Diplomats of culture

How odd that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should convene a conference on “Cultural Diplomacy”! Haven’t they been doing that since the First Republic? I thought cultural diplomacy was and is the core of our relationship with the international community of nations, so why the conference? The guest list was a polemical blend of bureaucrats from agencies in charge of culture and the arts, education, economic planning, budget, painters, musicians, cultural workers, writers, poets, anthropologists, heritage advocates , thespians, and academics from the private sector. The energetic facilitator observed that there were Baby Boomers, Gen X, iGen, GenZ, and Millennials, quite a polemical mix. Most were from “imperial Manila,” Luzon, a few from the “communities in the fringes.” The cocktail could have been explosive, yet the 8-hour-long encounter was the most peaceful I had ever attended; no hair-pulling or gnashing of teeth.

DFA Undersecretary Ernesto Abella said that the underlying objective of the conference was to write or construct the narrative of the Filipino people, our history not just from colonial times but way before that. What triggered this exercise is the sad image we Filipinos have abroad; we seem to be undervalued, our immutable virtues of caring and healing have been mistaken for abject servility that have provoked maltreatment, all manner of abuse, even death. A recent example was cited—the brutal rape and murder of a domestic helper in the Middle East.

The Filipino is known for his/her creativity in the art world; in the world of dance and music, we are naturals, oftentimes unrivalled. Tourists feel it is more fun in the Philippines because we are hospitable people. The government is a signatory of most of the international treaties – like the Venice and Bura Charters — that protect world heritage. The UNESCO has declared a number of our heritage structures and places as treasures of humanity. The Philippines has graced art biennales and international movie festivals with distinction. Be that as it may, the DFA has come to the conclusion that as a leading government agency, it has not been taking full advantage of cultural diplomacy.

During the sumptuous plated lunch (catered by Chef Jessie) there were regaling stories of how our corps of diplomats , from ambassadors to attaches, are often misfits in their posts. I said that in my  20 years of exile in Mexico, most of the ambassadors sent to that post were not even conversant in Spanish, the staff kept to themselves because of the language barrier. Two retired Filipino ambassadors who were at the same table said they had to dig into their own pockets to have a decent Independence Day celebration. There is also a dearth of cultural material; they welcome the “Sentro Rizal” which is a provision of RA 10066, the Heritage Law sponsored by the late Senator Eduardo Angara. There are 35 Sentro Rizal in various embassies, but one of which already closed down for lack of use.

There is a recently created office at the DFA for “Cultural Diplomacy” and its assistant secretary presented the Implementation Plan for 2020 to 2022 based on the discussion of the 2-day conference held last November, 2019, at the Diamond Hotel. Most of the participants attended the second conference which, I think, shows that we are concerned about the state of “cultural diplomacy” and are most willing to contribute our time, effort and whatever expertise and experience we may have.

There were participants from Lanao del Sur, specifically Marawi, from South Cotabato and Sulu concerned about the misappropriation of their sacred woven fabrics by foreign designers, or the mindless combination of weaves from various indigenous communities. One of them volunteered to be a member of the 9-person working committee mandated to refine the list of projects in the Implementation Plan. Aside from the Heritage Conservation Society which I represented, the other private sector groups were Manila Movie Nights, Locked Down Entertainment, Raintree Group of Restaurants, Eat your History/Food, Mindanao Creative Writers, IBULAO/Ifugao,TAO Music, CSV Atelier, Papemelrote, etc. The National Museum of the Philippines, NCCA, and NHCP were ably represented just like the Department of Tourism. It all begins with love of country, Usec Abella concluded with conviction. We wholeheartedly agreed.