MANILA, April 7, 2005
(STAR) By Aurea Calica  -  Malacañang fended off criticisms yesterday over its selection of officials allowed to join President Arroyo’s official delegation to the funeral of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, saying this was a matter of "presidential prerogative."

The President will be accompanied by her daughter Evangeline Lourdes, and an official party that will include Social Security System (SSS) chairman Thelmo Cunanan, Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, Ambassador to the Vatican Leonida Vera; Gina de Venecia, wife of Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., and former ambassador Howard Dee.

Also accompanying the President will be a delegation of at least 60 people, mostly from the private sector, who will be paying their own way to Rome.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the entourage included Church leaders, politicians and their wives, diplomats and government officials.

Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, who will join the conclave of cardinals allowed to vote for the Pope’s successor, will also be on the flight, Bunye said.

Among those in the delegation are Deputy Executive Secretary for finance and administration Susana Vargas and Ambassador Linglingay Lacanlale, the chief presidential protocol officer.

Vidal will lead a large number of members of the clergy in the group which also includes Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales and Davao City Archbishop Fernando Capalla, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Palace officials evaded questions on why Cunanan was included in the delegation, thus raising speculation that the SSS would foot the bill for the trip to the Vatican.

Bunye defended the choice of members of the delegation, particularly Cunanan, saying this is "a presidential prerogative."

"(Mr. Cunanan is coming) by invitation of the President," Bunye said.

But Bunye refused to explain why the SSS chairman was included in the delegation, and continued to evade questions over the selection, repeatedly telling reporters "We will get back to you on that" when pressed for comment.

Cunanan’s wife Belinda is not included as part of the official delegation, Bunye pointed out. Mrs. Cunanan was earlier included in the list by Mrs. Arroyo.

Cunanan, for his part, said he was chosen by the President precisely to represent the nation’s 27 million SSS members at the papal funeral.

He said his inclusion in the Filipino delegation to the Vatican will be an opportunity for the SSS to extend its services to Filipinos living in Italy.

The SSS chief defended Mrs. Arroyo by saying "it is the prerogative of the President to choose who will join her delegation."

Cunanan said the other day his wife Belinda will still be joining him to Rome, but will be paying her own fare.

Mrs. Arroyo and her party was supposed to have left Tuesday night on a direct Philippine Airlines (PAL) flight but the trip was rescheduled following the Vatican’s announcement that the Pope would be buried tomorrow.

Bunye stressed the government would only spend for the official delegation, which does not include himself.

Bunye admitted the final list of those accompanying the President on the trip was not available. He clarified, though, that no more than 100 names would be included on the list.

He also did not explain why First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo is not joining the trip.

Bunye justified the selection of the delegation as fairly representing the country’s various sectors.

He said Mandanas would represent the lawmakers; Mrs. De Venecia the women’s sector; "Luli" Arroyo the First Family and the youth; Cunanan the government; and Dee would be going as the former envoy to the Holy See himself.

Bunye stressed there is no reason to prevent these people from paying their last respects to the late Pontiff, adding that most of them would be paying their own way.

"I think there is no reason to stop those who want to attend the Pope’s burial," he said.

"It will be a special flight because of the circumstances. The President has to get there on time and return to the country immediately to attend to other engagements," he said.

Bunye explained the President and her party would fly directly to the Vatican to represent the country.

He added the delegation would charter a special PAL flight "because that is most convenient and could take the President straight to the Vatican," he said.

It will be the first time a 200-seater PAL plane flies to Europe since pulling out in 1998 in the midst of the Asian financial crisis.

With a population of 84 million people, the Philippines is the largest Catholic nation in Asia with an estimated 68 million believers.

However with half the population earning just over P100 a day or less, few of the Filipino faithful can afford the trip.

For the rest of the 68 million faithful, the main stumbling blocks are the two- to three-week wait for visas and the cost, officials and travel agents said.

A spokeswoman for the Italian embassy said there had been no noticeable increase in visa inquiries since the Pope’s death over the weekend.

She said the embassy had made no special arrangements for Mrs. Arroyo and her party.

"There has been no rush of bookings," an employee at Manila-based Dominican Travels said.

"What we have are families who had booked European tours before the Pope died," he said.

"There were some inquiries," a PAL spokesman said. However, she said the carrier was not arranging more special flights to Rome.

Maucie Cuna, vice president for outbound travel with the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, said there had been no "mad rush" to catch flights to Rome.

"One problem is that we no longer have direct flights to Italy and visas take two to three weeks," he said.

Administration lawmakers, for their part, said talks of the SSS footing the bill of the Philippine delegation to the Vatican were "pure speculation."

Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles and Isabela Rep. Edwin Uy said Cunanan’s inclusion in the delegation does not mean the SSS is footing the bill for the trip.

Both lawmakers said critics are hyping the issue of the trip’s expenses to embarrass the President.

Nograles said the issue is "shallow" and not even newsworthy.

"It’s a valid and justified trip. The President’s critics should just stop nitpicking," Nograles said.

The cost of the trip, Nograles said, is a small price compared with the significant place the Philippines had in the Pope’s heart.

"The President’s personal paying of last respects to the Pope is the least we can do as a nation in return" he said.

Uy said those questioning the trip either want to embarrass the President or stop her from attending the Pope’s funeral on Friday.

"They are desperately using every issue to discredit the President. As head of the nation, she has every right to represent the nation in paying its last respects to the Pope," Uy said.

Uy said it was unfair to suggest without proof that the SSS would shoulder the trip expenses, noting that the President is very sensitive on the issue of use of public funds.

"Why would she allow the use of SSS funds for such a trip when these are meant as security funds of employees?" Uy asked.– With Jess Diaz, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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