Amidst the continuing social upheaval in Arab countries which has already caused Filipino refugees to be repatriated and would-be OFWs’ departures to be postponed, a solitary voice has called for the resumption of worker deployment to Iraq.
Angelo dela Cruz, who was kidnapped in July 2004 by Iraqi insurgents fighting a US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has opined that suicide bombers could not be simply wished away. In an interview, Dela Cruz said, “Ang gulo sa Iraq hindi mawawala ’yan, ang gusto ng mga tao sa Iraq lumayas na ang mga Amerikano (The violence in Iraq wouldn’t simply disappear, the Iraqis want the Americans to leave).’’
Philippine deployment to Iraq officially ended with Dela Cruz’s homecoming to a sleepy barangay in Mexico, Pampanga, in fact to his new home in a sparsely domiciled subdivision not far from his former concrete-and-thatch home with free range chickens and dogs and dusty, narrow streets. The government’s decision to withdraw its troop contingent in Iraq in exchange for his release and repatriation was a surprise to its big partner, the United States, as the Philippines was one of the first countries to declare total support behind then President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s statement ended the thawed ties that came as a result of the Senate disapproval of continuing presence of US military bases in the Philippines. But she too would be the first to retreat from her commitment, fearing a backlash of the same magnitude as the Flor Contemplacion episode.
The end of Arroyo’s term has not caused the Iraq ban to be lifted. The Department of Foreign Affairs has singled out Iraq as the country of destination for which the Philippine passport is not valid, a warning that has not deterred thousands from being recruited and deployed in Baghdad. Former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Roy Cimatu, who is serving as envoy and adviser on Middle East security as far as OFWs are concerned, has been implicated in military corruption and his latest briefings have not reversed the Iraq ban. He has also been grounded.
Comes Angelo dela Cruz, the Iraq ban symbol, and now advocate of lifting of the ban. But does the opinion of Dela Cruz have any weight in a rethinking or even a reversal of the policy? If it has any weight at all, it stands to benefit thousands who want to work in Iraq but cannot do so legally. Placement agencies have also been silent and have sought other countries.
Iraq has been vocal about lifting the ban. And Dela Cruz’s recent statements are indeed more meaningful than they would have been one or two years ago. The situation has changed in Iraq.
Now that US President Barack Obama has promised a troop pullout in the light of the March 2011 presidential elections in Iraq, Dela Cruz suggests that Filipinos may now go back to Iraq to help in the construction of schools and hospitals destroyed during the armed conflict. “Dapat talagang tanggalin na ’yan (Iraq deployment ban),” he stressed.
Dela Cruz was released by his kidnappers and repatriated to the country after Arroyo took a populist stance to save Dela Cruz at the risk of abandoning the US coalition in Iraq. Arroyo, who hails from the same province as Dela Cruz, gave him a parcel of land in Mexico, Pampanga, where he has sought to rebuild his family of eight children, seven grandchildren, and a doting wife who has helped tend to his fighting cocks that provide him part of his recent livelihood.
Also, Arroyo provided scholarships for his children, a couple of whom have yet to finish. Beyond these, there was nothing that government gave him. In fact, he has been driving a van to ferry passengers between Mexico and Angeles City. He has joined an 18-member fleet of such vans prominently plying the route in urban communities north of Manila. The daily grind gives him a few hundred pesos.
Dela Cruz, looking much the same as when media personnel and vehicles clogged the narrow street of his former home, undertakes to help his cabalen (townmates) with small favors such as clearing birth certificate inconsistencies and passport applications. He even ran as town councilor (but lost) under the Lakas-NUCD party on a platform of engaging OFW families as cooperative members for shared benefits on direct procurement of basic needs.
Many OFWs in the Benjamin subdivision area where he has lived since his repatriation helped in his campaign as he had no means to have handbills or posters printed. The same OFWs are now asking Dela Cruz if they would be welcome to the Iraqi labor market once the deployment ban has been lifted. Some parties, Dela Cruz intimated rather suspiciously, would like to gain an edge in recruitment and deployment over the others.
Iraq’s economy has been regarded positively in the light of the resumption of oil export. Rising per capita income, which now stands at almost $4,000, also indicates the improving lot of the common Iraqi. An ambitious national investment plan has set the government plan for rebuilding facilities and infrastructure for rising needs for education and health care. Reports say Iraqi medical personnel exodus in recent years has opened greater employment possibilities for Filipinos, especially nurses, across the country.
“Pilipino ang gusto nilang magtrabaho sa Iraq (Iraqis prefer Filipino workers),” Dela Cruz said. Although other nationals such as Indians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis have already filled in a sizable number of vacancies, Filipinos will be in higher paying jobs if they could only rid their ranks of envy and jealousy that both corrode the spirit of community abroad, he added.
Prof. Roli Talampas has taught undergraduate social science and area studies courses, including one on the Middle East and North Africa. He will be teaching graduate courses in Asian and Philippine Studies starting June 2011 at the Asian Center, UP Diliman.