Saturday, March 27, 2010
The Obama administration is sending subtle but unmistakable signals to the Arroyo administration that it is closely watching how it is conducting elections in the Philippines.
After President Arroyo finally got her wish for a face-to-face meeting with President Obama last July, US officials quickly let it be known that the White House was expecting the May 2010 elections to push through. There was much speculation at the time that Mrs. Arroyo was promoting charter change to amend Constitutional term limits.
This week, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced it was delaying approval of over $430 million in grants until after the results of the Philippine polls. The MCC is headed by State Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton had met with a contingent of Fil-Am community leaders headed by New York businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis on March 10.
Ms. Lewis sought Mrs. Clinton's help to convince President Obama to send a top-level observer team for the Philippine elections, similar to what the US did in the 1986 "snap elections" that pitted strongman President Ferdinand Marcos against a widow, Corazon Aquino.
Ms. Lewis is a longtime supporter of Mrs. Clinton, dating back to the time when she was First Lady and later as New York Senator. Ms. Lewis is now also a supporter of Liberal Party standard bearer Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
But Ms. Lewis says that in wielding her clout with the US Secretary of State, she was more concerned with the possible failure of elections, that could pave the way for President Arroyo to prolong her hold on power.
There is a deep, consuming distrust of President Arroyo in key sectors of the Fil-Am community. And by publicly airing their concerns, they are pushing the US to take a second look at their presently positive assessment of the coming polls.
The meeting with Secretary Clinton lasted only a few minutes -- barely enough for a photo-op but more than ample for sharing worried words. "We will look into this," Mrs. Clinton assured the Fil-Am leaders repeatedly.
For over an hour, the group briefed Jake Sullivan, Secretary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff for policy and a recent Manila visitor.
He told them during the meeting that the reports they’re getting “is not as pessimistic” as what the group was telling him.
Sullivan signaled the US can not afford to discount any scenario because an electoral debacle and the possibility of unrest in the Philippines “will be felt in neighboring countries, the region and certainly, in the United States”.
The Philippines is a lynchpin of US engagement in Asia. She is one of four US treaty allies in the Pacific – Japan, South Korea and Thailand being the others.
“Our alliances remain the bedrock of our engagement in the region, and the Obama administration is committed to strengthening and modernizing our alliances to address both continuing and emerging challenges,” Assistant State Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told a House foreign affairs panel earlier this month.
The Fil-Ams' visit to the State Department came in the eve of findings of the National Democratic Institute, which substantially backed up their assertions the Commission on Elections (Comelec) needed to do more to safeguard the country's first-ever computerized elections.
Trying something new almost always brings a certain amount of anxiety. But for some Fil-Ams that uncertainty is being fanned by a belief, right or wrong, that President Arroyo is trying to find a way to hang on to power.
And Mrs. Arroyo -- for reasons only she can know -- is giving little reason for them to think otherwise. In December 2003, she declared in Baguio City that she was not running in the following year's elections; her "victory" was marred by widespread accusations of electoral fraud. She was largely seen as prodding loyal lawmakers to work for charter change to circumvent term limits until a broad opposition -- including from the US -- forced them to relent. Malacanang is widely perceived as the prime mover behind filling the Supreme Court Chief Justice post even before it becomes vacant. And at a time when people are airing fears of a military take-over, President Arroyo appoints her former Palace centurion, Lt. Gen. Delfin Bangit to lead the Philippine military.
But one Alexandria, Virginia Fil-Am business executive predicts Filipino voters will see through this, and doubts Mrs. Arroyo has the absolute loyalty of all 120,000 soldiers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
President Arroyo is scheduled to fly into town again early next month to attend a nuclear security summit organized by President Obama. Philippine officials may be lobbying the White House for a "pull-aside photo-op" during the summit at DC's Convention Center, but insiders tell me no separate one-on-one meeting is planned.
This visit was supposed to be Mrs. Arroyo's "victory lap" because they had expected the MCC to approve the Philippine Compact proposal this week.
Instead, the Philippine leader, derided at home, will have to look for other "victories" to tout in her visit to Washington DC.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) will wait for the results of the Philippine elections before acting on the country’s Compact proposal.
The Philippines stands to get as much as $434 million in poverty and corruption-fighting grants from an MCC Compact agreement.
“The MCC Board deferred final consideration of the compact proposal in order to engage with the incoming administration to secure their commitment to the ideals and principles of MCC and to the compact’s objectives and implementation,” an MCC statement read.
The MCC Board of Directors, chaired by State Secretary Hillary Clinton, held its quarterly review on Wednesday (March 24).
“At our meeting, the MCC Board praised the Government of the Philippines for their hard work in developing this innovative compact proposal,” the statement added.
“The MCC and the Government of the Philippines have been working together to develop an MCC compact proposal focused on reducing poverty and stimulating economic growth,” they explained.
A proposed five-year Compact agreement will finance a community-based rural development program focusing on poor areas that’s expected to help five million Filipinos; a 220-kilometer road building and rehabilitation project that’s expected to benefit the most depressed barangays of Eastern Visayas; and computerization of the Bureau of Internal Revenue which is aimed at improving collections while reducing opportunities for graft and corruption.
“We look forward to the incoming Philippine government to demonstrate its commitment to MCC principles and the compact before final consideration,” declared MCC Chief Executive Officer Daniel W. Yohannes.
The MCC Board’s decision comes weeks after a delegation of influential Filipino-American leaders led by businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis spoke with Secretary Clinton.
The Fil-Am leaders had sought Mrs. Clinto’s help to convince President Obama to send top-level observers for the upcoming Philippine national elections.
They told Secretary Clinton their fears that the May 10 polls was allegedly being rigged to fail to extend President Arroyo’s hold on power.
They pointed to alleged shortcomings in preparations and putting up adequate safeguards for the Philippine’s first-ever computerized elections. The Fil-Am leaders were alarmed by the sudden spate of power outages as well as what they saw as the increased militarization of President Arroyo’s administration.
Secretary Clinton had told them at the time that she would look into their allegations.
Lewis is a supporter of Liberal Party standard bearer Noynoy Aquino.
Lewis and members of the delegation later provided a ranking State Department official the details of their allegations.
The Philippine also flunked the corruption test again during the Fiscal 2010 review period.
The country’s scorecard also fell in the Rule of Law yardstick as well as immunization rates, health expenditures, primary education expenditures, girls’ primary education completion and business start-up categories compared to Fiscal 2009.
Nevertheless, Philippine Ambassador Willy Gaa vowed to “continue working on the Compact to ensure that the gains achieved by the Arroyo administration will be sustained until the next administration.”
He predicted the MCC Compact “will soon add a new and exciting dimension to the multifaceted Philippine-US partnership.”
The envoy added that this was a legacy “which lie at the heart of the Millennium Challenge account program.”
Monday, March 22, 2010
It was déjà vu – the sea of humanity chanting a message of hope and anticipation, pockets of people praying, dancing, singing. In another time and place the scene might have been called “People Power” but at the Mall last Sunday, it was America’s future staring the nation’s leaders in the face.
“March for America” organizers estimated the crowd at over 200,000 – the biggest pro-immigration rally in Washington DC.
In that crowd were Filipinos from all over the Metro DC region and from far away as New York and Chicago.
They are pushing for Congress to start working on bills, including one filed in the House of Representatives last December that provides for comprehensive immigration reforms.
As the third fastest growing Asian-American community in 2009, there’s a lot riding in the bills for Filipinos here as well as those in the Philippines.
“There are very few issues that specifically affect Filipinos in the United States and this is one of them,” explained Ben de Guzman of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
HR 4321 – also known as the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act” -- authored by Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D, Illinois) and 92 other lawmakers, aims to mend growing gaps and defects in existing immigration laws.
A Senate version has been crafted by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
President Obama, in a videotaped statement shown during the rally, reaffirmed his commitment to “finally fix our broken immigration system”.
While the bills appear to address the main concerns of America’s Latino community (Obama won 66 percent of Latino votes in 2008), Fil-Am leaders say they will also have a profound impact on Filipinos in America.
Some have expressed reservations with the more restrictive Schumer-Graham proposal, but the House version contains provisions that target Filipino World War II veterans living in the US.
Sections 310 and 313 reflect the aspirations of the proposed Family Reunification Act that exempts Filipino veterans from immigrant visa quotas for children left behind in the Philippines.
Section 301 aims to eliminate the huge visa backlog. Next only to Mexican-Americans, Fil-Ams have the longest waiting time for petitions of relatives in the Philippines.
Family-based visa petitions for brothers and sisters, for instance, could take as long as 20 years.
More importantly, undocumented residents will be allowed to stay in the US (provided they have no criminal liability), work for their legalization after paying a fine, and eventually acquire citizenship.
There are an estimated one million Filipino “TNTs” (an acronym for “tago ng tago” meaning “hiding constantly”) who face arrest and deportation.
Coupled with toughening border security, the House bill will also reform the way illegal immigrants are arrested, detained and deported.
Some Filipino immigrants who’ve experienced this bewailed the practice of mixing potential deportees with hardened criminals in federal jails. Some alleged they were “treated like animals”.
And unclogging the visa gridlock could also pave the way for more Filipino professionals, particularly H-2 nurses, teachers and engineers, to land well-paying jobs in the US.
At the same time, lawyer Arnedo Valera of the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC) explained, the proposed measure and other recent federal statutes expands protection to foreign workers against illegal recruiters or abusive employers.
“Undocumented immigrants are not a burden to America,” he stressed.
He explained their own studies show legalizing the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants will translate to a $1.3 trillion boost to the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), making immigration reforms possibly the biggest yet cheapest stimulus bill.
“It’s been demonstrated that strict border enforcement alone will not solve the problem. What’s needed is to fix the broken immigration system and give the undocumented a way to come out of the shadows,” Valera averred.
The “March for America” was held just hours before the historic House vote to ratify the Senate’s healthcare reform measure.
Fil-Am community leaders say healthcare and immigration reforms are closely intertwined because both are crucial for the welfare of Filipinos in America.
“Just like healthcare reform, the time for immigration reforms is now,” Valera stressed.
But key immigration supporters on Capitol Hill worry if it won’t stir the same partisan passions as the healthcare reforms.
“It took us one year to pass healthcare reform. This may take a little time but we’re working on it,” assured Congressman Mike Honda (D, California).
“We are going to get the immigration reform bill passed this year. We’re going to make sure those issues like family reunification is part and parcel of the reforms. We have to work together to be part of this movement for immigration reforms,” he told ABS-CBN News.
Gicelle Fundales, the youthful president of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations (NaFFAA) in the Metro DC region, said they will be mounting a campaign to call lawmakers, urging them to work on immigration reforms.
Honda explained the immigration reform bill should be viewed in the context of the larger national agenda to strengthen the economy and keep people secure and productive.
He said immigrants in the US send about $40 billion to their family and relatives in their countries of origin. By improving opportunities for reunification, Honda said much of that money will likely remain in the US.
A Pew Center report said that by 2050 White Americans will comprise just 47 percent of the population, compared to 85 percent in 1960. Hispanics are estimated to comprise 29 percent and there will be three times more Asian Americans during that period.
Fixing America’s broken immigration system is clearly another soul-wrenching debate that has to be made, simply because it’s a problem that simply won’t go away.