By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
American officials, several of their allies and many U.S. media criticized Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s decision to recall her nation’s small military contingent in Iraq in order to save the life of Filipino hostage Angelo de la Cruz. They called the move cowardly and said it sent terrorists “the wrong signal.” For most of De la Cruz’s compatriots, however, and from the standpoint of their national interest, it was a sensible, even courageous, move.
There was more at stake in Arroyo’s decision to pull out of Iraq than saving the life of an unfortunate hostage or avoiding the ire of the U.S. government, a key source of foreign aid for the Philippines. The hostage crisis imperiled a crucial survival mechanism for the impoverished nation the gainful employment of millions of overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East.
Some 2 million Filipinos work in the region, with nearly a million in Saudi Arabia alone. These large contingents of Filipino workers have become a critical prop of the Philippine economy. They represent the millions who can’t find work in their own country. They send home some $8 billion a year (remittances were largely responsible for a 4.5 percent GNP growth in 2002), providing otherwise income-strapped families the spending power that keeps the economy afloat.
A number of Filipinos have been among the unintended victims of suicide bombings in Israel, and a number were killed in recent attacks on foreigners working for American firms in Saudi Arabia. For Arroyo to insist on remaining in the so-called “Coalition of the Willing,” despite the terrorists’ threats, would have exposed all Filipinos in the region to a dramatically higher level of danger where they are transformed into deliberate targets of terror because their government persists in giving political cover to Bush’s “coalition” by keeping a symbolic military contingent in Iraq.
In such an eventuality, the mass return of millions of Filipino workers evading terrorist attacks in the Middle East would mean disaster for the Philippine economy. The Philippine government is simply not prepared to absorb a sudden influx of jobless returnees.
The large-scale repatriation of Filipinos from the Middle East also would mean trouble for many Arab countries including some of America’s allies that have come to depend on imported Filipino labor or expertise for a multitude of tasks, from domestic work to construction and management. As a British-educated Saudi blogger wrote on his website, “Now if there’s one expat group that we couldn’t do without long term, it’s the Filipinos.” There can be no doubt that President Arroyo’s decision to pull out of Iraq to protect other Filipinos was quietly encouraged by many an Arab host government.
Clearly Arroyo’s decision was also politically self-serving, given the popular outcry in the Philippines for De la Cruz’s safe return. Overseas Filipino workers an estimated 8 million labor in 150 countries risk their lives and endure long absences from their families. They’re often called modern-day heroes by Filipino officials and media alike. In 1995, President Fidel Ramos’ popularity plunged when he failed to save the life of Flor Contemplacion, a domestic worker who was hanged by the government of Singapore on a questionable murder conviction.
De la Cruz’s kidnapping brought back memories of that execution, and the political danger was not lost on Arroyo. She had just assumed office after a bitter election whose credibility is held in doubt. Failure to bring back De la Cruz alive would have given her enemies effective ammunition in a poisonous political climate rife with talk of destabilization plots.
Manila’s media are nearly unanimous in praising Arroyo’s decision. From the start, her unnecessary deployment of a military contingent to Iraq was widely criticized, both as a sign of subservience to the United States and as a ploy to corner American support for her looming run for the presidency. Her decision to quit Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” is seen as a rectification of that error and a hopeful sign of independence from Washington.
Editorials bristle at American and Australian criticism of the pullout. They recall the U.S. exchange of arms for hostages with Iran and the American retreat from Somalia and Beirut, and they question the wisdom of supporting an occupation that Americans, polls show, no longer support.
Several commentators excoriated The New York Times for making a spurious distinction between the Philippines’ decision (which the Times called deplorable) and Spain’s pullout from Iraq after the Madrid bombing (which it said was understandable). For most Filipino opinion-makers and from the standpoint of the Philippine’s national interest pulling out of Iraq was not a “wrong signal” to terrorists. The wrong signal was to send a troop contingent to begin with, which only served to militarize the long-standing and purely civilian Filipino presence in the Middle East and made it a likely target of terrorist attacks.
As for Washington’s implied threat of leaving the Philippines at the mercy of its homegrown terrorists, it’s empty and face-saving. The Philippines remains the most important staging area for any U.S. operations against Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Southeast Asia, as predominantly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia are less than ideal hosts. In fact, several U.S. military exercises are set to take place in Southern Philippines. Like it or not, Washington is stuck with Manila, and the latter knows it.
Rene P. Ciria-Cruz is editor of Filipinas Magazine.