Starting in Los Angeles on Valentine's Day and proceeding to San Francisco the following evening, Bello brought political optimism to audiences consisting of former anti-martial law activists, community organizers, trade unionists, good governance advocates and longtime friends. He will also visit Washington, DC, Portland and Seattle.
His message to Filipino Americans-social reform and the fight against corruption can succeed in the current political system. Moreover, Bello said, progressive candidates must win in the coming May elections so that reforms gained through Akbayan's alliance with the current administration can be preserved and built on.
In addition to Akbayan (Citizens Action Party) party-list campaign for Congress, the party's Risa Hontiveros is running on the Liberal Party senatorial slate backed by President Aquino. In a narrow miss, she came in 13th in her last senatorial bid.
Audiences who gathered at a downtown residence in Los Angeles and at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 Hall in San Francisco responded enthusiastically to Bello's appeal for support. He raised more than $8,000 for Akbayan's campaign war chest in just the two appearances.
Bello confessed that it was easier being in the opposition during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration than being in Congress and in the administration, working in coalitions in pursuit of good governance. "But it has been worth it," he said.
The biggest battle his alliance won, he explained, was the Reproductive Health Act, which "finally legalizes family planning" in the Philippines. Bello reminded his audiences that family planning was "key to the economic growth of neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam."
"The battle of the century," he said, "strengthened the separation of church and state. It is a step towards greater secularization of Philippine politics and it has created a sense of hopefulness in the public that change is possible despite opposition from powerful forces like the Catholic Church."
In fighting corruption, Bello explained that it was important for Macapagal-Arroyo and her cronies to be brought to justice. The prosecution of the former president and the removal of her protective ombudsman and chief justice were important signals to the public, he said. "You have to start from the top in fighting corruption, otherwise efforts to go after middle or lower level wrongdoers won't have credibility."
Bello reported that his party merely shrugged off criticisms by detractors in the Philippine media who called Akbayan the president's "attack dog" for its relentless pursuit of Macapagal-Arroyo and her allies.
On the anti-poverty front, Bello cited the administration's Conditional Cash Transfer Program. Regular cash payments are given to parents on the condition that they keep their children in school—instead of making them work for a living to support the family-and bringing them regularly to public health clinic checkups.
The program "creates social conditions that will help break the cycle of poverty," Bello said. "There are now close to 3.2 million families in the program on its third year." Conditional cash transfers have proved effective in Brazil and Mexico and the program is supported by the World Bank.
Bello, however, noted that there are substantial differences between Akbayan and the Aquino administration. Comprehensive agrarian reform, he said, is "too slow." While Akbayan is pushing for a comprehensive economic strategy, the administration needs one instead of short-term policies.
Moreover, while Akbayan supports the president's stance against China's claims on Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea, it disagrees with tying the Philippines' claim to the US-China "superpower dynamics."
Despite these differences, however, Bello says his party is committed to finding common ground with Pres. Aquino because of the latter's dedication to clean governance. "This president has not been tainted with any hint of corruption, not a single one," Bello pointed out.
A positive outcome of the relationship has been Aquino's tapping of Akbayan's Risa Hontiveros for the Liberal Party senatorial team in the upcoming May 2013 elections.
Bello stated Akbayan has learned much during its initial years in Congress. "We are not purists. We're able to deal with reality as long as we keep our principles. Coalitions are necessary to get things done in our work as progressives."
Bello encouraged dual citizens to vote and to ask relatives and friends in the Philippines to vote for Akbayan in Congress and Risa Hontiveros and other progressives for the Senate.
He lauded Filipino Americans who lobbied Philippine Congress to facilitate overseas voting and continuing to demand procedural refinements. Bello also asked his audiences to continue pressing for social reforms and good governance and defending the Philippines' sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.
"There is really no border between you and us," he said.