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[whitespace] Joseph Estrada
Photograph by Tom Gibbons

Class Act: Philippine President Joseph Estrada, anxious to strengthen ties with the West during his country's time of turmoil, addresses Silicon Valley entrepreneurs at a red carpet reception held for him at San Francisco City Hall.

Playing The Farce

Philippine president asks valley business leaders to invest in a country that's barely making it

By Genevieve Roja

THE NAME OF THE GAME that night was Six Degrees of Filipino. Because if you were one, were married to one, knew one, could count the number of pairs of shoes former first wife Imelda Marcos once owned (allegedly 3,000), name the first female Philippine president (Corazon Aquino), or guess the country's infamous delicacy (lumpia), you were in.

Not really--the event was by invitation only. I fell under that category, so there I was on a fogless Tuesday night in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, waiting to hear a speech from the relatively new Philippine president, Joseph Estrada. Often referred to as the belated Philippine version of Ronald Reagan, Estrada is an actor-turned-president. He is a man, purportedly, with a million and one mistresses, one who is known more for his silly platitudes than his national policies. He is also the butt of an endless stream of jokes. Here's a sampling: What does Erap (Estrada's nickname, derived from the Tagalog word "pare," meaning buddy or pal) answer when asked how many seconds there are in a year? Twelve. January second. February second. March second. ... How many days in a week are there that start with the letter T? Erap answers, Two: Today and Tomorrow.

And on and on.

Needless to say, Estrada enjoys some popularity but isn't a well-respected national leader. He's been criticized for the Philippines' high poverty and joblessness rate, which is at 13.9 percent--its highest level in nine years. He was reported to have asked President Clinton for military aid to squash the Moro Islamic Liberation Front uprising in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. It was an action that disgusted the 200 protesters who marched on Powell Street, outraged that Estrada would ask for aid instead of negotiate for peace. An estimated 300,000 Filipinos have been displaced because of the war.

Back at home, however, Filipinos recently rewarded Estrada with a positive rating of over 50 percent--the first in several months--for helping broker the release of three kidnapped Malaysians by Muslim rebels two weeks ago.

Despite his political victory--one soon to be forgotten, critics say--Estrada is still largely blamed for the country's slack economy, devalued peso and continued unresolved conflicts with Muslim separatists and rebels who are clamoring for an Islamic state in the Philippine republic.

The severity of these conflicts came home to Westerners this week with the kidnapping of 24-year-old Oakland resident Jeffrey Schilling by the Abu Sayyaf, a division of the Muslim rebels involved in the insurgency against the Philippine government.

In 1993, the group was responsible for killing seven people by rolling grenades down the aisle of a Catholic church in the Philippine town of Danao. Two years later, the group began shooting randomly as they walked down a street in the village of Ipil, on Mindanao. Fifty-three people were killed that day.

In April of this year, Abu Sayyaf--which relies on contributions from the Middle East, according to an article in Time Asia--took 21 hostages from a Malaysian resort on Jolo Island. Only days ago, six of these hostages--from France, Germany, South Africa and Lebanon--were released and flown to Libya in exchange for $6 million. With a crisis like this that shows no signs of tapering, it is imperative for Estrada to exercise his authority.

"We may be small in number, but we have plenty fighting with us--the angels and the hand of Allah," said Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani to Time Asia.

Estrada blames these troubles on pre-existing conditions, such as the collapse of the Asian economy three years ago. At a community reception held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, Estrada defended himself.

"I assumed the presidency at the most difficult time for my administration," Estrada was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Examiner. "I was elected by the majority of the people. The problem is, I inherited a bankrupt government amid a financial crisis ... little by little, we are overcoming all of this."

Estrada seems to have buffered himself from the impact of his country's crisis by surrounding himself with cronies, rewarding them with powerful positions and protecting friends and allies. According to Phillipine press reports, Estrada called off a tax investigation involving close friend Dante Tan, head of Philippine Airlines and the operator of an exclusive government bingo franchise operation. Estrada also appointed one of his supporters, businessman-turned-U.S.-fugitive Mark Jimenez, presidential adviser for Latin America. Jimenez--the CEO and majority owner of Miami-based Future Tech International, a company which sold computer equipment in Latin America--is being charged in the U.S. with tax evasion, making false statements, conspiracy and fraud. A U.S. immigrant, Jimenez fled to the Philippines last year after being indicted for making illegal contributions to Democratic candidates, including Clinton.

Others formerly affiliated with the president allege he is nearly impossible to work with and ignorant about his presidential duties. Patricia Ruivivar Currier--once the chief of staff for Rondaldo Zamora, Estrada's executive secretary--told the San Francisco Chronicle she resigned partly because of her growing disillusionment with Estrada.

"With all the crises going on, you can see that this guy is not in control," she said. "He doesn't have a clue what to do as president."

Stay Connected

NEVERTHELESS, he was still the man I came to see, along with other Silicon Valley and Bay Area notables like Oracle CEO and president Larry Ellison; local car dealer Bob Lewis; senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer; and Walter and Peter Haas of Levi Strauss. Even Robin Williams, whose wife is reportedly Filipina, and Sharon Stone, wife of San Francisco Examiner Managing Editor Phil Bronstein, who covered the Philippines during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, were invited. That was considered enough of a connection. What did they hope to hear from Estrada? I don't know. They didn't show up.

If they'd been there, they would have heard Estrada waxing poetic about how San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown had embraced the Philippines by marrying a woman who was of Filipino descent. Never mind that Brown and his wife are separated. Estrada should be sympathetic, having embraced many beauties of the Philippines; he has a baker's dozen of illegitimate children by assorted mistresses, according to Time Asia. Appropriately, the string section of the San Francisco Symphony stood on each side of the steps inside City Hall, playing Gershwin love songs and other ballads.

I felt like an impostor, like a faux-Prada bag lady at the De Anza Flea Market. I inhaled Continental hors d'oeuvres; salmon and capers piled on top of sliced baguette bread, roast beef, asparagus tips, fried won ton and pesto. The feast was in stark contrast to the realities of Estrada's homeland, where a third of his 80 million kababayan, or compatriots, live in extreme poverty. Estrada has promised that by the end of his term in 2004, he will decrease the number of poverty-stricken Filipinos by 10 million. While it's a nice idea, Estrada has yet to unveil a plan to carry out the initiative.

Only weeks before the San Francisco visit, more than 200 people were killed when a garbage dump in the Manila suburb of Quezon City collapsed in an avalanche. Casualties included those who had either worked at or inhabited the garbage dump in the 80,000-squatter colony called Lupang Pangako, or "Promised Land." Those who scoured the dump were searching for food to eat or junk to sell; scavengers reportedly earn about 200 pesos, or $4.50, a day. At press time, families involved in the avalanche refused to heed calls by the Quezon City government to vacate the premises, which was in danger of collapsing again. Estrada had ordered the dump closed following the July accident.

Joseph and Luisa Estrada
Photograph by Tom Gibbons

Bay Area Power Couple: Estrada and First Lady Dr. Luisa Estrada pose outside San Francisco City Hall before entering the reception co-hosted by Mayor Willie Brown.

A Nation in Question

FOR ANYONE following Philippine news, there was little at the reception to be enthused about. I couldn't help but think how the $100-a-head admission fee could have been used for other causes: helping those displaced by the avalanche, general outreach, charity, or lowering the underemployment rate, which is at 25.1 percent. This is in light of the fact that the Philippines was ranked 27th in the world with the highest gross domestic product and per capita GDP last year. The country was the second largest software exporter in Asia behind India and has several information technology parks in Manila and Cebu. Do these facts beget a joyful noise? It seems paradoxical of Estrada to persist in wooing technological companies--such as Oracle and Sun Microsystems--in a country where only one percent of the population has Internet access. Man, after all, cannot live on computers alone. In the Philippines, an ample meal, a job and personal safety beat having a DSL connection any day.

Still, Silicon Valley investors remain bullish, despite the country's political and economic stability. Intel--which opened its first Philippine facility in 1974--is one of the oldest American multinational high-tech companies in the Southeast Asian country, according to Intel's internal documents. It employs approximately 6,000 Filipinos who perform tests and work on the assembly line manufacturing circuit boards. Through 1998, Intel has invested more than $900 million in the Philippines, with two Intel sites in Makati and Cavite, and a sales and marketing office in Manila, the country's capital.

"We've had a long-standing, productive relationship with the Philippines," says Intel's Chuck Mulloy. "When Craig Barrett, our president and CEO, visited the Philippines last time, he visited the president. They know us, and we know them quite well."

Intel doesn't lose sleep over the security of its investments or the potential for political unrest, Mulloy says. "It is something that exists everywhere--here in the U.S. and overseas also," he says. "Each locale has its own unique problems, whether it's in Mexico or Colorado. Our top priority is always safety and protecting the physical assets of the company; we start from that basis and do whatever's necessary."

What's necessary, says Milpitas Mayor Henry Manayan, is that the Philippine government recognize Silicon Valley as the epicenter of technology. Given that Estrada's plea was to the valley's business leaders, Manayan says it would have been more appropriate to hold an event in the valley, rather than its foggy neighbor to the north.

"If you want to be close to Silicon Valley, you need to do events in Silicon Valley that will bring native participation," says the elected Filipino official, who presides over a city of nearly 70,000, 20 percent of whom are Filipino. "I've shared that with the president."

As a result of that meeting, Manayan says he and his staff will try to work with Estrada's office in "helping them locate a person here in Silicon Valley," noting that the Indian government is "very heavily into information technology" and already has someone here.

Manayan sees Estrada's entreaty to the valley's high-tech companies as a significant move that will consequently employ the country's poor.

"There's the dignity of honest work," Manayan says. "That's why he's reaching out to Silicon Valley, reaching out to his people, and continuing to push for power and a strong economic agenda."

Fake It 'Til You Make It

AS BRILLIANT as the red carpet shone, as proud as I was to see Philippine flags hung in the airy enclaves of the hall, I thought, no one benefits from fanfare. At least the ones that count. At times, the reception was touching. A 7-year-old girl sang "The Prayer" from the animated movie Camelot. How ironic, I thought, a little girl singing about the future of an enchanted kingdom marred by deceit and backstabbing. Then it seemed fitting. The man chosen to lead the country--one that was ripe with promise after it succeeded in overthrowing Marcos in 1986--was merely backpedaling into disaster. In 1996, two years before Estrada was elected president, then-President Fidel Ramos had signed a treaty outlining expansion and development of the Muslim region in Mindanao. Peace dotted the landscape. This year, critics are taking Estrada to task for corruption and the government's offensives against Muslim rebels in the wake of peace talks.

Now, with kidnapping and terrorism creating tensions beyond his nation's borders, Estrada will have a harder time hawking the Philippines as a safe haven for technology investment and production. His future audiences may not be as easily distracted by salmon-caper appetizers and white Zinfandel.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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