Tuesday, June 29, 2010


A few months back, as the new president was poised to run for office, we asked if he knew “political aikido”.

Apparently yes.

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III will take his oath as the 15th President of the Republic in a few hours. This will be followed by a street party at the Quezon Circle. Organizers say the ceremonies will be austere by conventional standards, though it’ll still cost a pretty penny, as pennies go in a nation where even the government’s usually rosy yardsticks show five million Filipino families live below the poverty line.

He will inherit a government wallowing in red ink, damaged by what many see as institutional corruption, heavily reliant on the dollar remittances of over ten million overseas Filipinos, and an infrastructure in dire need of repair and upgrading and, in many instances, a complete overhaul.

And so, again, Noynoy, will have to wield his brand of “political aikido” to throw down the enormous mass of challenges facing him.

But perhaps his first task is to manage expectations. Nearly every sector of Filipino society – in and out of the Philippines – have already set an agenda for him. Everyone is excited. We suspect they are more excited than the new president himself, who may have already surveyed the road ahead and wondered if he will emerge six years hence with his current mane – that already appears endangered – still intact.

Even from an outsider’s perspective, Noynoy is already carrying a tremendous load on his shoulders.

But if he could wield a crafty campaign – exposing his opponents weaknesses while concealing his strengths – then he may just have the wherewithal to wrestle with an overheated agenda.

Filipinos see Noynoy’s inauguration as a fresh start after nearly a decade of lies, deceit and scandal, as if all will now be well.

Change is what the Filipinos sought - an end to corruption and abuse; they yearned for a leader who listens, sets the example and perhaps more than anything else, who will hold her/himself accountable to the people.

But the task of rebuilding a nation can not possibly be the work of just a single individual. He may have his sister Kris to provide momentary distractions, but that will hardly move his to-do list closer to fruitition.

We are reminded of a favorite Ellen DeGeneres quip about “in the beginning God said, ‘Let there be light’. And there was light. There was still nothing but you could see it a lot better.”

More than the ritual recitation of the oath of office, the larger, more important contract is what follows after that, when the crowd at the Luneta will be asked to proclaim their own commitment to the nation.

But why limit it to the Luneta audience? Every Filipino, on the streets and at home, whether they be listening to the proceedings on radio or watching it on TV should take the oath. It is something we did at grade school, it is something we should do today. It is a reaffirmation of "nation above all else".

Noynoy, despite all the powers vested as president and commander-in-chief, is a mere figurehead of the true source of power in society – the people. Will President Noynoy – P-Noy as some now call him – change the nation? Only if he inspires Pinoys to change themselves. That would be the ultimate throw-down.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Awardee Melissa Roxas mulls GMA human rights suit in US

We finally got to meet Melissa Roxas, who’s become a symbol of outgoing President Arroyo’s abject failure to protect human rights.

Roxas was one of the awardees at the 5th annual People’s Ball organized by the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel over the weekend.

The other awardees included retired US Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who helped expose American prison abuses in Iraq; Dr. Josefina Magno who helped set up hospices in the US and Philippines; John Reed, co-founder of the world renown Bayanihan Dance Troupe; DC Deputy Mayor Valerie Santos (a no-show); and Philippine Ambassador Willy Gaa (represented by the Philippine Embassy’s chief Capitol Hill operator Consul Ariel Penaranda).

The People’s Ball is one of the biggest Fil-Am gatherings in Metro DC.

Guam Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo and Miss Maryland International Heather Young also graced the affair.

Roxas delivered the response on behalf of the evening’s awardees.

Roxas was abducted last year while on a medical mission in Tarlac, allegedly by army agents. She was accused of being a member of the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

Lawyer Arnedo Valera, MHC executive director, filed a complaint with the State Department which has promised to look into the allegations, as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Roxas is an American citizen.

The Philippine Court of Appeals granted a writ of amparo, which has been elevated to the Supreme Court because of the government’s alleged failure to provide the names of Roxas’ suspected tormentors.

She admits they are set to file charges against President Arroyo after she steps down this month. It could be a class suit similar to that filed by human rights victims against President Ferdinand Marcos.

Human rights groups say about a thousand people -- peasant organizers, union leaders, priests and journalists -- have been summarily executed during President Arroyo's tenure.

A federal district court in Hawaii declared Marcos guilty for forced disappearances, summary executions and torture of some 10,000 people, and was ordered to pay close to $2 billion in damages.

Valera revealed they are still studying where to sue Mrs. Arroyo.

Presidents are immune from suits while in office according to both Philippine and US jurisprudence. But in 1997, the US Supreme Court in the case of President Clinton, declared a sitting president can be sued for complaints that are private in nature or where the offense occurred before his incumbency.

As Mrs. Arroyo herself pointed out, the only immunity she enjoys as Pampanga congresswoman is for utterances she may make on the floor of the Batasan.


We listened to five Asian immigrants tell a crowd “how we got here” at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall.

A woman from New Delhi recounted how her husband, a computer engineer, arrived in the US in the 1970s with almost no money, no place to stay and in search of a job.

Two decades later, she claims, he became at age 30, the youngest CEO in Silicon Valley.

An elderly Chinese-American related how he arrived in 1946 aboard a freighter that wasn’t even sure where it would dock in search of cargo. His story started in Portland and was filled with heartaches but he eventually found his place in America.

“We stand out wherever we because of how we look,” said a Sikh-American speaker. With their distinctive headwear, they invite curiosity and in the extremes, taunting and insults.

But times have changed, he said, they are now well assimilated in Northern Virginia.

“Never give up your culture,” he stressed.

Lawyer Miriam Reidmiller confided that among the earliest books she got from her father, an executive of Getty Oil, was a book on American idioms. Growing up, she had a choice of whether to continue living in Manila or move to the United States.

“When I saw the GW Parkway and all the trees, I fell in love with this place,” she remembered.

The yearly Folklife Festival is one of DC’s top tourist draws.

The 10-day event is spread over two weekends and celebrates – through stories, food, music, arts and crafts, dance and rituals – America’s rich cultural diversity.

Asian Pacific Americans had their own section composed of several tents – devoted to storytelling, a “tea house” where various APA communities cook their native delicacies, and family activities that included learning how to play “Asian football” – sepak takraw.

The festival highlights the contributions of immigrants to American society.

But the tales we heard were stories of success. We have yet to hear from those whose “American Dream” failed.

On the other side the nation, a law in Arizona is being assailed because it could lead to racial profiling and discrimination.

Arizona says it’s to curb crime which they arbitrarily blamed on undocumented immigrants (even though official reports show the crime rate was actually in decline).

One needn’t go far to see where Arizona’s crackdown might lead -- Prince William County, Virginia has suffered falling property prices resulting from mass migration, business closures and lower school enrolment since it enacted ordinances that mirror Arizona’s SB 1070 three years ago.

Last week, we interviewed four Filipino hospital workers – three nurses and a Fil-Am human resources staffer – who were summarily fired by a Baltimore City hospital for speaking Tagalog.

They have filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Festivals like the one being held in DC help demolish the walls that divide America.

America may be a nation of immigrant but she is also “the land of the free, the home of the brave”. Everyone must work, persevere and struggle for his place here. As the DC festival may have inadvertently demonstrated, failures have no right to tell their stories here.


Have you asked yourself – what would you’d be doing if you had the chance to celebrate your 80th birthday?

Well, if you happen to be Rita Gerona-Adkins, you’d be partying – taking on dares, talking for nearly four straight hours (you’d have to be there to see how she does it), enjoying Bing and Bill Branigin’s sumptuous feast, annoying her friends, laughing her heart out, and throwing her audience in stitches as well.

Growing old is mandatory, but it takes a certain talent doing it well.

We’ve always looked at aging with much trepidation.

The body inevitably succumbs to biology and physics, and the law of averages, Murphy’s law and about a dozen other “laws” that all boil down to a nagging suspicion that after so many good years behind us, life is bound to catch up.

“Old age,” Trotsky once said, “is the most unexpected of all things that happen to a man.”

It’s good to see Rita. She’s evidence life still swings at 80.

She tells friends she actually has two birthdays (incidentally, that’s a trait only one other woman has – Queen Elizabeth II).

Agatha Christie observed that “happy people are failures because they are on such good terms with themselves they don’t give a damn.”

Rita is unapologetically and unabashedly enjoying life.

She lives alone, something that often worries her friends. Age is just a number, she points out, a state of mind.

She still hunts down stories in the heat of summer as well as the cold of winter; she still haunts her favorite bookstore; and savors the tastes of life (a proper woman, Rita proclaimed in one of her soliloquies, moans only for good food and good sex).

Perhaps the elixir of youth is simply the freedom to make the choices we want in our life.

So here’s to the next 80, Rita!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


It appears the Obama administration is bent on holding incoming President Noynoy to his campaign pledge to curb corruption in government.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board, headed by State Secretary Hillary Clinton, met today (June 16) to discuss the various pending proposals for millions of dollars worth of poverty-fighting grants, including $434 million for the Philippines.

“The Board reiterated its desire for a commitment by the new administration to the ideals and principles of MCC, including fighting corruption, and to the compact’s objectives and implementation,” they said in a statement.

The Philippines was on track to receive the grant earlier this year until the MCC decided to defer the Compact proposal because the Arroyo administration continued to flunk the all-critical corruption test.

The MCC Board decided in March to wait for the winner of the national elections last May before moving forward with the Philippine proposal.

As a candidate Aquino ran behind a platform of fighting graft, blaming the country’s rampant poverty on widespread government corruption – a sentiment that appears to resonate loudly in the Obama administration, if its latest declarations serves as barometer.

The Philippines proposed to invest the MCC grant in community-based rural development programs focusing on poor areas that is expected to benefit five million Filipinos;

A 220-kilometer road building and rehabilitation project cutting across the most depressed barangays of Eastern Visayas; and the computerization of the Bureau of Internal Revenue that is aimed at improving collections while reducing opportunities for grant and corruption.

The State Department had earlier released the 2010 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report which covered over 170 countries, including the Philippines which it placed in a critical watch list for the second straight year.

But in a clear signal to President-elect Aquino, the MCC said it will take up the Philippine proposal this year (the Board meets quarterly) together with Jordan and Malawi, and ahead of Indonesia, Zambia and Cape Verde whose applications for grants would be taken up in 2011.
n the meeting today, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the members of the MCC Board were briefed on ongoing discussions with Philippine officials.

Monday, June 14, 2010


United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries with serious human trafficking problems, including the Philippines, to work harder to overcome what they see as the growing threat of modern-day slavery.

The Philippines landed in the Tier 2 watch list, precariously close to falling to the Tier 3 category which lumps countries that fail to meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Secretary Clinton released today the State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons report.

Tier 2 countries, according to US definition, “do not fully comply with TVPA minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.”

However, they place certain Tier 2 countries in a “watch list” because of the number of victims is “very significant or is significantly increasing”, failure of governments to demonstrate improving efforts to curb human trafficking, or where “significant efforts” to comply with the TVPA are at the moment, just promises.

“Although progress has undoubtedly been made against this global phenomenon, there is more work to do,” said Secretary Clinton.

“While trafficking victims include men and boys, today the majority of human trafficking victims worldwide are women and girls and that number is growing,” added Undersecretary of State for Democracy & Global Affairs Maria Otero.

In the Philippines, up to 70 percent of victims are women. Various estimates show their numbers range from 300,000 to 400,000 – about 100,000 of them children. They are reportedly trafficked for labor and sexual exploitation to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Malaysia, Hongkong, Singapore, Japan, South Africa, North America and Europe.

The Philippines has been classified a Tier 2 country since 2007 but this was the second straight year, it’s been on the watch list. The State Department has been coming out with the report since 2000 (for only the first time, the US included itself in the list – a Tier 1 that means it’s in full compliance with TVPA’s minimum standards).

The State Department was critical of the Philippine performance in all three benchmarks (prevention, protection and prosecution).

“Though the government filed several labor trafficking cases for prosecution, it has never convicted any offenders of labor trafficking,” the report noted.

“Despite overall efforts, the government did not show evidence of significant progress in convicting trafficking offenders, particularly those responsible for labor trafficking,” it concluded.

However, it did acknowledge the 2009 conviction of a policeman who was first arrested in 2005 after he was found employing minors in his Manila nightclubs, and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment, but that lone conviction paled amid the enormity of the problem,

“Law enforcement agencies referred 228 alleged trafficking cases to the Philippine Department of Justice of which prosecutors initiated 206 cases, a significant increase from the previous year. However, only eight individuals in five sex trafficking cases were convicted during the year, including two individuals who remain at large.”

“Widespread corruption and an inefficient judicial system continue to severely limit the prosecution of trafficking cases,” the report said.

It noted that 380 trafficking cases are pending or still locked in litigation in various Philippine courts.

“Corruption remained pervasive in the Philippines and there were reports that officials in government units and agencies assigned to enforce laws against human trafficking permitted trafficking offenders to conduct illegal activities, either tacitly or explicitly,” the report said.

“While the government encouraged victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking crimes, extreme poverty, fear of retaliation by traffickers and the government’s lack of victim and witness protection through the lengthy trial process caused many victims to decline cooperation and recant testimony. Some applications for witness protection were still pending with the Department of Justice more a year after being filed.”

The US wants the Philippine government – a problem the Arroyo administration will bequeathed to incoming President Benigno Aquino III – to work harder at “efficiently investigating, prosecution and convicting both labor and sex trafficking offenders involved in the trafficking of Filipinos in the country and abroad.”

The report also recommended the Philippines gets tougher on throwing more illegal traffickers in jail, especially government officials who may be in cahoots or coddling illegal traffickers; invest more in victim and witness protection, including providing shelters; increase efforts to engage foreign governments where Filipinos go to find work in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenders; review its program to address domestic labor trafficking; and boost the education of law enforcers, social service officials, prosecutors and judges on the use of the 2003 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.

“Slavery,” said Undersecretary Otero, “is the most extreme form of depriving a person of the ability to pursue his or her God-given potential. But as horrible as this human rights abuse may be, there is hope yet.

For a country like the Philippines, which receives millions of dollars in aid from the US every year, failing to make the grade could have repercussions on its ability to continue to avail of this help.

But even without US prodding, the Philippines needs to address the growing crisis of labor and sexual trafficking, both at home and abroad where over 10 million of its citizens live and work, and are often vulnerable.

Secretary Clinton stressed that “Ending this global scourge is an important policy priority for the United States.”


Washington DC Deputy Mayor Valerie Santos was the guest of honor at last weekend's gala celebrating the 112th anniversary of Philippine Independence at the Mandarin Oriental along Maryland Avenue SW.

We've featured Valerie, 36, in Balitang America and our other news outlets, but as our friend Bing Branigin pointed out, her stunning looks at the ball deserved more than a second glance.

As chief planner and implementor of DC Mayor Adrian Fenty's economic vision, Valerie oversees over $13 billion-worth of business projects for the nation's capital.

Her responsibilities range anywhere from housing to real estate, from parks to banks.

One of her pet projects is a $1.5 billion DC waterfront improvement project that has already lured some young Fil-Am entrepreneurs who will soon be launching a taxi boat service on the Potomac River that will cover the distance from Georgetown all the way south to Maryland's National Harbor.

Her father is from Bulacan, her mother from Zamboanga City. Valerie herself was born and raised in San Francisco, but likes to preserve her roots with the Philippines -- at one time, volunteering to be a teacher for Zamboanga's Ateneo Jesuits in Basilan.

We're quite sure this won't be the last time we'll be featuring Valerie here (thanks Bing!).

Saturday, June 12, 2010


When Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is sworn in as the 15th President of the Republic at the end of the month, many of his relatives won’t be at the grandstand and instead will be following the proceedings from their homes in Virginia and Maryland.

“Our whole family was dedicated to helping Ninoy become president,” Katrina Aquino-Brickman admitted over a delicious filet mignon dinner she and husband David hosted for longtime college chum and our cousin, Marian Catedral-King last night.

“Ninoy” is of course the new president’s martyred father, shot as he was returning from the United States in August 1983.

Katrina was a cousin of Ninoy – her mother, early matinee star Lydia Montanez, married Medardo Aquino, who was a brother of Ninoy’s mother, Dona Aurora. Thus, the new president is her nephew.

Katrina and Marian (visiting from California to attend a relative’s wedding in Manassas, Virginia) were leaders of the Justice for Aquino, Justice for All movement at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City.

“When he was killed, we were all lost. We didn’t know what to do,” Katrina recounted. They vented their anguish in protests, reportedly mounting the first-ever campus demonstration over Ninoy’s assassination.

But her parents became so worried they “exiled” her to the US in 1984.

She later met and married businessman David Brickman, and they have two daughters – Ashley, 16, and Jordan, 12.

Ashley, is an aspiring figure skater. At 13, she represented the US at a youth competition in Morges, Switzerland. She is trying to work her way up to a slot in the US Winter Olympic team.

“We tried to put her in a swimming program, but she wanted skating,” Katrina explained, adding that Ashley was 4 years old at the time. And it appears, she’s never let her eyes off figure skating ever since.

With her green eyes, Katrina and Marian pursue a good-natured debate whether Ashley “looked Filipino enough”.

That’s because Ashley, at her mother’s suggestions, now wants to represent the Philippines in international figure skating competitions. She, they believed, would do proud to her family, the Philippines and perhaps because of the current circumstances, the Aquino name.

“You look Filipino,” Marian’s husband, Tony, assures the girl but only when Katrina is within ear-shot.

Katrina herself has some Russian blood – her grandmother was one a handful of “White Russians” who managed to escape the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in the Philippines.

Finally, after about two decades, Katrina is thinking about visiting the land of her birth again. She’s been out too long to have any intimate knowledge of Philippine politics today, but with another Aquino at the nation’s helm, her curiosity might be getting the best of her.

She has a sister and a brother in Virginia, and a cousin, also an Aquino, in Maryland.

Her dream for Ashley carrying the Philippine colors, we suspect, may be just a subconscious expression of her own yearning to reconnect with her estranged homeland.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What do Washington DC, Chicago and Manila have in common? The answer: American architect and pioneering urban planner Daniel Burnham.

His life and works are extolled in an hour-long documentary which got its title from a favorite quote – “Make No Little Plans” – and to be shown in September by Public Broadcast System (PBS) affiliated stations.

There was a free showing of the film Wednesday evening at the Mall – that sprawling swath of open space that connects Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial which Burnham conceptualized and helped make reality.

He perhaps has the distinction of redefining the look of three great cities.

Burnham actively vied for a US government contract to design the capital city of America’s prized jewel in the Western Pacific.

He won the commission in 1904, and set out for Manila in the winter of 1904.

As the documentary pointed out, he only spent six weeks in the Philippines but it took more than a generation to implement his dream. And what a dream it was.

Much of his vision can still be seen in Manila – Luneta (now Rizal Park), Dewey Blvd. (now Roxas Blvd.), the preservation of Intramuros, the old Congress and Senate edifices wrapping the Agrifina Circle – all these were Burnham influences.

In fact, the Rizal Park promenade – from the Quirino Grandstand through the Rizal Monument and stretching past the Sunken Garden to Taft Avenue where the old jai-alai fronton used to be – looks every bit a scaled down version of Washington DC’s Mall.

Burnham loved open spaces and bodies of water, a predilection borne by a childhood growing up near Lake Ontario in Henderson, New York.

But the encompassing character of his works was its utility – no matter how big or beautiful the structures, Burnham stressed, they must also be useful.

Thus, he envisioned parks where people can congregate, socialize, play and be entertained – indispensable (i.e, the ultimate utility) for living in crowded, impersonal urban centers.

Burnham also designed Baguio City, where the daily grind seems to revolve around the park that now bears his name.

In his address, Philippine Ambassador Willy Gaa noted Burnham’s legacy was just added proof of the enduring bonds between the US and Philippines.

Even then, the world was always small for geniuses. “Make no little plans,” Burnham is quoted saying, “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

No wonder his works are marveled wherever they may be, regardless of who’s looking at them.

And with the march of time, people like Burnham leave vestiges of their big dreams and big hearts which remind us that, notwithstanding the distance, how similar we all are.