Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sereno refuses to resign. Digong has to rev up economy to prevent Pinoys from flocking to Middle East illegally,due to poverty at home. Boracay has to shut down for urgent repairs so as to prevent further deterioration as "cesspool" .

Pinay workers jubilant upon arriving on chartered flight from Kuwait
Urgent measures should be taken to prevent this emerald paradise from becoming a total "cesspool." 

I knew Ma. Lourdes “Meilou” Sereno long ago, when she was teaching at the UP and a corporate lawyer, and from time to time, our paths would cross on various social occasions. I haven’t seen her socially for many years now, and I only managed to read about her and her work with the late former Justice Florentino Feliciano in the PIATCO case. Later, after she was appointed to the Supreme Court as its Chief, I’d drop in on various hearings in the session hall. 

CJ Sereno was recently quoted in the news as standing pat at the SC’s helm---refusing to resign despite tremendous pressure from various quarters, and despite a good number of her colleagues in the High Court having testified openly against her in the House hearings.  

I am not surprised about CJ Sereno's resolve to stay in her post---in fact I would be more surprised if she suddenly throws in the towel.  That’s how I knew her in the past: very sure of herself and tough as nails. At this point I wish Meilou Sereno the best of luck in this biggest battle of her life.


I feel awfully sad, though, for the Supreme Court that we once held in such high esteem, as we remember all the personalities who had passed through its hallowed halls---many of whom were regarded as demi-gods whose pronouncements on various issues were always ex-cathedra. In contrast, I felt great distaste over the mud-throwing we citizens witnessed in recent months in the House of Representatives and in media, among those once-upon-a-time demi-gods of the SC who testified against the CJ in public..

In recent weeks that once-venerable institution has suffered immensely and I doubt if it could recover its lost glory soon---given all the public mud-slinging among Their Honors in recent House hearings. It has been heart-breaking for those of us who believe in old-fashioned reverence for esteemed institutions, especially the SC.  The whole controversy involving CJ Sereno and her colleagues---laid out before House members many of whom are themselves not exemplars of ethical behavior---has left a bad taste in the mouth.

I note, however, that Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has distanced himself from openly joining the fight---refusing  the House invitation to testify against the Chief Justice, unlike their other colleagues. It was a smart move on Justice Carpio’s part, making him look statesmanlike.


Two issues now facing the Duterte administration---the sorry plight of Filipino workers in Kuwait and the destruction of our island-paradise of Boracay--- will have tremendous repercussions on the nation’s economic life. Both issues have to be handled with decisive authority by the President. .  

On the situation of our OFWs in Kuwait: the DFA estimates that there are some 250,000 Filipino workers there, employed mostly as domestics. Stories of physical abuse and humiliations against our OFWs there are not new, but the shocking revelation about a dead Filipino woman kept in a freezer for a year in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait exploded like a time bomb and shook our nation to its roots in its unimaginable horror. 

This is a situation that cries to high heavens for justice and President Duterte has done the right thing in sending planes to repatriate all our workers from Kuwait. But that doesn't solve the huge problem of our OFWs in the Middle East. It has only begun. 


The horrible treatment of our OFWs, especially our women, in Arab countries stems from the fact that many of them or perhaps most of them are illegal entrants---victims of unscrupulous recruiters here who prey on their ignorance and  acute poverty.  Because many of these OFWs are illegally staying in Kuwait, and other Arab countries, they are logical targets for harsh treatment and abuse from their employers---who would otherwise turn them over to the authorities as illegals if they protest.

In the case of the late Joanna Demafelis, the Filipina stored in a freezer, it is obvious that despite  her sister Jessica’s efforts  to locate  her for a whole year--- seeking help from POEA and OWWA--- these agencies did not lift a finger to find her (it was the Kuwaiti police who found her in the deserted apartment). President Duterte should order heads to roll in those two agencies for their unspeakable indifference. 


The episode of the frozen Filipino woman emphasizes a central point: many of our people, in their abysmal poverty, are kapit-patalim. They know all the abuses that citizens especially in non-Christian countries commit against them but still they leave in droves--- because of the grinding poverty in many regions of our country. What is needed is for government to truly rev up the economy so that our citizens could find employment here--- instead of exporting especially our women as toilet-cleaners and yayas of the world, most prone to abuse. 

Three decades ago, it was Indonesians, Thais and Indians who were exported as domestics, but now those countries have progressed while we still rely heavily on exporting especially our women, who are subjected to abuse in the Middle East. This is a reality that our economic geniuses must remedy. 

I would advocate pushing the training programs under TESDA full throttle---so that our people get to acquire skills that locally-based industries could absorb, as PEZA Chief Ching Plaza emphasized in our dzRH interview recently. 


As for Boracay, the Tourism Department has to enforce rules and regulations to ensure that better sewage systems and garbage disposal are constructed---no two ways about it.  Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu stresses that 51 tourist establishments on Boracay would have to be shut down as their sewage is channeled directly to the sea---in violation of the Clean Water Act of 2004. But the 51 resorts are only part of over 200  found with faulty sewage facilities that threaten to cause epidemics.  

Obviously  local officials in Malay in Aklan, which has jurisdiction over Boracay, have not been enforcing the laws. Mr. Duterte mulls closing down the island to international tourism for some period while total clean-up and rehabilitation are undertaken. There's worry, however, that closing down the island would greatly affect our tourist industry---and the economy. But there seems to be no other recourse  as otherwise, that world-famous paradise island would be forever damaged.

In both cases of our OFWs in the Middle East and the rehab of Boracay, the political will of the Duterte administration will have its acid test. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dengvaxia hysteria triggers fear of all inoculations, in fact even of deworming, lament medical practitioners in full-page ads. Investigation of this anomaly ought to result in court charges. President Duterte should not ignore growing antagonism of UP students.

UP Students rallying in Diliman against the Duterte Administration

Yesterday, February 06, some 200 of this country’s most prominent medical practitioners as well as a few other concerned professionals lent their names to a full-page statement published in leading newspapers, titled “Statement on the Dengvaxia Controversy.” The professionals denounced the confusion and hysteria over the reliability and integrity of the Dengvaxia vaccine as well as the unfortunate attacks on the integrity of some professionals involved in its study and implementation.

The signatories wholeheartedly supported the suspension by the DOH of the Dengvaxia program implementation, pending full-blown investigation and accountability of this mess.  


To my mind, however, the most significant point that the medical practitioners stressed is their justifiable concern about how the death of some children, supposedly attributed to Dengvaxia, has brought up what could be A MORE DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCE.  This is the fear spreading especially among lower-income families about all kinds of vaccine inoculations---so that there is now a palpable resistance to them where there was none before.

The medical professionals asserted in their full-page ad a very crucial point that was also raised earlier by Dante Jimenez of the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption when he guested in the dzRH Sunday 6pm. program that Cecile Alvarez and I co-hosted a week ago. Jimenez stressed the fear of the medical community that because of the disinformation/misinformation and mass hysteria “that is allowed to rule over logical and scientific judgment” in the Dengvaxia case, other vaccination programs of DOH have also become suspect. In fact, parents are now afraid even of de-worming.


The medical professionals are validly apprehensive that as a result of the prevailing fear about Dengvaxia’s ill effects, many parents are now afraid of “the (other) life-saving vaccines that our government gives.” The parents’ refusal could lead to “outbreaks of debilitating and life-threatening diseases that we have already been able to control through our vaccination programs,” said the medics.  In other words, epidemics.

If you ask me, this situation whereby the trust of parents in the government inoculation program has suffered is MOST SERIOUS AND ITS REPERCUSSIONS ON PUBLIC HEALTH CANNOT BE OVER-ESTIMATED.  Thus, it is imperative that those officials in the previous administration who caused this Dengvaxia mess through sloppy diligence---and it’s almost inevitable to conclude---their eagerness to raise campaign funds through possible kickbacks from the P3.6 billion vaccines---be brought to justice.


I was in Hongkong in 1997, during its handover by Great Britain, represented by Gov. Chris Patten, the last British governor of colonial Hongkong; it subsequently became a special autonomous region (SAR). Prince Charles represented the British Royal Family in the ceremonies and I remember feeling strangely sentimental when the royal yacht “Britannia” carrying Charles blew its horn for the last time in Hongkong Harbor before sailing away. Fireworks displays burst in the skies afterwards.

Now I read an article published in Inquirer, titled “In defense of democracy,” authored by Chris Patten, now the chancellor of the prestigious Oxford University in the UK.  In his article Patten traces the challenges to democracy in various places, notably in Russia under President Vladimir Putin and in the US under President Donald Trump. He asserts that “In a real democracy, free and fair elections are complemented more broadly by the rule of law, due process, an independent judiciary, an active civil society, and freedom of the press, worship, assembly, and association.”


Chris Patten then cites examples of the lack of adherence to democratic norms in both Russia and the US, zeroing in specifically on Trump’s sins: “He assaults the freedom of the press, implicitly encouraging supporters to attack journalists, say, by tweeting…(and) he attempts to subvert America’s system of checks and balances.”  Patten asserts that “While some parts of America’s democratic political system---for example, the judicial check on executive authority---have proved resilient, others are breaking down.” He opines that President Trump “is a consequence of this breakdown, not its cause.”

Patten concludes that the problem over the years is that “both Democrats and Republicans seem to have abandoned their commitment to governing by consensus,” so that “the constitutional breaks that America’s founders created to prevent the election of a huckster like Trump have failed.” Patten’s indictment of the US system is severe: “Propelled by popular discontent with rising inequality and seemingly self-dealing elites, the (US) political system is spinning out of control.”


Patten’s observations about the failing check and balance system in the US raise some similarity with our system here. President Duterte, a most forceful leader, has been at odds with Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, and this came to a climax when he ordered Overall Deputy Ombudsman Melchor Arthur Carandang placed on 90-day suspension---after he started probing the President’s alleged unexplained wealth, in response to Sen. Antonio Trillanes’ petition for this probe.  

The feisty Morales refused to suspend her deputy, citing the “clear affront to the Supreme Court” which made a ruling last Jan. 28, 2014 declaring as unconstitutional the Ombudsman Act’s provision that gave the Office of the President disciplinary powers over the Ombudsman’s deputies. 

Corollary to this was the advice recently given by Mr. Duterte to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in New Delhi, to ignore criticisms from human rights groups over her government’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. This "advice" was unfortunate as it only reinforced the President’s assailable reputation on human rights.  


Then too, Mr. Duterte reacted badly to the protests of the UP students in Diliman over human rights violations in recent weeks (doesn’t he realize that UP students throughout history have always been in protest of one issue or another). Because of his pique, he has threatened to replace the protesters with lumad students, which has only riled up Diliman even more.  

A big protest is scheduled by a campus political party called “Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights” (STAND UP) on Friday, Feb. 23 in Diliman where the students would insist that it should be Mr. Duterte who should vacate his position, not them. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

White-haired, voice raspier and in wheel-chair, 84-year old Nene Pimentel steps up battle for Federalism, away from Imperial Manila, with key anti-dynasty provision and term limits in proposed constitution. Fellow Mindanaoan Ching Plaza seals more business through PEZA.

Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr., father of current Senate President Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, was jailed four times by President Marcos, so that the late Sen. Joker Arroyo termed him “the face of martial law---the poster boy of defiance to Marcos’ one-man rule." 

Nene Pimentel, now 84,  has had a long political career that began when he was first elected mayor of Cagayan de Oro in the '70s. These days, however, despite his hair all silvery now, his raspy voice raspier, sporting a cane and at times wheel chair-bound due to weakening knees, the grand old man of Cagayan de Oro is still a rebel with a cause---and very clear-minded about it. 

Nene, founder of PDP-Laban which is now the administration party, is vigorously rebelling against "Imperial Manila." He has been clamoring for federalism and decentralization for decades now, and despite  weakening knees, his resolve remains firm: to fight for more power in the hustings, away from Imperial Manila; institutionalize federalism,  the anti-dynasty and term limit provisions via charter change.  


Cecile Alvarez and I interviewed Nene Pimentel and former Senator Heherson "Sonny" Alvarez---who were the oldest and the youngest members of the 1971 Constitutional Convention at the height of the Marcos era (Alvarez was among 12 upstarts in that Con-Con). In that assembly supposedly to draft a new constitution, Nene was already fighting for a shift to federalism.  What made him a rabid federalism advocate?

He narrated how as CDO mayor in the '70s, he detested the idea of having to ask Manila constantly for the mere salaries of his City Hall employees. In the Senate he worked hard for the passage in 1991 of the Local Government Code, which provided for the devolution of powers to the grassroots. Nene viewed the LGC also as the solution to the Muslim problem dating from Spanish colonial times. Sadly, however, Congress chose to devolve only three departments: namely, Agriculture, Health and the DSWD. 

Moreover, the LGC law provided for its review by Congress every five years, but Nene notes that this hasn't been done. He also observed that while DSWD was by law already devolved in structure and function through the LGC, yet, when Yolanda hit Eastern Visayas, DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman was distributing aid funds from Manila---when it should have been the local officials who should have taken charge of these funds and relief.   


Nene Pimentel is clamoring for the drafting of a new charter to replace the 1987 Constitution, which will provide the meaningful shift to FEDERALISM. It would mean empowering the provinces to handle their own affairs, instead of over-concentrating power, especially over funds, in "Imperial Manila" and releasing it in trickles to favored partisans.

 A key provision in this new constitution, Nene stresses, should be the rejection of the political dynasties now found all over the country---perhaps in the case of as much as 60% or even of the members of Congress. To get at the heart of the prevailing dynasty system for so many generations now, he proposes two things: l). term limits confined to perhaps maximum of two terms, and 2). that relatives up to the 4th degree of consanguinity cannot run together. 


This latter restriction could be a tough point of contention, given the tenacity of our trapo politicians to cling to power, the poverty of the masses that makes them susceptible to bribes, and their lack of political awareness. But along with reform-minded Filipinos, I see the anti-dynasty provisions as the only way for our politics to be cleaned up and reformed. Most of our provinces have remained in the grip of dynasties. To really prosper and eliminate corruption at the local level---as well as the private armies of the dynasties in various provinces that coerce and terrorize plain folk--- power must be dispersed through Federalism.

Nene's advocacy seems like a pipe dream, given the prevalence and power of dynasties. But it is time that we Filipinos look at this political set-up for what it is---a big source of corruption and mismanagement, and break its back. Nene sees the shift to federalism as the answer to the current over-centralization of power in Manila., and the primary tool for this new deal is the people empowered at the local level. 

It is media's responsibility to get this message across to patriotic Filipinos. so that they would adopt federalism and fight for it. The progress of our country depends a lot on this issue.


Ching Plaza, the new Director-General of PEZA
Ching Plaza was quite aware of the big shoes she's filling when she was appointed by President Duterte as Director-General of the Philippine Export Zone Authority (PEZA). She succeeded long-time DG Lilia de Lima, who was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service last year.

But Ching---who holds the rank of brigadier-general in the AFP Reserve and is a consultant of the Defense Department---is a descendant of Lapu-Lapu: not the type to be intimidated. For one, she is familiar with the PEZA Law as she was one of its authors during one of her three terms in the House as representative from Agusan. With her familiarity with the law and her boundless energy---she was spewing ideas during our one-hour program, just like Mayon now is spewing lava---Ching intends to build on PEZA’s accomplishments as well as blaze new trails.


Cecile Alvarez and I interviewed Ching recently over dzRH and she outlined her priorities. One is to “revolutionize” the PEZA program by establishing two economic zones (ecozones) per province and city as well as two public PEZA ecozones per region. Second, for easier dealings with investors, especially the foreigners, she intends to come up with the Philippine Economic Zones Map with locations nationwide clearly identified. Already there are 379 eco-zones under PEZA which are export-oriented and seek to encourage local capital and boost employment. 

Among Plaza's pet projects are medical tourism (the manufacture of  medicines by international companies here and the establishment of more medical communities around the country for consultation and treatment of both Filipino and Asian patients); and more steel production here. 90% of our steel needs---down to the littlest nail---are imported from China, while, ironically, that country imports our iron ore as raw material. 

The logical question: why not build factories here for steel products, so that we lessen dependence on imports especially in the crucial construction industry, and we get to train our work force for high-end production?

Toward that goal, Plaza intends to put up the “PEZA Institute” to train the manpower needs of industrial zones per region. She also plans to commence the greening of the various ecozones by means of “Green Industries"--- environment-friendly technology and zero-pollution. On June 18-19 this year, Ching Plaza intends to sponsor the "First Global Ecozones Convergence &; Exposition." Corollary to this is the strengthening of the infrastructure in our IT Parks, especially their internet facilities. 

I wish this dynamic manager lots of luck and success, as her triumph is the country's gain.