When Arroyo’s ‘favorite companion’ picked up the dinner tab in New York

Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Speaker Martin Romualdez —PHOTOS FROM pna.gov.ph

The Philippine power structure continues to highlight intriguing peaks and valleys, and attentive observers are recalling long-ago details after Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ’s “demotion” from her lofty post as senior deputy speaker of the House of Representatives.

Time was when Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez, now speaker of the chamber, was deemed a “favorite companion” of Arroyo during her trips abroad when she was president. He was an apparent regular in her team, such as when, on a working visit in August 2009, she flew to New York after a meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington. One evening the large entourage, along with staff and security including members of the US Secret Service, repaired to the tony Le Cirque for dinner, with Romualdez footing the bill.

Philippine news outlets reported the event, quoting the New York Post. Incensed critiques of the then president and her supposed wanton ways with taxpayer money, as well as demands of a public accounting of the expenses incurred in the trip, were aired. Eventually, proving that the reports on the dinner were not fake news from a tabloid, even if stateside, then Press Secretary Cerge Remonde confirmed that it was Romualdez who had picked up the tab. 

In time, with the hundred and one aggravations assailing Filipinos in their daily life, the $20,000 dinner became no big deal. As though it were par for the course, even Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, also a frequent member of Arroyo’s entourage, let it be known that he had treated the assembly to another princely repast. The buzz swirling around the scandal did not particularly singe Romualdez, and the son of former first lady Imelda Marcos’ younger brother Benjamin ”Kokoy”  Romualdez wisely kept his head down.  

Effective stance

It’s a proven effective stance now on display in the aftermath of the formal clipping of Arroyo’s wings. Indeed, why should there be a need to explain when the expressions of fealty of not only the expected army of loyalists but also the minority, unprovoked by blatant acts of aggression, are saying it all?

The seeming diffident attitude Romualdez has displayed toward Arroyo even into his early days of taking command of the House appears to result from their going back a long way. He sang paeans to her in July 2019, at the end of the 17th Congress, when she was retiring from the speakership that she had wrested from Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez the year previous: He called her an “economic and political genius.” 

Perhaps Romualdez’s admiration for Arroyo stems to some extent from her surviving what others of lesser stuff would have buckled under: for example, the “Hello Garci” election scandal that brought her presidency to the brink; or—Romulo Neri, a former chair of the National Economic and Development Authority, businessman Jose de Venecia III, and others would remember it well—the $329-million contract with a Chinese corporation involving a national broadband network that was ultimately scrapped on accusations of corruption and bribery; and many more.

The coup in July 2018 that pulled the rug out from under then Speaker Alvarez’s feet is a case worthy of the attention of students of conspiracy. The man appeared not to know what had hit him: He and then Senate President Vicente Sotto III were welcoming then President Rodrigo Duterte to Congress for the latter’s State of the Nation Address when, behind his back, his removal as big guy and replacement by Arroyo were being finalized. (One image recurs: Arroyo in a bright-colored dress, mounting the rostrum and speaking through her cupped hands in an attempt to be heard by the general assembly.)

Duterte had to cool his heels while the loose threads of the fait accompli were gathered and the snags smoothed down; it was only by his intervention that, while delivering his speech later, Alvarez still sat in the speaker’s chair. In the evening, Arroyo was formally voted to the speakership by 184 of her colleagues. There were 12 abstentions.

Related: Poverty alleviation is at the mercy of political patronage

No novice

That Arroyo is not a novice in power play is no exaggeration. A constant kibitzer could say the woman has seen it all and not be exceedingly off the mark. Deserted by much of her Cabinet at the height of the “Hello Garci” scandal in 2005, Arroyo hung on by the skin of her teeth, aided by the expressed support of then Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. She was persuaded to issue a late apology in which, poker-faced, she mouthed the words “I am sorry” for her “lapse in judgment.” (There were also, a psychologist observed, public appearances and tv footage of her dressed in blue—a color said to calm high emotion, such as outrage.)

What else? In 2008 her allies in the House led by her two congressmen-sons removed De Venecia from the speakership and replaced him with Davao City Rep. Prospero Nograles. De Venecia, who had held the post for an unprecedented five terms, accused Arroyo in a long speech of masterminding his ouster despite his support of her presidency.

Arroyo in the present day has denied nursing an ambition to once more take the House’s top post, declaring  loyalty to Romualdez and his cousin, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and claiming that her actions in overseas trips had been “misconstrued.” (Earlier she huffed that her loss of the “senior” title was ”a prerogative of the House.”) It’s a predictable stance for one accustomed to the political arena and determined to keep her footing on the volatile terrain. 

Mr. Marcos was once sufficiently impressed by Arroyo’s  political deftness as to call her his “secret weapon” in his trips abroad. But now, to reporters, he termed the surgical procedure in the House a mere “reorganization.” Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…

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