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.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Pragmatism is name of the game among nations. An American writer for Washington Post was killed and dismembered in Istanbul amid allegations that Saudi royalty had masterminded it. But no complaint from Trump as he's rejoicing over big cut in oil price from OPEC leader Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman 

Pragmatism is the name of the game among nations, whether it's our country, the United States or any country in Europe, Asia and everywhere else.

Take the case of the recent heinous murder of US citizen Jamal Khashoggi, a resident of  Saudi Arabia and a writer for the Washington Post. Khashoggi had been critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and last Oct. 2, the Post writer's body was found in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey---dismembered in a most heinous way.

The interesting thing is that while Saudi authorities said that 21 people had been taken into custody supposedly in connection with the dastardly crime, news reports cited the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as suggesting that the Saudi Crown Prince "may have known of the killing"---to put it diplomatically.


On the other side of the coin, Saudi Arabia sternly warned the US that criticism of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in connection with Khashoggi's murder is "a red line" not to be crossed---and that calls for the Crown Prince to be held accountable for his slaying "would not be tolerated."

In fact the Saudi Foreign Minister was quoted in BBC news as asserting: "In Saudi Arabia, our leadership is a red line. The custodian of the two holy mosques (King Salman and the Crown Prince) are a red line," and that "They represent every Saudi citizen and every Saudi citizen represents them. And we will not tolerate any discussion of anything that is disparaging toward our monarch or our crown prince."

The foreign minister admitted, however, that the murder of the US journalist was a "rogue operation" by intelligence officers. How these supposed murderers are to be dealt with by the Saudi government remains to be seen.


More interesting was the stance of US President Donald Trump, who earlier in his presidency had hosted the Saudi Crown Prince at the White House. Curiously, then Republican candidate Trump, while in the hustings, had threatened to ban Saudi oil from into the US, so that when the Crown Prince called on President Trump at the White House, it was heralded by media as "improving relations between Washington and Riyadh, particularly on security matters."

After news reports about the Khashoggi murder came out, however, President Trump, who was vacationing in his Florida Mar-a-Lago Club earlier this week, asserted that he was "essentially ignoring the killing of US citizen Kashoggi" because of what he said were  "MORE IMPORTANT US STRATEGIC INTERESTS" (emphasis this writer's).  The world doubtless read it as America's much-needed assurance of a steady supply of oil from Saudi Arabia.

That statement of the US President, however, did sound quite harsh for a society anchored on human dignity and the inalienable right of its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Just as amazing was that there seemed no public outrage over Trump's statement---unless the fuel situation in that country has become so worrisome that it could afford to be cold-blooded about the heinous slaying of an American citizen.


Just what are those "strategic US interests" that President Trump seeks to protect so assiduously anyway---despite the harm that had befallen an American citizen? He answered his own question: Saudi Arabia, the acknowledged leader of the OPEC, gave America and the world lower oil prices: "a big Tax Cut" ---from $82 it's now $52."   The US President publicly said "Thank you to Saudi Arabia," even as he coaxed that major oil producer to "let's go lower."

Under those circumstances, then, there would seem to be no room for condemnation of one US citizen's gruesome slaying by Saudi Arabia.


It's all pragmatic politics for the moment for the US President who leads what media terms "the largest, most transparent and timely market in the world." It's true that, as noted, the US has "less appetite for foreign oil in general," thanks to the shale boom in states such as Texas and North Dakota that caused US oil production to spike to record high late last year.

Still, however, the world's largest economy continues---and will continue---to need foreign oil imports: last December it imported 690,000 barrels a day of Saudi crude--- though down 32% from the previous year.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, made the strategic decision last May to slash shipment of oil to the US. Its goal: to accelerate impact of OPEC's production cuts---by forcing down US stockpiles which constituted a major force to restrain oil prices at the time. The move to cut shipment was said to have paid off: the price of crude oil rose sharply to more than $60 per barrel!

In all the tug-of-war between big-time oil supplier and equally big-time oil-consumer, a heinous crime in Istanbul involving a US citizen---being attributed to Saudi royalty---mattered little.

Friday, November 16, 2018

If President Duterte is criticized for missing events in ASEAN meet in Singapore due to what Sal Panelo terms PRRD's "power naps," think of sleepless nights US President Trump is having from Melania's tantrums and Democrats' capture of House. A prelude to his impeachment?

Prior to the US mid-term elections last Nov.6, Republican President Donald Trump had been boasting of a “red wave” coming, whereas the Democrats were bragging about a “blue wave” to sweep America. Soon enough, however, general consensus on the US mid-term elections became clear, or so it seemed.  Thus, although the Democrats regained the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years, no blue wave seemed to have materialized.

A week later, however, the steady trickle of further gains in late results in some battle-ground states appeared to reveal a far more positive picture for the Democrats. A giant blue wave alright.

The Democrats picked up at least 32 seats in the House and are on course for four more, in addition to flipping seven governorships and eight state legislative chambers. 

On Monday night, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won Arizonas Senate race, beating Martha McSally in a landmark victory to take the seat held by retiring Republican senator Jeff Flake.


Speaking of Sen. Flake, this outgoing Republican recently lashed out at party-mate President Trump, warning him and the "Grand Old Party" that if they tried to remove Special Counsel Robert Mueller---who's investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 general elections that made Trump president in 2016--Flake would block any and all of Trump’s judicial nominees in the Senate. 

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump appointee, was fired allegedly for looking too closely over the shoulders of Mueller as he scrutinized the supposed Russian intervention that caused the defeat of Trump rival Hillary Clinton. Can we imagine such independence akin to that demonstrated by Sen. Flake, in any of President Duterte’s party-mates here?


What the overall results in the nationwide mid-term elections of Donald Trump's presidency represent is the Democrats’ best mid-term performance since 1974---a vote which came in the wake of the infamous Watergate scandal that triggered the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Trump, who last week declared election night to have been a “tremendous success,” has since been reduced to making baseless allegations of vote fraud to explain knife-edge contests in key states such as Florida,  Mississippi and Arizona.

After securing a significant majority in the House, the Democrats have broken the Republican monopoly in Washington and secured the power to block the president’s legislative agenda as well as significant appointments of his ---principally through FILIBUSTERING, something not seen in the House of Representatives since 2013. 


That there’s huge trouble in the Trump White House is demonstrated by the way his mood has turned increasingly foul!  “He’s pissed--at practically everyone,"  a White House official said.   After the election disaster, another rock was thrown his way when First Lady Melania Trump publicly demanded that her husband's loyal backer, Mira Ricardel, who was personally chosen by National Security Adviser Jim Bolton to be his deputy, be fired.  Apparently, Ms. Ricardel drew the First Lady’s ire when she clashed with Melania’s staff about the seating arrangement inside the plane enroute to Melania's visit to Africa. 

Trump didn’t immediately react, but White House staffers were shocked that the message from Melania (who holds office in the East Wing) flew directly to the West Wing, thus breaking protocol. The President eventually said that Ms. Ricardel will be moved to another sector, but days later, Mira Ricardel voluntarily resigned---obviously to save her boss from further embarrassment and avert a huge domestic crisis in the White House.  Pundits commented that Melania proved who is the real power there. 


 In fact, the atmosphere in the White House these days is described as "bleak," and talk is that various top officials are preparing to exit ahead of the rumored "purges" by President Trump. CNN reported that George Conway, husband of White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, has now become an outspoken critic of Trump---asserting that he'd "rather leave the US than vote for Trump again." Interestingly, House Republicans are said to plan to summon Conway. 

Another explosion: recall that CNN star reporter Jim Acosta was stripped of his press pass after a clash with Trump last week. CNN promptly sued Trump---stressing that Acosta's constitutional rights had been violated by the President, five members of the Administration and the Secret Service. 

Well, the latest is that a Federal judge ordered the Trump Administration to restore Acosta's WH press pass. Could we see a Philippine judge coming to the defense of a harassed reporter vs. the President?


As if things weren’t bad enough for Trump, his recent official trip to Paris to join other world leaders in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War turned out to be a similar disaster.  During his European trip, he appeared to have been purposely isolated from other dignitaries---standing alone at times while other leaders exchanged pleasantries and chatted among themselves.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the gathering of world leaders in Paris, decried in his speech the new wave of nationalism, and everyone seemed to think that his words were aimed directly at the US President.   


To make matters worse especially on the home front, on his last day in Paris, Trump was prevented by his top aides and the Secret Service from visiting the vast American Cemetery in the once blood-soaked battlefields of Normandy in northern France, because the heavy rains were deemed unsafe for his helicopter to fly.

The irony, however, was that other top American officials with him were able to participate in the ceremonies there despite the weather. Could the Secret Service agents be trying to embarrass the President in so doing? Trump was fuming!


Soon after he got back to the US, Trump unleashed a barrage of tweets directed at President Macron and the French people in general.  He insulted Macron by mocking him for his dismal ratings in the French polls.

The French President fired back---asserting that Trump lacked the “common decency” in unleashing those barbs directed at the French ON THE VERY DAY OF THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE 2015 TERROR BOMBING IN PARIS THAT KILLED 130 PEOPLE.


There’s no easy way out for Trump’s funk, says CNN. The  imminent revelation of Robert Mueller’s findings on allegations of the 2016 US election shenanigans caused Attorney General Jeff Sessions his job. Trump didn’t like the way Sessions was too keen on the trail of those alleged shenanigans that could have caused Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (my candidate) to lose to Trump.   

Then there’s the blistering November 2018 loss in the mid-term elections , and prospect of indictments coming from the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in the next few months. There’s also Trump’s own lawyer’s expected testimony against him as part of that official’s plea bargaining to save his own skin. And don’t forget the continuing legal troubles Trump has run into with women from the past.

All these are weighing on Mr. Trump right now, as the cloud over his head turns increasingly dark.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In justifiable anger and desperation, President mulls putting Customs under military/police control, to halt drug smuggling. Constitution, however, specifies conditions for military involvement. Besides, long years of military/police camaraderie in their respective academies could worsen collusions in Customs.

The Bureau of Customs has never been an easy place to work in, as two previous appointees of President Duterte in his three years in office---both of them former military officers-- have found out. Let's hope his third military appointee, former AFP Chief of Staff  Leonardo "Jagger" Guerrero, PMA Class '84,  would have better luck as Customs Chief.

The first military to head Customs under Duterte was former Marine colonel Nicanor Faeldon, who ran into controversy soon enough over a drug shipment worth P6.4 billion last May 2017.  Faeldon was replaced by former PNP Chief Isidro Lapeña who just lost his job two weeks ago---amid swirling controversy over the brazen smuggling of an estimated 1.6 tons of shabu from the Port of Manila last July, but which was discovered only last August 8.

The huge drug haul, valued at a whopping P11 billion, had arrived in July and scooted out of Customs to an unknown destination, by Chinese individuals riding in two Mercedes Benz limousines. The haul was estimated to have taken four days' work to siphon off from the four magnetic lifters, and in August the lifters were found abandoned in Cavite, totally empty of their contents.

Lucky for Lapeña that he was merely kicked into the Cabinet, to head TESDA---a most controversial move by the President.


Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, deputy collector of customs and the celebrated whistle-blower of the 1.6  ton-shabu smuggling, estimated at the dzRH Sunday program that Cecile Alvarez and I recently conducted, that this staggering amount of shabu could produce 1,600,000 sachets. It boggles the mind just how many of our youth would be damaged by this incredible amount of shabu smuggled out of the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT)!

At the height of the killings of so-called drug pushers and users last year and earlier this year, many alarmed citizens had wondered why the resort to outright slayings under "Operation Tokhang"---WHEN OBVIOUSLY THE MORE IMPERATIVE MOVE WAS TO SHUT THE INTERMINABLE FAUCET OF DRUGS.

Where are the drugs coming from and who's smuggling them into the country? Why are they so accessible even to small-time peddlers, seemingly as easy as peddling cigarettes? Who's distributing them?  Questions swirled about but remained unanswered---until the brazen smuggling of the 1.6 tons of shabu at the MICT last August.  That was the height!


Earlier answers came in May last year, when information came from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) about a large smuggling being awaited. Two magnetic lifters (used to lift cars and other metal cargo at the pier) which went missing at the MICT were found a month later---already emptied of the 355 kilos of shabu they had contained, worth around P6.4 billion!

With this initial success the smugglers were emboldened!  Last May 2018 PDEA received information about drugs coming from Malaysia, Vietnam and Hongkong. Bingo! This time 1,600 kilos worth  P11 billion were spirited out of Customs in four magnetic lifters similar to the two missing at the MICT last year. The high-valued cargo, stashed neatly in asbestos heat and fire-resistant bags inside the four magnetic lifters and consigned to a certain company, were moved out of the terminal on a Saturday last June, when only one X-ray inspector was around.  It only involved four hours of work by four Chinese nationals who then scooted away in two Mercedes Benzes.

The four magnetic lifters were later found abandoned in Cavite, with their high-priced cargo already siphoned off.  Lourdes Mangoaong's trained dog-sniffers were right on target.


With the huge uproar kicked up by this brazen smuggling of the 1,600 kilos of shabu, the President recently announced his decision to place the entire Bureau of Customs---the second largest finance-generating agency of government next to the BIR itself---under military control. Predictably it reaped a storm of controversy.

In his memo earlier this week Mr. Duterte ordered all BOC employees to report to Malacanang as he simultaneously ordered various military branches, such as the Coast Guard, Navy and Army to gather together technical groups and prepare them to take over the operations of the BOC. But as Sen. Francis Escudero rightly pointed out, there could be a problem in calling out the Armed Forces to handle the smuggling in Customs.


This is because the Constitution, under Sec. 18 of Art. VII, "The Executive Department," specifically provided that the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the Philippines and whenever it becomes necessary, "may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion." And even then, there is a proscribed period not exceeding 60 days during which "he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law."

I imagine that if the smuggling of deadly drugs at Customs cannot be abated---and the smugglers become so brazen, Mr. Duterte might just invoke some special powers to handle this problem. Let's hope it doesn't have to invoke situations that could just complicate the situation even more.  Just to play safe, the President also altered the rules for cargo release: THREE SIGNATURES of military officials who are taking over the Customs are now required for the release of any goods from the port.


All these moves, however, are making the senators and representatives as well as the public nervous---as any effort that seem to "militarize" government would always provoke nervousness and challenge certain constitutional provisions.  Already, Sen. Richard Gordon has vowed to scrutinize this decision of the President in a Senate hearing next week.

 I, for one, would think that there could be basis to be nervous about "militarizing" control of Customs.  For instance, military men in general would tend to act as one---doubtless out of long years of training and camaraderie together at the Philippine Military Academy as well as in the various service academies such as those of the coast guard and police.

There is justified apprehension, I would think, that when the coast would appear to be "clear" or other elements of society would relax their vigilance, there could be some military elements more adventurous than others, who could be tempted to throw scrupulosity to the winds and make unlawful moves for the fund of it.

The check-and-balance system could cease to operate when camaraderie of long years is extra-thick and the emboldened smuggling of P11 billion worth of shabu at the Port of Manila becomes just a distant memory.


What happened at Customs recently was a series of fearless moves by unscrupulous elements who obviously have maintained a strong hold over the port. The President---by now VERY VEXED at how the smugglers have run rings around him---has felt that the best solution at the moment is to entrust Customs operations to the military. TO MILITARIZE CUSTOMS.

I suppose that at this point, there is little the citizenry could do except to warn the President about possible collusion (again!) ---when alarms are down---among some military who have shared long years of camaraderie in various military academies. This new set of military/police may again succumb to the temptation of huge bucks from unrelenting drug lords and their cohorts,

But what else could be done at the moment?   Let's give some space to the military units that will man Customs in place of corrupted or mindless civilian bureaucrats---in the hope that some idealism bred in PMA or other military schools are still left in their hearts. We citizens, however, should also get involved in policing the military's activities---and those guilty ought to be punished post-haste.