Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Absent President

Given the timing, one can't help but suspect that the real reason for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's state visit to the United States is to root, ringside, for Manny Pacquiao when he goes up against David Diaz. The courtesy call to President George W. Bush happens as formal necessity when a state leader visits another country. All this is mere speculation, of course, but in light of the circumstances and behavior, it makes one wonder.

The circumstances are these: the Philippines has just been badly hit by a powerful storm, and while the aftermath nowhere near the magnitude of Myanmar, it's the worst that's happened in the last two years. Many towns in the Visayas region, in particular, Iloilo and Bacolod, are badly affected. Worse still is yet another maritime disaster that claimed close to 800 lives.

Much has been said and will continue to be said of Arroyo's absence in this moment of crisis. The proper, polite, and politic response, one thinks, would be to rush home and take charge of the situation. Her business and diplomatic appointments would have understood in light of the tragedy. But Arroyo is beyond that, it seems, and the most that we can hope to get is a televised tongue-lashing via videoconference. How so very presidential!

The response is largely in keeping with Arroyo's mode of behavior. She is more reactive than visionary, and even then, the reactions are calibrated towards insubstantial and shallow populist posturing. Rice crises? Go after rice hoarders. Oil crises? Go after the petroleum companies. Power crises? Go after Meralco. Maritime disaster? Go after Sulpicio Lines. All well and good, so long as she's not at the center of the controversy; for when she is, the response is to stay mum and dig in behind the impious fetish of "rule of law."

Even before 2010, Arroyo already has the distinction of being the longest sitting president of the Philippines since Ferdinand Marcos. What will she have shown for it? Whatever economic gains we have, if not offset by global crises, are largely either the result of policies in place before her term or the survival response of individual Filipinos. The last time Arroyo showed any semblance of vision was in 2005 -- before the election scandals -- with her program of BEAT THE ODDS, now conveniently forgotten in light of the dismal record.

Arroyo, it seems, is happily content with backhanded compliment from Bush, that he is reminded of the great contributions of "Philippine-Americans" whenever he eats dinner at the White House: in short, that we are a nation of waiters and cooks.

And she would be, for after all, she is already thinking of Sunday, when she is at that ringside seat in Las Vegas, all ready to share in the klieg lights of adulation that are meant for Pacquiao.