Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The intrepid undercover report by ABC News may have cast a dark light on the problem of prostitution in the Philippines but that’s hardly news back home where people walk by these dens, aware but powerless or, worse, ambivalent to what happens inside.

When US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. was in town, he spoke before an Asian-American forum where he sort of matter-of-factly claimed that 40 percent of American men visiting the Philippines go there for sex. A few days later an old colleague from ABS-CBN asked if he really said that. Yes, I replied but I didn’t mention it in the article I posted because I didn’t think it jumped out.

Well, Mr. Thomas repeated that allegation in Manila and it landed him in hot water. Using every trick in crisis diplomacy, he was finally able to wiggle out of the public outrage and indignation. I would imagine the angry reaction surprised him because you didn’t have to look too hard to see that what he said was true.

The ABC News report, facilitated by Fr. Shay Cullen, merely brought the problem to a larger audience.

What jumped out for me though was reading that the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) was involved in an operation to arrest and possibly prosecute an American national, identified in the report as Arthur Benjamin of Texas.

The report suggested the feds were interested in Benjamin for allegedly having sex with a minor and operating a bar that employed underaged girls for prostitution. This sounded like a warning and a reminder to all Americans that their citizenship made them subject to US laws wherever they may be.

While the ABC News report focused on Benjamin’s alleged bar in Subic, Zambales, it’s also widely known that some of the seediest establishments in Angeles, Pampanga are also owned by Americans.

They are mostly left-overs of the US bases in those towns, where in some cases generations of girls have been trapped in the “world’s oldest profession”. Some vestiges are more personal, girls sired by US servicemen – especially at the height of the Vietnam War when Subic and Angeles City were synonymous with “R&R” – with prostitutes who have themselves been sucked into the “trade”.

Of course, much of this is fueled by poverty and corruption. Occasionally the police would raid these establishments, reporters and TV cameras in tow, especially when there’s a new commander at the post or a new face in city hall.

Scribes who pounded the community and police beats even coined a “code” for them “Oplan Pakilala” – translated as Operation Introduction – that let the bar managers know who to give the protection money (or favors) to.

There might be some questions about American law enforcers joining anti-vice operations in a sovereign country, thousands of miles away. It’s certainly embarrassing for the Philippine police. 

Prostitution has sometimes been described as a “victim-less crime” but that’s not true. Prostitution like human trafficking is an “equal opportunity crime” because it corrupts indiscriminately and so completely. And the damage is more pernicious where children are concerned.

Only recently, a federal investigation into alleged weapons smuggling from the Philippines was blindsided by revelations some FBI agents may have paid for Filipina prostitutes using taxpayer’s money as part of undercover operations.

If the charges turn out to be true – together with the assertion that its nationals are among the chief drivers of the prostitution problem in the Philippines – then the US is right to intervene. If they can send their drones to knock out terrorists – even Americans – across the globe, I don’t think too many will complain if they haul misbehaving citizens like Mr. Benjamin to jail. 

Those parts of Subic or Angeles are not much different from, say, Bangkok's Patpong or any other notorious (or "popular"?) red light district in the world. They hardly represent the country or even the cities where they’re located. Still, they taint Filipino women. 

Mr. Thomas has promised US help to prosecute Americans involved in the sex trade and human trafficking in the Philippines. We hope that in addition to aiding local law enforcers, they would also help groups like those of Fr. Shay who has spent a lifetime helping young Filipinos.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I thought this morning’s news was somewhat amusing. The White House press corps was up in arms over the weekend after they weren’t granted a photo-op of President Obama playing golf with Tiger Woods in Florida.

It has spawned a host of articles – one calling Obama a “puppet master” for purportedly manipulating the press – disconcerting only because there was a flood of “serious” matters that begged discussion from the White House.

There was for instance the “leaked” immigration reform legislation that the President would reportedly push forward to Congress if the current bipartisan efforts of the “Gang of 8” fail to take off. That drew a quick rebuke from lawmakers, prompting the White House to deny it was behind the leak.

From experience, reporters covering Presidents appear to be more sensitive and zealous about access to their primary news source. During the Aquino I administration, Palace scribes were christened the “brat pack” for reasons that were only too obvious for “Tita Cory’s” media handlers.

They would complain constantly, berate, cajole, threaten and humor their way to a story. But they got the story out.

When Aquino II spokesman Edwin Lacierda visited Washington DC sometime back, we asked him about complaints from some in the Malacanang Press Corps about his boss’s emasculated calendar that apparently left few opportunities for reporters to submit a copy that at least had an even chance to make the front page.

He insisted that the President has a packed schedule that isn’t always reflected in the calendar handed out to the press.

Fox News’ Ed Henry, who currently heads the White House Press Corps, stressed that their beef with President Obama wasn’t about the golf game. But it’s raised eyebrows from others.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer blasted the media for what others have described as “whining”, calling it “the biggest non-story” since the Kardashian weddings.

“If the guy wants to play golf, the guy deserves a couple of days off. He wants privacy — big deal. I don’t understand what the story is and what the outrage is,” he said on Fox News.

“You want to watch him shank and slice?” he added. “What we’ll do is look at his score card and that’s enough. I don’t think Obama’s out there with Tiger receiving marital advice. I think he’s out there receiving advice on how to line up a putt.”

“The balance of power used to be much more in favor of the mainstream press,” Mike McCurry, who was press secretary to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal was quoted on Politico.com.
The website’s highly cited Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen observed, “The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions. Instead, he spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities. Why bother with The New York Times beat reporter when Obama can go on ‘The View’?”

Technology has helped transform those dealings today, especially with the wider use and growing reliance on social networks as well as blogs.

The White House, according to Politico.com, “has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.”

Perhaps these are straits only journalists on the presidential beat can appreciate (or be so enraged and indignant). So to them, our unsolicited advice is “it’s alright to be a brat”. 

Monday, February 18, 2013


“It’s going to happen,” said Congressman Jim Moran, a Democrat representing our district in Northern Virginia. Although he was at T.C. Williams High School (yes, “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington) to talk about student aid, the looming sequestration was felt even there.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama warned of “grave consequences” if the sequester happens. Unless Congress acts, a series of automatic cuts – the sequester totaling $1.2 trillion spread over a decade – will take effect on March 1, about two weeks away.

It will impose drastic cuts in defense and domestic programs. The White House said the cuts could eradicate thousands of jobs for teachers, federal law enforcers and prosecutors; raise the possibility of food-borne epidemics; dry up about $540 million in loan guarantees for small businesses; and throw about 100,000 previously homeless people, including veterans, back out in the streets, among others.

The Budget Control Act of 2011, which created the sequestration, immediately lopped off $400 billion from the Pentagon budget and set the stage for slashing another $600 billion.

So why should we be concerned? The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warned last week that as many as 750,000 jobs could be lost this year.

Sequestration would have a major impact in the Metro DC region, as well as the rest of Virginia and Maryland with its army of defense contractors and military facilities.

Lockheed is based in Bethesda, Md.; Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics HQs are in Fairfax, Va.; and SAIC is in McLean, Va. Among the four of them, they lassoed nearly $100 billion in defense contracts in 2010.

Hundreds of Fil-Ams are employed by the federal government; thousands more work for companies or own enterprises that rely heavily on it, especially the military. The Philippine American Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC, for instance, has organized panel discussions on the impact to small businesses of Obama initiatives, including the upcoming implementation of “Obamacare” this year.

Still, Peter Singer of from the Brookings Institute, writing for Time, said the overall impact of the sequestration would not change the balance of power or America’s standing in the world. “The US is the only global superpower, with capabilities and responsibilities that dwarf any and every other state in the world,” he wrote.

GOP congressmen have signaled they would be ready to accept deep cuts in the defense budget if only to force Democrats to accept cuts on popular social programs as well.

The whole law was premised on shared pain, that slashing defense and domestic programs would be too painful for Republicans and Democrats alike that they would be forced to compromise. If the sequestration does push through, it will show pain is not as potent a stimulus as they thought it would be.

President Obama telegraphed his reluctance to touch entitlements, and appeared bent on pushing the GOP to accept more revenue-raising measures like plugging tax loopholes. Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said after the President’s address that there’s now a greater chance the sequestration will happen.

There is simply no bipartisan solution out there.

Now federal agencies, including the Pentagon, are busy preparing for it. Managers all across the vast federal bureaucracy have been briefing employees about furloughs, contingency plans ready.

With Congress on vacation until next week, many believe there won’t be time to stop sequestration. If it’s inevitable, I guess it’s imperative for Congress to rationalize sequestration, to control the descent so it doesn’t crash the economy.

Sequestration, Stinger said, “would be a terribly stupid thing to do.”

“It not only wouldn’t solve the core problems driving the US debt,” he added, it would also cut the budget in an “un-strategic manner…cutting both the good and bad by the same portions with no planning.” 

But what’s more disconcerting is the realization this is just the first in a series of events – raising the debt ceiling and crafting the national budget have to be tackled in the next two months. It's going to be difficult and the circus just doesn’t seem to want to leave DC.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Filipina nurse Menchu Sanchez gets a rare vantage view of President Obama’s State of the Union address before the joint session of Congress.

The Secaucus, NJ resident has been hailed as one of the heroes when Hurricane Sandy devastated large parts of New York and New Jersey last year.

After surging water took out the electricity at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, Sanchez, 56, organized the ICU doctors and nurses to carry 20 critically ill infants down nine flights of stairs with only cellphones to light the way.

“Even as Menchu’s own home was flooding, she thought only of protecting the babies in her care,” the White House explained in a statement.

She was invited by the First Lady Michelle Obama to be one of her guests, who’ll be sitting in the balcony that overlooks the podium delivers the State of the Union address. 

“I’m very excited,” she was quoted on northjersey.com. “This is a dream come true for most people — to meet the president — and I never thought I would get this chance. I voted for him twice and I’ve been following Michelle Obama’s philosophy for years as first lady. I can’t wait.”

She wanted to wear her best “terno”, the traditional dress she wears for socials with the Fil-Am community, but was told to “dress simply”.

Sanchez was born, raised, and educated in the Philippines and she immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.  She has worked as a nurse in New York for more than 25 years, and has been at NYU since 2010.  

When her family heard she was being invited to meet President and Mrs. Obama, her 19-year-old daughter asked to take the place of her father.

The other guests of the First Lady include Alan Aleman, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City. He is one of the so-called DREAMers who were brought to America as infants or young children by parents who were undocumented aliens.

In high school, Alan watched his friends come of age – driving around town with their new licenses and earning some extra cash from their summer jobs at the mall, knowing that his status prevented him from those activities.

But when he heard about news that the Obama Administration was going to provide Deferred Action for undocumented youth like him to emerge from the shadows, he was one of the first to sign up, the White House said.

 Alan is in his second year at the College of Southern Nevada.  He’s studying to become a doctor and he hopes to join the Air Force.  Alan is currently working at Hermandad Mexicana, where he is in charge of final review for DACA applications. 

Also with the First Lady are Cleopatra and Nathaniel Pendleton, whose daughter Hadiya was murdered on January 29, 2013, when she was shot and killed in Harsh Park on Chicago’s South Side.

Hadiya had participated in President Obama’s public inaugural celebration on January 21, 2013.  The honor student and band majorette at King College Prep High School has become another symbol of the victims of gun violence in the country. 

Mrs Obama attended Hadiya’s memorial service last Saturday.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Hillary Clinton bid farewell to the State Department last Friday, amid chants of “2016! 2016!” A large crowd, workers and well-wishers together, gathered at the agency’s main lobby in Foggy Bottom – among them Filipinos who are among her loudest cheerleaders.

In the 4 years she served as America’s top diplomat, Clinton traveled nearly a million miles (enough to span the globe more than 38 times) visiting 112 countries, including the Philippines.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had earlier flown to Washington to confer the Philippine Legion of Honor to Clinton – a rare award only given with the consent of the Congress and previously bestowed on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and more recently, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

Clinton was one of the Philippine’s staunchest supporters, from the East Philippine Sea dispute with China to speaking out against those who would subvert democracy there.

Little wonder her Filipino supporters here said they’re ready to swing into action if she does decide to throw her hat in the next presidential elections in 2016. In the days leading to her retirement, she was asked constantly about her plans but she demurred. She would wake up late this weekend, Clinton said, and a bit later, explore the horizons and do a “lot of talking and writing”.

“I sent her flowers,” New York-based Fil-Am leader Loida Nicolas Lewis told us after a health scare when she collapsed and doctors found a clot in her head that was eventually removed without surgery.

“We’re staying back and waiting for her to make a decision without any pressure,” Lewis said. She actively campaigned for Clinton during the 2008 Democratic nomination race that then Sen. Barack Obama won.

“Secretary Clinton strongly supported the Philippines’ advocacy for a rules-based approach in resolving competing claims over maritime areas through peaceful and diplomatic processes within the framework of international law,” a statement from the Philippine Embassy said.

The statement continued, “In September 2010, President Benigno S. Aquino III and Secretary Hillary Clinton unveiled the $434 million Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) Compact aimed at reducing poverty through economic growth in New York.

“Secretary Clinton oversaw the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia and reaffirmed the strong military relationship between the US and the Philippines. With Secretary Del Rosario, Secretary (Voltaire) Gazmin and Secretary (Leon) Panetta, they held the first Philippine-US Two + Two Ministerial Consultations in April 2012, providing the framework for intensified dialogue and cooperation on defense and security issues.”

Clinton responded by “reaffirming the US government’s commitment to strengthening the Philippine defense capabilities”.

While the official Philippine account enumerated the tangible effects of Clinton’s efforts to promote the country’s interests in the Obama administration, supporters here say it’s the ones that can’t be spoken about that really bore the heavier impact.

When in 2009 rumors swirled in Manila that then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo would try to “steal” the 2010 presidential elections by manufacturing a national emergency, a delegation of Fil-Am community leaders sought and got a public assurance from Clinton that the US frowns on any plot to block elections, virtually warning off the Arroyo administration. 

And when Del Rosario flew here following confrontations with China over a lingering territorial spat, Clinton laid down the US position – the strongest assurance given yet for its longstanding treaty ally.

She also demonstrated her brand of diplomacy during a visit to the Philippines, acting like a candidate campaigning for Filipino votes than the 4th highest ranking official in the US government.

But while she seemed to relish shaking hands with ordinary folks, Clinton was also quick to slap those of offenders – speaking out against extrajudicial killings, abuses and human trafficking, and threatening to pull out the US aid they coveted, not so much for the cash infusion as the stamp of approval and political legitimacy it connotes. .

Clinton has built a legion of Filipino admirers here and in the Philippines, including Lewis who says she still hopes Clinton would become the 1st female president of the United States.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Filipino American voters broke more heavily for President Obama during last year’s re-election victory than his more historic 2008 win, an exit poll by the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF) revealed recently. 

The exit poll showed 65 percent of Fil-Ams voted President Obama to a 2nd term in the White House; 32 percent voted for his Republican rival Mitt Romney’s in last November’s presidential elections.

The President thus fared much better than the 50 percent of Fil-Am voters he won over versus the 46 percent of his GOP rival Sen. John McCain in the 2008 elections.

The result surprised many in the Fil-Am community because a separate survey done about 2 months before the November 2012 polls showed that likely Fil-Am voters were leaning more for Romney, 39 percent compared to the President’s 33 percent.

The dramatic shift could be attributed in part to the aggressive voter registration campaign that appeared to have favored Democrats than it did for GOP candidates. The AALDEF exit poll revealed that 23 percent of Fil-Ams who cast a ballot last November were 1st time voters.
Fil-Am voters tracked closely with the overall results of the Asian American vote. The AALDEF poll showed about 77 percent of Asian Americans voted for President Obama, with the biggest majority posted by Bangladeshi Americans at 96 percent. The President lost only among Vietnamese Americans at 44 percent.

Of the Fil-Am voters polled, 52 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 18 percent as Independents.

"Asian Americans are a diverse community with varying social, political, and economic backgrounds," said AALDEF Executive Director Margaret Fung. "The AALDEF Exit Poll provides much needed data on Asian American voting trends, especially as our community's political influence continues to grow."

Glenn Magpantay, AALDEF Democracy Program Director, explained that the survey covered Asian American voters in 37 cities across 14 states on Election Day – New York , New Jersey , Massachusetts , Pennsylvania , Virginia , Maryland , Michigan , Illinois , Georgia , Louisiana , Florida , Texas , Nevada , California , and Washington D.C.

The largest Asian ethnic groups in the exit poll were Chinese (31%), Asian Indian (13%), Bangladeshi (12%), Vietnamese (12%), Korean (11%), Filipino (9%), Pakistani (3%), Arab (2%), Indo-Caribbean (1%), and Cambodian (1%).

Among their findings:

Location appears to matter. President Obama won big in the northeastern states (e.g. 89 percent in Pennsylvania and 86 percent in New York and Michigan ) and fared more poorly in the South (e.g. 57 percent in Texas and 16 percent in Louisiana).

The generational divide that marked the President’s 2008 victory appeared to continue in 2012. Only 10 percent of Asian Americans under 30 voted for Romney (he best performed in the 60-69 age bracket at 27 percent). Asian Americans under 40 broke heavily for the President.

The large number of 1st time voters appear to reinforce the notion Asian Americans are a growing segment of the electorate. About 79 percent of Asian Americans polled were foreign born. More than 27 percent of those polled said they voted for the 1st time last year.

Support for comprehensive immigration reform was overwhelming. About 34 percent of Asian Americans polled said they “strongly support” and 31 percent “support” comprehensive immigration, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The support is highest among Bangladeshi Americans at 78 percent and lowest among Vietnamese Americans at 49 percent.

When asked how the candidates stacked up against major issues, Asian American voters polled said they favored President Obama on healthcare, immigration and women’s issues; they favored Romney on the jobs and security issues.

In 24 of the 28 Congressional districts where the exit poll was conducted, a majority of Asian Americans supported Democratic candidates.

For the US Senate, 74 percent of Asian Americans overall voted for the Democratic candidate and 18 percent voted for the Republican candidate. For the US House of Representatives, 73 percent voted for the Democratic candidate and 17 percent voted for the Republican candidate.

In Virginia , Democratic senatorial candidate Tim Kaine got 70 percent of the Asian American vote compared to his GOP rival George Allen’s 26 percent. Kaine won the election.

AALDEF has conducted exit polls of Asian American voters in every major election since 1988. In the 2008 Presidential Election, AALDEF surveyed 16,665 Asian American voters in 11 states.

More than 100 community groups and organizations joined AALDEF to mobilize over 800 attorneys, law students, and volunteers to conduct the exit poll and to safeguard the voting rights of Asian Americans. 

Friday, February 1, 2013


When last we talked, I asked Prince, my grandson, what he wanted for his birthday which is a few weeks away. I thought he’d finally outgrown his Schleich menagerie and moved on to Lego’s. So I planned an expedition to the nearest Toys R Us so I can Johnny Air it early to Manila until my son suggested that we just pick out something on the net, send the money and he’d buy it for us. “We have everything here now,” he assured.

I suddenly remembered how that struck me during our short visit to Manila the other year – the sheer abundance and variety of wares in stores that’s sprouted like mushrooms.

A Bloomberg report said strong consumer spending will fuel the Philippine economy this year and help make up for lower exports that’s being felt all around the region.

It cited World Bank data showing consumer spending growing vis-à-vis the country’s GDP which it attributed to foreign remittances, income from the flourishing BPO sector as well as a burst of manufacturing from Japanese investment. The Philippines is reportedly on the way to boasting the 2nd best performing economy in the world, next only to China (which is showing signs of slowing down, according to some economists).

Standard & Poor’s raised the Philippine’s sovereign rating outlook to positive, moving it closer to achieving the coveted investment grade this year (as some experts predict). “The Philippines,” Bloomberg quoted Singapore-based economist Vishnu Varathan, “is on a very good footing to remain the blue-eyed boy in the region.”

Ever the sharp money-man, Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr. boldly told us during a pre-Christmas get-together at the Embassy’s Romulo Hall that the Philippine economy would grow “closer to 6 ½ percent” after the World Bank had just revised their Philippine projection from 5 to 6 percent. I should really start taking some bets from him – the economy actually grew by 6.6 percent according to the Finance Department – which makes Cuisia a prophet of sorts?

He said the Philippine stock market posted 37 record highs in 2012 (at least as of last December). “When I left the Philippines in April 2011, the index was 3,200; today, it’s about 5,700 which means 20 percent a year for the past 2 years and that’s why it’s one of the best performing markets,” he explained.

Still, I wondered aloud if it wouldn’t be better if at least the better part of that growth came through investments, foreign and domestic?   Even amid the flood of good news, the Philippines continues to lag behind its Southeast Asian neighbors in terms of Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) – the “good investment” in contrast to portfolio investments or “hot money” that can move out of the country just as quickly as it goes in.

Although FDIs grew over 10 percent in the first 6 months of 2012, the United National Conference on Trade & Development observed it was much lower than the rest of Southeast Asia (e.g., $900 million FDI for the Philippines vs. $27 billion for Singapore or $8 billion for Indonesia, $6 billion for Thailand, $4 billion for Malaysia).

Cuisia said FDIs are preferable because they translate into new factories and businesses that generate jobs and revenues over the long term. “The Philippines needs to attract much higher levels of FDIs in order to achieve its goal of sustained, inclusive high growth rates,” said economist Benjamin Diokno of the University of the Philippines. To do that, experts say, the country needs to level the playing field (which entails constitutional changes).

Moreover, a consumer spending-driven economy is good and pretty only for people who’ve got money to spend. The IBON Foundation in Manila estimates more than 4 million Filipinos are jobless and another 7 million earn wages that is barely enough to support a typical family of six in Metro Manila. And the number of working-age Filipinos is expected to hit 75 million by 2020. Those Filipinos need jobs, decent-paying jobs.

Watching from across the continent, the feats of the last couple of years – particularly under President Noynoy’s watch – is a source of pride (if we can cheer for Manny Pacquiao or Jessica Sanchez, shouldn’t we do it here as well?). It shows Filipinos can be great achievers, able to compete with the best in the world and meet the rigors of nation building.  

But if President Aquino aspires for greatness – as all leaders should – his legacy will be defined less by how much the GDP grew than by how many lives were made better by it. The challenge is how to ensure its fruits are spread to the greatest possible number of Filipinos. And how it can be sustained passed generations, and perhaps more daunting, passed the nation’s future leaders. 

I wish this not for myself but for Prince and Paulo.