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Historic Cebu Hosts ASEAN Summit

  • Douglas Bakshian

Explorers, presidents, silk, spices and controversy are all part of the rich heritage of Cebu, a Philippine island province. For the next few days, it is being overrun by delegates to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, but Cebu has been at the crossroads of history for some time. Douglas Bakshian reports from Cebu.

Being at the center of events is nothing new for Cebu, known as the "Queen of the South." It gained a place in Western history when explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 and persuaded a local ruler to pledge allegiance to the emperor of Spain and converted hundreds of Cebuanos to Christianity.

Magellan subsequently was killed in a battle with another Philippine chieftain. Filipinos say he was the first foreigner to get involved in local politics.

But much was happening even before Magellan. Cebu was a trading center, and for centuries ships from Thailand, China and other nations brought porcelain, silk, spices and other exotic items to its shores. Benjamin Diokno, an economics professor at the University of the Philippines, says Cebu's location puts it in a strategic position for trade.

"There are three major blocks of islands," he said. "Luzon is number one. And then there is a group of islands called the Visayas. The third one, of course, is Mindanao. And Cebu is right in the middle of the Visayan islands. So that is why it came to be developed as a trading center."

Today it is the country's most important trading hub and commercial center outside of Manila, handling more than 80 percent of inter-island shipping. More than 100 companies, including multinationals such as American watch maker Timex and Japan's NEC, which makes communication equipment, are in Cebu. The province also has a vibrant furniture industry and information technology centers are starting to grow here.

The province also is a tourism center, and in 2005 Cebu received more than one million tourists, about 400,000 of them foreigners, who were attracted by its beaches and resorts.

The province became embroiled in the controversy over the 2004 election. President Gloria Arroyo got her one-million-vote winning margin in Cebu. The election results were questioned and the opposition accused her of cheating. But she denies this, and told foreign correspondents last year that a vote recount verified her win.

"The answers to the issues raised will be found in … the recount happening in Cebu," she said. "That's where my biggest majority is. In fact that is where almost all of my majority is. And the results are coming out that I won the elections fair and square."

There was some controversy in the Philippines when Cebu was named the location of the summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week. Some critics thought the honor should go to Manila, which is more accessible for Asian leaders and the news media. However, it is not uncommon for countries to highlight locations other than their capital with international events, and Manila was the site of a previous ASEAN summit.

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