A Sword of Damocles Over the Head of Arroyo?

Arab News

A Sword of Damocles Over the Head of Arroyo?

by Manuel L. Quezon III

There used to be a saying, in the 1960s, that in the Philippines the three most important people were the US ambassador, the head of the industrialist Lopez family, and the president of the Philippines.

In that order. That was an exaggeration, of course, but the stampede of the Philippine political class to attend the US Embassy’s annual July 4 reception attests to how important the United States is to Filipino leaders. Of course a fixation with what America thinks or does is not uniquely Filipino: They are the sole remaining superpower. However, Filipino leaders have been criticized by their own countrymen for taking tail-wagging to an extreme matched only by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Recently, in a ceremony in the Philippine presidential palace, US Ambassador Kristie Kenney said something interesting. Speaking in the presence of the president, the American ambassador said that they would be closely monitoring the progress of a $21 million “Threshold Program to Fight Corruption in the Philippines.” Diplomatic observers pointed out to me that it seemed an unusual statement to them.

“Obviously you do not give money to a government unless you trust it,” one such observer remarked, “and if you do, why do you have to emphasize that you’ll be monitoring how it’s used?”

Unless of course, the observer added, the ambassador wanted to make a pointed reminder that they neither trust the Philippine government nor take the wise spending of such funds for granted.

Soon after the ceremony at the presidential palace, another American dropped by to see President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Her visitor, this time, was Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill.

They both smiled broadly at the cameras, and Arroyo, in particular, did her best to appear confident and relaxed. She’d been confined over the weekend for what officials insisted was influenza, and which Manila’s notorious gossip mill speculated was anything ranging from Lupus (a disease famously suffered by Ferdinand Marcos) to cirrhosis of the liver to one of the many varieties of Hepatitis.

Journalists were looking as much for signs of any disease other than influenza as they were trying to decode the body language between the two officials.

Hill wasn’t the only American on official business in town at the time. A low-key delegation of USAID consultants are circulating around the country, doing a survey on governance which is part of the regular mid-plan analysis bureaucratic agencies do. But it seems to me there’s suddenly more buzz surrounding the sighting of Americans than should normally be the case. Why should that be so?

Enter the US ambassador to Manila, again. Last month, a former official of the Philippine government by the name of Jocelyn Bolante ended up detained by American immigration authorities in Los Angeles. They said that Bolante’s visa had been cancelled (he’d presumably boarded a flight from Seoul to Los Angeles in good faith). Bolante’s visa, according to American statements, had been “revoked by the Department of State,” and Manila’s media immediately began to hum with speculation. Why was he under detention? He’d apparently traveled to and from the US often enough; one prominent Filipino columnist confidently asserting Bolante even had an apartment near the LA airport. So what happened?

Almost a month later, no one knows for sure. What everyone in the Philippines, if they didn’t know it by then, was reminded of, was why Bolante was such an interesting fellow.

Bearing a striking resemblance to Arroyo’s husband, with whom he’s closely identified, Bolante is one of those former officials accused of dodgy business during the last presidential election.

In his case, as undersecretary of agriculture, he allegedly used government funds to buy fertilizer for farmers, although it’s not clear if any farmers actually received it (foundations and organizations and even congressmen identified with the president did receive the funds, though).

The allegations triggered a senate investigation — and Bolante promptly left the country, and hasn’t been seen since. That was last year.

The US ambassador was pestered by the media, which suspected Bolante was detained upon request of the Philippine Senate, and because some of the funds used not for fertilizer, but to fertilize the president’s campaign, could have come from US development assistance.

Other possibilities bandied about include his having been caught in the airport with an undeclared — and impressive — sum of money.

It didn’t help that the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs was caught fudging details by claiming not to have known he was detained since it was a weekend and no one was at work (the Americans curtly replied they phoned and faxed the Philippine Consulate in Los Angeles). Then they washed their hands of the whole matter, which isn’t the usual response to Filipino citizens being detained in other countries.

Finally, Bolante was reported to have applied for political asylum in America, claiming his life was in danger. Manila gently asserted it could protect Bolante properly. The opposition hooted it was all a ploy to better prevent Bolante from facing the music.

It’s an open secret that the Republican administration in Washington considers Mrs. Arroyo in bad odor ever since she panicked and pulled Filipino peacekeepers out of Iraq to save a Filipino hostage.

The Philippine ambassador reportedly went as far as to tell Manila their lobbying efforts weren’t productive, and Mrs. Arroyo summarily dismissed him. Now Capitol Hill is said to be irritated with Arroyo because of widespread political killings taking place. Which brings us back to the US ambassador and Hill. After Kenney’s pointed remark, Hill’s visit resulted in an official response: Mrs. Arroyo made yet public condemnation of the killings.

And so the hubbub continues: Is it enough? Is Bolante a sword of Damocles suspended by America over Arroyo?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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