Pres. Arroyo meets Pres. Obama for the first time

Friday, July 31, 2009

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s own announcement, security, economy and the environment were to be the main issues for discussion at her meeting with US President Barack Obama.

“My expectations for the trip are straightforward: To meet the new US President and advance the interests of the Philippines with our strongest friend and ally. The US is essential to our economic, diplomatic and national security. We plan to ensure that these objectives remain front and center and on track between our two nations,” the first Southeast Asian President to meet with the United States’ first black President told members of a Filipino-American group in Washington.

But was Ms Arroyo invited by Obama to the meeting at the Oval Office, as Malacañang has constantly claimed?

Not even the senior official of the US State Department who briefed the members of the Philippine media four hours before Ms Arroyo’s arrival in Washington knew for sure.

“There was an opportunity for her to come to Washington. A visit was proposed, and the timing worked for both Presidents and they were happy to meet,” said the official who declined to be named.

The official also said it was not as if Obama had chosen Ms Arroyo over other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

According to a source from the Filipino-American community in Washington, the meeting was the fruit of intense lobbying by Malacañang shortly after Obama won the US presidential election in November.

The source claimed that the meeting was intended to save Ms Arroyo from the embarrassment of another snub: Speculation is rife in Washington circles that Obama would make a series of state visits to Indonesia and other Asean members, the Philippines not included.

But the State Department official said Washington had yet to make an announcement on Obama’s purported planned visits to Asean countries.

The official also said that while the US government was aware that Ms Arroyo was in the final year of her term, it viewed its relations with the Philippines beyond the personalities of the country’s leaders because of the enduring RP-US bond.

A lot to talk about

The President said she would like to raise the issue of how to improve regional cooperation in antiterrorism in Southeast Asia, particularly in the light of the July 17 bomb attacks in Jakarta.

She said she also planned to discuss how best to advance the peace process in Mindanao and how to mitigate the impact of the economic crisis on poor people in the Philippines and Asia, as well as issues on climate change.

Earlier in Manila, she said she planned to convey the Philippines’ gratitude for the $190-million compensation granted Filipino veterans of World War II.

At the briefing for the Philippine media, the State Department official said it was up to the two leaders to decide what to discuss in their meeting at the Oval Office.

“It’s a working visit but it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be pleasant. They have a lot to talk about—climate change, the economy, trade, progress in Burma (Myanmar), and promoting nonproliferation, particularly with regard to North Korea. But there is no formal agenda. They will decide what to talk about,” the official said, adding:

“It’s also an opportunity to talk about the legacy that President Arroyo will leave with one more year in office.”

Debt reduction strategy

Thursday in Manila, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said he had asked Ms Arroyo to propose to Obama the idea of allowing the Philippines to convert into debt repayment the amount that it had allocated for projects to achieve its Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

Lagman pushed the idea in a resolution filed on Wednesday, saying it was both a debt reduction strategy and a resource-generation scheme for sustainable human development.

“I wrote to the President asking if she could include in the agenda in her meeting with Obama the arrangement of the swap exchange with the US. We have a lot of debts with the US, which we can use or pay through appropriations for health and development,” Lagman said at the Serye forum.

Under the scheme, the amounts that the Philippines will allocate for programs such as the reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health and combating AIDS/HIV, malaria and other diseases will be considered debt repayment, with the conformity of the debtor country.

Under wraps

Both Malacañang and the White House had kept the details of the 45-minute meeting under wraps, in keeping with the Obama administration’s new security protocol and media restrictions.

Malacañang’s advance team had not been told the actual time of the meeting, as well as the final schedule of Ms Arroyo’s meetings in Washington until Aug. 1, which include one with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Only 12 Filipino reporters, photographers and TV crew were to be allowed access to the White House for the meeting.

They were to be “contained” at the White House North Lawn until summoned for the two Presidents’ statements after the meeting. Their entry into the Oval Office were to be restricted, with each photographer given only 49 seconds to complete his/her task.

Stringent measures on media

According to Philippine Consul Gines Gallaga, the White House adopted these stringent measures to prevent a repeat of an incident during a Latin American President’s visit, when the journalists broke protocol and went up the podium for a surprise photo op with Obama, which did not amuse his security.

Ms Arroyo’s other engagements on Friday tentatively include meetings with national intelligence director Adm. Dennis Blair and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, lunch with leaders of the RP-US Friendship Caucus, coffee with Sen. Harry Reid, and a forum on the Coral Triangle by the National Geographic.


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