Filipinos Cast a Wary Eye Overseas

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Libran Cabactulan has been the Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations since April 2010. Before his UN assignment, Cabactulan was the President-elect of the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In 2006, while ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, he received a citation from President Arroyo for his role in the repatriation of hundreds of Filipinos during the Israel-Lebanon crisis. Cabactulan recently spoke to the NYCity News Service’s Debra Pangestu from his office at the Philippine Center Building about uprisings in the Middle East, his country’s fear of a nuclear arms race and how the Filipino government protects its overseas nationals during times of crisis.

The Philippines recently celebrated its 25th People Power Revolution anniversary. Why does that revolution differ from what we’re seeing in the Middle East?

I think it’s innate in Filipino people to be peaceful. We were under Spain for 400 years, and then the U.S., or Hollywood, for 48 years. Long years of subjugation demonstrated our tolerance and patience. On top of that the religious milieu is very strong. All those elements came into play and made it happen that it was a peaceful transformation.

How is the crisis in the Middle East affecting the Philippines?

Like everyone, we’re affected by oil prices. Even if you are a net exporter of oil, you will still be affected by the oil prices. But it is something that may someday have a good effect.

How so?

If you trace history, when it first exploded this problem of energy crisis in the late 70’s into the early 80’s, it triggered an idea of exploring alternative energy. But when the price of oil starts to go down again, this all research for alternative will be forgotten. So this might push the research for utilization for alternative energy.

You were the president of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Review Conference. What interest does the Philippines have in nuclear non-proliferation?

It relates to one of our pillars of foreign policy, the protection of our nationals. There are 2.4 million Filipinos in the Middle East. That’s why we’re interested. The little that we can contribute supports our people in that part of the world. If there will be a nuclear holocaust, it’s not the desert that will cry. It’s the people.

You mention nationals. There are many Filipino nationals working in the Middle East. How is the Philippine government helping them during the crisis?

We’ve been engaged in protecting our nationals for a long time, and we are well ahead in many countries. Where there are difficult conditions for our Filipinos, we have safe houses. In Dubai, Riyadh, in Abu Dhabi, in Bahrain, in Qatar, in Egypt, the Philippine government, they maintain safe houses. And we send our own doctors and social workers from the Philippines to those safe houses. In the present crisis in the Middle East, the government is all out to protect them, to secure them. And now we have already repatriated more than half of our people in Libya.

You were the Philippine Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. Can you talk a little bit about the repatriation efforts?

I was one of the team that handled the chartering of the planes and liaising with the airlines for their movement and seeing to it that they are also fetched, they are also guided in their transit destination. We sent out chartered planes and also Philippine Airlines went there, we also chartered a Greek vessel.

Last year an article in the Economist said the biggest export of the Philippines is its people. Is the Philippines doing anything to prevent their best and brightest from leaving?

It’s theorized that it’s a natural tendency for Filipinos to be moving around. We have been a wanderer because of our multicultural, multiracial exposure. The other factor is economic. Even if you are doing well in the Philippines, you want better. Who are we to stop them?

I remember when I was assigned in Geneva I had a good friend, a couple. The husband is a driver, the wife is a cook of prominent persons in Monte Carlo. But the husband was an accountant and the wife was a teacher in the Philippines. So I said, “What are you doing here? You have good employment in the Philippines.” And they just said “Adventure, and earning more!” That was good for me, because I would just drive from Geneva to Monte Carlo and stay with them!

But the Philippines are losing some of its best. Won’t this hamper the nation’s development?

It’s not too much of a problem because in this globalized world, one does not uproot himself completely. There is the phenomena of Brain Gain, or going back. Some are fired by nationalism that they return after years abroad and impart what they’ve learned. On top of this, many are retiring in the Philippines, and they are still in their productive years. They write, they start businesses. In fact, we are being enriched by this exposure to other cultures, exposure to other knowledge.

Do you plan to retire to the Philippines?

I think so. I’ve wandered around for long enough.

Tiny Country Battles Rising Tide

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Ambassador Phillip Muller has been the representative of the Permanent Mission of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations since 2008.  A former trusteeship territory of the United States, the Marshall Islands constitute one of the smallest nations in the world.  Thanks to diplomats like Muller, however, the tiny Pacific state — most of which rises less than a yard above sea level — is trying to become one of the leading voices in the global debate on climate change.  Muller sat down with the NYCity News Service to discuss climate change and his nation’s unique vulnerability to the consequences of a warming planet.

The Marshall Islands have been among the United Nations’ most vocal proponents of curbing carbon emissions and rising sea levels, and just last month, the capital, Majuro, was flooded by high tides.  How does sea level rise affect life in the Marshall Islands?

There is actually, almost every quarter now, when the tides are high, water comes onto our land, especially in some of the most populated areas.  As you know, for example, Majuro is only three feet above sea level, so when sea level rises — comes onto the land — it affects our drinking water, it gets into our reservoirs, it gets into the runway where we need the airplanes to land, it gets into our dump area, and other places.  So it’s a big concern for us.  It’s a big concern.

How does that feel to you, personally, to almost be helpless to stop this inevitable thing?

Sometimes you feel like it’s a losing cause, but at the same time, we try to do the best we can.  The sea continues to rise.  The effects of that also continues to be seen all over the Marshall Islands, including salt water coming into the soil we use to grow our food crops: taro and breadfruit and bananas and all of that.  So we have a problem with water and also with food security.

How pressing are those food and water concerns?

We need a solution a few years back.  Because now we depend on outside assistance to help us cope with those.  So as a result, more and more people in the Marshall Islands now depend on imported food, because now we can no longer grow our own food, so we don’t have the same self-sufficiency that we had before.

Again, personally, how does it feel to you to have lost that aspect of self-sufficiency?

That’s really – I don’t know how to describe it.  It’s very sad.  Sad, because when we were growing up, people were able to live on their land, grow their own food, and be self-sufficient.  Now all of that has been taken away.

Now, your home, like all homes in the Marshall Islands, is near the water.  Have you been affected by flooding at all?

Oh, yes.  I have several homes.  One of my homes in the Long Island area, we put up a seawall, and now when I went back, the seawall is all broken up, and water has come – sometimes it comes into our living room area.  So the water is right next to the house right now.  It’s getting worse.  It’s getting worse.

How do you feel when you hear people who are skeptical of climate change when you’ve actually seen the evidence of it in your living room?

First of all, I don’t respond to people I don’t know, and I don’t respond to people who I think don’t know what they’re talking about.  We’re there.  We live there.  We see every day what is happening, and for people who are skeptics, I don’t know where they get their information from.  I don’t know what it will take to convince this kind of people, but I think they’re just being naïve, or they just don’t want to see the reality.

The United States is the second largest emitter of carbon in the world, and the Marshall Islands were once a trusteeship of the U.S.  Do you feel as though the United States has somehow let the Marshall Islands hang out to dry?

Well, let me just put it this way.  So far, we have been disappointed.  We would have liked to see the U.S. be on the forefront, and help us try to find the right solutions to the issues.

The Marshall Islands is going to be part of a gathering at Columbia in May to start discussing the international law regarding the rights of states that have been rendered uninhabitable by climate change.  What do you hope the meeting will address?

I hope that does not happen, but we have to be realistic.  The idea came up from our thinking that it’s better to address some of those issues now rather than try to sweep them under the carpet.  The issues of who will own the resources, for example, if the Marshall Islands should go under.  Where do the people go?  Who is responsible to pay for their relocation?

What would it be like to have to leave the Marshall Islands?

In the Marshall Islands, the culture and the land are one. Once you are removed from your land, you don’t really have any roots.  You don’t have an identity.

Young Immigrants Dare to Dream

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Nearly 200 immigrant rights supporters gathered Saturday at an immigration forum in Harlem to push for passage of the New York Dream Act. The bill was introduced in Albany by State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Manhattan) last week. The bill would allow immigrants to get in-state tuition at all New York colleges, work authorization, access to state-sponsored health care and the ability to obtain a driver’s license.

The announcement of the bill came one week after Dreamers, a group of undocumented students pushing for the passage of the Dream Act, held “Coming Out of the Shadows” rallies across the country.

“The impetus for this legislation comes from the Dreamers,” Perkins said. “We as legislators find it our responsibility to help them fulfill their dreams.”

Several “Coming Out” events were held in New York, including one at Union Square where 20 Dreamers shared their personal immigration stories. The New York State Youth Leadership Council sponsored the Union Square rally and co-wrote the New York Dream Act with Perkins. After the federal Dream Act failed in Congress in December, supporters of the legislation decided to wage the fight state-by-state, hoping to create momentum for national legislation that will offer a pathway to citizenship, in addition to the provisions included in the state bill.

Local Help for Ivory Coast

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Imam Souleimane Konate is horrified by the turmoil roiling the Ivory Coast and he’s struggling to find a way to help those suffering – including his elderly mother.

“They don’t have food, no medicine,” said Konate, who heads the 1,200-member Aqsa Mosque in Harlem.

Read More

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Friday, March 18th, 2011

Showdown on Theater Cuts

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Teaching Kids to Love Their Greens

Thursday, March 10th, 2011