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Newsmakers

Our ‘Babe’ in Washington

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez - The Philippine Star
Our âBabeâ in Washington
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel ‘Babe’ Romualdez: ‘We are important to Washington, now more than ever.’
Photo by Ernie Peñaredondo

Our “Babe” in Washington DC, Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez, got his nickname because his late mother, Dr. Covadonga del Gallego Romualdez, was an avid fan of baseball and the legendary player Babe Ruth, who once visited Manila. Romualdez says he was a “chubby” toddler, and his mother started calling him “Babe.”

Romualdez, who was appointed ambassador to DC by then President Duterte in 2017 and recently by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has since scored many home runs himself. And yes, the bases were loaded.

Romualdez, a former broadcast journalist and now a widely-read columnist of this newspaper, was our envoy to the US at a time when the Philippine commander-in-chief was openly criticizing Americans, going as far as to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

“As former Ambassador to Japan Manolo Lopez said, being ambassador is rewarding and fulfilling. And it became rewarding and fulfilling for me because it was very challenging during the Duterte administration. Remember, President Duterte kept on bashing the Americans all the time. The most critical time was when he removed the VFA. The Americans kept asking me, ‘Why’?”

“There was tension between China and the US and we were in the center of it all. At the same time, the pandemic was raging,” recalled Romualdez in an interview during his recent visit to Manila.

Abrogating the VFA had its repercussions, realistically speaking. Understandably.

“Whether we like it or not, the US vaccines were the most effective. I told myself, I’m gonna do this (get those vaccines), I’m going to go to the White House, kneel down in front of Dr. Beth Cameron, who was then in charge of vaccines, international and domestic. And I told her, ‘Doctor Beth, I could kneel down in front of you. Please give us the vaccines.’ She said, ‘We’ll do what we can do.’ But at the same time, you have also the other factors to consider. It was symbiotic.” President Joe Biden had announced Americans were the priority. After them, the Philippines needed to be on that list.

Romualdez knew that at the back of their minds, the Americans were wondering, “What about the VFA?” The abrogation had six months to kick in.

“I needed to plead my case before President Duterte,” said Romualdez. He was able to secure a virtual meeting  with the President, 3 p.m. Manila time, 3 a.m. DC time.

He recalls telling Mr. Duterte, “Mr. President, the government and the private sector, we have 20 million doses that are still going to be delivered to us but it will take time, and the time is running out. And I said, ‘Maraming mamamatay sa atin. This is the reality that we are facing.” After that, one hour, two hours later, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea called me to say, ‘Okay na’.”

President Marcos and First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos (extreme left) with Ambassador Babe Romualdez and his wife Maria Lourdes.
Photo by Renjie Tolentino

Millions of Filipinos received their Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, stemming the rising tide of fatalities during the pandemic.

Romualdez, who says he doesn’t want to think of himself as “spectacular,” just a public servant doing his best, believes it takes a lot of determination and humility to balance the diplomatic tightrope.

“President Duterte really made it clear that you know, you cannot always just take us for granted. The United States now looks at us differently. Kailangan, we should not take them for granted, but at the same time, we should not be taken for granted.” The VFA was eventually reinstated.

Is the Philippines still important to the United States?

“Now more than ever,” Romualdez believes.

“Because we’re right in the center. Even President Trump said this is the most expensive real estate in Asia, because we’re right in the center geographically. That’s the big difference.”

As for the rising tide of hate crimes against Asians, including Filipinos, Romualdez says, “We try our best to always tell them that the best thing is always to have somebody with you. Be very conscious that if you see something especially in the subway, you have to be very careful. And then we encourage them to learn basic defense skills.”

“In fairness to the Biden administration, they really are now very focused on hate crimes. Every time there’s an increase in hate crimes, they put more undercover agents and more resources.”

Accidental journalist

Romualdez took up Business Administration at the De La Salle University, after spending his grade school and early high school years at the Ateneo de Manila. He recalls having had to transfer to a parochial school on his third year because his grades weren’t so good, but that experience was a turning point in his life. He became more inclusive of others. On his fourth year his father was appointed secretary general of the World Medical Association based in New York City and Romualdez graduated high school at Forest Hills High School.

He could have stayed on, but he returned to the Philippines after his uncle, then Ambassador to Washington Eduardo Romualdez, told him, “It’s good for you to go to school in the Philippines because your friends from college are who you’re going to be with in the future.”

Romualdez was about to start working with a bank after graduation from La Salle till he was asked if he was related to anyone in the bank. Since a cousin already worked there, he couldn’t join the bank.

“For four months, I didn’t have a job. My father (Dr. Alberto Romualdez Sr.) said, “You got to find a job otherwise, you’re gonna have to live on the streets.” He was kidding, but pretty straightforward,” says the envoy, who is also the publisher (on leave) of PeopleAsia magazine. Since he was doing some disc jockeying on the side for one of the stations of Emilio Tuason, friends suggested he become a news reporter. He joined RPN-9.

Pounding the beat as a newsman was a training ground for diplomacy. Romualdez learned that it is fairness that creates relationships and connections.

“I learned you never burn your bridges with a politician, or anybody for that matter. You can criticize them but at the same time, always try to be fair with them. You always try to be fair, because the minute you start being unfair, you lose your access.”

How does the United States regard President Bongbong Marcos, who is his second cousin?

“The United States is also pragmatic in their relationships with countries. They were watching the elections very carefully, and saw that in spite of all of the negatives that sometimes reached the White House, at the end of the day, very clearly 31 million had come out for President Marcos. The United States made it clear to me that they are willing to work with a president who is obviously supported by the people, and we cannot and will not do anything to derail that kind of situation,” Romualdez says.

He believes President Marcos Jr.’s time has truly come, call it an “alignment of the stars,” if you will.

“He is motivated by two things. One, of course, is because of what happened in the past, and he’s out to prove that ‘This is not what we are.’ He could have lived abroad. But he chose to come back here because it was important for him. And he always said one thing: ‘We have to give back whatever we have today to the people that put us here. Then secondly, he has this nationalistic thinking. So me, I’m really convinced that that is what’s going to really make him and that’s what I tell the world.”

“Being ambassador to the United States, part of my mission is to make sure that the relationship between the US and the Philippines remains strong and stable. I will continue to do so with the best of my ability, as I always have, for my country,” says Romualdez.

The bases continue to be loaded and this Babe intends to be part of yet more home runs.

(You may e-mail me at [email protected]. Follow me on Instagram @joanneraeramirez.)

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