A FOREIGN SECRETARY FOR ALL SEASONS

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Secretary Alberto Romulo]

MANILA, JULY 27, 2010 (STARweek) By Juaniyo Y. Arcellana - If there’s one book or movie that Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo cannot do without, in fact goes back to every once in a while and always discusses and quotes and cites passages from, it is “A Man for All Seasons,” according to his youngest son Erwin.

How compromise is inherent, but there’s that part than cannot be trespassed, the “adamantine sense of self.”

The adamantine quote must have served in good stead as he continues his tenure at the Department of Foreign Affairs, the lone holdover from the previous administration. (Apart from Justice Secretary Leila de Lima who was effectively promoted from the Commission on Human Rights).

Romulo had declared early on, at the onset of the campaign, that he was for President Aquino, then still a senator halfway through his term.

“It was Ninoy (Aquino, the president’s father) who first got me into politics. He told me that the best way to work in government is to join the campaign of a presidential candidate, and if that candidate wins…”

Ninoy was just one of his mentors during the fledgling days of opposition to Marcos in the late 1970s, during which Romulo ran for a seat in the Batasan and won along with Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma, Orly Mercado, and Jun Simon.

The old Romulo house on Maginhawa Street in UP Village became one of the headquarters of Laban, and where many a motorcade tied with yellow ribbons started.

At the Batasan where Romulo was an uhugin (snotty) neophyte lawmaker, he said he was helped a lot by words of advice from his uncle Carlos P. Romulo, who told him that when he opens his mouth to speak, “Just make sure that there’s something up there (pointing to head).” Then the former speaker Jose “Pito“ Laurel gave him confidence saying, “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, as long you don’t repeat it.”

It was the older Laurel who also taught him a valuable lesson once when, after using a cane for sometime, he had suddenly disposed of it.

“I asked Kuya Pito why all of a sudden he was no longer using a cane. Then he told me, ‘don’t depend on anything or anyone if you can help it.’”

The first weeks of part two of Romulo at DFA have not been without controversy. There’s the issue of the 21 politically appointed ambassadors who have been given three months to wrap up their tasks before heading back to the home country.

Romulo says there have been precedents, in particular between the Aquino and Ramos administrations, and later between the Ramos and Estrada administrations.

“In some cases they were given six months,” he says.

One of the first marching orders of President Aquino to his foreign secretary, a contemporary of the chief executive’s parents, was to look after the welfare of overseas Filipino workers, including the plight of Filipino sailors taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

Romulo says only a handful of sailors remain in pirates’ hands, and lately the respective embassies concerned and other channels have worked for the commutation of sentences of 33 OFWs, 15 of them already repatriated. There have also been cases where King Juan Carlos of Spain has interceded for Filipinos jailed in Kuwait by making representations with the Emir. Presently the ban on worker deployment still stands in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, where 6,000 OFWs were evacuated when hostilities broke out last year; domestic helpers in Jordan, the Niger river delta in Nigeria and, if it can be helped, ships sailing the Gulf of Aden, according to department spokesman Ed Malaya, co-author of an index of Philippine treaties from 1946 to present.

“The DFA stands foursquare behind President Aquino’s program of reform and change through economic diplomacy,” Romulo says, highlighting Mr. Aquino’s determination to clean the Philippines’ own backyard first in order to attract investors.

So far, since 2004 when he became foreign secretary, Romulo says the department has instituted several reforms, among them the e-passport that facilitates immigration processing especially for OFWs, and the new building along Macapagal Avenue where passport applicants don’t have to be exposed to the elements while waiting for their turn.

Also, the inter-faith dialogue that has helped push the Philippines closer to obtaining observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conference.

These reforms have all occurred under Romulo’s “accidental” leadership in the department, which Malaya has described as very hands-on.

“It’s a team effort,” the 77-year-old secretary says, adding that he has been privileged to have as US counterpart two influential and powerful women, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the past years he has reached some of the remotest corners, like Yemen and Senegal, though one country he has not yet visited but wants to is Canada.

Romulo, a native of Camiling, Tarlac like his childhood buddy the writer Greg Brillantes, still finds time to read and browse the bookstores. Lately he has been trying to locate “The God that Failed” by Andre Gide, which he finds out happens to be with Erwin.

“You know that feeling when you can’t find a book in your library, it is like a part of you is missing,” he says.

Another of his favorite books is “Darkness at Noon” by Arthur Koestler.

Understandable then that he is proud of Erwin, the writer in the family.

As he also is of eldest child Lupe based in Washington and who once also wrote a column for a Manila paper; second child Mons who has “good people relations”; congressman Roman of Pasig who has the common touch and is so busy with his constituents he has remained a bachelor, and youngest daughter Bernadette recently widowed and who continues to love her work at the Agriculture department.

They’re the fantastic five of the secretary with the former Lovely Tecson.

While not as good a golfer as former President Fidel Ramos, Romulo has played some rounds with him. He has also played basketball with Brillantes, who he feels is long overdue for a national artist award, and once rooted for Larry Bird’s Celtics though is now partial to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers.

In the office he listens to classical music, and most everything from the kundimans to Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, the better to keep away trespassers from the adamantine self in the high pressure job of being a foreign secretary for all seasons.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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