By CAROL PAGADUAN-PARAULLO
Streetwise / Business World
Posted by Bulatlat
Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her cabal are at the end of their rope and they don’t know it, or pretend not to. They are so isolated, so inured from criticism and have so far gotten away with so much mayhem that they do not half realize how outraged the people are. Having lied and bribed their way out of the “Hello Garci”, NBN-ZTE and other scandals, they think they can get away with their orgy of lavish dining in the US through flimsy explanations, ridiculous alibis, worn-out justifications and squid tactics.
Presidential buffoon aka spokesperson Serge Remonde tried McCarthyist red-scare tactics by simply dismissing the New York Post news report of the Le Cirque million-peso dinner for the presidential party as the invention of the Leftist alliance BAYAN. According to the intellectually-challenged Mr. Remonde, BAYAN is a communist-front organization whose sole purpose in life is to bring down the Arroyo government ergo it cannot be believed on anything much less the report that the Arroyo party was spending precious public funds in restaurants for the rich and famous like there was no tomorrow.
When that didn’t work and news of another pricey meal and then another surfaced, Mrs. Arroyo’s defenders, including her son Congressman Mikey Arroyo, tried to pooh-pooh the dinner as inexpensive by US standards, saying that one can’t compromise the dignity of the office of the President of the Republic by having her eat at a hotdog stand or turo-turo.
Such a ludicrous equation of one’s self-worth with the price tag of one’s meal fell to pieces once the press reminded everyone that US President Obama and his Vice-President are not above dropping in on their friendly neighborhood hamburger joint for a quick, satisfying meal. In fact, such folksy behavior has the immediate and perhaps intended effect of boosting the popularity of Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.
But what’s the big deal, says the Palace, the government didn’t foot the bill after all. Mrs. Arroyo’s political allies like multi-millionaire Congressmen Messrs. Romualdez and Suarez representing dirt-poor provinces like Leyte and Quezon were honored to pay for the presidential repasts. Someone always happened to pick up the bill and it would have been impolite to ask who, so why the big hullabaloo?
Given the penchant of this administration for quickly washing its hands of any wrong doing by passing the buck to someone else, the public isn’t biting. More especially when the promised accounting for the outlay of the US trip doesn’t materialize; when House Speaker Nograles feels compelled to declare in a press conference that congressmen, like himself, who joined Mrs. Arroyo’s US trip will personally pay for their own expenses once they get the statement of account (so the junket was indeed a freebie to begin with); when the Justice Secretary admits that her office paid for her expenditures during the trip; and most telling of all, when Malacañang is forced to admit that while the allocation for presidential foreign travels since 2001 up to the present is P1,439,232,000, the actual costs have skyrocketed to P2,499,280,595.08 or over a billion pesos more than budgeted.
The latest government line is that budget overruns for Mrs. Arroyo’s foreign travels are not illegal and they are more than justified by the “billions in investments’ that such trips bring to the country. Apart from the glowing government press releases about agreements for future investments or _expressions of business interest in investing in the Philippines, the available data about a decreasing trend in foreign direct investments since 2008 tend to belie official claims even as there is serious criticism as to whether such investments have actually been beneficial for the country or have in fact deepened its mal-development over the years.
A lot has been said, correctly and in rightful indignation, of how outrageous and out rightly scandalous the orgy of lavish dinners was. All commentaries attribute the Palace faux pas to insensitivity, lack of delicadeza, gluttony, etc but one wonders if we have gotten to the bottom of things or exhausted all the reasons why the Arroyo entourage did not think twice about squandering millions of pesos on two meals in a single day.
At first glance, all these would appear to be quite the “natural” behavior of a president in hubris — especially an illegitimate, plundering and profligate one — who is about to bow out of office and all its perks and privileges. Eat and enjoy all you can, while you can, critics be damned.
But look again. Would any congressman, even the most loyal, blow a million bucks for a single meal if he thought Mrs. Arroyo was a lame duck president? Was the much sought-after audience with Mr. Obama a factor in going into an orgy of lavish dining after the 40-minute meeting?
Of course Mrs. Arroyo, with her negative popularity ratings has, for the longest time, been desperate for a photo-op with the popular US President. The brief audience, regardless of the result or content, was reason enough to celebrate. More than being a propaganda coup, it was by all indications a boost to her legitimacy, much to the chagrin of uncritically pro-US opposition leaders. The designation as anti-terrorist coordinator for the US in the ASEAN ups Mrs. Arroyo’s image and stature as closest US ally and collaborator in the region. This translates concretely into more US military aid, political backing and financial gains, e.g. loans and investments as a result of a better image of political stability.