Aquino’s part-time ambassador to the US

Doing research on some other topic, I stumbled on what at first I thought were outdated information. But the info turned out to be accurate—and troubling.

The conglomerate Philippine Investment Management Inc. (Phinma) listed as one of its board members Jose Cuisia. Isn’t he our current “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States, with concurrent jurisdiction over the Virgin Islands, Grenada and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico?”

Yes he is. And not only that, our ambassador is presently active in nine other firms, which certainly aren’t just mom-and-pop outfits.

He is vice-chairman in the Philippine American Life and General Insurance Co., in which he had been CEO for a decade until its American owners, AIG, went bankrupt and had to sell out to Asian investors. He is also vice chairman of the company, which is at the core of Henry Sy’s empire, SM Prime Holdings.

He is a director of the Ayalas’ Manila Water Co., in cement conglomerate Holcim Philippines, in call-center firm Integra Business Processing Solutions, in property firm ICCP Holdings, and in Beacon Property Ventures.

I nearly fell off my seat reading this information: Cuisia is chairman of The Covenant Car Co.
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Why do I find that shocking? The Covenant Car Company is the sole importer and distributor of the US company Chevrolet’s cars in the Philippines, and I’m certain Cuisia doesn’t know much about the car business.

Its Filipino stockholders might as well have put up a neon sign at their showrooms: Trust us, our chairman is the ambassador to the US, and he sees the Chevrolet chairman often there.

With that number of directorships in major firms, Cuisia is obviously raking it in while he is our underpaid ambassador to the US. Strangely though, he seems to have become exempt from BIR rules since he became ambassador in 2010. Reported as the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s 55th biggest taxpayer in 2009 and paying P13 million in taxes, Cuisia has completely dropped out of the lists for 2010, 2011, and 2012.

Is Cuisia’s continuing employment in private firms while he is the Philippine ambassador to the US legal? If it is, is it proper?

I’m sure that The Covenant Car Co., Phinma Life, SM malls, Manila Water, and Integra Business Processing Solutions would have one way or another have business dealings in the world’s biggest economy.

Does having the Philippine Ambassador to the US as its chairman, vice-chairman or director give that company an unfair edge to its competitors? Or is Cuisia violating in principle the civil service code’s prohibition on conflict-of-interest situations of civil servants employed in private firms?

(The only other civil servant I know who is as busy as Cuisia in private firms is Social System Chairman Juan Santos, who sits in the board of Philex Mining and Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. where the SSS has shares in and in seven other major corporations, including Phinma and First Philippine Holdings.)

But the really important question is not even the legality and morality of a Philippine ambassador busy in ten private companies.

The US is the most important country we have diplomatic relations with. That’s an understatement. As a nation, we’re depending on the US for our security, and after ranting at China, and bad-mouthing it as a bully, our foreign secretary right after would sheepishly glance at Uncle Sam to be assured that it will defend the country if the Chinese really gets pissed off.

The US is also where we have the biggest population of migrant Filipinos, whom we can tap as a powerful lobby group for our national interests, as American Jews have done for decades. As a nation we also have the responsibility to assist them in preserving their Filipino heritage.

Our ambassador represents both the President and the entire country in the world of nations. He can’t be often absent in that job making money in the Philippines.

But maybe his membership in these firms’ board is just titular, and his involvement is through Skype or some of kind of teleconferencing.

Nope. Cuisia is even chairman of Phinma’s compensation committee and a member of its board’s executive committee. In SM Prime, he is chairman of its Risk Management and Audit Committee, and member of its Nomination Committee.

Cuisia has religiously attended in the Philippines each and every meeting of the board of the companies he is a director of, so that he is out of his US post from three days to a week every month.

Our ambassador to the US is not within his area of jurisdiction and travels to the Philippines for several days every month. Does the foreign affairs department pay for Cuisia’s first-class fare or is it the firms he is involved in?

I was surprised over Cuisia’s continued board memberships as I had the impression that this was forbidden, either by civil regulations or by practice in the foreign affairs department.

I remember there were magnates who wanted to be ambassadors during President Arroyo’s term, but who later on declined after being told they would have to take a leave from their companies. Tycoons Jaime Zobel de Ayala and Edgardo Espiritu had to take a leave of absence from their businesses when they served as ambassadors to the United Kingdom

Cuisia’s monthly travel to the Philippines is actually quite a remarkable feat.

Ambassadors are required to get an approval not only from the foreign affairs secretary but also from the President or the Executive Secretary when he leaves his post.

Not only that. The foreign secretary has to formally issue a document appointing a chargé d’affaires, or the official in charge of the Embassy while he ambassador is away. Not only that. The embassy has to report to the State Department (or the foreign affairs ministry in other countries) that the ambassador is not in the country, and that the chargé d’affaires will temporarily represent the nation. I doubt if Cuisia bothered with these required documentation.

All these paper work only emphasizes the fact that part of an ambassador’s job description is that he can leave his post only for official reasons or in an emergency. I wonder how Cuisia justified his board meetings with Phinma, SM and the other eight companies as “attending to official matters.”

An ambassador’s job is actually a very demanding one if one takes his work seriously. Filipino organizations demand the personal presence of the ambassador in their social activities. You can dismiss these as petty events, but one can also see these as opportunities to strengthen your links to the Filipino community you also represent in that land.

The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 in effect even gave our ambassadors a new, demanding duty of protecting OFWs in their posts, a job no other country has asked of their ambassadors.

What also makes an ambassador’s work practically limitless is the fact that to pursue the country’s interests, he has to make friends with the elite of the country he is covering, and this requires unending invitations to them for lunch or dinner. These requires the patience and energies of a salesman, since a single addition to an ambassador’s stock of friends would be another source of support when the Philippines need something from that host government.

Having a part-time ambassador is even a bit of an insult to the country he is posted in, as it sends the message that it is not that important a nation that it is not a full-time job for our ambassador, who will be away a week every month. I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans think of us so poor that we have to allow our ambassador in the US to make money in private firms while he is in his post.

No wonder we aren’t getting anything really substantial from the US, other than their empty blah-blahs supporting our saber-rattling against China, no wonder our embassy can’t even lobby successfully for the US president to visit our country.