Reopening our Houston consulate

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2019 - 12:00am

The decision to close a number of our embassies and consulates in the past due to “rationalization” – or budget cuts in plain speak – was pure and simple – false economy. The fact is – it costs more to open a new one. Not only that; having consulates from other parts of the country service the consular requirements where large Filipino communities live is pure and simple nonsense. Last week, we formally reopened our consulate in Houston, Texas where more than 200,000 Filipinos live.

I must commend Senator Loren Legarda, chairman of the Senate foreign relations and finance committees, for pushing for the allocation of funds not only to open several more consulates in the United States, but also to reopen our embassies in many parts of the world. 

We have close to 12 million Filipinos living abroad, and our main job is to “protect and defend” our citizens wherever they are. Most of these posts are also important in promoting the Philippines as a viable investment destination and in fostering good diplomatic relations with our host country. I always remind our consuls in the US that our main job, as mandated by President Duterte, is to first and foremost, take care of the Filipino community in our area.

When the consulate in Houston was closed down 25 years ago, Filipinos living in the area had to travel all the way to the consulate in Los Angeles which was about 370 miles away. The Filipino community is very active and vibrant in the Lone Star State, and their number has since grown to be among the largest in the US next only to California, Hawaii and Illinois. 

It is really unfortunate that we closed down a number of our embassies abroad. Today, we are reopening them because of the growing number of Filipinos working all over the world. What is worse is that we sold a number of prime location properties like our former embassy in London. It was located right in front of Kensington Palace. I’m told you could see Princess Diana coming in and out of the Palace. The property, now owned by an Indian billionaire, is now worth hundreds of millions of pounds. What a waste! Sadly, there were also several attempts to sell prime Philippine government properties in Tokyo and New York, but luckily, they were stopped.

During my last trip to Manila, I had lunch with my good friend Senator Ping Lacson and narrated all this to him. I proposed to him that all government properties abroad should be owned and maintained by a government corporation whose sole task is to take care of these properties, and that any sale of government property including antique furniture and priceless paintings must be approved by Congress. The good senator requested me to prepare a draft for him to work on. 

From Houston, I traveled to Arizona where I spoke with members of the Filipino community whose population is estimated at 70,000, with Consul General Adel Cruz leading the consular staff in the Grand Canyon State. Accompanying me during my visit to Arizona was Minister and Consul Gunther Emil Sales of the Philippine embassy in Washington.

It was my first trip to the American Southwest since assuming my post in November 2017, and it was also the first time that a Filipino official was invited to speak before the members of the Arizona State Legislature. It was an honor to be among the first foreign diplomats to speak before the State’s 54th Legislature upon the invitation of Arizona State Representative Tony Rivero.

But what also made the visit memorable was the fact that Arizona is the home state of the late Senator John McCain, whom I had the honor and privilege of meeting on several occasions in the past.  

In my speech, I told the legislators that Senator McCain was a true friend of the Philippines. Even during times when relations between the Philippines and the US were at a low point, we always knew that we had a solid ally in this great man, who was also our champion in the US Senate. Had he been alive today, Senator McCain would have really been pleased to know that the bells of Balangiga have been returned to the Philippines.

During my speech, I brought up the possibility of establishing sister-city agreements between major cities in the Philippines and Arizona, which can go a long way in deepening our strategic cooperation by further enhancing people-to-people ties which is the backbone of our alliance. 

I shared the Philippine government’s long-term plan called “Our Vision 2040” that fuels the Duterte administration’s resolve to sustain the path towards inclusive growth and a globally competitive knowledge economy. The Philippines continues to be one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, having posted 6.7 percent and 6.2 percent growth in 2017 and 2018, respectively. A key driver of economic expansion has been foreign direct investments, with the Philippines having been designated in 2018 as the “Best Country to Invest In” by the US News and World Report.

Since assuming my post in 2017, our team at the Philippine embassy has been doing the rounds to promote the Philippines and share the positive developments that have been happening so that US legislators and American businessmen may become aware that our economic story is also nestled squarely within the growth zone of Southeast Asia.

“The Philippines can be your gateway to the ASEAN region,” I told the audience at the Arizona Legislature, expressing hope that my visit would signal the beginning of a closer relationship between Arizona and the Philippines.

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