The Washington Diplomat / September 2003
By Larry Luxner
Exactly 100 years after American troops put down a long-running insurrection in the Philippines, the former U.S. colony has emerged as one of Washington's strongest allies in the struggle against Islamic-inspired terrorism in Southeast Asia.
"Bilateral relations are the best they've ever been in recent history," said Manila's man in Washington, Philippine Ambassador Albert del Rosario.
"This was demonstrated by the fact that our president [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo] was only the third world leader, and the first Asian leader, to be invited by Bush for a state visit. During that visit [in May], we were granted the status of major non-NATO ally, which gives us priority in terms of being able to obtain military assistance."
Last year, that assistance came to $100 million; this year, the Philippines will get $150 million. Since independence in 1946, the country has received more than $5 billion in U.S. economic aid, including over $1 billion in food aid.
Perhaps it's fitting that the Philippines should be the recipients of such largesse.
Following the 1898 Spanish-American War of Independence, the United States found itself in control of three former Spanish colonies: the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The Cubans got their independence in 1902, and the following year, U.S. troops captured Philippine rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, pretty much ending an armed uprising by the very people the Americans had liberated from Spain.
But the Philippines didn't achieve full independence until July 4, 1946. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, became a commonwealth in 1952 but for all intents and purposes remains a U.S. colony.
"Like the Puerto Ricans, we share many values with the United States — a belief in democracy, free enterprise and social justice," said Rosario. "The U.S. is our largest foreign investor and trading partner. We've had a mutual defense treaty with the United States for over 50 years, and our education, health and judicial systems are all patterned after the United States."
The Philippines encompasses over 7,000 islands, and the 2000 census recorded a population of 76.3 million. At present growth rates, by 2017 the country will have 100 million inhabitants.
Rosario said that even though many Filipinos including himself have Spanish names, few people actually speak Spanish; English is far more prevalent. In fact, while Tagalog is the national language of the Philippines, embassy staffers generally address each other in English, not Tagalog.
Rosario's English is impeccable, thanks to having spent most of his childhood in New York City. In 1961, he graduated from New York University with a bachelor's degree in economics while working for the post office, a printing company and the school library — all at the same time.
Rosario returned to the Philippines and spent the next 40 years in his country's private sector, working in banking, insurance, real estate, shipping, pharmaceutical, consumer products and telecommunications. An ally of President Arroyo, he presented his credentials to President Bush on Nov. 9, 2001.
Rosario and his wife Gretchen de Venecia have five children; all of them live in the Philippines except for a daughter pursuing her psychotherapy degree in New York.
In addition to the embassy in Washington, Rosario also oversees 10 consulates around the country: New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Honolulu, Guam and Saipan.
"After 1991, when the basing agreement was not renewed, the Philippines fell off the American radar screen. Both the U.S. and the Philippine Senate felt there was a change in the strategic environment. The Cold War had ended, and the U.S. was no longer looking for permanent bases."
In fact, the Philippines had been getting over $200 million a year just for rental of the sprawling Clark and Subic military bases, and maybe another billion or so in indirect economic benefits.
"But after 9/11, things changed," he said. "President Arroyo became the first Asian leader to take a position with the U.S. against terrorism. We were part of Operation Emerging Freedom in Iraq and a member of the 'coalition of the willing.'"
And now that the war is over, "we are trying to position ourselves for the reconstruction of Iraq," said the ambassador, noting that when companies like Bechtel and Hailliburton win massive defense contracts, they generally employ large numbers of Philippine engineers, construction workers and other laborers to get the job done.
Rosario said Arroyo's popularity ratings "have improved significantly" since her state visit to Washington in May.
"We have two candidates who have expressed their intentions to run in the May 2004 presidential elections, and six others testing the waters," he said. "In the latest surveys, she has emerged as the strongest contender."
In mid-July, however, Arroyo suffered an embarrassment when Indonesian explosives expert Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi and two cellmates escaped from prison.
Al-Ghozi, who was working for the Jemaah Islamiah network, is linked to a number of terrorist acts in Southeast Asia, including a series of bombings in Manila on Dec. 30, 2000, that left 22 people dead and over 100 injured.
"These guys virtually walked out of a maximum-security detention cell, in the middle of a police camp in Manila," said Rosario. "The president herself attributes this farcical escape to the ineptness of the police force and the surrounding corruption. There is a full, nationwide manhunt going on, as well as a review of the reforms that have been instituted to upgrade our law-enforcement agencies."
Barely two weeks later, a group of 70 junior officers and 200 enlisted men staged a failed coup against the Arroyo government, seizing a Manila shopping mall for 19 hours before backing down. No one was hurt in the incident, which focused attention on corruption within the military.
"From the Filipino standpoint, Arroyo emerged stronger than before because the mutineers weren't able to generate support, and that also enhanced the legitimacy of her government," said Rosario.
The ambassador freely admits that "the reason we got closer to the U.S. is because we had our own problems of terrorism in the south with Abu Sayyaf and have sought the cooperation and assistance of the U.S. We also have a 25-year-old problem with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). We are now in the process, however, of trying to arrive at a peaceful solution with the facilitation of Malaysia, and the financial assistance of the United States."
According to new "terrorism index" issued by the London-based World Markets Research Center, the Philippines is the fifth most likely of 186 countries to be the target of a massive terrorist attack within the next 12 months. The London-based think tank — which issued its report Aug. 16 — ranks Colombia, Israel, Pakistan and the United States as the only countries facing a greater terror risk than the Philippines.
Yet Rosario played down that risk, saying the terrorist problem "is isolated and confined to the southern islands. The rest of the country is stable, and people don't consider it a problem."
Despite an August 2000 car-bombing that left his country's ambassador to Indonesia severely injured — an attack in which al-Ghozi is also implicated — Rosario said the Philippine Embassy in Washington is not a target of Islamic terrorists, and that he doesn't feel personally threatened.
"We are working with the rest of the region to fight terrorism," he said. "We've entered into an agreement with ASEAN, and we have a trilateral agrement with Indonesia and Malaysia that basically addresses transnational crimes such as terrorism."
Earlier this year, the Bush administration announced it would send 1,700 Marines and Special Forces to help the Philippine Armed Forces fight Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim guerrilla groups. But the deployment was shelved when Filipino opposition leaders insisted that it violated a 1986 constitutional ban on foreign troops.
In spite of the country's terrorist threat, the Philippine economy is doing well, with GDP growth for the first half of 2003 estimated at 4.8% — the highest in Asia after China and Vietnam. Last year's GDP came to $89 billion, which translates into per-capita income of around $1,170.
Remittances are a major source of foreign exchange. At any given time, about 10% of all Filipinos are living and working overseas — more than a million of them in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern nations.
Rosario says another 2.5 million Filipinos live in the United States, nearly half of them in California; heavy concentrations can also be found in Hawaii, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Florida.
Filipino-Americans, who send home around $5 billion in remittances every year, now constitute the second-largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexicans.
Yet that hasn't translated into political power in the United States just yet.
"We are trying to unite the Filipino community. To have power, you have to be united," he said, noting that only a few Filipino-Americans, such as former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, have risen to political prominence.
On the other hand, he said, "around 70% of all foreign nurses in the United States are Filipino, as are most of the schoolteachers. We have a nice way about us, and I think it's become an area where Filipinos are able to see a better future for themselves."
Just as the United States and the Philippines share many basic values, their leaders have plenty in common. Both leaders are the children of presidents; Arroyo's father, Diosdado Macapagal, was president of the Philippines in the early 1960s. Both have adopted a get-tough attitude against terrorists.
And as the Washington Post recently pointed out, Arroyo and Bush were "both inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2001, taking office with the controversial aid of their countries' highest courts — Bush when the U.S. Supreme Court voted to halt the Florida recount, and Arroyo, when the Philippine Supreme Court declared the previous president, Joseph Estrada, unable to rule and swore in Arroyo, who was vice-president."
Likewise, Rosario has at least one thing in common with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Asked if he would remain Manila's man in Washington in the event Arroyo loses her re-election bid, the ambassador wouldn't answer directly, saying only that "I serve at the pleasure of the President."