Is Aquino trying to block Pope’s visit to Tacloban?
Nothing could sound sillier. But it is the first unavoidable reaction to President B. S. Aquino 3rd’s announced decision to close down the Daniel Z. Romualdez airport on the first anniversary of super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which nearly wiped out the city of Tacloban on Nov. 8, 2013.
Pope Francis is coming in January precisely to visit Tacloban where thousands were killed and nearly the entire population was displaced by the strongest typhoon ever recorded anywhere. He would like to meet with the victims. Now, for all its fury, Yolanda failed to completely destroy the Tacloban airport, and a determined city government has managed to put in quick repairs to make it tolerably operational. But what nature’s wrath had failed to put away, presidential politics is now about to.
It is a crying shame.
I went through the airport last month on my way to and from Borongan, Samar. I was quite impressed with the service it managed to provide, despite the scars of Haiyan/Yolanda and the ongoing repairs. The carousel where you collect your luggage was half-battered, and needed replacing, but it still worked somehow. Everyone smiled and had actual words of welcome for every incoming visitor. Just in front of the airport, men and machines had done considerable progress in preparing the huge open space where they said the Holy Father would celebrate the Holy Mass for and with the victims.
Now, if the Tacloban airport is to be closed down, will this happen before the visit? Will any part of the proposed Palo airport be ready by then? Will the activities being planned for Tacloban be relocated to Palo as well? Or is there a plan to divert the Pope’s plane to the big airport in the former US military base in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, and relocate all his activities there? The idea is completely mad and unthinkable, but although this is a Church activity rather than a State affair, one could never predict what Aquino is capable of doing. On the first anniversary of Haiyan/Yolanda, Aquino chose to visit Guiuan, whose mayor is a close ally, and to completely skirt Tacloban, where the typhoon victims have become rabid critics of Malacañang.
There are so many questions on Tacloban. Since I do not have the answers, I have to pass them on. Will Malacañang please provide the answers? To begin with, what is the real reason for closing down Tacloban? To shut it down as a gateway to the Visayan region? But why? Simply out of pique—because Aquino could not stand the thought of the Romualdez-Marcos political clan, whom he regards as his enemy, being shown worldwide on prime time television, receiving the papal entourage and attending the Eucharistic celebration with all the typhoon victims?
A Malacañang insider advanced this insight after the media coverage showed Mayor Alfred Romualdez, his first cousins Congressman Ferdinand Martin Romualdez and Sen. Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, and his aunt Congresswoman and former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos at center stage of the Nov. 8 commemoration. The sight of this powerful clan on prime time TV and on the front page of some newspapers reportedly caused a fit inside Malacañang.
The whole thing goes back to the now-famous encounter between Mayor Romualdez and Aquino’s bumbling action man, Secretary of Interior and Local Government Mar Roxas, after Haiyan/Yolanda flattened Tacloban. Roxas had wanted Romualdez to surrender his control of the city government in exchange for national government assistance in the rescue and relief operation. Romualdez refused to be bulled and stood his ground. At this point Roxas said, “You must understand you are only a Romualdez while the President is an Aquino.”
The discord grew when “People Surge,” a group of typhoon victims led by a religious sister, traveled to Malacañang to ask Aquino why the victims were being starved of assistance when so much money had poured in from foreign governments, institutions and other donors. Aquino responded by telling the protesters that if they could afford to travel to Manila, then they didn’t need any assistance at all.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was not of much help either, when he invited Aquino and Mayor Romualdez both to the global summit on climate change at the UN headquarters last September. Romualdez won his audience with his clear and down-to-earth presentation on how to handle future disasters, while Aquino delivered some motherhood statements before a scattered audience of 32 individuals inside a small room at the UN. Then Aquino’s entourage noticed that some of the “People Surge” activists who had marched to Malacañang had been given some kind of UN accreditation.
Even before Yolanda struck, the Tacloban airport was already being programmed for closure. While Malacañang was talking of upgrading the country’s tourism infrastructure, it was simultaneously defunding the airport, by realigning a big portion of its funds to some unknown and unlegislated recipient under the Disbursement Acceleration Program, which the Supreme Court has since declared unconstitutional.
Now, just who is this Daniel Z. Romualdez that a major airport should bear his name? As one foreign relief worker coming to Tacloban asked a local guy, “Was he also shot at the airport that bears his name, just as Ninoy Aquino was at shot at the one that bears his?” No? Why then is the airport named after him? Malacañang could very well have been the one asking. Well, he was simply one of the great Speakers of the House of Representatives when one could still talk of that office with some pride as a citizen. But if that’s the reason the airport has to be closed down, perhaps we should then rename it either as Ninoy Aquino International Airport II or as Corazon Cojuangco Aquino Airport.
The real question I want to ask here is, why do we need to be so petty in the face of great and noble things? In Palo, where Pope Francis is expected to bless the newly reconstructed cathedral, Mayor Remedios Petilla, mother of Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, has come in for severe criticism for attempting to relocate some 250 families of typhoon victims from their present bunkhouses to a far-away location where the Pope would have no chance of seeing them. The move is reported to have elicited a strongly worded letter from the Vatican asking the mayor to desist from relocating the victims.
While waiting for my flight at the airport last October, I met my friend Ramon Pedrosa, who said he had come down from Manila to talk to the mayor who, in collaboration with Malacañang, was using the papal visit as an excuse to build a road right through his family’s 200-year-old ancestral home. What Haiyan/Yolanda failed to destroy, the mayor seems determined to extinguish, he said, using the papal visit as her excuse.
I have not heard from my friend since, but I have a feeling that if the mayor persists and Pope Francis hears about it, he would not at all be pleased.