SOME Evangelical friends of mine are in deep anguish over Mr. Perfecto Yasay Jr.’s unexpected fall from the position of (ad interim) Secretary of Foreign Affairs. They had hoped the pastor’s son would be finally confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, only to be formally rejected for lying about his erstwhile American citizenship. Did I in any way wish this particular outcome? Not particularly. I was hoping Yasay would voluntarily withdraw from the confirmation process, to avoid further embarrassment. But when he insisted on the confirmation despite the lies which have already been exposed, it became a duty to help expose the fraud.
I would like to assure my Protestant friends that I have no personal ill feelings toward the man, and would have dealt with him as I have, whatever his faith. But I will not stand for any blatant lying, which is a naked attack on the foreign service. I care deeply for the service. All my years as a young reporter, from my first day in 1963 until I joined the Cabinet in 1969, I spent at the Department of Foreign Affairs. I covered some of our ablest foreign secretaries —Salvador P. Lopez, Mauro Mendez, Narciso Ramos, Carlos P. Romulo—and had personal dealings with some of the finest minds in the service, including Leon Ma. Guerrero, Jose D. Ingles, Narciso Reyes, Luis Moreno Salcedo, Hortencio Brillantes, Pura Santillan Castrence, Manuel Viray, Armando Manalo, Pacifico Castro, Rodolfo Severino, and an entire crop of new ambassadors with whom I had grown up, professionally, in the 1960s.
Fighting for the foreign service
I fought every fight for the foreign service, even after I had left the Senate where I briefly chaired the committee on foreign relations and its corresponding committee at the Commission on Appointments, before I became Senate Majority Leader through five changes in the Senate presidency. Twice as a private citizen, I appeared before the CA to expose violations of the Foreign Service Act, and twice the members’ contempt of the law broke my heart. That has not made me less protective of the interests of the foreign service. In fact, one of the things I asked Yasay to do when he came to the Times’ editorial offices and lied to me about his US citizenship, was to have the law amended, so that the President could appoint experienced elderly ambassadors without violating the Act.
Under the law, a member of the career service is automatically and compulsorily retired upon reaching the age of 65. This may be the age when some have just begun to blossom in wisdom and in grace, but it is the compulsory retirement age for career diplomats, says the law. So the law must be obeyed. For their part, non-career ambassadors, who were 70 and above when the law was passed, were given until June 30, 1992 to remain in the service. This means that after that date, no non-career septuagenarian could any longer be appointed to the service. But this law was routinely violated by some Presidents and the CA equally routinely supported the violation. I cite the Davide and Guingona cases.
The Davide case
After Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. retired from the Supreme Court, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo nominated him for the position of Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Davide and I had been colleagues at the interim Batasang Pambansa, where we shared the same position on many issues after I resigned from the Marcos Cabinet. In the floor debates on the budget, I would raise the policy issues and he would follow through with a line-by-line questioning of the proposed appropriations. He was not inferior to anyone who had previously held the position, but he was clearly not qualified under the law, by reason of age.
I raised this issue before the CA, while Senator Jinggoy Estrada raised his own objection because of Davide’s conduct as presiding officer during the Senate impeachment trial of then-President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in 2000-2001. When the prosecution could not get the ruling they wanted from the impeachment court, they walked out and took their case to the streets; Davide, instead of calling the prosecution back to court, joined the mob against Estrada at EDSA and swore in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as President. Because of our joint opposition to his proposed appointment, Davide’s confirmation was bypassed twice by the CA.
Before the second bypass, Davide and I had a chance to talk during the CA caucus. I told him how it embarrassed me to be lecturing him on the law, when he should be the one lecturing the entire CA on the subject. He said absolutely nothing. After the second bypass, his nomination was not submitted anymore to the CA; he just flew to New York to assume his UN post, in violation of the Foreign Service Act, and in contemptuous disregard of the CA. Nothing was heard anymore from the CA. Malacañang tried to justify the contemptuous act by saying that since the UN was not a “country,” there was no need for the Philippine ambassador there to be confirmed.
This was absurd. Sec. 16 of Article VII of the Constitution provides, “The President shall nominate and, with the consent of the Commission on Appointments, appoint the heads of the executive departments, ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, or officers of the armed forces from the rank of colonel or naval captain and other officers whose appointments are vested in him in this Constitution.” The critical term is “ambassador,” the official title the Permanent UN Representative uses, and which allows him to become part of the Philippine foreign service with all the rights and privileges enjoyed by all other ambassadors.
The Guingona case
The second incident involved the appointment of former Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr. as ambassador to China. Guingona had been the Senate minority leader while I was the Senate majority leader. He became Vice President after Estrada’s botched impeachment trial and Vice President Arroyo assumed the presidency in 2001. Ending his term in 2004 when GMA defeated Fernando Poe Jr in that highly controversial election, he was nominated Philippine ambassador to China in 2005. He was already 77, and no longer qualified under the law to be an ambassador. I opposed the nomination on legal grounds, but the CA seemed inclined to ignore my opposition.
I went to the CA caucus and asked to be heard. Guingona was present, but neither he nor his supporters at the CA seemed to understand my objection. I had to explain. Some CA members commented that the President could appoint anyone she wanted, forgetting that even the crazy Emperor Caligula did not quite succeed in making his horse Incitatus a consul. Since I could not seem to get through, I had to point out that the prohibition on non-career septuagenarian ambassadors from being appointed after June 30, 1992 did not appear in the original legislation until a certain Sen. Teofisto Guingona Jr. introduced it as an amendment. “I’m merely trying to help VP Guingona maintain his consistency on this issue,” I said.
This elicited a show of vivid passion on the part of the overaged nominee, who said he was “still willing to serve.” In response, the CA flashed the law down the drain, and confirmed the illegal nomination. What were they in power for? However, in apparent remorse over the absurd situation, Guingona renounced his appointment without reporting to his post in Beijing. To this day, there have been—and there are—several ambassadorial appointments of a similar nature. Overaged and ill-suited, but rich and a political supporter. At the Holy See alone, where Christian scholarship as we know it began and which to me is the most important listening post bar none, we have been sending an overaged ambassador who seemed to have no understanding of the job and who did not even care to study the various issuances of the Pope and the various dicasteries of the Curia.
Basic reforms needed
This, in brief, was why I took a rather strong position on Yasay’s nomination, and will take a strong position on any other questionable nomination. Nothing personal about it, no preferred candidates for any vacant position either, just an earnest desire to see the foreign service raised to the highest standards in the service of the nation. With Yasay out, and Enrique Manalo, a career diplomat, acting as temporary DFA head, I hope President Duterte would follow through, and give the best and the brightest of our career diplomats a chance to prove their mettle. But he must start with some basic reforms.
I have long advocated giving the DFA the primary responsibility of promoting international trade and investments, as some forward-looking countries have done. By doing this, we would help our diplomats sharpen their skills, help them acquire greater focus in their work, and give our Congress a pressing justification to increase funding support for their operations. We cannot continue to expect the best possible results from our diplomats while continuing to underfund their basic requirements and operations. Without adequate budgetary support, we reduce the best of them to some kind of diplomatic underclass who accept all sorts of official invitations from colleagues every day, without being able to reciprocate the favor for lack of the necessary wherewithal.
We must avoid the situation where our career diplomats have to beg for their upkeep and fight for the benefits they had earned while in the service. In Marciano R. de Borja’s book on Philippine diplomacy, (The State Department Boys, New Academia Publishing, Washington, D.C., 2014), the Philippine Consul General in Guam recalls that one of our most distinguished ambassadors (Jose Alejandrino), after serving in Pakistan, France and Italy, had to file a legal case against the Commission on Audit and the DFA for the correct computation of his benefits and the Supreme Court had to rule in his favor to endow a binding guideline for the entire foreign service.
I can understand why Yasay’s friends are still in mourning, but DU30 is right in giving the fight a new turn—the fight is no longer how to save Yasay, but how to save the Republic and its foreign service.