Thursday, September 22, 2005

US profiles rising Filipino leaders

THE US EMBASSY has been profiling the Philippines' "up and coming political leaders" even before the "jueteng" and "Hello, Garci" controversies snowballed into the worst crisis to beset President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration.

An embassy report dated May 10 and prepared by political officer Andrew MacLearn said Vice President Noli de Castro and other personalities had been "jostling to stand out in a crowded field as they beg[a]n to lay the groundwork for the 2007 senatorial election and the 2010 national elections."

The report said that as of early May, Senator Manuel "Mar" Roxas II was "well-placed for the 2010 race," opposition Sen. Panfilo "Ping" Lacson "clearly want[ed] to be President," Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando was similarly interested, and young House Minority Leader Francis Escudero was emerging as a dark horse.

It portrayed Sen. Manuel Villar, Nacionalista Party president, as projecting a "nationalist posturing" that pitted him against certain US interests.

Sen. Richard Gordon was seen as a politician who got things done and was "not afraid to get his hands dirty."

"The wild card, however, is whether the Philippines engages in serious constitutional change that would lead to a parliamentary system well before 2010, as numerous politicians continue to advocate," the report said.

The seven-page report is one of a number of documents obtained by the Inquirer from a source who asked not to be identified. The documents contain updates on Philippine political figures and developments and the corresponding US assessments.

They are believed to be copies of files allegedly illegally downloaded from US Federal Bureau of Investigation computers by Filipino-American intelligence analyst Leandro Aragoncillo.


The profiles on the so-called emerging leaders appear to have been based on general information possibly culled from the government, media reports and social circles, as well as conversations with the personalities named or those close to them.

The conversations were either casual or formal meetings, as confirmed by some of the personalities interviewed by the Inquirer.

Members of the House of Representatives who were listed expressed concern that their conversations with US Embassy officials were being used as basis for profiling Philippine leaders.

"Is this meant to influence [Philippine affairs] or for [the US government's] own domestic purpose [as a guide] in coming up with foreign policy?" Escudero said.

He said he had talked with embassy officials in line with his work as House minority leader.

"I don't know the basis of their assessment," he said. "I suppose they're giving me more credit than I deserve. We had yet to be active at that time. There was still no 'Hello, Garci' tape and there was still no impeachment."

Said Camarines Sur Representative Rolando Andaya Jr. of the embassy officials' repeated visits at his office: "I thought it was just banter. I never thought I was already being profiled."

The report said Andaya, chair of the powerful House committee on appropriations, was eyeing a Cabinet post after his term as congressman.

Ilocos Norte Representative Imee Marcos, described in the report as the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos' "most politically ambitious child," said it showed that the US government was in constant search for allies among the Philippines' leaders.

"They want the country to remain a reliable ally, which they are not certain the country would be," Marcos told the Inquirer.

De Castro

The report said De Castro and a number of senators had been busy preparing for the 2010 presidential election. But even before the political crisis thrust De Castro into the limelight as Ms Arroyo's constitutional successor, the US Embassy already had a dim view of him.

"Given that the last two Presidents -- Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Joseph "Erap" Estrada -- rose from the vice presidency, he likely has similar ambitions, although many view him as a substantive lightweight," the report said.

"De Castro's biggest liabilities appear to be political and managerial experience as well as his weak English language. His speech-making even in Tagalog has not won rave reviews, either," it also said.

The report said a political officer of the US Embassy had spoken with De Castro's chief of staff, lawyer Jesse Andres, and was told that the Vice President's priorities included poverty alleviation, overseas Filipino workers and housing.

"[Andres] said the Vice President believe[d] himself to be very popular with the 'masa,' as indeed public opinion polls have confirmed," the report said.

It said that De Castro's "key backers among the elite" were members of the Lopez clan, owner of the ABS-CBN media network.

"De Castro relies on his still active network of ABS-CBN officials extensively, and is not afraid to call senior ABS-CBN members via cell phone on a moment's notice to ask questions about news coverage and foreign affairs," it said.

Mar and Ping

The report said that as early as May, Roxas had "charted his political career toward the presidency."

It noted that Roxas had "high name recall" as a grandson of the first President of the republic, Manuel Roxas, and "a strong background in economics and sufficient private wealth to fund a massive national campaign, as he did in [the] 2004 [senatorial election]."

"Heightening his popularity is his relationship with Korina Sanchez, a fashionable Manila media star," it added.

But a statement issued by Roxas' office said he had not engaged in any discussion with any US Embassy official regarding his political plans in the next five years.

The report described Lacson as "cagey" and "still clearly want[ing] to be President."

"His strict law-and-order presidential campaign earned him a third-place finish in the May 2004 election. His campaign won him many admirers including in the wealthy Chinese-Filipino community, historically victimized by kidnapping and other crimes," it said.

Lacson confirmed to the Inquirer that he had been in constant touch with embassy officials: "We have conversations. Sometimes, we have friendly banter. Other times, we talk about more serious topics."

He said he did not know where the embassy officials based their conclusion that he still wanted to be president as early as May, when the political crisis, including the issue of who would replace Ms Arroyo, had yet to rage.

"I don't know where they got that. They talk to many people," Lacson said.

Fernando et al.

The report said MMDA Chair Fernando told an embassy official in an April 25 conversation that he was "interested in the presidency."

"In a recent national survey by a local firm, Fernando ranked as President Arroyo's most popular Cabinet member," it said.

It also said Fernando had garnered "popular segments of Manila's underprivileged urban population, primarily for his unorthodox but effective methods for putting some order to a chaotic Metro Manila."

According to the report, Villar "paints himself as an independent thinker and a nationalist who could resist 'foreign' influence."

"This nationalist posturing, along with multiple Manila strip mall business interests, placed Villar on the opposite side of some [Philippine government] enforcement efforts involving the intellectual property rights law and pitted him against [US government] interests in the past," it said.

The report said the "political tandem" of Villar and his "popular wife," Las PiƱas Representative Cynthia Villar, had worked to "support his political ambitions."

"Notably, the Villars have a penchant for smooth political marketing, and have the useful distinction of being the richest couple in Congress," it said.

Senator Richard Gordon, who pushed for the retention of the US bases in 1991 when he was mayor of Olongapo City, was described in the report as having "worked closely" with embassy officials "in the past."

It said he used his "promotional flare (flair)" to win a Senate seat in 2004.

Poe's Susan

The report mentioned Susan Roces, widow of 2004 opposition standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr., but said her "public appeal," while "strong," was "still more potential than real."

But it added: "Her professed desire to help the 'masa' and to ensure that her husband's 'legacy' continues may drive her eventually into a more active political life, as may her clear contempt" for Ms Arroyo.

The report also said the sons of ousted President Joseph Estrada could also make a stab at the presidency under certain circumstances.

It said the "enduring affection of the 'masa' for the Estrada clan" could make Sen. Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada a potential leader "regardless of the outcome of his father's ongoing trial" for plunder and his own case.

It also said San Juan Mayor Joseph Victor "JV" Ejercito appeared to be "in line to inherit the political mantle of his father."

The report concluded: "Additional biographic detail about these and hundreds of other leaders of the Philippine polity can be found in the biographic portal by visiting Embassy Manila's classified SIPRNET website. Please follow the link below: RICCIARDONE."

US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone was the latest chief of mission appointed to the Philippines.

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