stories, development issues and local policy making.