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Tuesday, August 03, 2021
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Sunday Essay: The elusive Sonny Osmeña

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

Sunday Essay

THE only person who came closest to knowing Sonny Osmeña has died. His name was Sonny Osmeña.

All week long, we have read stories about the former senator and former Toledo City mayor’s long political career. While some of these have been informative, much of the background notes in these stories appear to have been lifted from his official profile on the Senate website. A full and unflinching record of his political career remains elusive.

Part of the reason for this is an unwritten rule of obituary writing: thou shalt write kindly of the dead. Another reason is the fact that many of the late senator’s contemporaries have long died. He was the last surviving member of the Seventh Congress (1970-1973), to which he was elected in his early 30s and where he had served along with his uncle Sergio Osmeña Jr.

If anyone understood why he made the political choices and decisions he did, what reason would he have to tell those stories now, except to inform a minority of political junkies and history buffs?

Here is an incomplete list of what little we know.

Sonny Osmeña served in the Senate for a total of 17 years, for the last time in the 1998-2004 term. His cousin Sergio Osmeña III has served for just a year longer, the latest in the 2010-2016 term.

Although he outlasted the administration of Joseph Estrada, who was removed from the presidency 20 years ago, Sonny Osmeña’s career in national politics stalled after 2004. He was one of 11 senators who had voted against opening an envelope that contained evidence in the Estrada impeachment trial in January 2001.

That’s not the only thing that stands out from what was arguably the peak of his career in national politics. Sometime between 1998 and 2001, while he was one of the senior members of the Senate, Sonny Osmeña was reportedly asked for help in getting national government support for what was then the South Reclamation Project (now the South Road Properties). His answer? “Pagpuasa mo (You can go hungry).”

No doubt there are Cebuano politicians who will say that they aspired for a career in politics because Sonny Osmeña inspired them. That they saw an idea he stood for (federalism? local government autonomy?) so clearly that they decided to commit themselves to it, as he did. But unlike his younger brother Lito, the former Cebu governor and presidential candidate, or his cousin Tomas, the former Cebu City mayor, Sonny Osmeña’s legacy in Cebu is less tangible. Or to be fair, perhaps less articulated.

We know from the surviving records that he made no apologies for seeking power as one of the elite, part of a web where business and political connections often overlapped. We know he had no objections to dynastic politics. “One member of the family who does not do good is one too many,” he told SunStar Cebu in October 1987. “But 10 members of the family doing good are not even enough... The anti-dynastic move runs contrary to the social vein of our society.” (Dr. Resil Mojares quoted this in his chapter in “An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines,” published in 1994 by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.)

His family still casts a large shadow over Cebuano politics, yet of his branch of the family, Sonny Osmeña may well be the last politician. His only son John Gregory served as a Provincial Board member and as vice governor until 2004, when he lost in the gubernatorial elections to (now incumbent governor) Gwendolyn Garcia.

But then all political families wane, eventually, and new ones emerge in their place. This is not to say that politics in Cebu has become more inclusive or more progressive, or that we have learned to stop reducing politics to electoral battles, but that’s for another Sunday.

With the death of Sonny Osmeña, Cebu has lost one of our most colorful and prominent political figures of the last 50 years. May he rest in peace.


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