THE Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. is arguably the most important diplomatic post in the Philippine foreign service, the United States being the country’s oldest and most important political ally and the biggest economy in the world. According to the 2010 census, there are at least 3.4 million Filipinos and Filipino Americans in the US, the second biggest Asian American group next to the Chinese, and the biggest Filipino grouping anywhere in the world. And yet from the time President Rodrigo Duterte took office until last week, it took him more than a year to nominate a Philippine ambassador to the US.
This inordinate delay has not been explained. Neither has the recent nomination, which certainly needs to be explained. After Ambassador Jose Cuisia, Jr., President B. S. Aquino 3rd’s political appointee, vacated his post at the end of Aquino’s term, the Embassy came under Charge d’Affaires Patrick Chuasoto, a career diplomat who had served as a special assistant to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Manila, and on the staff of the Philippines’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. I spoke to Chuasoto at the Democracy Awards dinner in Washington, D.C. in 2015, and he impressed me as a highly capable diplomat. But we need an ambassador to head the embassy and have direct access to the US Secretary of State.
Three special envoys
Within one year, DU30 named three special envoys to Washington, D.C. before deciding to nominate Romualdez. First, he announced the name of Ambassador Marciano Paynor, who used to be chief of presidential protocol under Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo before being posted as ambassador to Israel and Cyprus, as his ambassador to the US. Then he changed his mind, named Paynor as Special Envoy to the US instead and put him in charge of all preparations for the Philippines hosting of the 2017 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.
Then he named property developer Joey Antonio, an alleged business partner of US President Donald Trump in a local Trump Towers project, as his second special envoy to the US. Then he named Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, a public relations practitioner cum newspaper columnist who has been servicing some of the US Embassy’s public relations needs, as his third. Last week, the nominated Romualdez as the next ambassador to the US.
There are supposed to be no political dynasties in the Philippine foreign service, but if Romualdez’s nomination is confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, he would become the third Romualdez to become Ambassador to the United States. Of course, from the time Gen. Carlos P. Romulo became foreign secretary under President Elpidio Quirino in 1950 up to the time Alberto Romulo became GMA’s foreign secretary from 2004 to 2010, we have had three Romulos serving as foreign secretary. Roberto Romulo served as FVR’s foreign secretary from 1992 to 1995. But this is another story.
All ambassadorial nominations need to be confirmed by the CA before the President signs the necessary appointment. For that reason, the correct diplomatic practice is not to announce any nomination before it is confirmed by the CA and agreed to by the receiving government. Ambassadorial appointments are normally announced simultaneously by the sending and the receiving governments. But this has remained a great secret to the DU30 government.
The reason for the inordinate delay in filling up the Washington post is now moot and academic. DU30 spent his first few months in office cursing US President Barack Obama and US Ambassador in Manila, Philip Goldberg, for their unwelcome interest in his brutal war on drugs and his messy human rights record. This obviously took up all his time, and he knew nobody who could speak for him in Washington, D.C using, or avoiding the use of, his famous expletives. He named his former law classmate Perfecto Yasay Jr. as his foreign secretary, but Yasay was quickly rejected by the CA for his false claim of unadulterated Filipino citizenship.
Now, he has his failed running mate, former Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, as his foreign secretary, a Filipino on his father’s side, and an American by blood on his mother’s side. And he has Babe Romualdez as his top man in the US. In light of his “independent foreign policy,” characterized by his threat or promise to separate economically and militarily from the US and to align himself with China and Russia “against the world,” his choice of the latter must be explained. Since there was no full disclosure of the nominee’s professional dealings with the US Embassy prior to his nomination, there must be such disclosure now.
A foreign agent?
Under our Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law I authored in the Batasang Pambansa, any Filipino citizen who serves a foreign principal in any capacity is called a “foreign agent” and must register as such before plying his trade. As such, he cannot be named ambassador to the country of his foreign principals without creating a conflict of interest. This issue needs no elaborate discussion.
Not everyone knows Babe Romualdez, but the last time I checked he does not even have a short bio online.
That’s a shame. I have known Babe since he was part of Roberto Benedicto’s Channel 9 news team and have admired his rise to where he is now. As president of the Manila Overseas Press Club, which has more businessmen and pr practitioners than working newspapermen attending its dinners, and president of the Manila Rotary Club as well as author of a column in a major newspaper, he no doubt commands quite an influence within his own circle.
But whether his known service to the US government and his chummy relationship with visiting former US ambassadors like John Negroponte, Richard Murphy, Thomas Hubbard, John Maisto and others, make him the best or the next best man to speak for DU30’s “independent foreign policy” in Washington D.C. at this time, is a question DU30 himself should answer.
Unless DU30 changes his mind, or the CA rejects the nomination, Babe will soon become the third Romualdez to become the Philippine ambassador to the US. The first two were highly credentialed. Eduardo Z. Romualdez was a lawyer, banker, economics professor and had served Presidents Ramon Magsaysay and Carlos P. Garcia before Ferdinand Marcos named him Secretary of Finance, chairman of the Monetary Board and finally ambassador. He was highly respected even by the political opposition.
Popularly known as Danding, he was a nationalist of the finest water. He is best remembered among intellectuals for his monumental 1980 opus (675 pages) on the US military bases in the Philippines. Titled A Question of Sovereignty, it is perhaps the most thorough examination of the Philippine-US military bases agreement, from its inception through its various stages of reform, until 1980; it expired in 1991. Nothing comparable exists. DU30 would have found it a most useful material to advance his arms’ length position vis-a-vis the US.
Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, Imelda Marcos’s younger brother, was governor of Leyte but better known as Marcos’ “troubleshooter.” He became ambassador to the US after China and Saudi Arabia. He was a class by himself. He was a silent “mover” and “shaker,” who produced unexpected results without the agency of words. As the First Lady’s advance party on her many trips abroad, he uniformly succeeded in making heads of state and government receive her like a visiting head herself. I personally saw this in Tokyo and Vienna as he engaged his sister’s future hosts.
Can Babe outdo his elders?
Babe’s problem would be how to exceed, or at least equal, the performance of his two elders. His bigger problem though would be how to deal with the current tension between the State Department and the White House, or between Malacañang and State. This would require talent and experience, which he must yet acquire. Will there be as many American officials who would listen to Babe talk about DU30 as there are gullible Filipino mediamen who would listen to him talk about things American?
If DU30 expects Babe to talk his talk with official Washington on the basis of the latter’s ties with Americans who ask him to do things for them, he should be prepared to make a complete U-turn on all his policy pronouncements, or else confess with much regret that he has sent himself on a fool’s errand.