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….”