At the invitation of Bishop Crispin Varquez of the Diocese of Borongan, Eastern Samar, I traveled to Borongan last week to talk about “the transformative role of the laity in Philippine politics.” This happened at their Diocesan Congress on the Laity on 11 October.
It was an unadulterated Church event, in observance of the Year of the Laity and in preparation for Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the Philippines.
An impressive turnout of church workers from 34 parishes packed the capitol gym, but for a while I thought I was speaking to one of the two assemblies which had been convened by the National Transformation Council.
In recent months, Filipinos have heard a lot about “national transformation.” From August 27 in Lipa, when the first NTC-initiated assembly issued an “urgent call for national transformation,” to Oct. 1 in Cebu, when the second assembly defined “the first steps toward national transformation,” the phrase has become part of the nation’s most important conversation. This was evident in Borongan. There, the stress was on the moral and spiritual as the basis of, and the indispensable first step toward, the political. And the people were eager to respond to the challenge, both as Church faithful and as citizens.
But the most striking work of physical transformation today is to be seen in Tacloban, which remains the gateway to Eastern Visayas. From Manila to Borongan, you first fly to Tacloban. From there you travel by car for another four hours to your final destination.
You cannot possibly miss the spirit that fills the air. The whole city is being rebuilt from the ground by the city government and the people themselves with a lot of outside help, but not from the national government.
In just a few days, the world will be marking the first year anniversary of super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, which flattened Tacloban on Nov. 8, 2013. It is not known how the city intends to remember this unforgettable date. Until now, the national government’s response to the emergency has been at best tepid. In fact, a visitor from Manila is casually asked by ordinary city folk, where have all the foreign donations gone?
Some people who thought I was still a sitting “senator” wanted to know why the Senate has not summoned President B. S. Aquino 3rd, Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, and Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman to explain what happened to the money from all those countries. Why are they giving so much official and TV time to those young punks in the Senate who are trying to bring down the survey ratings of the Vice President, while keeping complete silence on what happened to the foreign donations for the Haiyan/Yolanda victims?
They showed distinct outrage over reports that Aquino had yet to approve the proposed master plan for the total recovery and rebuilding of Tacloban–nearly a full year after the US Seventh Fleet, the British Navy and most of the international humanitarian missions had come and gone.
In fact, one self-confessed promotion of the NTC pointed out that if only for his heartless response to the calamity, Aquino should be run out of his office, even without taking into account the other crimes he has committed against the Constitution when he used the pork barrel system to bribe the members of Congress to railroad the widely opposed Reproductive Health Law and to remove a sitting Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Despite all this, Tacloban has moved on and is determined to rise with a new face and spirit when Pope Francis comes to visit in January next year. The Pope’s much-awaited visit has become the biggest single motivating factor for people to quicken the pace of rebuilding and development. Everyone is talking about it. “This is where the Pope will say Mass,” “this is where the Pope can stop, if it gets to be too hot and he would need to take a drink or rest.” “This is where I will stand and wave when he passes.” And so forth.
The show of solidarity is not limited to the Catholic faithful alone. As I went around the city, my driver proudly pointed at the massive reconstruction of the Sto. Niño church, funded by the world-famous Tzu Chi Foundation, which initiated the cash-for-work program at the height of the disaster. “It’s the Buddhists putting in the money to rebuild this Catholic church,” he said.
But Tacloban’s greatest luck is to have a young, intelligent, hard-working and self-effacing mayor who is determined to get the work done with the people’s total involvement and support. Mayor Alfred Romualdez, 52, drives his people hard, but drives himself much harder still. The result is a highly energized city government that has the courage to assume full responsibility for Tacloban’s rebirth.
Given the well-publicized effort of the President and his secretary of the interior and local government, Mar Roxas, to drive Romualdez against the wall during the first critical hours of the emergency, you would expect to find a highly resentful and antagonistic mayor when you mention the Aquino government. There is none of that at all. Romualdez is focused on doing what seems to be an impossible job, and getting his own people and the international community to support it.
Last September UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon invited both the President and Romualdez to participate in the Global Summit on Climate Change in New York. Both accepted and went. But after the international security crisis in Iraq and Syria reshuffled US President Barack Obama’s priorities in favor of ISIS and away from climate change, Aquino found himself delivering an empty speech to an equally empty small room at UN headquarters. However Romualdez managed to keep his audience in a much larger room, and ended making some hands-on recommendations, which won the support of the mayors of New York, Paris, and other big cities, and prompted the UN technical experts to put them forward for further discussions at the Paris summit on climate change next year.
In light of the unusually rude treatment Romualdez got from PNoy and Roxas, when they sought full control of Tacloban as a condition for providing much needed national government help, asking the mayor to understand that the President was an Aquino, while he was “only a Romualdez,” I fully expected the mayor to denounce the Aquino government’s inaction in the face of a grave emergency and ask the UN to take disciplinary action against national governments that fail to respond to any type of emergency.
That would have made the Aquino government’s heartlessness and incompetence a matter of international public record, and made such great running headlines in the world press. But, noblesse oblige, there was no sign Romualdez ever thought of it.
Instead, he chose to be completely positive. He asked the participants from all over the world to learn from the Tacloban experience. He calculated that the various foreign governments and institutions that had rushed all sorts of assistance to Tacloban after Haiyan/Yolanda struck must have spent enormous sums of money to move ships, planes, machines, men and supplies for their individual operations. And they would probably do the same thing again when the next calamity strikes.
But why not anticipate disaster, Romualdez asked, by identifying in advance the disaster-prone areas, and making the necessary investments in disaster preparedness and risk reduction management, etc. in order to substantially reduce the work to be done, and the cost to be incurred, when disaster strikes?
Apparently, it was the only proposal made with such authority and conviction that it not only won the ear of the UN experts but also gained for Romualdez so many invitations to speak before foreign audiences. Amid the gloom that pervades the nation’s political scene, which has prompted the two NTC-initiated assemblies to call for PNoy’s early exit and for the organization of an “alternative government,” I spoke to Romualdez in his office in Tacloban, and got a rare treat.
I have not heard anyone of late, including those who believe they are destined for the highest office, who speaks with such conviction and confidence about the future of his city, and our poor degraded Republic. How different things might have been if we had a working constitutional democratic system, and someone of this caliber sitting where PNoy now sits, or even where Mar Roxas sits.