Ople’s case

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At the time of his death secretary of foreign affairs Blas Ople had reinvented himself more than once. In a past life regarded as a nationalist, his was one of the loudest voices of support for US policies not only in the Philippines but also in Iraq and anywhere else. Once deeply associated with the Marcos dictatorship, and later with the Estrada government, he had assumed the most senior post in the Arroyo Cabinet.

A former journalist with a reputation for opposing United States dominance in the Philippines, during the martial law period Ople was not only minister of labor and responsible for, among other policies, keeping workers in line through the regime’s no-strike policy. He was also part of the dictatorship’s intellectual armory—the informal think tank of journalists, creative writers, political scientists and lapsed fellow travelers and nationalists Marcos surrounded himself with.

Every despot with any brains knows he can’t rule with guns alone. If he’s to delay the coming of the day when the people storm the palace gates, he also needs their consent. To gain that kind of time he must convince the ruled that every official act has a reason, every policy a sound basis.

Ople and company’s singular achievement was to make Marcos last, and to delay the inevitable collapse of a regime based on deceit and violence. They read the public mind and devised the arguments that justified the suspension of the Bill of Rights, or the need for labor to accept wage freezes even as Ople’s Ministry of Labor began shipping workers to the Middle East to jobs the regime could not provide at home.

Though they did help craft such pragmatic policies as the opening of diplomatic relations with China and the former Soviet Union, their expertise was illusion. In every instance when a policy turned out right, whatever benefit the country gained was incidental. The point was to help preserve the regime where it mattered most—in the grudging consent, if not in the hearts, of the people. Their fortunes and survival were after all as tied to it as the fortunes and survival of the military and police thugs whose bayonets kept the Marcos regime in power until it collapsed in 1986.

Ople survived the end of the Marcos regime to emerge as a delegate to the 1986 constitutional convention. That convention produced the most liberal and most nationalist constitution the country has ever had, by, among others, requiring congressional consent for the declaration of martial law.

Within a few years Ople had reinvented himself enough to serve in the Senate—where he promptly became a champion of globalization and trade liberalization. Ople’s two accomplishments were his co-sponsoring with then Senator Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo the passage of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade Uruguay Round which created the World Trade Organization, and his sponsorship of Senate ratification of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

Apparently Ople believed the country’s interest best served by opening the economy to the unrestricted entry of foreign goods without the safety nets other countries had put in place as a condition for their approval of the GATT Uruguay Round, and the restoration, via the VFA, of the very relationship the Senate had rejected in 1991, when it refused to sign the new US bases treaty.

The Arroyo government eventually used the VFA in 2002 as the legal argument for the deployment of US troops in Western Mindanao as well as anywhere else in the country, in contravention of the ban on foreign troops in the same constitution Ople had helped draft in 1986.

In 2001, when the crucial vote on the opening of the second envelope during the Estrada impeachment trial came, Ople had delivered in favor of Joseph Estrada by joining his ten cohorts in the then opposition who voted against it.

Ople was in short among the senators whose actions in the afternoon and evening of January 16, 2001 resulted in the breakdown of the only legal mechanism for redress available to the citizenry, and who thus forced millions of people to mass in several venues, among them EDSA in Manila, demanding the resignation of Joseph Estrada.

The Arroyo government came to power in the aftermath. As a member of the Senate opposition, Ople’s recruitment into the Arroyo Cabinet in July, 2002 was widely and correctly regarded as a tactic to stabilize administration control over the Senate.

When the post was first offered to him, Ople announced that the de facto head of the opposition, Senator Edgardo Angara, would speak for him. Angara rejected the offer, but Ople said he would nevertheless consider it. While he was “not desperate” for the job (nobody said he was), his acceptance or rejection of the offer, said Ople, should be “extricated from the political and critical issues in the Senate.”

That condition defied translation as well as implementation, but was typical of Ople’s practice of speaking in turgid prose to mask something as simple as the arithmetic of the Senate alignment of forces. Ople’s acceptance meant his resignation from the Senate, thus reducing the number of opposition senators from 12 to 11, and assuring administration control of that chamber.

When he accepted the offer to be Secretary of Foreign Affairs, it was thus inevitable that it would be interpreted both as a betrayal of the opposition as well as an act of opportunism. It was also seen as typical of traditional politicians who, out of self- interest, self-glorification, or for whatever other less than noble motives, change affiliations as slickly as they change suits.

Ople the foreign secretary soon showed that while he had changed affiliations, and had earlier morphed from “passionate nationalist” to VFA and globalization advocate, his current passions included support for the illegal US invasion of Iraq as well as such US policies as its effort to undermine the International Criminal Court.

In mid-2003 the Philippines signed a bilateral agreement with the United States exempting its military and other personnel from prosecution at the ICC in case of war crimes committed in Philippine territory. Very quietly and mostly unnoticed by the Senate, the Philippines also signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement with the United States.

By now it has become clear that adjustments in post-September 11 US policies will require the establishment of US bases in the Southeast Asian region—which makes the MLSA the prelude to the eventual establishment of US bases in the Philippines (probably in Sarangani Bay where conditions are more or less ideal, says the think tank Strategic Forecasting, or Stratfor).

One can argue that the real architect of Philippine foreign policy is the president, and the foreign secretary only her or his errand boy. But that is hardly flattering to someone who’s been described by Senate President Franklin Drilon as “a national treasure,” by President Arroyo as “a great Filipino,” and by House Speaker Jose de Venecia as “one of the great foreign ministers of Asia” and the Philippines, in the same rank as Apolinario Mabini.

Ople’s case will be better judged in the future, and not by politicians. Perhaps then the country can decide whether what he practiced was indeed pragmatism—or something else by another name.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, December 16, 2003)

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