A Low Key, No-Nonsense Person

Book Review: Vicente Tirona Paterno, On My Terms: The Autobiography of Vicente Tirona Paterno (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, 2014. 284 pp.)

On My Terms: The Autobiography of Vicente Tirona Paterno (Source: Anvil Publishing)

On My Terms: The Autobiography of Vicente Tirona Paterno (Source: Anvil Publishing)

The late Vicente T. Paterno’s autobiography is part of a wave of memoir-writing/telling by officials identified with the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.

There’s Juan Ponce Enrile’s Juan Ponce Enrile: A Memoir, and Geronimo Velasco’s Toward Energy Self-Reliance: The Philippine Response to the Oil Crisis, 1973-1980. Enrile was Marcos’ Defense Secretary and martial law administrator, a coup plotter who failed to oust President Corazon Aquino, a resurrected politician and elected Senator. Velasco’s book got less publicity than Enrile’s because of its narrow focus (his term as Marcos’ Energy Secretary).

Then there are the technocrats who are now beginning to share their recollections with academics from the University of the Philippines and Kobe University. Aside from Paterno’s autobiography, there is the massive tome about Cesar Virata, written by adoring fan and fellow technocrat Gerardo Sicat. Virata and Paterno were the dictatorship’s saving grace, admired for their professionalism and incorruptibility.

Paterno’s On My Terms is about his journey from the University of the Philippines to Harvard University, to his appointment to a series of private and public posts where he put to good use his technocratic skills. It is a remarkable story of someone who, as an administrator and a politician, quietly expanded energy companies, pushed for Philippine industrialization, started the cleansing of a corrupt department, and pioneered in the corporatization of the retail store business.

Vicente Paterno (Source: Wikipedia)

Vicente Paterno (Source: Wikipedia)

But the reader will most certainly be looking for the juicy parts where Paterno confronted the Marcoses and their cronies. They will, alas, be disappointed. Paterno remained deferential to Marcos, was understated in his criticism of Imelda and, save for Baltazar Aquino, the corrupt Secretary of Public Works and Highways he replaced, did not mention any crony at all. He was vague about the billions the Marcoses stole from the Filipino people, and admitted he hardly knew of the tortures and killings perpetrated by the dictatorship’s military.

He did blame Imelda and lupus erythematous for having caused Marcos’ downfall. This was the spin that all the technocrats all shared: Marcos was a good president until Imelda messed it all up. What this mantra understated, of course, was how spineless the technocrats were when faced with Imelda and Ferdinand’s onslaught of plunder.

The book is more than just this technocrat-spoilsmen tiffs.

Paterno belonged to UP’s Class of 1949, the first graduates of the postwar period who, having experienced the full powers of Filipinization under Manuel L. Quezon and the brutal might of Japan and the US, had committed themselves to the recovery, rehabilitation and development of the new Republic. They imagined themselves as the vanguards whose task was to spearhead the building of a robust new nation.

And they were not just committed to any form of development. Paterno and his colleagues were fixated on industrializing the country. His choice of careers and positions -- manufacturing, capital investments, industrial linkages, a Philippine car – were directed towards making the Philippines compete with Japan. He was committed to a regional economy, but only in so far as it would assist national industrial expansion.

The reader will most certainly be looking for the juicy parts where Paterno confronted the Marcoses and their cronies. They will, alas, be disappointed.

While most Filipinos were scared of the “dark frontier,” Paterno saw Mindanao as a critical cog in his development dream. His first major disappointment with President Cory Aquino came when she decided to veto the creation of the proposed Mindanao Economic Development Council because it threatened to undermine the National Economic Development Authority. His alienation towards the president worsened when she turned down his proposal to create a network of regional commercial banks to provide capital to local industries. Aquino sided with the national banks, which wanted to continue the practice of making their provincial branches remit revenues to Manila daily.

Culturally, Paterno was a proud Filipino who wanted his children to keep their footing solidly in the country even as he encouraged them to explore the outside world, which was not just the United States. He was a populist, who constantly worried about the interests of his subordinates and customers. Paterno reluctantly moved to Makati where the moneyed families lived. He wanted to stay in a Manila middle-class neighborhood where there was more diversity when it came to incomes and lifestyles.

The Philippines today is a service sector economy whose primary revenues come from the remittances of overseas Filipinos and call centers in country. Its manufacturing sector is dominated by companies that could quickly leave if conditions are not to their liking, while the productivity of the agricultural sector continues to decline.

This economy would be anathema to Paterno’s dreams of an industrialized Philippines. He would not only be alienated from this landscape; he and his industrialization plans would stick out as sore thumbs. The book is a good telling of the life story of this “low key, no-nonsense person.” It’s a narrative as well of a generation of young Filipinos who crafted programs and policies with hopes of bringing about the new Republic’s economic take off. 

Patricio N. Abinales

Patricio N. Abinales

Patricio N. Abinales is an OFW.

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