By Roy Mabasa
At least two seasoned Filipino diplomats and a political appointee who all prominently figured in last year’s Kuwait rescue fiasco were among the recipients of the Gawad Mabini Awards given by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday.
The awarding rites coincided with the DFA’s 121st founding anniversary celebration held at the Bulwagang Apolinario Mabini in Pasay City.
Former Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Pedro Villa received the coveted Dakilang Kamananong (Grand Cross) award, one of the highest decorations given to a former or incumbent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Chief of Mission, Cabinet member, or other high official who heads a Philippine delegation to an important international conference on a ministerial level, and, as a result thereof, has made substantive contributions to public interest and public welfare.
In May last year, Villa was expelled by the Kuwaiti government for his apparent role in the “Gestapo-type” rescue of an OFW from the apartment of her Kuwaiti employer. He was the first Filipino diplomat to be expelled from a foreign post.
The diplomatic spat between the Philippines and Kuwait governments reached a fever pitch when the latter demanded the Philippine Embassy to surrender all those who were involved in the daring rescue mission.
Kuwait was further infuriated when a video of the rescue started circulating in the mainstream and social media courtesy of the then Assistant Secretary for Public Information Elmer Cato.
Villa, who earned the distinction as the first Filipino overseas worker to become a full-pledged diplomat, was later demoted to the rank of Consul General and is now serving in that capacity at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C.
In a complete reversal of fortune, Cato was since then promoted to the rank of Chief of Mission I and is now serving as the country’s envoy to Libya.
Former Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) Executive Director Raul Dado, one of the central figures in the botched Kuwait rescue incident, received the Dakilang Kasugo Award with the rank of Commander. It is an award conferred upon an officer with a rank between career minister to Foreign Service Officer class IV, or upon personnel of a government agency who serves as an Attache in a Foreign Service.
Dado, who led the controversial rescue operation in Kuwait, took refuge at the Philippine Embassy premises when Kuwaiti authorities sought his team’s arrest for alleged violation of their laws.
Like Villa, Dado has been demoted and is now assigned as Special Assistant at the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Concerns.
On the other hand, Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sarah Lou Arriola was also awarded a Grand Cross.
It was learned that Arriola, a close confidante and an appointee of former DFA secretary and now Taguig Congressman Alan Peter Cayetano, was sent to Kuwait last year to lead the rescue and repatriation of distressed Filipino workers.
DFA insiders said Arriola reportedly left the Gulf state in haste after the Kuwait government began protesting the rescue conducted by a Philippine team.
Aside from Villa’s expulsion, Kuwaiti authorities also arrested three Philippine Embassy personnel who were believed to be part of the rescue operation.
Diplomatic tension between the Philippines and Kuwait was only tempered when President Durterte sent Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers Abdullah Mama-o to negotiate with the Kuwait government. Mama-o’s talks with the Kuwaitis later resulted in the signing of a labor agreement that provides more protection to OFWs.
Aside from Villa, Dado and Arriola, also bestowed with the Mabini awards were Ambassador to Malaysia Charles Jose (Dakilang Kamanong), and OUMWA staff Hussain Hadjinoor (Kasugo).
Established in 1974 by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 490 and named after Filipino national hero and the first Foreign Affairs Secretary Apolinario Mabini, the Gawad Mabini is conferred on Filipinos who rendered distinguished foreign service or helped promote the interests and prestige of the Philippines abroad.
Meanwhile, those honored with the Felipe Agoncillo Lifetime Service Award (FALSA) were Ambassador to Thailand Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon, Philippine Embassy in Baghdad Charge d’Affaires Julius Torres, Consul General to Calgary Gilberto Asuque, Consul General to New York Claro Cristobal, Consul General to Sydney Teresa Taguiang and Consul General to Chongqing Crescente Relacion.