The Washington Diplomat / December 2012
By Larry Luxner
For a country of roughly 100 million inhabitants that is vital to American interests in the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines doesn’t always get the level of attention in Washington that’s commensurate with its growing weight.
Retired diplomat John F. Maisto would like to change that.
Maisto, a 74-year-old former Foreign Service officer, represented the United States as ambassador to Venezuela, Nicaragua and finally the Organization of American States. The Spanish-speaking diplomat also served at U.S. missions in Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica and the Philippines throughout his 40-year career.
That career ended precisely at 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2006.
“I got home just in time to celebrate the New Year,” he recalled with no hint of regret. “My definition of retirement is doing what I want to do, when I want to do it.”
But Maisto couldn’t sit still for long. Now, as president of the newly established United States-Philippines Society, the focus of Maisto’s efforts is an Asian country he grew to love while stationed in Manila as a political officer in the early 1980s.
Maisto said the society was formed in May 2012, and its first event was a gala dinner in honor of President Benigno S. Aquino III. Its U.S. chairman is fellow diplomat John Negroponte, its Philippine chair is Manuel Pangilinan, and it has a 25-member board of directors that represent a range of Fortune 500 companies including Coca-Cola, General Electric, J.P. Morgan, Procter & Gamble and Chevron.
“We’re of the view that with the new administration [in Manila], there should be a new focus on the Philippines in the United States,” said Maisto, one of a number of diplomats who helped establish the organization, along with former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Thomas C. Hubbard and former Philippine Ambassador Roberto Romulo.
“Our society is more like the U.S.-Japan Society or the U.S.-Korea Society,” Maisto explained during an interview at the group’s headquarters off Dupont Circle. He said the society is independent and nonpartisan. It doesn’t receive a dime from either the U.S. or Philippine governments; rather, it’s sustained by donations from the private sector.
Annual membership in the U.S.-Philippines Society ranges from $25 for students to $15,000 for corporations (and $25,000 for corporate patrons).
Maisto said his mission is clear: to elevate Manila’s profile on Capitol Hill, K Street and throughout corporate America, and to promote Filipino culture in this country.
“There’s been a long, rich and historic relationship between the Philippines and the United States, and between Filipinos and Americans. The objective of our society is to call attention to the contemporary Philippines, which is improving its government, growing economically, and dealing with security issues at a time when the United States is putting renewed emphasis on Southeast Asia in general,” he said.
“When it’s not in the news, if there’s not an actual disaster or a man-made political disaster, people tend to forget about it, in spite of our rich historical ties. But Southeast Asia is very important to the United States, as reflected now with the rebalancing of U.S. interests in the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world.”
Maisto and the organization’s executive director, Hank Hendrickson, worked together at the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Maisto, who first came to the Philippines in 1978, has an enduring personal interest in the country; he met his Filipina wife, Maria Consuelo Gaston, while both were students at Georgetown University. Later on, he headed the State Department’s Office of Philippine Affairs during the country’s dramatic transition from the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship to democratic rule under the late Corazon Aquino, mother of the current president.
Maisto said it’s easy to forget how central the Philippines once was to U.S. foreign policy — especially at the time of the Spanish-American War of 1898, which ultimately led to the country’s independence in 1946.
“If you were interviewing me 100 years ago, we’d be talking about the Philippines the way we talk about Israel today,” Maisto told The Diplomat. “We were involved in a guerrilla war with Spain, and we took it over and imposed a colonial system which in many ways benefitted the Philippines in terms of institutions and legal systems — and even the not-so-positive ways like the opportunity for corruption.”
Maisto said that today, the Philippines and Indonesia are emerging as the region’s newest “economic tigers” in addition to China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Yet over the last several years, the Philippines has been neglected, he said.
“Part of this has to do with governments that left a lot to be desired in terms of their own credibility at home and abroad,” Maisto suggested. “The election of Benigno Aquino III has refocused what people power is all about — a decent, believable, credible government that would be serious about fighting corruption.”
He added: “Corruption has always been an issue in Philippine politics. I can’t think of an election there in which graft and corruption has not been front and center. But today, the president has an approval rating of 70 to 75 percent. Why? Because he’s delivering on fighting corruption. Two examples: About five months ago, the chief justice of the Supreme Court was impeached by the lower house, tried in the Philippine Senate and convicted because he had failed to register a $2 million bank account in his annual declaration of assets. This had never happened before. And right now, the head of the National Bureau of Investigation is undergoing a similar situation.”
In addition, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a member of Congress and the country’s president from 2001 to 2010, was arrested in October on charges of misusing $8.8 million in state lottery funds during her administration.
Meanwhile, the country’s GDP has been growing at a healthy 6 percent annual clip, and U.S. companies continue to invest there — led by the shipbuilding, call-center and light-manufacturing industries. The fact that English is widely understood and spoken throughout the Philippines is another plus.
To spur that investment along, the society is promoting Philippine design in furniture, lighting and fashion through New York businesswoman Josie Natori, who describes the Philippines as the “Italy of Asia.”
It has also sponsored a series of events such as a Nov. 1 conference at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies titled “Philippines in the Aquino Generation: Governance, Growth and Security,” as well as a packed Nov. 3-4 performance by Bayanihan — the country’s national dance company — at the Kennedy Center.
“I have not met one American who’s visited the Philippines, either as a tourist or who has lived there, who was not absolutely taken with the country. They’re hospitable people in every way and they like the United States,” said Maisto. “There’s a welcoming atmosphere, and a government that wants American investment and will work with you.”