Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obama's 'strategic interests' call to SE Asia's notoriously corrupt leader

It's all over the news. Proudly propagated by the PR, nay, propaganda, machinery of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. United States President Barack H. Obama called Arroyo last March 14, 2009 to discuss the critical importance of the two countries' "bilateral relationship and... strategic interests," specifically the Visiting Forces Agreement that spells a mutual defense understanding. The call has long been sought after by Malacanang. Finally, after dodging her huge efforts to speak or meet with and use him for political photo-op her not once, not twice, but thrice, Obama decided to end the hide-and-seek game he played with Arroyo, the leader perceived to be the "Most Corrupt Philippine President" in history.

Obama is the 44th US President who campaigned on a mantra of "Hope, Change." He had successfully bested Hillary Clinton, the first viable female president in American history for the Democratic presidential nomination. He then went on to soundly defeat his Republican opponent for the presidency, John McCain, in the November 2008 polls.

In his inauguration speech, Obama indicated a foreign policy seemingly inimical to those leaders "who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent ...on the wrong side of history." His counterpart, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was sworn in as the 14th Philippine President at about the same time as his predecessor George W. Bush. Arroyo took office following the paraconstitutional change of power afforded by the EDSA II "People Power" of 2001, which was described by international media and analysts as the "opportunist coalition of church, business elite and left,"' and as "mob rule or mob rule as a cover for a well-planned coup."

From practically Day 1 of Arroyo's administration, she has been besieged by an almost endless litany of illegitimacy and corruption issues. Scandals after scandals have hounded her. To name just some: the IMPSA power plant deal; "Hello Garci?" wiretapping expose of cheating in the 2004 presidential polls; bribery of congressmen and governors at Malacanang; the Bolante fertilizer scam; the kangaroo court "guilty" verdict on the Estrada plunder case; and the abrogated NBN-ZTE deal. The latest, divulged only in January this year, is the collusion between roads project contractor and First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, alleged in a report made by no less than the World Bank.

No wonder that in October 2007, surveyed Filipinos expressed their perception that Arroyo is the "Most Corrupt President in Philippine History." Malacanang's current occupant has faced a number of unsuccessful challenges, including four successive impeachment complaints, two or three military mutinies, and a rectifying "People Power" exercise, EDSA 3, which sought to restore the presidency of the deposed but democratically elected Joseph Estrada early on in her term. Only in February, 2009, ten military groups of retired and active servicemen paid an advertisement declaring their support behind a brigadier general on court martial trial for the February 2006 uprising.

Jetset Stalking of Obama

Arroyo had gone on an aggressive seeking of the opportunity to meet up and try forging close relations (translation 2: stalking) with Obama as early as June 2008 when he was yet the presumed Democratic presidential nominee--apparently to ensure the political support of Bush's successor to her precarious presidency.

Her first attempt came via an expensive, 10-day, non-state visit to the US in the midst of the American presidential electoral process, but which failed to obtain even a glimpse of his charismatic presence. The next stalking came in November when she went again to the US on the pretext of attending a UN-sponsored "interfaith dialogue," even as she futilely chased Obama all the way to his Chicago hometown. The third time, in January this year, she suddenly diverted to Washington, DC, instead of flying home after attending the Davos World Economic Forum, just to be in the National Prayer Breakfast graced by Obama. Despite spending millions of the Filipinos' money, despite literally going out of her way, and despite breaking basic rules of protocol and even self-respect, Arroyo was humiliated the third time big time, as she failed to get any face time with Obama. Not even a word acknowledging her presence before the forum crowd of some 4,000 guests.

The costs of Arroyo's desperation-level jetsetting to stalk Obama have been very high for the Philippines. The June 2008 junket, the largest in the country's history, was enjoyed by no less than 60 solons and 10 cabinet officials. It went on despite the battering that Typhoon Fengshen inflicted on a considerable part of the Philippines. The third time proved too much, as not a few took notice and assailed her for 'wasting public funds chasing Obama.'

US interests in the South China Sea

This author has been pleasantly amused by Obama's initial refusal to be used by Arroyo or be associated with her corrupt government early on, but is history smart enough to know that that it was only a matter of time before he starts dealing with her. For some three months, he managed to keep the controversial Philippine President at bay, and project a clean-as-promised image to the world. Less anyone forget, however, Obama is duty bound to uphold "US interests" first and foremost.

After all, in a period following the expulsion of the US bases by the Philippine Senate in 1991, America has needed to exert greater efforts to steer Manila's policies in line with Washington's strategic and economic interests in its former colony. From the time America colonized the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century until about the time of Ferdinand Marcos, Manila was a virtual pawn of superpower Washington.

"Special" Fil-Am Friendship, sealed by the CIA

The US and the Philippines have historically enjoyed a longstanding "special friendship." It supposedly began on a spiritual plane, on the night of October 24, 1898 when US President William McKinley arrived at the decision to colonize the Philippine Islands after the "voice of God" told him "to take them all, to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them."

Rightists embrace the US as an ally, while the leftists brand America a neo-imperialist that has continued to exploit its former colony even during the post-World War Independence period. Particularly during the time when the US still had its military bases, and the Central Intelligence Agency had its SE Asian main station/regional headquarters in Manila, Philippine presidents were de facto obliged to toe the American line--or risks severe consequences. During a Cold War period when clandestine CIA operations were marked by intervention, deception, psychological warfare, instigations of military coup d'├ętat and even the assassinations of foreign political leaders such as Chile's Salvador Allende (contained in the 1975 Church Committee Report of the US congressional investigations), the price of displeasing Uncle Sam was tough. Nationalist Filipino Senator Claro M. Recto, who ran for president during the November 12, 1957 Philippine elections, paid the price with having to endure a bag of dirty tricks propaganda, and later, with his life. For having actively opposed the military presence of the US in his country, his presidential campaign was immorally and deviously sabotaged by the CIA.

This agency-apparatus of US imperialism ran foul operations that included the distribution of holed condoms sealed in packages labeled with "Courtesy of Claro M. Recto--the People's Friend." During a more conservative era, just the condom themselves would have repulsed Filipinos, and having them holes would have been seen as most obscene. The CIA work on Recto apparently did not end there. On October 2, 1960, Recto 'mysteriously' died of heart attack in Rome, Italy while on a cultural mission on the way to Spain. Before he died, Recto was visited by "two Caucasians" donned in business suits. The possible involvement of the CIA in his death came to light following the subsequent release of US government documents revealing that CIA Chief of Station Ralph Lovett and US Ambassador to the Philippines Admiral Raymond Spruance had discussed the murder of Recto with a vial of poison.

On the "bright" side, Filipino leaders who kowtowed to the former colonial master and espoused the American line were well rewarded. The successful presidential campaign of Ramon Magsaysay in November 1953 was largely helped by CIA operatives David Sternberg who posed as a foreign correspondent for the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, and New York lawyer and Republican Gabriel Kaplan. Under Magsaysay's term, a high-level US committee report found out how "American policy in Southeast Asia was most effectively represented in the Philippines, where any expanded program of Western influence may best be launched."

The Call over High Seas

Day 0 - Saturday (HK GMT) March 14, 2009 Obama calls Arroyo

Day 1 - Sunday (HK GMT), March 15, 2009 Malacanang proudly propagates news of the call

But deal with her Obama has begun. The call to Arroyo last March 14 was described by the drumbeaters of an ecstatic Malacanang as a "surprise" communication. After playing elusive for months, what issue of US interest could have possibly prompted Obama to finally make contact with the notoriously corrupt SE Asian leader?

The answer is found in the high waters of the Asia and Pacific region. The Philippines is a strategic pawn in the high stakes power game the US plays amidst its decreasing might in Asia-Pacific. The main challenge comes from China, now the world's largest economy and an emerging global power. Two weeks before, Washington and Beijing had a spat over the interception by five Chinese vessels of the unarmed USNS Impeccable that was conducting surveillance operations in a disputed part of the South China Sea. The Philippines itself is in a territorial dispute with China over the inclusion of some islands in the Spratlys in the former's Archipelagic Baselines Law.

Philippine Sovereignty & Convicted Rapist US Marine Daniel Smith

According to Arroyo's Press Secretary, Obama called to reaffirm the alliance of US with the Philippines and the commitment to the VFA "which remains critical to the bilateral relationship and our strategic interests".

The scrape with China, which came two weeks before the call to Arroyo, presumably impressed on the new US President the urgency to ensure that the US mutual defense agreement with the Philippines be maintained-at practically all costs.

The VFA, which became effective in 1999, has actually been a controversial agreement among Filipinos since the beginning because of provisions that apply US jurisdiction over its military personnel accused of, or found to, have engaged in crimes unless they are of "particular" significance to the Philippines. Critics call it an affront to the sovereign integrity and independence of the Philippines. Calls for its review and scrapping intensified following the 2005 arrest of Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith for the rape of a Filipina tagged as "Nicole" in Subic, site of a former US military base.

Wikipedia writes that: “Throughout the trial, the issue of U.S. vs. Philippine custody on the accused U.S. Marines was the focus of street demonstrations and protests by political groups and women's rights advocates, and it was a hot news item in the Philippine press.” The Makati Regional Trial court sentenced him with reclusion perpetua on December 4, 2006, making Smith the first American serviceman convicted of rape under Philippine jurisdiction. The Subic rape case would continue to be the rallying crux of nationalist and anti-American protest actions against the VFA.

VFA Jurisdiction Issue of US Soldiers Involved in Crimes

For much of the trial and post-conviction, Smith was under the custody of the US Embassy, following the agreement made between the Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary and the US Ambassador to the Philippines in December 2007. The US earlier canceled the yearly Balikatan joint military exercises during the time Smith was in Philippine custody.

A lower court ruled to assert the power of the Philippine over US troops in the country, but amidst the disagreement with the judicial and executive branches, left the issue of custody with the government to decide. The camp of “Nicole” later filed an indirect motion of contempt against the transfer of Smith to the US embassy, and also questioned the constitutionality of the VFA. The Supreme Court declared the VFA constitutional and ruled the Philippine government should forthwith negotiate with US representatives on the appropriate detention facilities under Philippine authorities, in accordance with the VFA.

The Supreme Court ruling, however, failed to appease the nationalist sentiments against, and the leftist protests over, Smith's continued detention at the US embassy. The controversy has served to catalyze serious calls for the abrogation of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

Obama's Call and US Covert Hand

As much as Obama's call came as a "surprise" to Malacanang, the Filipino public was surprised mega-time with the subsequent news that Smith's rape victim, "Nicole," has terminated the services of her lawyer and has gone to live in the US-of all countries. The development came within only three days of Obama's call, no matter that Malacanang earlier denied that the case of LCpl. Smith was not discussed with Arroyo.

Day 2 - Monday, March 16, 2009 (HK GMT) Malacanang denies that the case of Lcpl.Smith was discussed in the conversation by Arroyo & Obama

Day 3 - Tuesday, March 17, 2009 (HK GMT)
The mother of "Nicole," gives notice terminating services of Subic rape case attorney;
Informs counsel that Nicole is already in the US "for good"; Nicole's media statement vaguely complains of the state of justice in the Philippines

Speculations are now rife that the US government, with help from the Philippine government, has pressured "Nicole" into migrating "for good" in order to take the heat off from VFA. Officially, Smith's rape victim received P100,000 in moral and exemplary damages. Filipino Senator Jamby Madrigal says that the offer must have been irresistible. The US Embassy will not comment, but it seems the US visa is part of the deal because according to Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales what she had filed for earlier was for an Italian visa.

The press statement released by "Nicole" and expressing disappointment over the Philippine justice system, thus, becomes disconcerting because common sense tells that if it is justice she really seeks, she should not have chosen to reside in the country of her attacker. It simply does not make sense how she could trust the very government that has refused to turn over her rapist, LCpl. Smith, to the jurisdiction of the Philippine justice system. The fact is that Nicole has already won the case in terms of proving that she has been raped--with the comforting help of thousands of, although definitely not all, Filipinos who believed in her story and wished for her court victory. She not only got Smith convicted, but, as well, won the custody issue, even if only for a brief period.

Day 4 - Tuesday, March 18, 2009 (HK GMT)

- "Nicole" "recants" thru an affidavit
- First post-conviction recantation in Philippine history - Virtually absolves Smith of rape; assumes her share of responsibility for the sexual act

If Day 3 brought surprise with the news of the rape victim's migration, Day 4's retraction news stunned the Filipino public. After four years of fighting for justice in her case, going against the US military, winning a conviction of life against Smith, and winning a lower court order denying Smith's request to be put under the custody of the US Embassy, "Nicole" recants and suggests that what she had with Smith could have been consensual sex. After Judge Pozon believed her story, disbelieved and convicted Smith, based on forensic findings of contusions, presence of sperm DNA, and blood on her private parts, on witnesses who saw her crying after being dumped somewhere in Subic, she now says she is bothered by her conscience as Daniel Smith could have really been innocent of rape? All these within only three days of the Obama call.

Sorry, but the running script sounds unbelievable, especially since this author saw the media news interview of the van driver who witnessed the rape of Nicole soon after it happened in 2005. The account, which seemed spontaneously given and done under no duress, pretty much substantiates the forensic evidence in the Subic rape case.

Amidst the dynamics of Philippine historical subservience to its former colonizer, the timings of the Chinese interception of USNV Impeccable, of Obama's call, and the sudden, surprising migration of "Nicole," along with the implausible media statements and recantations she supposedly signed, it's hard not to connect the VFA and Uncle Sam to the development and not suspect that a settlement has been arranged.

A number of Philippine lawmakers believe the recantation/migration was a US handiwork, with a party-list solon saying that Nicole is the scapegoat in the scheme to save the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement from possible abrogation due to the sovereignty issues her rape case have given rise to. 2004 vice-presidential candidate Sen. Loren Legarda expressed concern that "While America keeps its processes intact and its soldiers protected, [Filipino] morality as a nation is trampled upon... justice system spat on,”

While this author understands the practical compromises necessitated by the realities of geopolitics, what is sickening about this Nicole-VFA-Smith settlement is that it puts Filipinas, as well as accusations of rape, in a bad light, both within the Philippines and outside. Marine LCpl. Daniel Smith is a convicted rapist, judiciously tried by a court of law. Pressuring, or enticing, his victim into absolving him and incriminating herself in the process present pretty serious judicial and societal ramifications .

For one, given the persisting machismo thinking among Filipinos, the high-profile case could also lead people not to consider rape cases more seriously. The development may also reinforce the belief that the rape of drunken women is justified.

Lawyer Katrina Legarda, who has handled prominent rape and other women's issue cases, believes it is a setback because judges may now think twice before handing "guilty" verdicts. The retraction, if true, could add to the negative perceptions of Filipinas: perhaps as objects of rape who can be later bought, or as liars who use sex in extortion.

'Hope, Change' in Foreign Policies Or False Hope?

If the US of A is agog to keep the Subic rape case out of the way of the Visiting Forces Agreement, can't just they ask the stalking Arroyo to pardon Smith of the crime of rape? Perhaps, Smith should be told to muster all sincerity there is in him and then publicly apologize with Nicole for the crime of rape. That should appease many Filipinos enough, particularly since he's generally taken as a handsome, gentle-looking guy. Of course, under such a scenario,the US visa offer to Nicole should stay, whether she takes it or not under 'normal' Malacanang and US pressures.

Then again, who knows what exactly Obama discussed with Arroyo, aside from his staff at the White House and the Defense Department, of course? If the "Hope, Change" electoral mantra is to be (gullibly?) used as the metric of assessing and predicting the 44th US President's foreign relations track, he could very well have faulted Arroyo for her corruption record and her power grab twice over. Perhaps, there was really no mention of the rape case of Smith whatsoever. Another and not-so-bad a scenario would be Obama actually having discussed the Subic rape case, but having promised to make the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement less one-sided by including rape in the crimes to fall under Philippine jurisdiction.

Hope it's not wishful thinking. Or isn't it? Calling on your campaign promise of "Change," Your Excellency Brother Barack Obama.



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