By JOSE C. DE VENECIA JR.
Former Speaker of the House
We are off this Monday on a three-week fast-moving journey and speaking engagements in Nepal in the Himalayas in South Asia, then to Tehran, Iran in the Middle East, and on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in Southeast Asia with brief connecting flight stop-overs in Bangkok and Muscat, Oman.
We sincerely thank God that at 81, the Lord has given us fair health and some residual energy to attend meetings, deliver speeches at home and overseas, pursue strategic goals, and comply with foreign obligations. At times, we are joined by wife Gina, who is almost 70 herself, having served two terms in Congress as president of the 85-member Association of Women Legislators. Son Christopher is a neophyte 31-year-old congressman on his first term, and dedicated to economic, tourism, and agricultural development in Pangasinan’s 4th district which includes the miraculous Virgin Mary Basilica in Manaoag, visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.
We used to tease old friends, saying we all could have ran together all at the same time for different posts but with that, we would not feel right. My wife ran only after we retired, and our son ran only after his mother retired. But in all these cases, victory was not presumed. We all went through competitive elections.
Our son Joey de Venecia III was for a while secretary-general of PDP-Laban, now the ruling party, but he chose to retire early from politics and today is helping develop a petrochemical complex project in Iran in the Middle East, with China’s Xianglu Dragon Group, led by pioneering industrial and hotels leader Chen You Hao.
We ourselves as Filipinos pioneered for 11 years in the 1970s/80s in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya in North Africa as risk-takers then in oil exploration, and as prime contractors, operating the Port of Jeddah on the Red Sea, and Jubail in the Persian Gulf.
We also built large-scale pioneering electrification network around the Riyadh central region of Saudi Arabia; highways in Iraq, oil drilling in the Emirate of Ajman, the United Arab Emirates and hit commercial oil there to much joy, until the price of oil plunged from $39 per barrel to $8 per barrel in only a few months, and we had to abandon the well after much tears and wailing, and brought our oil rig and Filipino workforce home, the first Filipino-led oil well abroad with foreign partners. In those halcyon days in the Middle East, we had some 50,000 employees as prime contractors and a few times as sub-contractors in various fields, which later led to the employment of millions of Filipinos in succeeding years, lifting Philippine dollar reserves when we began, at $200-million/$300-million to multi-billions in a year, to over $80-billion in Philippine foreign exchange reserves today.
At any rate, we lost our hard-earned wealth with our sudden pull-out from the Middle East triggered by the Iraq-Iran war, and our forced abandonment of our some $40-million in infrastructure equipment in the war zone and our tragic expensive repatriation of thousands of our workers back to the Philippines.
We remember with pride that our direct employment of tens of thousands of Filipinos in the Arab world, beginning with our initial small foray in Iran and our large-scale operation on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, dramatically enriched the Philippine Central Bank’s dollar reserves, enabled us to regain our seat in Congress after Martial Law, was elected speaker five times without precedent, made a bid for the presidency but came out short, second to the popular movie actor Joseph “Erap” Estrada in a highly competitive field of ten, where our party then, Lakas CMD (Christian-Muslim Democrats) had four strong unyielding rebel candidates, and several others while our friend Erap, alone in his party, sailed home victorious.
We used to tease him that he should have not run at all and left the presidential field to us instead of being confined later, until we moved for his pardon and later, he largely redeemed himself by his two meritorious re-elections as mayor of Manila.
Today at 81, while my old colleagues are enjoying their retirement, we continue to be challenged by our work as chairman of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) which we founded in Manila in 2000, now composed of more than 300 ruling, opposition, and independent political parties in Asia and meets once or twice a year. Our other organization, the International Association of Parliamentarians for Peace (IAPP), co-chairmaned by former senior US 30-year Congressman Dan Burton, has more than 1,500 parliamentary members in six continents.
We also initiated the now robust Asian Parliamentary Assembly (APA) and transferred its headquarters from Manila to Tehran to contribute to efforts then to help bring Tehran to the center and the new successful Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council (APRC), based in Bangkok, headed by former Thai Vice-Premier and former Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai.
We also continue to serve without salary as President Rodrigo Duterte’s Special Envoy for Intercultural Dialogue and to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and, except for one trip, pay for our own transport fare and hotels stay with our assistant, Aldwin Requejo, who served for a long time as an executive in the House of Representatives. We enjoy our work and are not complaining, for serving the country is a great honor but sometimes our wife Gina tells us to slow down.
From Nepal and Iran, we journey back to Southeast Asia in Cambodia on July 27-31, to head the Foreign Observers Team to observe the Cambodian Parliamentary Elections. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is still running after 30 years as leader of the nation, is likely to win. If we have the chance, as a true friend, we would advise him to give way in the next round to younger leaders, although to be objective, he routed the murderous Khmer Rouge, has largely developed the country, built the economy, agriculture, and tourism, from the ashes of civil war, together with his co-premier, Prince Ranariddh, son of the late, legendary King Norodom Sihanouk, to a respectable and viable place in ASEAN.
We also had the opportunity to visit the new young King Norodom Sihamoni and the still beautiful Queen Mother, half-Italian Norodom Monineath, perhaps now in her eighties, and hope that when we arrive in Phnom Penh, Prince Ranariddh would have recovered from the near-fatal car crash last month where his wife died. Prince Ranariddh is still in a hospital in Bangkok where he was brought, and was visited recently by our wife, Gina, together with close friends who were attending a conference in the Thai capital.
Senior parliamentary and political party delegates from China, Japan, Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and others will most likely assemble in the Cambodian capital in a few days most likely to act as observers to witness and encourage the Khmer nation’s march toward full democracy.