Released Filipino a Star, but Reality Bites Others

MANILA – “There’s nothing for me here,” overseas contract worker Crisanto Molejona declared in a television interview on the eve of the arrival of Angelo de la Cruz, a 46-year-old Filipino truck driver who was almost beheaded by his Iraqi captors.

Molejona’s sentiment, and situation, was a contrast with that of de la Cruz, who, upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from a Gulf Air plane at past 1 p.m. Thursday, was mobbed by journalists, his family, relatives and well-wishers who turned his homecoming into a raucous occasion.

Molejona was interviewed by a TV crew during a pre-departure seminar given by the government to Filipinos leaving for contractual work abroad.

He said this is his third contract as a dockworker in Athens, Greece. He has four young children and is still hard up, so he had to head back to a job that promises more financial comfort for his family – a condition that his country could not give him.

“I am not Angelo de la Cruz,” he told the TV interview.

For his part, de la Cruz, wearing a white shirt imprinted with “Ako ay Pilipino,” (I am a Filipino) when he arrived, thanked President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Philippine government “because they valued my life … and I will never forget that.”

News reports said it cost Gulf Air a total of $24,000 to bring in de la Cruz and an entourage of Philippine officials who all went to Jordan and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, to facilitate his release and travel to Manila.

Included in the group were de la Cruz’s wife Arsenia and brother Jessie.

Acting on requests from the Emir of Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman and Abu Dhabi, the airline provided the party with free first class tickets and booked the entire first class section of the plane for the Filipinos.

They were also provided with an Australian chef who prepared special food, red and white wine and “designer” ice cream for dessert.

On Thursday morning de la Cruz’s family was flown by helicopter to their home in the village of Buenavista in the town of Mexico, Pampanga, a province about 90 kilometers from Manila.

The next day, they are due to be in Rosales town in Pangasinan, a province farther north from Manila and Pampanga, for a thanksgiving mass offered by Arroyo.

The president, a devout Catholic who believes in the power of prayer, has said the Our Lady of Rosales interceded in the freedom of de la Cruz.

De la Cruz’s instant fame – he is now called the “Filipino Everyman” and a national icon – clouded debates on whether or not the Philippines has strained its smooth relations with the United States by pulling out its humanitarian contingent from Iraq to save one Filipino contract worker held captive by Iraqi militants.

Thursday’s newspapers were abuzz with comments on the hasty departure of U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone for Washington – apparently to discuss with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell “the future of U.S.-Philippines” relations after Manila pulled out its troops from Iraq.

Since de la Cruz’s capture July 7, images of his weathered face staring at a camera in his orange garb gripped Filipinos in the Philippines and abroad, and it was enough to put Arroyo, one of Asia’s staunch supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, to step back and weigh things.

Fresh from winning a full six-year term from a tightly contested presidential election, the petite but tough-voiced head of state of the Southeast Asian country of an estimated population of 84 million looked exactly like her dilemma in the first few days.

Sensing the widening arguments between her pro-U.S. foreign policy and the fate of Filipino overseas contract workers, she ordered a news blackout.

A few days of silence ended with her announcement that she ordered the pullout of the remaining 50-plus soldiers and that de la Cruz’s liberation was being negotiated.

Later, she appeared live on nationwide TV talking over a cellular phone with de la Cruz, who was already under the care of the Philippine Embassy in the UAE, then raised her two arms in jubilation, saying “Thank God!” after the conversation was over.

Even TV newscasts ended on rather high spirits that evening.

She thanked her “unnamed allies,” both Filipinos and foreigners, “for helping her and the government in overcoming this trial.”

“I do not regret my decision,” she said firmly in the midst of criticisms from the U.S. and its other allies who said her decision would encourage further acts of terrorism, especially kidnapping of which her country is known for.

Conflict and poverty characterize life in the Philippines, which sees a daily average of 2,500 Filipinos who leave their homes and seek jobs abroad, some of whom obtain visas and work permits illegally, exposing them to vulnerability to abuse and harassment.

The Department of Labor and Employment said there are eight million Filipino migrant workers – nearly 10 percent of the population – in more than 100 countries worldwide, from Asia to the Middle East and Europe, toiling as nurses, teachers, construction workers, engineers, seafarers and domestic workers.

They send home remittances of up to $8 billion a year, which the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau says is about 10 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Most overseas workers are educated but remain uncomfortable because of lack of jobs and because they, like de la Cruz, who has eight children, support large families.

Government data said 38 percent of the Philippine population is under the poverty line – or they live by only one U.S. dollar a day – unable to afford amenities other than the most basic one, which is food.

This is what Molejona, the dockworker about to leave for Greece, was referring to when he said he had to leave.

“I do not want to be poor and I do not want my children to struggle the same way as I do now,” he told IPS.

Unlike de la Cruz, who arrived surrounded by yellow ribbons, hugs and kisses from his loved ones and government-provided education scholarships for each of his eight children, Molejona said he and millions of others will have to go on to lessen their worries of an uncertain future for their families.