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.
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.