Salonga and the Senate that said no

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 16, 1991, the Philippine Senate took a vote that forever changed Philippine-American relations. By a close vote of 12-11, a sharply divided Senate rejected a new treaty that would allow the United States to continue using its naval facilities in Subic for another 10 years after the expiration of the old colonial agreement. The Constitution requires the concurrence of at least two-thirds of the senators.

So strong was the American pressure on the Senate and on the beleaguered Cory Aquino presidency itself that a slight delay in the vote might have changed the result. The exemplary role played by Sen. Jovito R. Salonga made all the difference.

From day one as Senate president, Salonga made a personal vow to frustrate any attempt to extend the life of American bases in the Philippines under a new treaty. This was not easy because it meant going against President Cory Aquino. It was mainly Cory’s popularity that had carried him and his colleagues in the Lakas ng Bayan coalition to victory in the first post-Edsa elections of 1987. Now Cory was on the other side, actively campaigning for the approval of the new treaty, as a way of repaying the support the US gave her when military coups threatened her government. He himself had spent many years in exile in the US during martial law and had benefited from the friendship of countless US officials and politicians.  He could not ignore easily the pleas of these well-meaning friends.

Salonga’s acute sense of history kept him focused on what he felt he needed to do. He set aside all personal considerations—something that, in our culture, was hard to do without appearing rude and arrogant. But, the closing of the American bases in the Philippines took precedence over everything. It was to him a necessary condition for our emergence as a fully sovereign nation—something we needed to do for the sake of future generations, even if it meant displeasing an important and powerful ally.

He was painfully aware that his active opposition to the treaty would adversely affect his political plans. The presidential election of 1992 was just around the corner. Many influential leaders and businessmen who had supported him in his long political career and wished to see him succeed Cory, warned him against playing an assertive role on the issue.  But Salonga would not be deterred. For him, the time had come to close this colonial chapter of our history, and it fell on him to lead the Senate to that final moment.

Political decisions like this are not made in a vacuum. Many things happened in 1991 that shaped the way Filipinos thought about the future of their country. In June that same year, in the middle of the bases negotiation, the long dormant Mt. Pinatubo volcano erupted in fury, burying Central Luzon where Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base were located, in thick ash fall. More than half a million residents were dislocated. The Americans abruptly left Clark, but they insisted on remaining in Subic. The provinces of Pampanga, Bataan and Zambales—whose economies had long been dependent on the American bases—favored the US retention of Subic. They saw in the continued American presence a peg on which to anchor the region’s recovery from devastation.

But a new era was unfolding in the rest of the world. The period from 1989 to 1991 saw the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. These events effectively brought to a close the Cold War which, for a half century, had been the stimulus to the proliferation of American strategic bases in the Pacific. They signaled the emergence of the United States as the lone superpower on the global stage. In this new world order, nearly every nation aspired to be on the good side of a triumphant America. Except the Filipinos who seemed bent on “unfriending” the world’s lone superpower by flatly rejecting its request to retain Subic.

In retrospect, America might have overplayed its hand and underestimated the residues of anti-colonial sentiments that remained in the hearts of a generation of Filipinos who longed for real independence. The proposed treaty contained no firm commitment in the form of trade or assistance in exchange for the use of the base. Some of the senators who supported it could not speak for it with full conviction. The US knew that the country needed concrete assurances of assistance in a time of great need. But it opted to act as if Filipinos owed America its bases.

America took the Senate rejection badly.  Ambassador Frank G. Wisner who came to Manila at the height of the negotiations in 1991 was recalled soon after, spending barely a year at his post. For a long while, Washington did not send a replacement. The departing US forces took out everything they could detach from their facilities, leaving their stunned hosts to clean after them.

It took sometime before we could put the lands that the US bases occupied to productive use. But the country did not die after the American pullout. Later, we tried to appease America by approving a Visiting Forces Agreement that permitted US soldiers to come for joint military exercises with our forces. They did not go back to Clark or Subic, but instead they have established a regular presence in Mindanao, using the global war on terror as their justification for being there. It makes one wonder what else they are doing in that contested part of the country. It is time for the Senate to affirm its historic vote of 1991 by junking the VFA.