The last time he was in the United States he was a teenager living with his family in political exile near Boston. Last week, Benigno Aquino III returned to the U.S. as president of the Philippines, where about 44 percent of its 90 million people live on less than US $2 a day.
Aquino — the son of former President Corazon Aquino and opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. — won a landslide election victory in May. He is riding a powerful family legacy–both his parents fought Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, his father was jailed for seven years and ultimately assassinated when returning from exile. Corazon Aquino was elected president after Marcos fled the country.
As much as Aquino wants to limit his foreign travels to set an example that his government will live within its means, he said the U.S. trip was important for two reasons: he would address the 65th UN General Assembly in his debut on the world stage; and he would receive a $434-million grant from the U.S. government that his administration can use to help reduce poverty.
In front of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CEO Daniel Yohannes of the Millennium Challenge Corp., Aquino said his government would “use this grant wisely.” It is a pledge that rings with renewed hope among many Filipino Americans.
“I trust him, I’ve heard good things about him,” Jane Espinosa Muuse, a nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, told Fi2W. “He brings with him the integrity of the Aquino family.”
During his four days in New York, and an additional three days in California, there were meetings with potential investors, fellow world leaders including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and former U.S. State Secretary Henry Kissinger, not to mention individuals in the Filipino American community whose support in the last election was critical to his victory at the polls.
Aquino spoke about being the leader of an impoverished nation where between eight and ten million Filipinos work overseas to provide a better life for their families. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated four million Filipinos, a large portion of whom are believed to be undocumented.
The Philippines has recently suffered a series of destructive natural calamities that have strained its resources as well as the fortitude of allies and donor countries. A powder keg is the southern region of Mindanao, where a fanatical Muslim insurgency with ties to the Al Qaeda terror network continues to hinder development.
Aquino offered his gratitude to the “compassion” of the world community in response to the disasters, but stressed Manila “will not be passive players in our quest for development.” In his address to the UN, he said the Philippines will take an active role in world affairs, especially in enhancing South-South cooperation and promoting collective economic interests in Asia. The Philippines is one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In California, where he spoke at a community gala, Aquino vowed to “change and transform” the Philippines for the better. With trust, he said, “we could change the system.”
Aquino succeeded Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose government was hit by one corruption scandal after another. One of his first official acts after assuming office in June was to create a commission that will investigate Arroyo, her government and cronies for alleged graft committed while she was in power.
“[My] government owes its existence to trust, that trust is sacred and it will deliver,” he said.
With only three months in office, Aquino reported on an encouraging beginning: renewed investor confidence as seen in a robust stock market, slightly better tax collections, and the $434-million MCC grant from the U.S. government. But he conceded more needs to be done in generating employment and making the country self-sufficient in energy.
Filipino-American driver Rene Canlas in Queens was hopeful about the Philippines’ prospects under Aquino’s leadership.
“He appears sincere,” he said. “I hope for the sake of the country that he does well.”