MANILA - First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo has belied the yarn coming from opposition circles that he is wanted in the US for alleged money laundering.
In an interview with reporters in Washington D.C., Mr. Arroyo branded as lies the reports that he has avoided going to the US since he may be arrested.
"Kasinungalingan ho yon. Ilang beses na kong pumunta sa America. Ang bumabantay po sa akin...meron akong escort, [US] Secret Service, so walang nagaaresto sa akin. Puro malisyoso lang yung mga nagsasabi nun. Paninira lang yun," Mr. Arroyo said.
"At saka wala akong bank account dito. So yung sinasabi nilang money laundering, hindi po totoo yon. Paano magma-money laundering ako, wala ako ni bank account dito. Wala kaming property, Wala kaming stocks. Wala maski ano. So how can that be? Saka hindi totoong iniimbestigahan kami ng FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation," he added.
On the contrary, Mr. Arroyo said it is Sen. Panfilo Lacson and former President Joseph Estrada who cannot go to the US due to the espionage case involving Lacson's former aide, Michael Ray Aquino, and Filipino-American Leandro Aragoncillo.
"Ang hindi makakapunta dito ay si Lacson at saka si Estrada. Ako puwede akong magpunta dito. May valid visa ako," Mr. Arroyo said.
Rumors that Mr. Arroyo was wanted in the US for alleged money laundering surfaced November last year after the chartered plane the Philippine delegation to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was using made an emergency landing in Japan after Mr. Arroyo suffered stomach pains. (Read: Ermita: FG out of danger)
President Arroyo left Manila on Wednesday with the First Gentleman, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, other Cabinet members, and over 20 lawmakers for a two-day visit in the US highlighted by a meeting with US President Barack Obama on July 30 (July 31 in Manila).
Erap reacts: I can visit US, too
In response to the First Gentleman's charge, Estrada told dzMM on Thursday he can go to the US anytime since he still has a valid visa.
Estrada also said he has no pending espionage case in the US.
"Wala kahit anong summon akong natanggap. Wala ako kahit ano mang kaso," he said.
Estrada criticized Mrs. Arroyo's frequent trips abroad, saying that when he was president, he did not like to travel since it is taxpayers who have to pay for the bill.
"Kahit nung ako president, hindi ako mahilig mag-abroad, puwera lang kung kailangan na kailangan. Hindi ako mahilig sa biyahe ng biyahe. Alam ko magastos yan," he said.
Meanwhile, presidential deputy spokesperson Anthony Golez said the fact that the First Gentleman has not been arrested in the US shows that he was just a victim of the opposition's propaganda.
"It just goes to show na ang lahat ng mga allegations ay puro propaganda lamang at gawa-gawa lang ng mga kritiko ng administrasyon," Golez said.
On the First Gentleman's statement linking Lacson and Estrada to espionage, Golez said: "That's just a statement of fact. Espionage is a very serious case in the US and it is a mockery of democracy especially if it involves a former president and a sitting senator."
'She will step down'
The First Gentleman also told reporters in Washington D.C. that President Arroyo had clearly announced in her State of Nation Address (SONA) last Monday that she would step down from office in 2010, contrary to reports that there was no clear goodbye.
"Ayaw lang maniwala talaga sila. Yung ayaw maniwala, wala kang magagawa. Pero she said it very clearly: her term ends in 2010. What can be clearer than that?" Mr. Arroyo said. "Ngayon inulit niya, di ba? Bababa siya after 2010. Ano pang gusto nila?"
Speaking in a dinner engagement before a group of around 200 Filipino-Americans, Mrs. Arroyo repeated her statement during the SONA that she has "never expressed a desire to extend" her term.
Aside from Obama, President Arroyo will be meeting US National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, US lawmakers, and US Senate majority leader Harry Redd.
Only 15 from the Philippine delegation will be with President Arroyo at the White House, and only five will join her in her 45-minute meeting with Obama at the Oval Office.
According to a US State Department official, the Obama-Arroyo meeting will take up the global economic crisis, climate change, regional security, the peace process in Mindanao.
Human rights on agenda
Another source told ABS-CBN's North America Bureau Chief Ging Reyes that Obama will also bring up the issue of human rights in the Philippines. A Filipino-American Melissa Roxas has claimed she was illegally arrested and tortured by the military during her visit to Manila recently.
Human rights activists are expected to hold protests during Obama-Arroyo meeting at 3 p.m. [Washington D.C. time] Thursday.
In Manila, leftist activists on Thursday held a rally across the US embassy along Roxas Blvd.. They were blocked by police from getting near the embassy.
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) warned that Mrs. Arroyo could use the occasion to expand US military presence beyond what is allowed under the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement, and the further opening up of the economy to foreigners.
"Mrs. Arroyo will be desperately seeking the approval and support of the US government, now that her stay in power is about to end. She may offer the US concessions for the basing of US soldiers in Mindanao and a greater US role in so-called counter-terrorism efforts in the country," said Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes.
"We should be very concerned with the agenda of the Arroyo-Obama meeting. We don't know if Mrs. Arroyo will sell us down the river again. In her desperation to stay in power, she may offer the US de facto basing rights, increased troop deployment and 100% foreign ownership of land. We have to closely monitor whatever deal they will strike," he said.
Bayan also alleged that "for Arroyo, the photo-ops with Obama was to die for."
"Arroyo photo-ops with Obama somehow legitimizes her isolated and discredited regime. She is after all the most unpopular Philippine president meeting with a hugely popular American president," Reyes said.
Bayan said that "Obama's photo-ops with the hugely unpopular Arroyo may leave a bad taste in the mouth and may send a wrong message to people."
"It would surely contradict everything Obama said in his inauguration speech," he added.