HomeGovernmentThe Chief ExecutiveFormer MayorsHon. Cesar C. Climaco

Hon. Cesar C. Climaco (1953-1954; 1956-1961; 1980-1984)

Perhaps the most colorful person ever to hold the position of chief executive of the city of Zamboanga was Cesar Cortez Climaco. To many Zamboangueños, Climaco was the gem of Zamboanga. He was born on February 28, 1916, to Gregorio Climaco and Isabelita Cortez, both natives of this town.

Cesar had two brothers and two sisters. They were Rafael, a lawyer who became a Justice in the Court of Appeals; Jose or Jolly also a lawyer who became a Vice-Mayor of Zamboanga; Leticia, who married a prominent physician in the city, Dr. Espiridion Alvarez; and Lydia.

As a boy, Cesar finished his elementary and secondary education at the Normal School, presently the Western Mindanao State University. He pursued his college education at the University of the Philippines, where he took up law. He took the bar examinations and passed it with flying colors.

Immediately after the war, Julpha became a teacher at the Zamboanga City High School; while Cesar went on to continue his law studies, this time at the University of the Philippines.

As a young lawyer, he was described as flamboyant, dynamic and popular. His experience in the government service started when he was appointed prosecutor in the town of Jolo. Later, he was named executive assistant to the Mayor of Davao. Cesar came home to Zamboanga to serve as Executive Secretary to Mayor Manuel Jaldon.

Cesar’s political career began when he ran for the City Council in 1953, an election which he won overwhelmingly. It was in the same year that he was designated as Mayor of Zamboanga. In 1954, he became the Chief Project Manager and Field Coordinator of Operation Brotherhood in Vietnam, a position which he served until 1955, and which won him international recognition. He came back to Zamboanga in 1956 and ran in the first election ever held for the position of mayor in the city. Cesar went up against an appointive Mayor, Hector Suarez, and had for his running mate Dr. Tomas Ferrer under the banner of the Liberal Party. Cesar won in that election, giving him the distinction of being the first elected mayor of Zamboanga City.

He was reelected as Mayor of Zamboanga in 1959. Under the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal, he tried a position in the Senate in 1961, 1963, and again in 1965, but missing each time, the last one by only 3,567 votes.

If there was one trademark that was Cesar’s, it would be his character as an outspoken critic against corruption in any form. It was because of this that he became an ardent critic and opponent of President Ferdinand Marcos. Even during the time of President Diosdado Macapagal, Cesar was always noted to be the nemesis of corruption. In 1961, he was appointed Customs Commissioner, but later resigned from his post in protest to the corruption practices of some congressmen who wanted to take advantage of their position in government to import Mercedes Benz cars without having to pay the corresponding taxes to the government. President Macapagal begged Cesar to stay in the government service, and offered him the position of Presidential Assistant on Community Development, the forerunner of the present Department of Interior and Local Government. He was later appointed by President Macapagal as chairman of the Anti- Graft Committee.

It was no wonder that when Martial Law was declared in 1972, Cesar Climaco became a staunch oppositionist, becoming one of President Marcos’ most vociferous critics. It was for this reason that Cesar for a while decided to put himself in voluntary exile in the United States. He returned to the Philippines in 1976.

With the creation of the Batasang Pambansa, Cesar decided to run against Joaquin F. Enriquez, Jr., who was then running for the position of assemblyman under the Marcos banner. Cesar lost in that election. For a time he became a private citizen in Zamboanga. He kept himself busy looking after his farm in Titay, Zambonga del Sur. He described himself as “jobless farmer, fighting to dismantle the Marcos one-man rule.”

In 1980, Climaco, egged on by his supporters made a comeback bid for the mayoralty, choosing for his running mate a young Zamboangueño air force major named Manuel Dalipe. He founded the Concerned Citizens Aggrupation, a political party that was to be the rallying point for those who were opposed to the Marcos regime. In this election, he was to be pitted against a political opponent who had once been his political protégée for the council seat, Jose Vicente Fermin Atilano II, the mayor of Zamboanga at that time. Atilano was no match for the Climaco charisma and the local people’s discontent with the Marcos administration only served to bolster Cesar’s political bid. Climaco and his party captured all but one of the elective seats available.

But the cohesiveness of his party was not to last very long. His vice mayor and protégé, Manuel Dalipe, split from the CCA in favor of the KBL party of the administration under Maria Clara L. Lobregat when the elections were held for the city’s lone seat in the Batasang Pambansa. Cesar decided to step down from his post as mayor of the city to run for the position of Assemblyman against Lobregat and Joaquin Enriquez, Jr., both of whom were identified at that time with the Marcos administration. Cesar won in the election but refused to serve in the Batasang Pambansa until after he had served his full term of six years as mayor of Zamboanga. His aides would say that this was Cesar’s way of defying the Marcos regime by denying Marcos his presence in the rubber stamp parliament.

He would continue to be a stalwart of the opposition in the country, and the symbol of the fight for the preservation of the freedom of speech. At a time when few dared to speak up against President Marcos, Cesar would be the only one who could accuse Marcos of corruption and injustice in an open assembly and get away with it.

Unfortunately, his dream and vision for a peaceful and progressive Zamboanga was not realized when on November 14, 1984, he was felled by an assassin’s bullet while inspecting a fire scene on Gov. Alvarez Avenue. He was 68 years old when he died. To this very day, the mystery behind the murder remains unsolved, and those who were responsible for his death have not been brought to justice.

When Cesar was laid to rest at the Abong-Abong Park which he built, an estimated crowd of fifteen thousand mourners marched with the funeral cortege. It was a funeral that would rival that of Gandhi or Ninoy Aquino as mourners wept and sang “ay si Cesar,” an adaptation of the American folk song “Clementine.” People threw flowers as the coffin passed by and openly wept for the man who had given so much to Zamboanga.

Cesar had his frustrations as a man, foremost of which was his continued battle against corruption in government which he found to be deeply rooted in the system. As some friends would admit, Cesar’s idealism was his undoing.

Yet as he was a man who left lasting legacies for his people he so loved. To his credit belongs the development of the Pasonanca National park and later the Abong-Abong Park. He was responsible for the establishment of the Boy Scout Campsite, which was once the site of an international Boy Scout Jamboree. His obsession for cleanliness in the city gained for the city, at one time, the title as the cleanest city in the Philippines. All these were monumental reminders of a person whom a famous American writer, Charles C. Kelly, described as “madcap sexy senior citizen.”

Cesar’s closest friend described Cesar as a highly transparent person who was not afraid to show feelings, one who did not hesitate to expose his opinion freely. Engineer Leonardo Uro said that Cesar Climaco as a person had three “grievous faults”: 1) his lack of tact because he did not mince words when he felt he should call someone’s attention; 2) his irrepressible wit which has often misunderstood, but which was the best evidence of his razor sharp mind and his brutal frankness, for he cared not to whom he was speaking, whether a clergyman, a diplomat, or head of state; 3) his total disregard for his personal safety. He was noted to be the only mayor who went around without a bodyguard as he had complete trust and confidence in his fellowmen. Uro said the last was his greatest fault.

In Uro’s opinion, Zamboanga will have many great leaders as history goes, but there is only one Cesar Climaco.