OPINION: Retired envoys take up cudgels for demoralized Foreign Service Officers

Ellen T. Tordesillas

Posted at Nov 07 2016 12:55 AM

Retired Ambassador Jaime J. Yambao wrote in his column in Manila Times that the  Board of Governors of the Philippine Ambassadors Foundation Inc. (PAFI) at its last meeting agreed to “express its alarm and concern over the demoralization in the ranks of career ambassadors caused by the announced and probable appointment of political ambassadors to the country’s diplomatic and consular posts abroad.”

One cannot expect the active foreign service officers to come out about their misgivings with the way things are in foreign service so their “elders”, the retired ambassadors, are taking up the cudgels for them because they are all “committed to promoting and upholding the professionalization of the (foreign) service for the effective pursuit of the interests of the country and its people. “

Yambao said, “The board therefore deplores the appointment of non-career ambassadors on the basis of contributions the prospective appointee made to the election campaign kitty of the appointing power or powers, or upon the recommendation of campaign contributors and supporters.

“One such appointment that has not escaped the notice of the PAFI board involves yanking a career ambassador, a former undersecretary of foreign affairs for policy no less and a topnotcher of the Foreign Service Officers examination, from a post at which he is newly arrived and has just presented his credentials. This is almost unheard of, even in the Philippines. Political appointments have always been to vacant or about-to-be-vacant posts.”

The Foreign Service Act  provides a tour of duty for a foreign service officer of six years. This is common sense because an officer is expected to make a mark in his post after he has learned first-hand the situation in the host country and has made the connections vital in promoting  Philippine interests.

The retired envoys didn’t mention names but they are obviously referring to the appointment of Antonio Manuel R. Lagdameo as ambassador to United Kingdom replacing Evan Garcia who assumed the London post last May and presented his credentials to the Queen just recently. 

Lagdameo is the brother-in-law of Duterte’s biggest donor, Antonio Floirendo Jr., who contributed a total of P100 million to Duterte’s campaign—P75 million to Duterte and P25 million to the PDP-Laban. 

Lagdameo is actually not new to foreign service.  A very good friend of Gloria Arroyo, his past stint in the foreign service is referred to as “diplomatic musical chair.” First named as ambassador to  Mexico in January 2007, he transferred to Spain in August 2008. He stayed in Madrid  for less than a year . Then he got the United Kingdom post on July 15, 2009. He also barely accomplished anything in U.K because the change of administration in 2010 saw him out of the London post.

Diplomatic sources said the one thing that the Lagdameos are remembered for during their U.K posting is their attendance in the famous Blackpool Dance Festival in Blackpool, England a resort city, four to six hours drive from London.

The annual Blackpool Dance Festival that lasts for eight days is the largest ballroom dancing competition in the world with participants from 60 countries.

The 2017  Blackpool Dance Festival will be on May 25 to June 2. By then, the Lagdameos would already be ensconced in the Philippine Embassy in London.

Yambao said, “The appointment in question has brought jitters to other career ambassadors, making them burn the wires to Manila to find out if they are secure in their assignments. The apprehension seems to be general, given the indications that would-be political appointees are targeting not just the reputedly cushy posts such as the aforementioned one but any and all ambassadorships, the remotest and so-called hardship posts not excepted.”

A Gloria Arroyo appointee, Shirley Ho-Vicario, formerly ambassador to Papua New Guinea, was able to spot the vacancy in the Philippine Embassy in Nigeria, which is currently headed by Charge d’affairs Jose A. Cabrera, III.

Vicario was so eager to be back in the diplomatic circle, she joined the 123 appointees of Duterte and took her oath of office in Malacanang last Oct. 11  even if she is not yet confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.

Career foreign officers recognize the value of political appointees in foreign service. Nobody is complaining about the appointment of journalist Chito Sta. Romana as ambassador to China and writer Teodoro Locsin Jr as permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

The 1991 Foreign Service Act provides that “the President shall be guided, as much as possible, by the principle that a majority of diplomatic and permanent missions shall be headed by career ambassadors.”

But, Yambao said, at least appoint people who could be assets and not liabilities. “Political appointees should at the very least meet the same age range requirement. Career ambassadors are subject to a mandatory retirement age of 65. Certain recent appointees are observed to be advanced in age and are even hard of hearing.. This is a dangerous impairment in person-to-person representations and negotiations over complicated or highly nuanced issues, no matter to what post an ambassador is assigned to,” Yambao said.

DFA insiders worry about Duterte’s choice for the Brunei post--James Lao replacing Meynard Montealegre, who has been in the post for only two years. 

In his confirmation hearing last Oct. 19, Lao, 74 years old, answered “I don’t know”  when asked if he knew what kind of jobs Filipinos had in Brunei, what their labor concerns were.

He also didn’t know about agreements signed during the recent visit of President Duterte to Brunei.

The Commission on Appointments bypassed Lao. But his CA performance made people remark that he must have contributed a hefty sum to get an ambassadorial post. 

But nobody beats Philippe J.Lhuillier, whose nomination as ambassador to Spain was confirmed last Oct. 19.  Previous to this, he was ambassador to Portugal. Before Portugal, he was ambassador to Italy.

He is the one referred to by the retired ambassadors as “the phenomenal case of one businessman who has secured an ambassadorship under four successive, different administrations. The appointment of a political ambassador is co-terminous with the appointing power. But this particular political appointee, instead of preparing his resignation letter at the end of an administration, launches a campaign of his own to get an ambassadorial appointment from whoever succeeds to the presidency. Political ambassadors plucked from eminent business circles declare themselves ‘done’ after a stint that has meant an enormous financial sacrifice for them. But this is probably not the case with this particular political appointee, for instead, his family business seems to thrive while he is in the foreign service. “

The retired ambassadors explained why the awarding of ambassadorships as political spoils causes demoralization in the DFA career service.

“In the first place, the entrance examinations have by no means been made easier. Before there were only the written and oral examinations to worry about. Now, the applicants may be disqualified outright by the Civil Service examination. Those who pass the written and oral tests may flunk the psychological examination.

“Because the Foreign Service Officers examinations have been reformed to take on board applicants from a multiplicity of disciplines, newly appointed Foreign Service Officers undergo a specific Foreign Service cadetship program. They then undergo continuous on-the-job training to meet the changing needs of the country and changing developments in the international environment, including, aside from traditional diplomacy, economic diplomacy, public diplomacy, and serving the worldwide Filipino diaspora overseas. Promotion to every upper rung of the career system is competitive. In recent years, Foreign Service Officers have been required to take a Career Minister examination before they can go to the ultimate rungs and pinnacle of the system.

“As with their original appointment, promotions of FSOs and Career Ministers and appointments as Ambassadors are subject to confirmation by the congressional Commission on Appointments. In the case of political appointees, the CA hopefully will set the bar as high as befits the enormous challenges facing all Philippine ambassadors, career and non-career, in the service of the country and people.”

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