Numbers Don’t Lie

MADRID — This city never fails to take my breath away, not only for its old-word grandeur, but also for the history we share. My kinship towards Spain stems from my father. He loved this country — it was the ancestral land of his grandparents. Patrimony is something our family holds dear so I do my best to keep our Spanish heritage alive. Strengthening business relations between the Philippines and Spain is an advocacy of mine, which is why I am an active member of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Manila.
I had mixed feelings as I walked around my favorite neighborhood in Plaza de las Cortes today. On one hand, I felt a sense of accomplishment knowing that Spain and the Philippines are now in the midst of a golden age of rediscovery. Interactions in trade and investments are on an all time high, just as it is in cultural exchanges and tourism. This follows more than a century of indifference, thanks to the Americans who vilified all things of Spanish origin.
On the other hand, I feel a sense of loss as the man who fostered this period of rediscovery, Ambassador Antonio Luis Calvo, is about to end his tour of duty in the Philippines. He will be missed, not only because he is a great ambassador who loves our country (and even made an effort to learn tagalog), but also because he and his lovely wife, Maria Jose, are personal friends. Ambassador Calvo took our relations to a new level in both the economic and cultural fronts. Indeed, he leaves big shoes to fill.
Under the Ambassador’s baton, bilateral trade between both nations reached €690 million last year, a 19% jump from the year prior. While Spain enjoys a trade surplus over the Philippines, our exports to the Iberian nation have been growing by some 29% annually, principally driven by tuna, electronic parts, and printers.
Spain’s official development assistance to the Philippines amounted to €278 million over 15 years. There are currently 15 Spanish NGOs working in close partnership with local civic organizations.
In terms of investments, infrastructure giants from Spain are now active participants in government’s Build, Build, Build program. Companies like Acciona S.A, Grupo Inclam, and Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocariles (CAF) are regular bidders in government tenders.
Conversely, Philippine investments to Spain topped €143 million last year thanks to a local conglomerate who invested some $100 million in the wine & spirits and real estate industries. Today, the Philippine flag stands proud in vineyards in Jerez and Toledo as well as one of the skyscrapers in Madrid, all of which the conglomerate owns. Ambassador Calvo played a key role in facilitating these investment.
Spain’s financial crisis is now a thing of the past and its economy is fundamentally stronger for it. Its economy grew by 3.2% last year, the highest in the European Union. Its gross domestic product now stands at some $1.35 trillion (nominal), the 14th largest in the world. It is the 32nd most competitive global economy with competence in agro-industries information technology, infrastructure development, renewable energy, and aerospace, among others.
In tourism, some 32,000 Spaniards visited the Philippines in 2016, posting an impressive growth rate of 30%. The Philippines has become trendy in these parts thanks to the publicity borne out of Madrid Fusion Manila and the “Its More Fun in the Philippines” campaign. On the other hand, some 62,000 Filipinos visited Spain in 2016. Obtaining a visa to Spain is now a dignified process, thanks to the reforms instituted by Ambassador Calvo.
There are about 115,000 Filipinos who maintain dual Spanish-Filipino citizenships on top of some 200,000 Filipinos who live and work across the Spanish peninsula. Filipinos are highly regarded by the Spanish people.
The average income among Spain’s 46 million population is $36,500 a year and this allows them to enjoy a high standard of living with considerable dispensable income. Add to this the 82 million tourist who spend some $104 billion in lodging, food, and entertainment.
With so much money going around and a sizeable Filipino population, it is a wonder why only a handful of Filipino companies have a footprint in Spain. Certainly, opportunities are aplenty for the likes of Jollibee, Bench, SM, and even Philippine Airlines.
Spain is a natural jump-off point for Filipino companies who wish to access the European Union, Mexico and South America. Collectively, this is a market of 1.3 billion affluent consumers.
Unknown to many, the Spanish Chamber of Commerce of Manila (La Camara) is at the disposal of Filipino businessmen who wish to do business with or in Spain. Ambassador Calvo sits as the chairman of La Camara.
La Camara’s business network is a treasure trove as it has access to thousands of Spanish companies across various industries. Filipino companies who wish to establish alliances with Spanish companies will do well by contacting the local chapter of La Camara for leads (
La Camara is the oldest business chamber in the Philippines. It provides a basket of services including business matching, translation, industry analysis, legal assistance for permits & licenses and facilitation of property acquisition in Spain, among others.
It also offers monthly learning and social events of terrific value, especially to those looking to network with the who’s who in Spanish business. Contrary to what many think, a corporation or individual need not be a Spaniard to join La Camara. In fact, the organization is keen to have more Filipinos in the group.
Ambassador Calvo has strengthened education and cultural exchanges between the two nations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the programs of Instituto Cervantes.
Instituto Cervantes is the world’s largest organization dedicated to teaching Spanish and purveying Latin-American culture. It has 77 centers across 44 countries for which the Manila ranks among the top two terms of enrollees. More than 6,000 Filipino learned Spanish to advance their careers last year.
Carlos Madrid is the overall Director of Instituto Cervantes Manila while Jose Maria Fons Guardiola is its Director for Culture. The dynamic duo transformed the institute from a relic to an important component in Filipino skills development.
In 2015, the duo moved the location of its campus from T. M. Kalaw in Manila to Ayala One Tower in the Makati Business District. This brought the institute closer to upwardly mobile Filipinos.
Last month, a second campus was inaugurated in Calle Real, Intramuros. In many ways, the presence of Instituto Cervantes in Intramuros is seen as a homecoming.
Former president Gloria Arroyo spoke in behalf of the Philippine government during its inauguration. She delivered her speech in eloquent Spanish. Mrs. Arroyo emphasized the significance of Instituto Cervantes in light of government’s efforts to diversify into Spanish IT-BPO services. There are nearly 3,000 Spanish speaking call center agents in the Philippines and their numbers are growing, thanks to the instruction provided by Instituto Cervantes.
The Hispanic market is enormous with 470 million Spanish speakers across 21 counties. Spanish is considered the second most commonly spoken global language and call center agents who speak it command two times the salary of their English-speaking counterparts.
Every year, Instituto Cervantes mounts several projects that fosters an interchange of culture.
“Pelicula” is the largest Spanish film festival in Asia for which Manila is host. Now running 16 years, the festival typically features 20 independent films from Spain and Latin America.
“Posporos” is a project that fosters musical exchanges between Spanish and Filipino contemporary artists. A series of concerts is held in Manila where Spanish alternative bands perform side by side Filipino musicians.
“Dia del Libro” is an annual celebration to commemorate the death anniversary of famed writers, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. The festivities feature a grand book sale, poetry recitals, a bazaar, and musical concert. In its last installment, Instituto Cervantes exhibited official replicas of artworks from the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Ambassador Calvo’s body of work is formidable. Thanks to his initiatives, the attitude of the typical Filipino toward Spain has shifted from trepidation to trust — from spite to gratitude.
As he leaves our shores and starts a new tour of duty elsewhere, we give him a snappy salute and a heartfelt salamat for the legacy he leaves behind.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.