Press Release
July 3, 2011


In a momentous gesture, Spain's Congreso de Diputados formally expressed the country's gratitude toward the Philippines for declaring the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day on June 30 of every year in commemoration of the historic Siege of Baler.

Spain's unprecedented move was made in response to an equally unprecedented initiative by the Philippines to pass the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day Act (Republic Act 9187) in 2003, becoming the only former colony to proclaim its friendship by law.

The Congreso de Diputados, the lower house of Spain's Cortes Generales, also thanked the Philippines for reintroducing the Spanish language in the educational system in a bid to revive a 500-year-old shared legacy.

Spain's Ambassador to Manila Jorqe Domecq read the institutional declaration during the 9th Phil-Span celebrations in Baler on June 30, the same day the Congreso de Diputados unanimously approved it.

The declaration also states Spain's intention to be the Philippines' gateway to Europe and the Ibero-American community and its wish for the Philippines to serve as its premier launching pad in Southeast Asia.

Senator Edgardo J. Angara, author and sponsor of the bill that was promulgated into the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day Act, said Spain's declaration affirms the two country's mutual desire to build stronger ties anchored on both common history and contemporary interests.

"Spain does not see us only as a former colony and we should not regard Spain only as a former colonizer," said Angara.

"Spain has one of the largest economies in the world and it is also one of the highest ranking countries in terms of human development index. There are numerous lessons we can draw from Spain's development path as we share many cultural affinities," he added.

An unbelievable siege

The Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day pays tribute to the legendary Siege of Baler, a story of courage, honor, compassion and magnanimity amid a grueling war.

On April 1, 1898, Spain and the United States officially declared war, prompting General Emilio Aguinaldo, president of the revolutionary government and leader of the Philippine military, to order the takeover of all Spanish detachments.

As Baler's Spanish detachment consisted only of a little over 50 soldiers, President Aguinaldo assumed the mission would not be difficult to accomplish. However, the Katipunan's troops in Baler where mostly inexperienced and poorly armed, unlike the Spanish soldiers. Nevertheless, Captain Teodorico Luna, leader of the Baler command, devised a plan to trap the Spanish. First, he ordered the townspeople of Baler to flee to reduce collateral damage, albeit stealthily so as not to alert the Spanish troops.

Meanwhile, the Spanish contingent in Baler were aware that the Battle of Manila Bay had transpired and that their detachments throughout the country were being overrun by Katipunenors. They also realized that they had become incommunicado as their letters and messages were frequently intercepted by Filipinos.

The Spanish soldiers stocked up on provision and ammunition and retreated to the fortress-like Church of Baler, expecting an attack on June 27. The assault did not come until June 30 when a total of 54 Spanish - 49 soldiers, three officers, a medical officer and a parish priest - barricaded themselves inside the church amid gunfire, in hopes of being rescued eventually.

They built a fort of the church, stationing sentries and marksmen at strategic locations. The Katipuneros, however ill-equipped, had them surrounded.

Over the next 337 days, episodic skirmishes and retaliations took place. The Katipuneros fired at the church with their guns and canons, which could not, however, destroy the solid structure. The Spanish soldiers did not return fire indiscriminately to save ammunition. The Katipuneros also plotted to burn the church but were foiled by the Spanish.

In the meantime, the Spanish's food supply was running out, leaving them with poor nutrition that made several soldiers susceptible to beriberi. They also suffered from occasional casualties from the attacks, as well as sporadic desertions.

It was a long waiting game that was marked by occasional respectful truces as the Katipuneros repeatedly tried to persuade Lieutenant Saturnino Martín Cerezo, the Spanish detachment's leader, to surrender in exchange for good treatment. One attempt even involved the arrival of Spanish Lieutenant Colonel Cristobal Aguilar aboard the ship Uranus that would have carried the Spanish detachment in Baler to safety.

However, Lt. Cerezo could not be persuaded to surrender during any of these instances, often thinking that all these were part of a ruse to force them to capitulate and give up their weapons. He and most of the troops held their ground believing in the longstanding orders to fight for their country no matter what.

He realized his grave error after Lt. Aguilar had left back for Manila. He agreed to the terms of surrender with Lieutenant Colonel Simon Tecson, who was heading the Katipuneros in Baler at that time, and on June 2, 1899 a total of 35 Spaniards emerged from the church. They suffered five deaths from gunshot wounds, 14 deaths from beriberi and dysentery, and six desertions.

In spite of the equally harrowing experience for the Katipuneros who lost many comrades and the people of Baler who were displaced for 11 months, they greeted Spanish detachment with cheers of "Amigos, amigos! Friends, friends!" when they came out of the church.

The survivors were mostly emaciated so the Filipino soldiers gave them food and treated them kindly. In a great act of benevolence and chivalry, President Aguinaldo issued a decree on June 30, 1899 stating that the survivors shall be treated as friends, not as prisoners. This guaranteed their safe travel back home. The residents of Manila even launched a fundraising campaign whose proceeds were gifted to the Spanish soldiers.

Throughout the siege, the Spanish demonstrated extraordinary loyalty and courage in the face of almost certain defeat. The siege also exemplified the exceptional kindness and charity of the Katipuneros and the people of Baler, without whose help the Spanish detachment would not have survived as they did.

The Katipuneros did not act brutally toward the Spanish though they eventually obtained modern canons and guns. They used diplomacy over and over despite the Spanish leader's refusal to heed their petition. It is believed that they even allowed carabaos to wander near the church for the Spanish to capture when they were nearly out of edible food.

Present-day cooperation

The kin of the Spanish soldiers who survived the siege have since looked kindly to Baler and the Philippines. For instance, José Ignacio Bidón, Vigil de Quiñones, grandson of Dr. Lt. Rogelio Quiñones, has expressed their family's immense debt of gratitude to the Filipino people. "In my house, there has always been, and will always be, a flag of the Philippines," he wrote in the book Baler, a National Book Award winner.

José Ignacio Bidón is a lawyer and the Philippines' Honorary Consul to Seville who has been promoting bilateral ties through football cooperation programs.

Jesus Valbuena Garcia, grandson of Corporal Jesus Garcia Quijano who was wounded on the very first day of the siege but endured nevertheless, wrote and directed the television documentary Los Hijos de Baler and the full-length film Returning to the Siege of Baler.

The Siege of Baler also opened a fresh chapter in Philippine-Spanish relations uncharacteristic of the abuse and hostility during Spain's 333-year rule. This provided the impetus to promulgate the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day Law in 2003, which has since set in motion numerous joint programs and partnerships.

In June 2007, Angara and Senators Franklin M. Drilon, Juan M. Flavier and Ramon B. Magsaysay, Jr. went to Spain on the invitation of then Senator Jose Manuel Barquero, president of the Spain-Philippines Parliamentary Friendship Group. During this time, the Senate of both countries signed a landmark accord that would call for regular parliamentary encounters to discuss topics of mutual interest, such as peace, human rights, security, terrorism, poverty alleviation, sport, arts, culture, tourism and infrastructure development.

The Philippines and Spain have also been holding sports training since. As an example, a team of football coaches from Andalusia, Spain-based Centro de Estudios, Desarollo e Investigación del Fútbol Andaluz (CEDIFA) has held a multi-day training courses in Baler, Aurora and Bago, Negros Occidental for elementary and high school students.

The Department of Education (DepEd) has also reintroduced the Spanish language in the secondary curriculum following an agreement signed between then Secretary Jesli Lapus and Professor D. Virgilio Zapatero G?mez, president of the University of Alcala, one of the oldest educational institutions in Europe.

As a follow-up project, all public school teachers conducting foreign language classes under the DepEd's Special Program in Foreign Language have enrolled in intensive Spanish language training at the Instituto Cervantes, a project made possible by the Spanish agency for international cooperation, the Agencia Española de Cooperacion Internacional para el Desarollo (AECID). Ninety-eight public school teachers graduated from the summer program last May.

Another major Philippine project rooted in history is the International Dia del Galeón, which commemorates the discovery on October 8, 1565 of the first tornaviaje, the return route from the Philippines to America that proved the world could be navigated in two directions. The Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade also made Manila the leading entrepôt in Asia for 250 years until 1815.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared October 8 of every year as the International Day of the Galleon, paving the way for the first International Dia del Galeón Festival in 2010. The celebrations' highlight was the arrival in Manila of the majestic replica Galeón Andalucía.

Angara, who was the driving force behind these initiatives to revitalize bilateral relations with Spain, was awarded the prestigious foreign policy prize Premio Casa Asia in 2010. He was also named the official representative of the Unión Latina to the Philippines, an organization made up of 37 countries of the Neolatina languages.

"Reintroducing a new generation of Filipinos to the Spanish language is the first step toward opening the gate of opportunities in commerce, education and tourism," said Angara.

"Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world, next only to Mandarin," added Angara. "It is one of the major languages today and will remain one of the most dominant in the future."

Speaking during the 1st Investment and Business Cooperation Forum here in March, Alfredo Bonet, Spain's minister for trade, industry and tourism, reiterated that their government is serious about making the Philippines their most important Southeast Asian partner.

Bonet noted that the bilateral trade has been on the upswing over the last five years. The Philippines' exports to Spain amounted to €178 million in 2010 while Spain's exports to Philippines reached €167 million. Though many trading partners in the European Union, Asia and North America exceeded this rate, Bonet said the Spanish government remains optimistic about continued expansion of trade.

"Our deep-rooted ties with Spain - especially our mutual acknowledgment of this - gives us an enormous advantage over other countries in terms of potential trade and investment opportunities. There is no better time than now to capitalize on this," Angara stressed.

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