Monday, September 29, 2008

Obama's Challenge and the FilAm Response

Published Setp. 29, 2008

One of the interesting moments in last Friday’s presidential debate was when Barack Obama blasted past American foreign policy of supporting allies who are undemocratic, even tyrannical leaders -- a policy in which Washington says, “He may be a dictator, but he is our dictator.”

It was clearly a play on how former US Secretary of State Cordell Hull described Rafael Trujillo when he was dictator of the Dominican Republic in the 1930s: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch."

On Friday, Obama was referring to the ousted Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a coup that deposed a democratically elected president, and whom Washington eventually supported and coddled.

He was essentially sending a strong message to leaders who would follow in the footsteps of Trujillo, Musharraf and even Marcos. And that convinced me even more that for the Philippines, a President Obama would usher in an exciting era in US-Philippine relations.

On the other hand, John McCain came across as John McCain: the former fighter pilot who is bold, daring to the point of being reckless and impetuous. That sometimes works in war. But it often doesn’t. And it surely can lead to disastrous results when dealing with more complex issues, such as a financial meltdown.

In the days leading up to the debate, McCain seemed to be blasting away without any clear target or objective. He said the fundamentals of the US economy were strong, then later tried to backtrack and even called for the firing of the highly respected head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Then he suddenly suspended his campaign, purportedly to help solve the crisis, and called for the debate to be postponed. But he ended up playing a bit role in the negotiations. And some lawmakers even said that his political stunt derailed the sensitive talks.

These were bold, daring, attention-grabbing moves. But what was the point?

As many people expected, McCain displayed a slight edge in foreign policy expertise during the debate. But as many pundits also stated, he needed to make up for three days of seeming incoherence and pointless impetuousness by clearly out-debating the newcomer on the U.S. political scene.

But that didn’t happen.

Obama showed himself to be intellectually engaged and politically pragmatic. He also was incredibly cool, a trait which will be critical for the next US president who will have to deal with two wars, a slowing economy and a financial system that’s rapidly falling apart.

The bad news is that the race is still tight, and presidential debates, historically, have not had much of an impact on the outcomes of elections. John Kerry outperformed George W. Bush four years ago, but that didn’t matter.Many reasons have been cited for why the race is so close, despite the clear unpopularity of the Republicans. Let’s go straight to a critical reason: Obama is only slightly ahead of McCain because of his race.

Sadly, race is an issue even for Filipino Americans. I already discussed my views on this issue in a previous column in February. And since then, I’ve only heard more examples of our own brand of racism and ignorance, of judging a leader’s potential based on skin color.

But there have also been signs of hope.

“It will now depend on ground operations in which Obama has an advantage,” Francis Calpotura, a veteran community organizer in Oakland who founded the League of Filipino Students-USA back in the 1980s, told me. “Para sa akin (to me), it will still boil down to this question: Would older (40-60 yrs) white voters in those swing states be ready to elect a black president?”

He added, “What would be good to see is what Filipinos in Nevada would do. That's why I'm going to Reno and hopefully reach out to the Filipinos there.”

Calpotura was among the leaders of a group of Filipino American activists who traveled to the battleground state of Nevada to pound the pavement for Obama

Then there’s Gayle Gatchalian who wrote to me about my earlier column, which asked, “Will Pinoys reject Obama because he’s black?”

“I just wanted to thank you for writing that,” she said. “My entire family hates Barack Obama and I can't have a decent conversation with them without a mention of Muslim, Hussein, evil etc. and the myriad other issues that have come out that proves he is a decent human being. I understand that it's because they have something against black people, and my black friends have tried to explain it to me.

“It’s hard to be post-racial and clearly, if America is going to move on from the 20th century, it needs someone who can take them there and the B-man is the best (and only) option on the table right now.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Memo to Arroyo: Let McCain know you're from Asia

Published September 22, 2008

President Gloria Arroyo may have had a top-level meeting with Republican presidential candidate John McCain during her last visit to the United States. But if he wins in November, she better hope he’ll remember that encounter -- and that he won’t confuse her, given her Hispanic surname, for one of those anti-American leaders in Latin America who are always irritating Washington.

Just ask Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the prime minister of Spain.

When asked in an interview with a Miami Spanish-language radio program if he would receive Zapatero in the White House, McCain said that he would “establish closer relationships with our friends, and I will stand up to those who want to harm the United States.”

The clearly confused interviewer politely asked the question three more times. After all, Spain is a member of NATO and a US ally, and McCain or any other US politician surely wouldn't suggest that Spain could be among those “who would harm the United States.” The interviewer even clarified that she was referring to the country in Europe. But McCain simply repeated his response.

That prompted speculation that either McCain didn't know who Zapatero was, thought Spain is in Latin America, or simply got confused. Did he perhaps think that Zapatero was another troublemaker south of the US border? Maybe he thought he was being asked about the Zapatista rebels in Mexico, or about Emiliano Zapata, the legendary, but long dead, Mexican rebel leader.

It may be understandable how McCain would get confused since the question about Zapatero followed others about not-so-friendly leaders in America's backyard: Raul Castro of Cuba, Evo Morales of Bolivia and the highly-controversial Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

But as the Washington Post noted, “Lumping Zapatero in with the Latin American bad guys like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is ironic because Zapatero and Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, were protagonists in one of the most public anti-Chavez moments.”

The newspaper was referring to the Ibero-American summit meeting earlier this year in Chile, when Chavez criticized Zapatero's predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, a close Bush ally, for sending Spanish troops to Iraq. Zapatero politely rejected Chavez's argument, but when the Venezuelan pressed on, the Spanish king snapped at him, “Why don't you just shut up?”

To be sure, McCain's gaffe was not as bad as former Vice President Dan Quayle's jaw-dropping observation that people in Latin America don't speak Latin. Or President George W. Bush's surprising question to the president of Brazil: “Do you have blacks too?”

Still, McCain's response raises doubts about his claim to be a foreign policy expert, especially since he has made other baffling remarks on foreign affairs during the campaign. Once he appeared to get mixed up about the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Then he explained the crisis in Afghanistan to journalist Diane Sawyer by saying, “We have a lot of work to do and I'm afraid it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border.”

Such a border does not exist, of course. Nor does the republic of Czechoslovakia, which broke up into two nations in the early 90s, but that didn't stop McCain from referring to the defunct entity.

McCain's campaign spokesman Randy Sheunemann later clarified that his candidate meant what he said that he would not commit to a meeting with Spain’s Zapatero. That prompted columnist Robert Schlesinger to write: “Memo to Randy Sheunemann: Your candidate can do worse things than get confused. Like he could imply that a NATO ally might mean us harm.”

Bottom line for the Philippine leadership: Gear up for an education campaign to reintroduce yourself to a President McCain. Perhaps the Department of Foreign Affairs should send a briefing paper to the McCain campaign explaining that the US military has pulled out of Subic and Clark, just in case he gets confused about why there is now a Visiting Forces Agreement between the US and the Philippines. Or, maybe it should issue a high-level memo reminding McCain that the Philippines is no longer an American colony, and that Arroyo should be called "president," not "governor-general."

But then again, perhaps there's nothing to worry about . After all, if McCain wins, he'll have a highly capable vice president in Sarah Palin. How can you beat a would-be-president who became an expert on Russia because she can see that country from her home state of Alaska?

But just to be sure, it may be wise for Arroyo, or whoever takes her place in 2010, to consider a special gift to the McCain-Palin administration if they do take over come January: A very powerful telescope so she can see the Babuyan Islands from downtown Anchorage.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Farewell to Two FilAm Activists

Published Sept. 10, 2008

San Francisco, CA- In the Bay Area, with its huge and vibrant Pinoy community, FilAm activism is pretty much a family affair.

Whether it’s fighting against dictatorship, or for civil liberties, or for equal benefits for World War II veterans, or even for funds for a new library, mothers and fathers get involved with their sons and daughters, with their grandchildren and even with their great-grandchildren.

Over the past months, a lolo (grandpa) and a lola (grandma) of the FilAm activist family -- one from the Pinoy enclave of Daly City, and the other from the famous activist city of Berkeley -- passed away.

Fittingly, they have been honored for their roles in the community’s history of fighting for those who are weak and oppressed, in the Philippines, in America and beyond.

Pete Marasigan was perhaps best known as the better half of Violeta Marasigan, the late veteran activist and feminist who was fondly called Bullet by friends and colleagues here and in the Philippines.

Tito Pete, as he was known, died June 18 in Manila of heart failure, at 73.

He was born in Dapitan, Sampaloc in Manila where he helped manage his family’s general merchandise business. He moved to the United States in 1957 to study business management at the University of San Francisco. He got involved in the youth movement and became active in the struggle against the demolition of the International Hotel, the historic residential building in downtown San Francisco that was home to dozens of Filipino and Chinese seniors.

The hotel was eventually demolished, but the struggle turned into one of the most dramatic events in California history, highlighting the growing influence of the Filipino American activist movement and the problem of housing and homelessness in America. Today, FilAms still talk about the great struggle to save the I-Hotel, and there is now a FilAm community center where it once stood near Chinatown in the heart of San Francisco.

It was during the I-Hotel campaign that Pete Marasigan met Bullet. They were later married and had four daughters, Marielle, Marlette, Marnelle and Violeta II, who also became activists.

In 1971, the couple moved back to the Philippines and joined the fight against the Marcos dictatorship. Bullet helped found Gabriela, the feminist organization, and a center that assisted sex workers at the former U.S. naval base in Subic. In 1982, she was arrested and charged with subversion and spent a year at Camp Crame. After her release, she and Pete continued to be active in the fight against the regime.

After the fall of Marcos, the Marasigans resettled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Bullet became a respected community activist. When she was killed in a freak car accident in 2000, respected San Francisco political and community leaders publicly mourned her death. San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a friend and ally, called her “bigger than life.'' “Her energy was just amazing,'' Ammiano said. “She had that quality of heart, along with being a fighter.'' State legislator Leland Yee, one of the most prominent Asian American politicians in California, spoke of feeling a deep sadness over the loss of an important ally in the fight for community rights.

After Bullet’s death, Tito Pete continued to be involved with many Filipino American organizations, including the West Bay Center and the Filipino American Arts Exposition, or Pistahan, in which he once served as grand marshal. He was also a staunch supporter of Leland Yee.

I remember him as a man who was committed to his family, community and homeland. That is also how I remember Mary Bonzo Suzuki.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mary and her husband Lewis, longtime residents of Berkeley in the East Bay, were beloved as active members of the movement against the Marcos regime. Mary died on May 11 after a long illness at 76. One recent Sunday, former activists came to pay respect to a Filipino American woman who was known for her courage, devotion to social justice and generosity.

At the height of the fight against Marcos, the Suzukis were known as staunch supporters of the Bay Area movement. Activists frequently met at their home where Mary was known for almost always asking first, “Have you eaten.” For Mary, good food was an important part of the struggle against tyranny.

Theirs was a fascinating love story, beautifully told in a January 2005 article in the Berkeley Planet, a community newspaper.

She was the daughter of a Dutch-Irish-Welsh American woman, and of a Filipino immigrant. Laws barring Filipinos from marrying white women forced them to leave Nebraska. In a sad twist, Mary’s grandfather cut his ties with his daughter, while her grandmother remained supportive.

The hostile environment eventually forced the young couple to return to the Philippines with their two children. “My father had been beaten up repeatedly. He said if he had to deal with violence, he could handle it better in his home country,” Mary said in an interview with the Berkeley Planet.

Lewis Suzuki was born in the US to Japanese immigrants. After his father died, he and his mother returned to Japan, but he returned to America amid the rising tide of militarism.

Eventually, World War II took its toll on both Mary and Lewis. Mary and her family were in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation. Her father was tortured by the Japanese military and both her parents joined the resistance.

Meanwhile, Lewis found himself treated like an enemy in the country of his birth when, after World War II, the US government detained tens of thousands of Japanese Americans. Lewis joined the US Army and worked as a translator.

The war was a painful time for their families, but it also affirmed their sense of humanity. One day, Mary recalled in the Berkeley Planet article, Lewis’ brother who was visiting them apologized to her for what the Japanese military had done in the Philippines. Lewis’ brother himself witnessed kindness and humanity amid cruelty and suffering while serving with the Japanese army in its brutal occupation of China. Mary recalled how, as the war was ending in China, and Chinese civilians were hunting down Japanese soldiers to kill them, a Chinese family gave shelter to Lewis’ brother.

Mary’s family returned to America after the war. She became fascinated with events in China, and it was during a visit to the Asian nation that she and Lewis met. They married in 1953, had two children and built their individual careers. She became an educator, and he, a respected painter. But they also devoted much time and energy to activism, and the fight against the Marcos regime and other causes.

Her commitment to justice and peace remained strong through her last years. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Mary wrote a poem titled “Peace and War.”

A line read:

“War voices are loud as the sun blazes and flickers
A new moon rises, smiling, as a portent of peace
Come, walk down to the sea with me….”

Monday, August 25, 2008

McCain Para sa Mahirap?

Published August 25, 2008

Joseph Estrada's famous political battle cry will probably not work for John McCain, not with this Republican presidential nominee's definition of rich as someone who earns at least $5 million a year. But in a way, McCain faces a dilemma similar to the one that got Erap in political hot water – home ownership.

When the online news site, Politico, asked McCain how many houses he owned, his answer was puzzling: "I think – I'll have my staff get to you. It's condominiums where… I'll have them get to you."

It was not exactly a response to inspire confidence among Americans, many of whom are on the verge of losing their homes or have already lost them. Then there's McCain's idea of a rich person. In Philippine terms, being middle class or poor to McCain means someone who makes less than 18 million pesos a month (which could exclude many residents of Ayala Alabang.)

I'm sure many of us would want to have McCain's problem -- to have so much money, and so much property, that you've lost track of how many houses you have. Remember Dely Ataytayan's famous role as Dolphy's super-rich mother-in-law in 'John en Marsha' and how, whenever she needed money, she would ask her maid Matutina to sweep around the house for cash scattered throughout her mansion?

Suddenly, in a presidential race in which race had played a prominent role, class has become an important issue. This is not surprising as many Americans reel from rising gas and food prices, eroding home values and a cloudy economic future.

To be sure, the two men vying to be the next American president are both millionaires. But while Barack Obama is pushing to impose higher taxes on the rich, defined by his campaign as those earning roughly $150,000 a year – or 565,000 pesos a month – McCain has been for maintaining the current administration's tax cuts which many consider unfair to middle class and poor families.

Filipinos are, of course, familiar with the way issues affluence and poverty are used in politics. You’ve heard of the senator from a prominent and very rich political family portraying himself as Mr. Palengke. The current president even once embraced the supposedly insulting monicker, Gloria Labandera.

And an election season is simply not complete without politicos, most of whom live in
Manila's exclusive communities, trying to portray themselves as men or women of the masses by belting out the latest pop tunes or dancing like fools on a makeshift stage.

Joseph Estrada topped them all, of course, with his “Erap para sa mahirap” slogan despite the fact that he is actually a man of means. He eventually found himself in trouble when the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism reported that he owned more than a dozen real estate properties, including some palatial homes.

It’s unclear if McCain's own housing dilemma will have an impact on what has been a glaring irony in American politics.

The Republicans have been known historically as the party of America's elite, who are more likely to push policies meant to protect big business and the affluent. But over the past two decades they have actually won sizeable support from the poor and working class, especially whites. And they did this by portraying the Democrats, who have traditionally enjoyed the support of unions, minorities and the poor, as being out-of-touch, intellectually arrogant and elitist with all their talk about equality, diversity and justice.

Obama's own slip-ups during the campaign served to reinforce this perception. There was his infamous remark describing some working class Americans as being so bitter that they cling to guns and religion. Then, in a hilarious campaign misstep, Obama once asked a group of
Iowa farmers, "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff." Now, that would be like a Pinoy politician asking voters in Payatas what they think of the price of baguettes at Greenbelt.

But the Obama campaign pounced swiftly and strong on McCain's so-called "personal housing crisis." And expect the Democrats to highlight other major differences between the two. After all, while they are both rich, McCain's links to Richistan are deeper and longer. So deep that he apparently thinks someone who makes just $1 million a year – or five times less than the threshold he set – must be facing serious economic difficulties.

On the other hand, Obama became rich only recently, mainly from writing two bestselling books. He grew up in a lower middle class household, raised by a single mother who struggled to support her family. Then, as I mentioned in a previous column, Obama also has had intense encounters with the faces of extreme poverty in
Indonesia and Kenya, and even in the inner city communities of Chicago -- places where not knowing how many houses one owns would be considered a form of extreme cluelessness.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fearing bears and feeling small in Yosemite Valley

Published August 11, 2008

As we started our hike up to the camp, I couldn’t help but worry about whether we had removed every little bit of food from the car. Did I miss a stick of French fry stuck beneath one of the seats? Or was there a piece of candy one of my sons had hidden in a backseat pocket?

It was odd to worry about such things in one of the most beautiful places in the world. A Berkeley friend of mine had called Yosemite Valley “God’s home.” My kumpadre Persi is so impressed with the wilderness park, located about three hours away from the San Francisco Bay Area, that he goes back country camping there several times a year.

I’ve never been the roughing it up type, but when he asked me to join him recently for a weekend backpacking trip to the valley, I immediately said yes. It didn’t take much effort to invite two other friends – my brother-in-law Alex and our good friend Richard – to join us.

It wasn’t exactly the ideal time for a Yosemite trip. There was a fire raging west of the valley. But it was far enough not to be a real concern. It was also the middle of the tourist season, which meant hundreds of camera-toting visitors in cars. But we weren’t going to the tourist spots. We were headed for the wild, not that deep, mind you, but deep enough to be away from the tourists and their cars -- and also deep enough to run the risk of encountering Yosemite’s longtime residents: bears.

A Yosemite park ranger emphasized this point to us, as he stressed a basic rule: Don’t ever, ever, leave any food or any drink, or a cooler even if it’s empty, or any scented items such as hand lotion in the car. Or else, a curious and probably hungry bear will smash your car window.

Stricter precautions must be taken in camp. We had to rent a black container the size of a watermelon, called a bear can. That’s where you are supposed to put your food, such items as toothpaste and lotions, and even food waste. You then lock the can and hide it in a spot away from the camp -- where a bear may later find it, try to open it and, having failed, simply walk away.

Bears generally stay away from, and are even afraid of, people, we were told. But they’re drawn to food, so it’s best to make sure to not be close to anything edible out in Yosemite, especially at night.

I was thinking of that as we settled in for the night in our tents at the camp at May Lake.

We had spent the day admiring the beauty of the lake at the foot of one of Yosemite’s many massive rock formations. We had hiked around the lake, stepping carefully on giant boulders and logs, and even took a quick swim in the cold water. After dinner by camp fire, we turned in.

It was then that I started to worry about unwanted visitors. I suspected the others did too. After all we were Manila-bred Pinoys spending the night in a beautiful, but strange, place where hungry animals were hiding deep in the woods and the massive rock mountain.

But we heard only each other’s snores that night. Alex later said he had heard a rustling sound at one point. But we couldn’t be sure if the bears had paid us a visit.

When I woke up that morning, I felt relieved but also somewhat disappointed. An encounter with a bear would have made the trip more exciting. But as the sun rose and its rays turned the massive rock into a mountain of gold, its reflection glowing magnificently in the still water of May Lake, my disappointment quickly dissipated.

“Gumagaan ang loob ko pag andito ako (I feel at ease when I’m out here.),” Alex said. I agreed. Persi kind of explained where that calm comes from. “Parang pakiramdam mo maliit ka lang dito, ano (You feel small out there, don’t you)?” he said.

Among gargantuan mountains of rock in Yosemite Valley, one does feel insignificant, but in a good way. You are reminded that you are but a small part of a bigger whole, and that whole is magnificent.

A Silicon Valley CEO I wrote about five years ago had told me about a similar experience. To find renewed strength and perspective in running a software company in a highly competitive industry, Radha Basu sometimes turned to a place where she felt small and humble: The Himalayas.
"It's you and the mountains," she told me before her trip in 2003. "Oh, man, you feel so humble. … Nature is big and you are small. You can plan all you want, and nature decides there's going to be a blizzard -- man, there is not a whole lot you can do. You really do learn about the smallness of what you are -- that you are part of a much larger picture."

Sometimes, that feeling doesn’t just come from being in the wilderness.

This month, we remember the 25th anniversary of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination which was followed by a historic funeral march when a million Filipinos paid him tribute and spoke out against dictatorship. I remember that day, when I was but a speck in a mass of humanity, sending a powerful message to a tyrant and the world.

The hike down the mountain in Yosemite Valley was easier and, having consumed our food our packs, a bit a lighter.

When we reached my car, I had another reason to feel relieved. The windows were intact.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Friday, July 25, 2008

Distorted lessons from the Philippine-American War

Published July 25, 2008

Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama was touring the Middle East when a well-known columnist for a major US newspaper tried to point the way out of the mess in Iraq by citing lessons from another American military misadventure more than a century ago – in the Philippines.

Unfortunately, conservative commentator Michael Medved's piece for USA Today, "Filipino war's lesson for Iraq," draws distorted, even dangerous, lessons from the tragedy in our homeland.

He begins by drawing parallels between the current presidential race and the 1900 contest between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. Medved describes Bryan as the "handsome young Democratic nominee" known as "the most spellbinding orator of his generation" who promised "dramatic change to correct economic injustice" and an end to the American occupation of the Philippines. He was up against the older McKinley, a Civil War veteran and avid supporter of the occupation whom Medved portrayed as the "tough, fight-it-out Republican" and "a hero in his youth (three decades earlier) in the Civil War."

Echoes of Obama versus McCain indeed.

But McCain probably would not appreciate being too closely compared to McKinley, given that US president's bizarre, even creepy, account of how he came to realize that America must occupy the Philippines. In one of the oddest anecdotes in the history of the US presidency, McKinley recalled how he "went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance," which made him see that "there was nothing left for us to do but … to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

(Apparently, McKinley did not get a memo telling him that the Philippines was then a staunchly Catholic nation -- another reason for McCain to balk at any close identification with the former president, given his own foreign affairs faux pas like mixing up Sunnis and Shiites and referring to a non-existent Iraq-Pakistan border.)

Still, it's not surprising that Medved and other conservatives are hoping for a repeat of that chapter in US history: After all, the older, more hawkish Republican McKinley won that election against the "inexperienced but charismatic anti-imperialist Democrat."

But Filipinos and Filipino Americans should find Medved's version of the Philippine-American War troubling. "This nearly forgotten conflict deserves renewed attention today since the parallels with our present predicament count as both eerie and illuminating," he writes.

True enough.

But then Medved recasts the bloody conflict as a war that the United States "stumbled into" but from which emerged a free and happy nation ever so grateful for American generosity and compassion. He cites former President Manuel L. Quezon's famous quote, "Damn the Americans! Why don't they tyrannize us more?"

Medved essentially is asking: Now why in the world can't we do that again in Iraq?

"Our failure to 'tyrannize' our Iraqi allies could similarly destroy the chances of the Islamist terrorists who oppose us," he writes. "The outcome in today's Middle East remains uncertain, but our painful Philippine experience a century ago suggests that a positive result is still possible through a combination of public patience, battlefield brilliance and compassionate determination to provide better lives and freedom to the far-away people who became the war's chief victims."

I nearly choked when I read this for while Medved made a passing reference to water cure, the notorious torture technique the US military used against Filipino independence forces (and used in Iraq under the name "water boarding"), and while he noted that at least 200,000 Filipinos died in the conflict (other historians cite a higher figure), he downplayed the more sordid chapters of the Philippine-American War: the massacres, the brutal military campaigns, the suppression of basic Filipino civil and human rights.

Medved writes that "for the most part, America's volunteer troops maintained high morale, resenting anti-war activists back home because they understood this agitation encouraged the enemy." I suspect "high morale" had nothing to do with what happened in the town of Balangiga, Samar when General Jake Smith told his men to turn the island into a "howling wilderness" so that "even birds could not live there."

"Kill and burn! The more you kill and burn, the better you will please me,"' he ordered. Asked to clarify who the troops' targets were among the population, the general replied: "Everything over 10."

Medved also ignores the blatant racism of US political leaders led by President William Howard Taft, who served as governor-general of the islands, and who called Filipinos "our little brown brothers.''

Then there was the former U.S. superintendent who helped set up an American-style public school system in the Philippines who argued that the Filipinos "are children, and childlike, do not know what is best for them. . . By the very fact of our superiority of civilization and our greater capacity for industrial activity, we are bound to exercise over them a profound social influence.''

Medved's piece reminded me of the now despicable concept of the “white man's burden,” that famous exhortation to Western domination. The phrase was actually coined by British poet Rudyard Kipling during this period in support of the American colonization of the Philippines and other former Spanish colonies. Reading just a part of the poem today would make one cringe.

"Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child..."

The great American writer Mark Twain was so horrified by US atrocities in our homeland that he called the $20 million the United States paid for the Philippines an "entrance fee into society -- the Society of Sceptered Thieves."

"The White Man's Burden has been sung,"' Twain wrote. "Who will sing the Brown Man's?"

Twain also once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." In his bid to justify an unpopular war in Iraq, Medved came up with a mangled account of a dark chapter in our history that has neither rhyme nor reason.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Bay Area journalist Benjamin Pimentel can be reached at

Friday, July 11, 2008

Two Pinoy presidents, both extras in the Obama-McCain Duel

Published June 10, 2008

While the duel between Barack Obama and John McCain features such supporting players as Hillary and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the contest also has led to surprising bit roles for two Philippine political figures.

The most recent one involved President Gloria Arroyo whose bid for a photo op with America's newest political superstar ended in disappointment, another sorry example of a Pinoy politico desperately seeking attention from Washington that the Inquirer editorial board aptly summed up with the word "embarrassing."

She did get an apology from the Obama camp for their aborted meeting and who knows, Arroyo may still get another chance later on if the presumptive Democratic nominee prevails in November. There was no wail of protest from the FilAm community over the cancellation of the meeting, however, a sign perhaps of how Arroyo is regarded out here. But to the credit of her handlers, they simply let go and did not raise a stink, just glad for the ‘I'm sorry’ letter.
After all, the last thing Arroyo needs now is to behave the way another former prominent Pinoy politico did four decades ago over a perceived snub from yet another Western superstar, this time a legendary rock and roll band.

Although granted, it's hard to imagine Arroyo's cohort sending goons to harass Obama in Washington DC the way Imelda Marcos's supporters did when the Beatles were a no-show for the Malacanang party she hosted in their honor in 1966. For John, Paul, George and Ringo, Beatlemania Pinoy-style meant an angry mob literally chasing them out of Manila.

Not surprisingly, the fiasco over the aborted Arroyo-Obama meeting did not even register a blip on the radar screen of the highly-active US political scene -- unlike the case of another Pinoy politico who also became an extra in the US presidential drama.
Even more striking, this politician is dead.

It's unclear if McCain ever met Ferdinand Marcos. He stopped at Clark Air Base after his release from a North Vietnamese prison sometime in 1973 as Marcos was setting up one of the most brutal dictatorships in Southeast Asia with the blessing and aid of the United States. McCain was already a Republican member of the US Congress when Marcos's longtime friend and ally, President Ronald Reagan, welcomed the dictator to Washington during a state visit in 1982, calling him a "respected voice for reason and moderation in international forums."

I found no record of McCain speaking out against the now repulsive idea of America endorsing a tyrant like Marcos, but in a speech in 2006 -- 20 years after his downfall – Senator McCain spoke of the importance of promoting human rights abroad, recalling how in 1986, "the United States condemned Ferdinand Marcos' sham reelection, we earned the abiding gratitude of the Philippine people, who promptly threw out the dictator."

That's not exactly the complete story as he conveniently left out the part about Reagan and the Washington establishment praising and bankrolling the Marcos regime even as it rigged elections, threw opponents in jail, tortured them and looted the Philippine treasury. (And how could he forget Imelda's shoes and shopping sprees?)

Nearly 20 years after Marcos died in Hawaii, however, McCain has unexpectedly had to deal with the despised dictator's ghost.

In an embarrassing twist, it turned out that Charlie Black, one of McCain's closest advisers, once ran a lobbying firm that represented brutal dictators, including Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and – you guessed it – Ferdinand Marcos. Black resigned from the firm, BKSH & Associates, and is still with McCain (although he got him in trouble again recently by saying that another terrorist attack against the US would surely help boost his candidate’s chances in November.)

McCain's Macoy connection created a stir earlier in the race, but it probably won't be decisive in a campaign more focused on such issues as the Iraq War, rising gas prices and the US mortgage meltdown.

Still, isn't it amazing that nearly two decades after his death, one of the most infamous figures in Philippine and world history continues to rattle the nerves of the living, especially those of his former allies, sponsors and friends in Washington?Perhaps the late dictator was right after all when he declared, "I do not intend to die."

Monday, June 30, 2008

Lost in Translation

Published June 30, 2008

President Gloria Arroyo’s US visit may be controversial back home, but I give her credit for something that I believe no Filipino chief executive has ever done: She spoke Tagalog during a joint press conference with an American president at the White House.

It probably doesn’t mean much in the sad, painful history of US-Philippine relations. And its impact probably has been offset by what comes across as Arroyo’s embarrassingly overeager bid for attention from the US presidential candidates.

But her speaking in the native tongue was worth it, if only for the dumbfounded look on George W. Bush’s face when Arroyo suddenly shifted to Tagalog, especially since it came after his pseudo tribute to Filipino Americans whom he apparently thinks about only at dinner time.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” was all Bush could say after Arroyo’s greeting in Tagalog.

Even in a small way, what Arroyo did was a rare affirmation of Filipino nationhood in international relations in which language can be a subtle but powerful weapon. And it actually was a surprising move from a president who has not exactly been known for sensitivity to issues of national pride, once even endorsing the training of “supermaids” as a way to ease the country’s economic problems.

The issue of using Pilipino in international diplomacy actually came up ten years ago, when Arroyo’s predecessor, the disgraced former President Joseph Estrada, vowed to use Tagalog and an interpreter in dealing with foreign governments. Estrada had said he wanted to follow the lead of other nations who negotiate treaties and conduct diplomacy in their native languages.

“The Japanese, the Chinese and other Asian countries speak their dialect (when dealing with other countries) -- I don't see why we Filipinos cannot speak our own dialect,” he told me in an interview in his home, when I covered the 1998 elections for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Estrada eventually got too embroiled in scandals that led to his downfall to pursue what would have been a dramatic shift in Philippine presidential politics. But when he made the vow, many were impressed, though a few were horrified.

An operations manager at Speechpower, which trains Filipinos to speak and write better English, said it would be a setback to the country’s reputation as an English-speaking nation.

“We’re moving toward globalization and then all of a sudden we have a president who needs an interpreter,'' Doris Salvacion told me. “We expect much from our president. They would be good role models if they would be able to deal with other people in English. Then we could say, ‘Ah, our president speaks well.’”

But Danny Javier of the Apo Hiking Society, who made the song “American Junk” famous, said it would “instill more pride in being Filipino.” Poet and screenwriter Pete Lacaba, who wrote poems in English before shifting to Tagalog, called it “a positive move.”

John Gershman, a political scientist based in the East Coast who is fluent in Tagalog, said using Pilipino would even be smart diplomacy. That’s because Americans have always had the advantage in negotiations conducted in English because “they are able to define terms and concepts in their language.”

But by using Tagalog, he added, Estrada “can force the Americans to translate their objectives. Since he understands English, he'll be able to understand better what they're trying to say -- but the Americans won't have a clue as to what he and his panel are discussing among themselves.”

Good old Erap was even more cunning.

“In our negotiations with the United States our panel (members) always speak in English -- so if they commit a mistake they cannot correct it,” he told me.
Bursting into laughter, he shifted to guttural street Tagalog. “If you speak in Tagalog and you make a mistake,” he said, “then you can later take back what you said. You can blame the interpreter (by saying): ‘Hey, that's wrong. That's not what I said!’”

Fortunately, of course, he never got the chance to try a stunt like that.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bush's baffling salute to Filipino Americans

Published June 26, 2008

Filipino food has not gained as much attention and praise in the United States as cuisine from Korea, China or Thailand, but Pinoy cooks and chefs have long occupied proud and important niches in US society, whether in the restaurant industry, the military or even the White House.

Still, there was something oddly disconcerting about President George W. Bush paying tribute to the contributions of Filipino Americans – particularly those who serve his meals at the White House.

"I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that -- in which there's a lot of Philippine-Americans," Bush told President Gloria Arroyo during her recent visit to the White House, where the head chef, Cristeta Comerford, is Filipino.

"They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the -- of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House."

In the video of the exchange, you can then hear Arroyo, who is off camera, laughing.

"Yes," she said.

Bush continued, "And the chef is a great person and a really good cook, by the way, Madam President."

“Thank you," she said.

Bush's remarks were immediately picked up by the liberal Web site, Huffington Post, where readers were naturally amused, embarrassed, outraged.

"What an utter embarrassment," one reader wrote. "The buffoonery ends 01/20/09."

"It takes great skill to so utterly mangle what should have been a great compliment," another said. "And yes, beneath it all, it is quite notable that the current White House chef is both the first woman in the position and a naturalized citizen originally from the Philippines."

"Kitchen help and servants in the White House! THAT'S what he thinks of these hard-working people!" another said.

One reader wondered what the fuss was about: "Hmmm, my wife is Filipino and she wasn't offended. But then, she doesn't think there's anything wrong with telling a Filipino that he makes a good dish."

The comment underscored how touchy this issue could be. After all, millions of Filipinos have moved overseas to work as cooks, kitchen help, domestic helpers, construction workers and nurses – and they've done so proudly and with honor and are actually keeping the Philippine economy afloat. As has been stated repeatedly, overseas Filipino workers are heroes.

But another reader who responded to the last remark also hit the nail in the head on why many Americans would feel embarrassed by what their president said – and why Filipinos everywhere should be dismayed.

"Dude, President Bush basically told the president of the Philipines that he loved the Filipino people because his only context was the one that worked for him. She should not only be offended, she should be disqusted," the reader said.

Bush has, of course, uttered many more jaw-dropping and sometimes offensive statements in his foreign dealings that many Americans have simply learned to ignore or endure. He once demoted Pope Benedict XVI by addressing him as "your eminence" instead of "your holiness," mixed up Austria and Australia, referred to Greeks as Grecians and asked the president of Brazil, "Do you have blacks too?"

But one must give Bush credit when he wore a barong during a visit to the Philippines five years ago. He was also following a family tradition. More than 20 years before, in June 1981, his father, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush arrived in Manila, put on a barong and met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

Then again, that wasn't exactly a visit many Filipinos remember fondly.

"We stand with the Philippines," the elder Bush told the dictator. "We love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes. We will not leave you in isolation."

Two decades after Bush the elder's controversial remarks, it was the younger Bush’s turn to make a statement that left many scratching their heads.

"America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people,” he said.

But it quickly became pretty clear that he didn't really completely get that story.

For Bush also declared before his Filipino hosts that the United States "liberated the Philippines from colonial rule" -- conveniently forgetting that our homeland was once an American colony.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Monday, June 9, 2008

The odd way my sons say 'Tatay' in Obama's America

Published June 9, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO - Visiting friends and relatives are usually amused or puzzled that my sons call me ‘Tatay,” and their mother, ‘Nanay.’ Not “Daddy” and “Mommy” or “Papa” and “Mama.” That’s also how some of our friends’ children call their parents. It’s our way of reminding them -- and us – of who we are and where we come from.

My wife Mara and I even went a step further. We decided, even before our first son, Paolo, was born that Tagalog would be our children’s first language. A few friends and family members thought we were nuts. “Why teach them a language they most likely will not use in America?” they asked.

But for me, that decision was based on a practical reason: I didn’t want my kids to get mad at me. That’s because when I moved to America nearly 20 years ago, I encountered young FilAms who were disappointed, even angry, that their immigrant parents never taught them Tagalog or other Philippine languages. They felt cheated. I didn’t want my boys to feel that way, and wanted to make sure that they would never be able to say to me or their mother, ‘You denied us our heritage.’

Still, I understand why immigrant Pinoys in the past insisted that their children speak English and that they shed as much of the “old” ways as possible. They wanted their children to fit in and not stand out with a thick accent or bad grammar or “strange” customs. They wanted them to be “genuine” Americans -- whatever that meant. To become otherwise would make life harder for them, even dangerous. After all, only about a half century ago, one could still find signs in a few California cities saying, “Absolutely No Dogs or Filipinos Allowed.”

But times are changing in America. Being from a different country is no longer as big a liability as in the past. And having a strange-sounding name -- like Barack Obama -- is no longer an insurmountable hurdle to moving forward in life. Just last week, a black man who is also a son of an immigrant from Africa, and who grew up in Southeast Asia and in a state dominated by Asian Americans just became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. And he could very well win.

Beyond all that, our decision to teach our children Tagalog was also encouraged by experts who said it was okay and even smart to have children learn as many languages as possible – because it actually makes them smarter. Pediatric experts said so. Paolo’s doctor said so too. Then there’s our own experience. Mara and I grew up bilingual (she’s actually trilingual, being competent in Waray) and we turned out okay.

But I won’t lie. Having our first son, Paolo, speak Tagalog as a first language was tough for him and for us. I thank the children’s book publishers and authors back in the Philippines for writing and publishing more works in Tagalog. But there were times when I had to read to Paolo at bedtime when I had to do some on the spot translation as he insisted, “Basa sa Tagalog, Tatay.” (“Read to me in Tagalog, Tatay.”) So I had to quickly come up with such lines as, “Pumunta si Barney sa zoo kasama ni Baby Bob.” (Barney went to the zoo with Baby Bob.)
When Paolo started going to day care, being exposed to a world of English-speaking kids turned out to be an overwhelming experience for him. After picking him up in the first few weeks, Mara was surprised at how talkative he was in the car. We later found why: He was apparently so intimidated by his English-speaking schoolmates that he simply kept quiet the whole day, and then made up for the hours of silence by blabbing endlessly when her Nanay came to take him home.

During his first few visits to Manila, however, Paolo felt like he was in heaven. Once, when we took a walk around my old neighborhood in Cubao and came across a group of children playing in the street, Paolo, his eyes wide open, exclaimed, “Tatay, nagtatagalog sila!” (“They’re speaking Tagalog!”)

Of course, his Manila-based cousins found it strange to have a Stateside cousin who spoke English with a thick Pinoy accent. My nephew, who was then a student at Ateneo High School, and who naturally spoke English with an Arrneow accent, asked me, “Tito Boying, bakit ang barok mag Inggles ng anak mo?” (“Why does your son speak English like Barok?”)

Eventually, we found out that the experts and our instincts were correct. Just a few months into his kindergarten year, Paolo was speaking fluent English. I still remember the moment when, as I was getting into my car after dropping him off, I realized: ‘He hasn’t spoken to me in Tagalog for a week.’

In fact, Paolo, who is turning 9, now only speaks to us in English, though he still understands when we speak to him in Tagalog. On the other hand, his younger brother, Anton, who is turning 3, is, like him when he was younger, fluent in Tagalog, and “barok” in his English. Which has led to some amusing exchanges at home.

“Don’t mess with my Legos, Tonton,” Paolo would say.

“ “E kuya, I just ano – uh - maglaro naman tayo,” the smaller one would respond. (“Let’s play.”)

Paolo still calls me “Tatay.” But he now pronounces it differently, with the accent on the last syllable. As in “atay” (liver) or “ “patay” (dead). He does the same thing with “Nanay.” Visiting friends and family are even more amused by that of course. (I joke that he is saying it with a French accent.)

Anton still gets the accent right, but we expect that eventually he’ll follow his kuya’s lead.

Which is all fine with me and Mara, for at least we know the seeds of Pilipino are planted firmly in their consciousness. And if they choose later on to do more with it and other aspects of their Filipino-ness, many of the ingredients are there for them to dig up and use.

It will be their choice.

And if Obama becomes president, it could become a much easier choice to make. Perhaps a choice that is even celebrated in a society with a painful history of rejecting those who are different -- but which is now evolving into a community where people with strange names, who come from strange lands and who speak strange languages are not just welcomed, accepted and embraced, they at times can even have the seat at the head of the table.

Last week, as Obama was giving his incredibly inspiring speech after clinching the Democratic Party nomination, I told Paolo to sit down with me and watch the broadcast, telling him, “This is important. Something big has just happened.” I later found out that a colleague at work, who is white, had done the same thing with his son and for the same reason.

Whatever happens in November, our world has already been turned upside down. And for that, I won’t mind the odd way my sons call me “Tatay.”
It’s Father’s Day on Sunday. To my fellow Tatays around the world, a toast to all of us!

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dogmeat, Dictators and Barack Obama

Published May 27, 2008

If he wins in November, Barack Obama will become the first president of the United States … to have tried dog meat, or at least the first to have admitted it publicly.

That’s not likely to win him votes, but it sure makes him a hell of a lot more interesting to Filipinos. Here are a couple more biographical tidbits.

As a boy, Obama played kite duels like the game enjoyed by Pinoy children in which one tries to force an opponent’s saranggola (kite) down from the sky.

Then this: Obama knows on a personal level the dehumanizing power of poverty and dictatorship in the Third World.

You can learn more from his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” first published more than a decade ago, and a paperback bestseller in the US.

It’s a fascinating read, especially for Filipinos.

Obama found dog meat tough, snake meat tougher and roasted grasshopper crunchy. Bicolanos, in particular, would enjoy his company: Obama said he “learned how to eat small green chili peppers raw with dinner” with “plenty of rice.”

I wonder if, as some of my childhood friends in Cubao did, Obama and his buddies also used razor blades attached to their saranggola string to gain an advantage in aerial duels.

It is the third point that I think is most relevant to Filipinos.

After Obama’s parents separated in Hawaii where he grew up, his mother married a visiting student named Lolo Soetoro who took his new family back to his native Indonesia.

Lolo had witnessed the rise of Indonesian nationalism that eventually led to the defeat of Dutch colonialism. His father and brother were killed in the resistance and the Dutch burned their house down. But as a student in Hawaii, with Indonesia emerging as a newly-independent nation, Lolo was “so full of life, so eager with plans,” Obama writes.

“Things would be changing now that the Dutch had been driven out, Lolo had told [my mother]; he would return and teach at the university, be a part of that change,” Obama continues.

But the change was not what he expected.

Sukarno, the admired but controversial independence leader and president became a target of right wing forces. In 1967, a coup still widely believed to have been aided by the CIA, overthrew his government. That led to a bloody crackdown and the rise of the Suharto dictatorship.

“The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe half a million,” Obama writes. “We had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times.”

The change was devastating for Obama’s stepfather. Lolo was a strong, hard working and decent man who took care of Obama and his mother. But he also faced painful choices in Indonesia under Suharto – similar to those many Filipinos endured under Marcos. Some Indonesians fought back against dictatorship, while others simply accepted, even embraced, the new regime.

Lolo Soetoro chose the latter.

“Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line … making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own,” Obama writes. “So Lolo had made peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting.”

Filipinos and Indonesians remember how, at the height of the Cold War, the United States endorsed, even bankrolled, brutal dictators who were considered “friendly” to American interests. That sinister policy reemerged in the post 9-11 world, underscored by the Bush administration’s cozy ties with authoritarian rulers in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Would Obama embrace the same attitude? Or would he remember his stepfather and other Indonesians who endured repression and humiliation under dictatorial rule?

This is a critical question if, as some fear, the Philippines may be in danger of repeating a dark chapter in our own past. If the current occupants of Malacanang are indeed looking for a way to extend their stay beyond 2010, as some suspect, Obama in the White House could pose a serious problem.

Obama’s memoir also offers some hints on how he might take on issues of poverty and inequality. These became real for him in the cities and countryside of Indonesia.

Recalling the beggars in Djakarta, Obama writes, “They seemed to be everywhere, a gallery of ills – men, women, children, in tattered clothing matted with dirt, some without arms, others without feet, victims of scurvy or polio or leprosy …”

He relates how his mother once visited a wealthy area in Djakarta that sounds much like the posh neighborhoods in Ayala Alabang or Makati, where “diplomats and generals lived in sprawling houses with tall wrought-iron gates.” To drive off a poor woman who had wandered near one of the fancy homes, a group of men who were washing a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes threw a handful of coins onto the road. “The woman ran after the coins with terrible speed, checking the road suspiciously as she gathered them into her bosom,” Obama relates.

And in the Indonesian countryside, he remembers “the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields.”

Obama also probably understands that people eat dogmeat in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines – a practice viewed as reprehensible in the West – for a simple reason: hunger and lack of food.

Many U.S. and European politicians have often appeared clueless, if not insensitive, when it comes to issues of poverty and repression in the developing world. Take the reaction of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell a few years ago when he was confronted in Manila with the Philippine government’s bid to get duty-free access for tuna exports, similar to the one given to South America.

In presenting its case, the Philippine government had tried to convince Powell that the issue was a matter of survival for tens of thousands of impoverished fisherfolk in Mindanao. But Powell, who was then trying to sell the world on the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq, was unimpressed, even saying, "I did not know someday I would be dealing with tuna.”

Would Obama react in the same way? As another American politician worried about how he is perceived at home and about his chances in the next election, maybe.

But there’s also a chance, even a small one, that he would react differently. He would listen intently, consult his advisers and weigh the broader economic issues involved. But as he makes his decision, he may also see the faces, hear the voices and remember the stories of the struggling people he knew on the streets of Djakarta.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Monday, May 19, 2008

In Memory of My Last Yosi

Published May 13, 2008

I still remember my last cigarette. I was at Narita Airport, waiting for my flight home to Manila. Declaring it to be my last, I smoked it up to the edge of the filter then stubbed it out in the ash tray. I watched the last wisp of smoke expire, before I finally walked away.

That was 18 years ago, on May 9, 1990.

Now, the fact that I still remember the date, and even some of the details of that moment, is bad news: It means I’m still vulnerable. After nearly two decades of being nicotine-free, of being a proud and committed non-smoker, the craving is most likely still there. Dormant maybe, but still breathing and waiting to be reawakened (like Voldemort perhaps).

The fact that I even decided to write about this, on the anniversary of my last yosi, is a disturbing sign. But that’s what smoking does to you. Even after giving up, the memory of how good it felt, the craving, lingers on for years. There are even some nights, and I know some ex-smokers go through this, when I actually dream that I went back to the habit. Actually, it’s more of a nightmare with the sensible part in me yelling, “Oh no, not after all these years!”

Growing up in Quezon City, I was exposed early to a world of heavy smokers. My father smoked and so did my brothers-in-law. As a boy I would secretly retrieve my father discarded cigarette butts, relight them and smoke them. I know – that was stupid, not to mention unsanitary and very unhealthy.

It was not until I went to UP and joined the Philippine Collegian that I became a fully-committed smoker. Surrounded by smokers during all-night press work, especially during the height of the protest movement against the Marcos dictatorship, the temptation was simply overwhelming. From a few sticks a day, I quickly moved up to half a pack.

By the time I began working as a journalist, I was consuming a pack day. It was inevitable really. In Manila, at least back in the ‘80s (and I suspect this is still true today) smoking, drinking and journalism pretty much came as one package. After a day covering the often tumultuous days of the post-Marcos era, heading to the nearest beer house for a night of San Miguels (or Gold Eagles) and packs of Marlboros or Camels became a way to unwind.

The thought of quitting was always present of course, especially after it became more difficult for me to walk up a flight of stairs without ending up gasping for air. Then there was the fear of cancer. Some non-smoker friends would have event taunt me, “Boying, make a political statement by quitting smoking. How can you call yourself progressive?”

But as Mark Twain said, quitting smoking is easy – he did it many times.

So did I.

The first time I survived roughly two months without lighting up, I was so proud of my accomplishment that I decided to give myself a reward – I allowed myself a smoke. And just like that, I was back in the clutches of nicotine.

I realized eventually that I could never be like many friends of mine who can become social smokers, smoking only when with fellow smokers at a party or some other gathering, but who can just easily turn the craving off once the party is over. Sadly, I couldn't do that. I could only either be a non-smoker or a heavy smoker. No middle ground.

Eventually, money and Manila smog turned out to be the keys to my escape.

When I smoked my last cigarette at Narita airport, I was on my way home after a long visit to the United States. I knew from experience that the heat and the polluted air would make it tough to smoke in Manila. So it was an opening I could exploit.

Then, I was also set to return to the US in a few months to begin graduate studies at UC Berkeley. In other words, I was a bout to begin a new chapter in my life as a starving graduate student and expat. Smoking had suddenly become a luxury I could no longer afford.

And so it was that at Narita Airport, I said good bye to nicotine.

I have actually embraced a radical attitude: I have literally not touched a cigarette or a cigarette pack in the past 18 years. (Well, maybe I did a couple of times when I had to hand a pack over to someone.)

But that hard-line approach, I believe, is key. Because I only know too well that once you become a regular smoker, even for only a few years or months, you will forever be vulnerable. Vigilance is important.

Perhaps someday I can confidently say once and for all that I no longer have to worry. And as I honor the memory of my last yosi and the day I said goodbye to smoking nearly two decades ago, I also look forward to the day when I actually will no longer remember.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bill Clinton & Gloria Arroyo: Scandal Duo of the Class of '68

Published April 25, 2008

If it were not for other pressing matters, Bill Clinton and Gloria Arroyo would probably be looking forward to what could be a fun and important event: Their college reunion.

This year is the 40th anniversary of Georgetown University’s Class of 1968. The class homecoming at the oldest and most prestigious Catholic, and Jesuit, university in the United States kicks off late May. But the list of expected attendees does not mention either Clinton or Arroyo.

That’s too bad. They were stars of the class.

Clinton and Arroyo, who were classmates from 1964-66, share the distinction as two of only three Georgetown alums from the Class of ’68 to become a head of state. (The third is Alfredo Christiani, the former president of El Salvador.)

Then again, the two also have reasons for skipping the party. Not just because he’s campaigning for his wife’s presidential bid, and she’s busy trying to survive the latest scandal in her turbulent administration.

But they may decide not to show up because Bill and Gloria also have been at the center of some of the most jaw dropping political scandals in recent history. They were the Scandal Duo of the Class of ’68.

Clinton was the star of arguably the most bizarre sexual fiasco in the history of American politics. I’ll skip the sordid details. Just Google the following words: “White House intern,” “Monica Lewinsky,” “blue dress.”

Even more damaging in the eyes of many were his presidential pardons including the one he granted to Marc Rich, a fugitive who was accused of tax evasion, racketeering and trading with the enemy – whose wife reportedly made generous donations to Clinton’s presidential library and Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign.

And Gloria Arroyo? Why waste space here. Just Google “Hello Garci,” “Jocjoc Bolante,” “NBN,” “Mike Arroyo.”

You can just imagine the idle chit-chat at the Georgetown reunion parties about the two powerful, controversial, Class of ’68 alums.

“He did what with the cigar with the intern in the Oval Office?”

“Her voice got turned into a ring tone? And she was asking an election official about winning by how many votes?”

There might even be a class poll on who should have been voted “most likely to get mired in an embarrassing political scandal.” Or on who did a better job surviving a political scandal. Arroyo should have the edge on that one. He was acquitted during his impeachment trial; she’s actually outfoxed those who’d like to impeach her.

Arroyo spent only two years of college at Georgetown. She finished her undergraduate studies at Assumption College. But she’s clearly proud of having studied at Georgetown and has fond memories of her years at the Jesuit institution.

“In our time, [Georgetown] was one of the good schools, and it produced three presidents," she said at the university a few months after taking over as president. "Now it is one of the best schools, and you can imagine what is expected."

And she clearly has shared a special friendship with Bill Clinton. During his 1994 visit to the Philippines as US President, Arroyo, who was then senator, survived an accident after the helicopter she was in crash-landed in Manila. The incident didn’t prevent Arroyo from meeting her classmate.

"I'm glad you are all right," Clinton was quoted in news reports as telling Arroyo as they warmly shook hands during arrival honors for Clinton at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila. "We read about you in the papers."

Arroyo responded, "Of course I had to be well enough to get up and meet my former classmate."

It would be fascinating to drill down on the kind of political education they shared at Georgetown. For both Arroyo and Clinton built impressive political careers that, in the eyes of many, steadily fell apart once they attained power and eventually led to political disasters.

Bill Clinton was the kid from Hope, Arkansas who overcame a hard life and used what is undoubtedly a brilliant mind to become the first baby boomer president of the United States. There is even a famous photo of him as a young boy shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy during a tour of the White House. And he is known for putting an end to 12 years of conservative Republican rule, ushering in what was supposed to be a new era of progressive American politics.

Instead, Monica Lewinsky and the other scandals have ended up also defining his legacy. Even Hillary Clinton is paying the price for this. When Democratic US Senator Claire McCaskill, a one time Hillary supporter, announced that she was endorsing her rival, Barack Obama, she told a TV journalist that Bill Clinton may have been a great leader, “but I don’t want my daughter near him.”

Gloria Arroyo, daughter of a former president, was a respected academic and opposition fighter during the Marcos dictatorship. She was seen as the answer to the chaotic administration of actor-turned-politician Joseph Estrada. With her wooden image, few expected her to be a beacon of inspiration. But most Filipinos expected and hoped that with her academic training, political experience and pedigree, she would at least get the job done – and get it done with unquestionable integrity.

Instead, Arroyo will be remembered as the as the leader who presided over one of the most scandal-ridden administrations in the country’s history – and the only Philippine president to be caught on tape in what strongly appeared to be a blatant attempt at vote-rigging .

In any case, Clinton and Arroyo will likely not get a chance to swap political war stories at the Georgetown homecoming (unless they have quietly and secretly been making plans to attend). And their schedules over the coming months will probably be too hectic to permit any other kinds of reunion.

But that could also change.

If Hillary Clinton wins the American presidency and Arroyo survives this latest crisis in Manila, then maybe she and Mike Arroyo will get to attend the inauguration gala in January. Hell, with the Clintons back at the White House, she may have many more opportunities to hang out with her Georgetown buddy.

And as the two couples are enjoying their private moments together, Hillary might even ask Gloria Arroyo, “So what’s the most important thing to remember about being a woman president, Glo?”

“Oh, gee, Hillary, just keep on top of the issues, your cabinet and your allies,” Gloria would respond. “Oh, and make sure your husband behaves himself and not cause any trouble.”

Hillary would nod, but then quickly add, “Yeah, well, I learned that a long time ago, sister.”

If Hillary triumphs, Bill Clinton would also take on a new and unusual role as the United States of America’s very first “First Gentleman.” And so a get-together with Gloria and the Philippine FG would also be an opportunity for him to ask her husband for advice.

“So Mike, what’s it like to be First Gentleman?” Bill would ask. “Got any tips, buddy?”

“Oh, it’s lotsa fun, Bill,” Mike Arroyo would say. “Plenty of perks, not too many back-breaking responsibilities. Just remember to get out of the missus’s way, keep a low profile, stay out of trouble, be good and behave.”

Bill Clinton would give him a questioning look. Mike would shrug his shoulders. They would stare at each other for a second or two.

Then they would both burst out laughing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Another Pinoy on Mount Everest

Published April 11, 2008

A Pinoy on Mount Everest is no longer big news nowadays. Not after the recent accomplishments of the young Filipino men and women who scaled the highest mountain in the world.

But my cousin, Eli Serina, did it by overcoming some pretty tough hurdles. For one thing, he has a heart condition for which he has to take aspirin regularly. A veteran medical doctor, he also was busy for about a month before the climb, helping poor people in Ilam, a small town about 400 miles east of Kathmandu in Nepal.

When he was done with his work and ready to scale Everest, he had to deal with another potential setback. A nationwide strike broke out in Nepal and he had to escape the village by maneuvering through roadblocks.

And then there was his age. Dr. Serina is 68 years old.

I haven’t seen much written about what he did. I myself found out about it through my niece, Elaine, who told me about this brave, if somewhat crazy, thing her dad was trying to do.

“It’s a great inspirational story about going beyond one's comfort zone to test the human limits for human love and compassion,” Elaine said in an e-mail shortly before Eli began his ascent on February 25. Like a typical daughter, she added, “I can't believe this is my father I'm talking about -- ack!!”

I didn’t hear from Elaine for weeks, and started to worry. Then I got another e-mail early this month: Eli made it and is back.

As expected, it was not exactly a walk in the park, especially not for an elderly man with a heart condition who didn’t have the logistical support and media attention that his younger Pinoy counterparts enjoyed when they took on Everest.

Eli is back in their home in Palos Verdes in southern California, resting. He is also trying to learn to walk again. That’s because he suffered a severe left leg contusion and sustained other injuries about a half hour before reaching the top of Kala Patthar, the highest point beyond the Everest Base Camp.

He was already at the 18,000-foot level where the temperature was 30 degrees below zero with wind chill, when the saddle of his horse came loose, causing Eli to fall. He would have continued sliding down the mountain had the rocks and bushes along the path not blocked his descent. He was also trapped under his horse and got out only when his guides lifted the horse,

He should have stopped there. But Eli pushed on, eventually reaching the summit. After having his picture taken with his guides and horse, he began his descent. Now, my cousin is not Superman and his injuries had already made him too weak to go all the way down. A helicopter was sent to pick him up after four hours of riding.

Eli is writing a book about his adventure so you can get learn more details when it comes out.

He’s family so I guess I’m biased. But I’ll bet you’ll agree with me when I say: Eli Serina is one tough, gutsy Pinoy.

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Saturday, March 29, 2008

PCN: Celebrating Pilipino Culture the FilAm Way

Published March 26, 2008

On campuses throughout the United States, thousands of Filipino American students are now gearing up for what has become an annual FilAm ritual: The PCN.

That's short for Pilipino Cultural Night.

No, that's not a typo. To young FilAms, that's how ‘Pilipino’ should be spelled because there is no "F" in the Pilipino alphabet. That puzzled me somewhat when I moved to the United States nearly 20 years ago, but I now see that as an admirable declaration of identity. Young college-age FilAms make even stronger declarations during PCN season around spring time.
PCN is essentially a variety show featuring dance routines, songs and skits about the Filipino and Filipino American experience. The productions typically include an unusual mix of ethnic and modern acts. Young FilAms perform dances like the tinikling and the singkil, while others present hiphop or break-dance routines.

The PCN began sometime in the 1970s in California where Filipinos steadily emerged as one of the largest Asian American communities. The tradition was initiated by children of Filipinos immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s, after less restrictive immigration laws led to a wave of newcomers from the Philippines.

Seeking ways to reconnect with the homeland of their parents, they began mounting performances on college campuses. By the end of the 20th century, PCN had become a tradition in hundreds of campuses not only in California but in other states as well.

Theodore Gonzalves, a professor at the University of Hawaii, who did his dissertation on the PCN phenomenon, said California was “ground zero” for this tradition. “But by the 1980s, the repertoire had been condensed to a particular genre,” he said.

“It's getting to be pretty common,” he added, “even though the term, ‘PCN’ may not be used by other campus organizations. But yes, cultural night presentations are not just a California phenomenon.”

What’s amazing, of course, is that the tradition has endured. For example, students at San Francisco State University, which has a huge Filipino American population, have been mounting PCNs for more than 35 years.
“For most Filipino American college students, it's a rite of passage. It's a community celebration kind of thing," I was told a few years ago by Dan Begonia, professor of Asian American history at San Francisco State University.

In fact, many FilAm students go beyond the tinikling and other ethnic performances. More politically conscious young people use the PCN to explore deeper issues, such as the troubled relationship between the United States and the Philippines or the plight of overseas Filipino workers.

Most shows also feature a skit with a story line that typically goes like this: A young FilAm, confused about his identity, visits his parents’ homeland where he becomes enlightened about who he is.
It is, of course, a romanticized vision of the Philippines, where many young people are probably more Americanized than the typical FilAm. I can just imagine the shock of the idealistic FilAm who finds that his or her Manila-based cousin turns out to be obsessed with US designer clothes and shoes, not Filipino soul.

But this intense curiosity about Philippine culture – which Gonzalves described to me as a “genuinely Filipino American obsession” – underscores the importance of the PCN as a social event. For one thing, the young college students spend hours of their free time writing scripts, organizing and rehearsing the production and spreading the word about their show. And get this: We’re not just talking about a handful of FilAms in one corner of California. This is happening throughout the United States.

As Begonia told me, “You see how they work together and are taking care of business and having fun and doing something good for the community out of the goodness of their hearts. You see the glow in their faces and see their sense of accomplishment."

Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Supporting Cast in the Jun Lozada Saga

Posted March 7, 2008

I was on a train headed for San Francisco the morning I was introduced to the Jun Lozada saga. The text message on my cell phone had been sent hours before on the afternoon of February 5, Manila time: ‘jun lozada, a good man, w no plitical ambitions nor affiliations who just happend 2 know misdeeds of powerful people was abducted upon arrival at naia,’ it read.

The message came from my friend Nanding Josef who sent it to me and many others throughout the world as he and a group of Jun’s supporters were facing a crisis at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. They were there to welcome him from Hong Kong. But Jun was nowhere to be found. They feared he had been arrested or kidnapped -- or that he was dead.

You know the rest of the story so I won’t get into that. But allow me to shine the light this time on the supporting cast in this saga. For as the latest political scandal to rock the Arroyo regime unfolds, a group of people (aside from Jun Lozada’s wife Violet and his family) has been quietly helping him deal with his astounding journey -- from humble government worker struggling with a dangerous secret to whistle blower-turned-political superstar.

They’re an odd bunch.

There’s Sister Mary John Mananzan, whom I still remember as a prominent activist nun and feminist during the exciting days of the anti-Marcos protests in the 1980s. Actually, I remember her as the nun with a loud voice who made lots of noise –
“maingay na madre.”
I really mean that in a positive way: Sister Mary John is a fighter with much to say about injustice in our society, and isn’t afraid to speak out.

Rushing to the aid of vulnerable people, even if it’s in the middle night or she’s exposing herself to danger, is nothing new to her. She’s done that before. More than 30 years ago, during the historic La TondeƱa Strike, she and other priests and nuns throughout Manila responded to the call of activists led by Edgar Jopson to join factory workers on the picket line who faced a violent dispersal by Marcos’ military.

Father Albert Alejo is a fellow Atenista whom I have always admired as a writer and activist, and who has devoted his life to social causes, particularly the seemingly endless fight against corruption. Trained in Manila, he opted for the tough assignment at a less prestigious posting – in Mindanao.

And with him in the group is a La Sallista, Brother Armin Luistro. The president of De La Salle University, he has been an active and respected member of the opposition movement. It was at La Salle Greenhills where Jun Lozada found refuge during the critical hours of his arrival from self-exile. I have heard many good things about Nicky Perlas who is known as a leading advocate of the Philippines’ vibrant NGO movement.

Then there’s my good friend Nanding. He is probably best known as Pater Malko in GMA’s “Majika” and he also played the role of Ryan Agoncillo’s father confessor in ABS-CBN’s “Ysabel.” He has a fancy title -- Vice President and Artistic Director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which doesn’t really capture the essence of his career as a committed cultural activist.

While the CCP is best known for ballets and operas, Nanding gets more fired up about the festivals he has helped organize, in which tribal groups from Mindanao or factory workers from Navotas perform dances and plays based on their life experiences and the social problems they face. While he is undoubtedly one of the best theater artists in the country, he also takes seriously the idea of acting in the real world to help directly those who need it. When a typhoon left poor farmers homeless and injured in Real, Quezon a few years ago, he didn’t need a script to know what to do – Nanding immediately joined the volunteer effort.

Over the past few weeks, this circle of friends has been meeting with Jun Lozada, giving him comfort and guidance, and helping him navigate what is undoubtedly an exhilarating but scary journey. They know he has flaws and is not a saint. But like the rest of the nation, they praise and celebrate his courage. “He showed all of us a sense of honesty and humility, a sense of truth,” Nanding said.

They also know that he is under a lot of pressure now. From people whose interests were hurt by his coming forward. From those who may want to take advantage of his celebrity. So this odd bunch – a priest, a nun, a brother, an NGO advocate, a cultural activist – they’re standing with him to face the storm.

I’ve never met Jun Lozada. I’ve seen and heard him only on TV. If I ever get the chance to meet him, I’ll tell him, “You’ve struck gold, Jun.” Not because he survived what appeared to be an attempt to silence him or because he found the courage to take a stand and in the process won a nation’s admiration and gratitude. But because, whatever else happens this crisis, one thing is clear: Jun Lozada has won the trust and friendship of good, noble people.

Sister Mary John, Father Albert, Brother Armin, Nicky and Nanding have already shown their readiness to defend him as the battle heats up. When the spotlight has been turned off, when the media has lost interest, when there are no more requests for interviews or autographs or speeches before huge audiences, I bet they would still be there.

They would keep in close touch with him. They would agree to be his children or grandchildren’s ninong or ninang, and would accept his invitation to a birthday or some other celebration. They would invite him over for merienda or dinner. And when they get together, they would reminisce with him about the time he and they had a life-changing encounter with fear, courage and history.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Will Pinoys reject Obama because he's black?

Posted on
February 25, 2008

My wife Mara and I have been ecstatic about the idea of Barack Obama as the first person of color to become president of the United States. But she sadly pointed out something recently: Chances are that many Filipinos will not vote for a black person. I hope she’s wrong. But there’s a basis for her concern.

Take the results of the California Democratic primary which was won by Hillary Clinton. Obama won decisively among whites and African Americans. But Clinton won overwhelmingly among Latinos voters by a 2-to-1 margin. And, in the biggest surprise of the contest, she also won even more convincingly, 3 to 1, among Asians.

As Bruce Cain, the veteran political analyst from UC Berkeley told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Asians were a surprise. It's the first (presidential) election we have seen where Asian voters were a big factor..... The two major immigrant groups voted for Clinton as opposed to the candidate who has the immigrant background.”

There are many possible reasons for Clinton’s triumph, of course. She’s been around longer. Among Latinos especially, she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are respected and admired. As others have noted, she has a strong track record as a political leader.

But I just cannot help thinking that race is a factor here. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison said something years ago that I’ve never forgotten: That in their desire to become part of America, many immigrants embrace the views of the dominant white society – including the prejudiced, distorted image of blacks.

“In race talk the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens,” she wrote in Time magazine in 1993. “Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American… It doesn't matter anymore what shade the newcomer's skin is. A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.”

There have long been tensions between blacks and Asians, including Filipinos. So many times have I heard Filipinos privately denigrate blacks, referring to them as “egoy” and “nognog.” And I’ve come across that tension from the other side. As a metro reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, I was assigned to cover the Los Angeles black community’s reaction to the arrest of OJ Simpson in 1994. When I tried to interview a member of a black church in South Central LA, he looked at me derisively and said in a non-threatening but defiant manner, “You [expletive] got a job, huh. Go talk to someone friendlier.”

Where did this resentment come from? The past has some answers. Historically, blacks and Asians have been pitted against each other. After the Civil War, newspapers and public officials portrayed immigrant Chinese workers as more obedient and industrious than the newly freed blacks whom they replaced on plantations in the South.

In the 1960s the stereotype of the industrious Asian morphed into the image of the “model minority.” Asians were portrayed as the ideal minority – hard working, complacent, non-threatening. That, of course, implied that other ethnic communities, particularly blacks and Latinos, were the opposite.

Around the time this stereotype was gaining traction, African Americans were spearheading the Civil Rights activist movement. Their sacrifices paved the way for a new era in which diversity was not only advocated and defended but celebrated.

As blacks were getting clubbed and thrown in jail for fighting for equality, US immigration rules were changing, opening the doors to newcomers from Asia, mostly professionals from the middle class, including many Filipinos. Many of those immigrants benefited from this new consciousness, not to mention the stricter laws that made it illegal to discriminate based on ethnicity, race or gender.

Sadly, these newcomers were unaware of the battles fought in the streets of Alabama, Washington DC and elsewhere. Worse, as Toni Morrison noted, many of them readily embraced American society’s long held prejudices against Blacks.

As the noted Asian American civil rights attorney Bill Lee told me many years ago when I wrote about this issue for the San Francisco Chronicle, "Immigrant communities generally tend not to know the history and to buy into the biases and prejudices of the dominant group. Unfortunately, becoming American often means buying into the prejudices. They want to identify upward. They don't want to identify with those at the bottom.”

To be sure, many Asian American activists, including Filipino Americans, defied the model minority myth. They chose to identify with those at the bottom – to understand the past sacrifices that gave rise to the rights and privileges people of color enjoy today.

One of them, the Japanese American civil rights attorney Kathy Imahara, said, "It started with this bizarre model minority thing, this image of the white man holding an Asian American up and patting us on the head in this condescending manner and telling other minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos, ‘If you minorities just work as hard as the Asians, then you too will be able to succeed.’”

This brings me back to the excitement over the rise of Barack Obama. He and his supporters stress that he deserves the voters’ support because of his qualifications, not his race. But I agree with those who support him because he is talented, inspiring – and black. Imagine how his victory would shatter the distorted images of African Americans and other communities of color.

Again let me stress as I have in the past, there are no guarantees. Obama is untested, a newcomer on the political stage. Pareng Barack could very well turn out to be as flawed or incompetent as some of the recent occupants of the White House.

But it’s worth taking the chance. If he succeeds, if he turns out to be the wise and courageous leader he promises to be in this ongoing campaign, what a great new chapter that would be in the turbulent, often painful, story of race in America.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Crazy American Elections

Published February 11, 2008

Despite the massive cheating, the routine vote-rigging and the violence, elections Philippine-style is still much easier to understand than the American system. This has been underscored in the current presidential race which undoubtedly has become the most complex in recent years, especially on the Democratic side.

It is already a virtual certainty that John McCain will be the Republican nominee with his victories last week and the withdrawal of his main challenger, Mitt Romney. But the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will continue for months, and possibly will not be settled until the Democratic convention in Denver in August.

Many had hoped that a clear Democratic frontrunner would emerge from Super Tuesday when about two dozen states held primaries. But that didn’t happen.Obama won more states. But Clinton won the bigger states with more delegates, including California and New York. Unlike the Republicans, who had a winner-take-all system in their primaries, the Democrats award delegates based on the proportion of total votes a candidate wins.

A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. Based on the Associated Press’ tally on Friday, Feb. 8, it was still a virtual tie. Obama had 796 delegates; Clinton had 794. Based on the broader count that includes so-called “super delegates,” however, Clinton was ahead overall with 1,055 delegates to Obama‘s 998.

Okay, I know, this is where it gets a bit super-confusing. What in the world is a super delegate?

I get to use my Poli Sci degree from UP Diliman here. (Well, not really. I got most of this from friends and the media, particularly NPR and CNN.) Super delegates are essentially Democratic Party big shots – current and former elected officials (including Bill Clinton), members of the Democratic National Committee, etc. – who get to cast their votes for a presidential candidate at the convention. They make up about a fifth of the total vote count. In past nominations, they didn’t really make a difference as most of them voted for the candidate who emerged victorious in the primaries and caucuses.

But this has turned out to be a very tight race. So the super delegates could be the decisive factor. Many of them have already pledged their vote to either Clinton or Obama. Clearly, Clinton has the edge here. (The Republicans have their own super delegate system, but they are likely to play a key role this year.)There are other potential complications in the Democratic contest. In a bid to gain more prominence in the nomination process, the Democratic and Republican parties in Michigan and Florida decided to move their primaries earlier in the year in violation of their respective parties’ rules and were penalized.

As a result, the Republicans will recognize only half the delegates from both states. The Democrats were more severe – the party stripped the two states of all their delegates. That was a blow to Clinton who won both states but didn’t get any delegates. But some observers have said that could be contested if the race gets really tight.

So the battle rages on and it’s bound to get more intense. And we’re not even in the main attraction yet.Whether this year’s race is between Obama and McCain or Clinton and McCain, it’s bound to be exciting and extremely contentious. Of course, many hope it won’t be a repeat of the 2000 contest when Al Gore won the popular vote -- but still lost.As a Turkish columnist told the Washington Post back then, “One candidate can get a majority of the popular vote but he may lose the elections. For us, it is a bit strange, to say the least.”

How did this “strange” outcome happen?

It goes back to a feature of the American system that many find hard to understand. To quickly recap, it’s a winner-take-all system in the main event.

A candidate who wins in a particular state wins all the electoral votes of that state.

Well, something very strange happened in Florida. Tens of thousands of votes apparently got lost. When Gore asked for a recount, the US Supreme Court ruled refused, essentially handing the victory to George W. Bush.

The rest is history. And many in the United States -- and the world – hope it won’t be repeated.