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Cho Roco, come to think of him? He deserves a closer look

By Juan Escandor Jr.

Sulpicio “Cho” S. Roco Jr. is a short-stint public servant who served Naga City and the Third District of Camarines Sur (formerly second district) as mayor and congressman, respectively, for only one-term in each position. Seventeen years after he last served the government, his short-stints in public service have left long-term impact projects that now make sense.

When Cho, as congressman, rolled out the Mabolo-Sabang By-Pass Bridge at the outskirts of Naga City, many saw it as a waste of money since it seemed heading to nowhere. But for him, he viewed the building of the bridge as a major infrastructure that insured the flow of traffic through the city by serving as an alternate route.

His memory of the collapse of Mabolo Bridge that stopped the traffic from both ends of the Maharlika Highway for days inspired him to build the bridge. In October 1994, two Asia Brewery trucks were racing on the highway until they reached the Mabolo Bridge when one of the trucks tried to overtake the other, the bridge collapsed. This happened several months after a magnitude-4 earthquake rocked Naga and Typhoon Monang brought the worst flood on December 5, 1993.

“The opening of Mabolo-Sabang By-Pass Bridge allows all vehicles to enter Naga City and other towns should the Mabolo Bridge collapse again,” Cho said.

Cho accompanied by the late Jesse M. Robredo, received the award from Sheik Mohammed bin rashid Al Maktoum of United Arab Emirates for Best Practices on behalf of Naga City as mayor.

He credits his development perspective to experiences gained while working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) wherein he designed projects which required a spatial and a people-oriented perspective with long-term positive impact on people’s lives.

The continuing boom Naga City was experiencing and the official opening of the new business district greeted the greenhorn mayor when he was elected in 1998. Fresh from development work, Cho already foresaw the traffic problem ahead should no alternate roads and bridges be built.

Cho during his visit at the Missionaries of the Poor.

Cho with USAID Team

“I started building the circumferential road that connects peripheral areas and creates alternate routes that do not require vehicles to enter the old central business district. Part of this circumferential road and alternate route is the bridge in Balatas going to Matiway-San Felipe,” Cho shares. The impact of this portion of the circumferential road is specially felt during the Penafrancia festivities and the All-Saints Day celebrations. Without this bridge and road section, traffic in Naga would worsen exponentially.

After his one-term stint as mayor of Naga City, he ran in the congressional race and won the seat in the then 10-town Second District of Camarines Sur (now the 8-town Third District of Camarines Sur) and continued to devote his infrastructure projects to further connect the towns of his district.

With a district-focused developmental perspective, Cho introduced a network of roads that eased traffic and created alternate routes that included the Anayan-San Agustin Diversion Road that provides alternate route to vehicles heading to Partido District and Legazpi City, without passing through the central business district of Pili town.

Cho became mayor through the enticement and endorsement of the late Jesse M. Robredo who was finishing his tenth year as incumbent from 1988 to 1998. He was working at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a social anthropologist in a team that determined the “social soundness” of projects implemented in the Philippines.

Biking with the late Jesse M. Robredo

In other words, Cho was involved in the design and evaluation of the social soundness of projects in the target areas with the guiding principle in development that the projects’ short-term and long-term effects and impacts must be favorable to the people in the communities.

Cho made sure that issues regarding the project social acceptability to beneficiaries, their impact and sustainability are raised, to determine the social soundness of the USAID projects.

Since Naga City that time under Mayor Jesse had a project that the USAID funded in which Cho was the evaluator, the professional rapport between them was kindled because of the development perspective that both of them shared like the principle of participatory governance.

The year 1998 was also the last year Mayor Jesse led the “Ubos kon Ubos” team -- the name/slogan given to his team of handpicked councilors’ who all won since his first reelection in 1992. However, Jesse did not choose anyone from the “Ubos kon Ubos” team, which included incumbent Congressman Gabriel Bordado, worthy to replace him. Instead, Jesse asked Cho to run with his Ubos-kon-Ubos team.

After weighing the pros and the cons, Cho decided to resign from his job at the USAID and accepted Jesse’s offer for him to run as mayor with the condition he’d be allowed to finish his three terms while Jesse stays out of the mayoral race.

“So, I left my lucrative job at the USAID and then served as mayor of Naga City. But Jesse decided to break his vow not to run again when he came back from Harvard,” he said.

After finishing his short course in governance from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1999, Jesse came back to Naga City. In 2001, he decided to run again as mayor. To avoid an imminent clash with the Roco clan of Cho and elder brother Senator Raul Roco, Jesse’s close political ally, Cho was made to run as congressman of the then Second District of Camarines Sur, which he won.

With then Camarines Sur governor Luis Robredo Villafuerte, Jesse’s uncle and political-patron-turned-archnemesis, aggressively penetrating the city politics, the latter cannot afford to burn bridges with the Rocos, with Senator Raul, a big political ally.

In fact, in the 2001 elections, Luis Raymund “LRay” Villafuerte was fielded by father Luis against Cho, who easily won the mayoral contest.

Thirteen years earlier, in 1988, Jesse barely won the mayoral race with only more than 400 votes against Ramon S. Roco in the mayoral race in Naga City. Luis R. Villafuerte, who caused the appointment of Jesse as the project director of the Bicol River Basin Development Project (BRBDP), groomed and fielded his nephew to run for mayor of Naga City.

A de facto political kingpin in Naga City during his time, Jesse, who was running again for mayor, asked his handpicked incumbent congressman James Jacob in the then 10-town Second District of Camarines, to give way to Cho’s candidacy as congressman, as the longest-reigning mayor retook his position for another nine years, from 2001 to 2010.

Cho served Congress from 2001 to 2004.

Projecting a development agenda in the Third District of Camarines Sur, from 2022 to 2025, Cho sees the need of primary improvement in the road networks in the eastern part of the district that include the towns of Camaligan, Canaman, Magarao, Bombon and Calabanga. For him, the revival of the Manila Road traversing these towns through an improved road network towards the village of Balongay in Calabanga town and a bridge across the mouth of the Bicol River that connects to Cabusao town are the right infrastructure that would spur economic growth not only in these localities but also in neighboring districts as well.

He believes that the improved road network and the building of the bridge across the Bicol River from Balonggay, Calabanaga to Cabusao would open the Manila route, which will cut down travel time of travelers going north to Manila that come from the towns of Camaligan, Canaman, Magarao, Bombon and Calabanga.

Cho even sees travelers from the Partido district of Camarines Sur who will opt for an alternate route going to Manila like those from the towns of Tinambac and Siruma.

He said the impact of the improved road network and the bridge give benefits to five of the eight towns in the Third District of Camarines Sur by enabling these towns to gain from the economic activities the Manila route could generate.

Cho sees the continuing economic growth of Naga City and Pili as they are located within the Naga to Legazpi growth corridor, but he correctly observes that economic growth of towns on the eastern side of the district have been constrained by the removal of the Manila road through these towns. Restoration of the route through the building of a Balongay to Cabusao bridge would catalyze economic growth in the area. As he aptly points out, proper infrastructure in the proper place invariably initiates economic activities resulting in growth.

Cho with journalist Juan Escandor, Jr.


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