Ask Philippines Ambassador to Mexico Justo O. Orros about the current trend to develop international free trade blocs, and he? ll tell you that the whole idea started back in 1565, when the Nao galleons plowed the Pacific carrying goods between the ports of Manila and Acapulco. “In a way, you could say that the Philippines-Mexico trade routes were the forerunners to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the European Union (EU),” Orros told The Herald in a recent interview at his embassy.
For more than 250 years, a small fleet of Spanish vessels – known in Mexico as the “Nao de la China” – made the 9,000-nautical-mile trek between Mexico and the Philippines, constituting the most important trade route to the East for the Iberian crown. And it wasn? t just Philippine goods that were being transported. Although the Philippines provided some products to be shipped to the New World, it was primarily spices and other items from the “Spice Islands,” as well as silk, porcelain, gold, ivory, gemstones, jade, mercury and other valuables from China which made the Manila galleon trade so lucrative.
Wares from Japan, India and parts of Southeast Asia also made their way to first to Manila and then on to Mexico. “The route represented a vast regional trade bloc,” Orros said. “When we realize today just how vital the Philippines-Mexico route was to global trade at that time, it is easy to understand how closely linked the histories of our two countries really are. “
Even that uniquely Mexican historical icon the “China Poblana,” who was supposedly brought from the East as a slave during the early 1600s and captured the hearts of the people of Puebla because of her kind acts and extraordinary mode of dressing, was in fact a Filipino noblewoman who came to Mexico on a Nao galleon. Likewise, Orros said Mexican and Filipino history are closely linked by a spiritual connection between the Philippines? most important hero and patriot Jose Rizal and the revolutionary insurgents that freed Mexico from Spanish rule in the early 1800s. Rizal never in fact set foot on Mexico soil,” Orros said, “but clearly he and many other Philippine political thinkers were influenced by the Mexican example to cast off Spanish domain and the Mexican nationalist fervor. ” Even linguistically, there is a correlation between the Philippines and Mexico, he said. “Our native language, Filipino (also known as Tagalog) has over 10,000 words with Spanish roots,” he said. “Moreover, as of 1935, the Virgin of Guadalupe is our country? s official patron saint, which means that each year, hundreds of Filipinos come to Mexico to pay homage to the Blessed Mother. Another interesting historical tie between the two countries took place during the Second World War, when the only Mexican servicemen to participate in the conflict, an elite squadron of air force pilots known as the Escuadron 201, was sent by Washington to back Allied Forces. Originally, Orros said, the squadron was slated to go to Italy to support U. S. troops, but after then-President Manual Avila Camacho spoke to the pilots, he asked his American counterpart, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to instead send them to the Philippines, “where they could fight side-by-side with their Filipino brothers. Although only a handful of those brave pilots are still alive today, the Philippine government considers them national heroes, and in November of 2004, they were personally decorated by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during an official visit to Mexico City. “I am working to try to arrange for the surviving squadron members to visit the Philippines as guests of our government,” Orros said, “but because they are now quite old, we have to consider their health and whether such a long trip is feasible or advisable. “
Meanwhile, the ambassador is diligently waging his own battle to revitalize the spirit of trade that first defined Philippine-Mexican relations. “I think that with the close friendship that has always existed between our countries and the constant intertwining of our histories, we can regenerate the old trade connections,” he said. “Today, the figures for our combined bilateral trade are not very encouraging, amounting to about US$340 million in 2004. ” Admittedly, Orros said, there is a considerable overlap of products being produced and exported by Philippine and Mexican manufacturers.
However, the nations could become important partners in terms of shipping routes, he said. He added that he would like to see more bilateral investment cooperation. The Mexican cement giant Cemex already has long-term direct investments in the Philippines to the tune of nearly US$1 billion, and a Philippine firm has holdings in a Veracruz shipping service. To help jumpstart trade and investment, Orros said that a Philippine-Mexico Business Council was established in 1996, and as a consequence, there are plans for an exchange of commercial delegations sometime later this year.
Further down the road, he said he would like to see a “special trade agreement” between the Philippines and Mexico. An existing, but poorly utilized, cultural and academic agreement is also up for review in 2006 by a joint commission which Orros said could galvanize two-way cooperation in the these fields. “The problem in the past has always been money,” he said. “It is great to think up wonderful, elaborate projects, but unless you have the resources to carry them through, there isn? t a lot going to get done. What we need to do is find projects that are doable. The ambassador has also worked to establish sister-city relationships between Philippine and Mexican towns. In the end, Orros said that the renewal of Mexican-Philippine cooperation is inevitable. “Destiny has repeatedly brought our two countries together, and I am sure that it will happen again,” he concluded. “We share a common bond of friendship and history, and all we need to do now is build on that to create a new Mexico-Philippines commercial link that will be as strong and as globally influential as the Nao galleon routes were 400 years ago. “