June 20, 2008 (STAR) COMMONSENSE By Marichu A. Villanueva - President Arroyo will be out of the country for the next 10 days when she leaves tomorrow for the United States for a working visit. Her latest trip to the US would involve two important meetings in Washington. First, she would have a tete-a-tete with US President George W. Bush at the White House and a scheduled meeting with a group of executives from the US-ASEAN Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Because both of them are in their respective last terms in office, the White House meeting between Mr. Bush and Mrs. Arroyo would have only symbolic value. At least for President Arroyo, she still has a lot left on her term that ends in June 2010 while it is bye-bye already for Bush by January 2009 when he steps down from the Oval Office.

The President’s trip to the US evokes fresh memories of her first visit at the White House during the height of the US invasion of Iraq where the Philippines stood by her long-time ally. President Bush rolled out the red carpet for her and was feted for the Philippine support to the US-led “coalition of the willing” military strikes in Iraq.

I covered for The STAR in that particular state visit of Mrs. Arroyo at the White House on May 19, 2003. Korina Sanchez of ABS-CBN and I were allowed to field our questions along with the White House press corps during the joint press conference of President Bush and President Arroyo. Paranaque City Rep. Roilo Golez, who was then Mrs. Arroyo’s national security adviser, even took photos of us in that press conference for posterity. Imagine, no less than the chief security adviser was my photographer!

Levity aside, this latest trip of the Chief Executive to the US will be an opportunity for her to officially thank the outgoing US president for his support for the Veterans Equity Bill. While in the US capital, she will witness the formal signing for the Millennium Challenge Account where the Philippines would be entitled to as much as $700 million worth of grants-in-aid to anti-corruption and improvements in governance programs and activities.

Definitely, Malacañang Palace spin masters will try to highlight this latest US trip of the President to underscore the support of the US government for her administration and its initiatives in counter-terrorism. As in the past presidential foreign travels, the Palace has invited Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to join the official entourage to the White House visit. The Palace earlier disclosed President Arroyo would again make a pitch for the bid of Sen. Santiago for a seat in the International Court of Justice during a reception she will host for the Permanent Representatives of the United Nations when they go to New York.

Many of the official events in her US visit are again mostly not open for media coverage, including the scheduled meetings with various business groups. Nonetheless, these closed-door talks will be crucial. One of the business meetings that Mrs. Arroyo would have is with the US-ASEAN Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce. The US-ASEAN Business Council is headed by Matthew Daley who was formerly the deputy assistant secretary for East-Asia Affairs of the US State Department.

The US Chamber of Commerce, headed by their chief executive officer Thomas Donohue, is actually the world’s largest business federation. It represents more than three million businesses in the US, thousands of business associations, and some 100 American chambers in 91 countries. Interestingly, the US Chamber counts the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (AmCham) among the 100 overseas American chambers in its roster. In turn, the AmCham is part of the Joint Foreign Chambers (JFC) that also included the Philippine-based Chambers of Australia-New Zealand, Canada, Europe, Japan, Korea and the Philippine Association of Multinational Companies Regional Headquarters.

What our diplomatic staff are reportedly avoiding is a situation where the US Chamber officials might ask the President about how our Senators “bullied” the JFC executives who were invited to a public hearing on a proposed bill to amend the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA). It was during that EPIRA hearing when a known pro-administration lawmaker, Sen. Juan Ponce-Enrile berated JFC executives and told them to “get out of the country” if they cannot work within our system and rules. This Senate hearing was presided by Sen. Santiago as chair of the Senate committee on energy.

The outburst of Enrile’s temper against the JFC actually came as a surprise. Enrile’s tirades against the JFC came after their letter to President Arroyo where they aired their concern over planned revisions to the EPIRA. It was surprising because the JFC has always been issuing open letters and position papers on matters affecting business. It was not as if it was the first time that JFC has written to the President. It has done so quite a number of times to similarly voice their concerns on other business and economic issues in the past. The JFC had also spoken out on proposed amendments to the implementing rules and regulations of the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) scheme. It had written to Cabinet secretaries and leaders of both houses of Congress on their concerns over proposed bills like the Cheaper Medicine Law, Tourism Code, and on new Aviation body.

Why its position on EPIRA would elicit quite an outburst remains a puzzle. It is as puzzling as the ire that Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) president Winston Garcia is venting on the Makati Business Club for taking the opposite side on the GSIS bid for control of the Manila Electric Company (Meralco). The latest worries in the business sector are speculations that some of the country’s most respected business executives and known personalities might be caught in this corporate boardroom war between Garcia with the Lopez-controlled Meralco.

There are valid grounds for these concerns of the business sector that the President’s US trip is taking place while some of her perceived major political allies are browbeating legitimate business groups with legitimate concerns.

Not spared from the experience lately is the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, known to be supportive of the President, after it did not support the GSIS bid for the takeover of Meralco. They unfortunately incurred the ire of the chief proponents of the Meralco takeover scheme.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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