Having arranged a 10-day trip to the US for herself and at least 59 of her loyal congress members, at a reported cost of 66 million pesos ($1.42 million), Filipino President Arroyo was not going to let anything stop her. So, despite the country being hit by Typhoon Fengshen, she boarded her plane in late June and left. The Philippines has taken a lashing not just from Fengshen this year, but also from rising food prices, fuel shortages and mass unemployment. The trip cost enough to buy 4.4 million kilos of rice. With 9.5 million of 33.5 million workers either unemployed or under-employed in the Philippines and over 15 per cent of the country’s families experiencing hunger, Arroyo’s junket was, not surprisingly, greeted with accusations of insensitivity and corruption. Archbishop Angel Lagdameo voiced the outrage of many when he exclaimed: ‘In the face of the exaggerated and expensive trip of more than 60 of our national leadership to the US, how can we talk of austerity and frugality in spending the people’s taxes?’ The NGO Focus on the Global South also condemned the trip, saying: ‘Corruption sucks our already limited resources dry, effectively shrinking Government budgets by about a fifth annually. Banning frivolous expenses would bring considerable savings… but change must begin at the top’.
On arrival in the US, Arroyo was met with numerous demonstrations by angry Filipino-Americans. Back home, Heidi Laurel, desperately seeking information about family members on the Princess of the Stars ferry – which sank in the storms, killing 800 people – screamed out in vain: ‘Where is President Arroyo? We need you here now. Where are you?’ Unfortunately for Heidi and the 45 million Filipinos struggling to live on $2 a day, Arroyo seems only to have ears for her friends in the US.