So, I’ve been debating with myself for a while regarding how to break this news…and I’m taking the bitch way out and letting you all read this to explain myself. There are a lot more reasons that I’ve been fighting with to make my final decision. Yeah, I’m expecting amillion comments and messages in response to this, but so be it. I love you all and miss you sooooooo much. And I miss my city.

Fil-Am poll observer tarries in RP

May 19, 2007
Editor’s Note: Published on page A1 of the June 14, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer


MANILA, Philippines — Among the foreign observers of the May 14 elections, one young Filipino-American has yet to book a return flight, believing her work here is far from over.

Cecilia Pe Lero, born and raised in the United States and a political science magna cum laude graduate from New York University, has actually spent the last eight months in Manila with her Filipino relatives.

What began as a vacation from the Big Apple turned into an eye-opening lesson in Philippine politics that could shape the promising career of this 21-year-old.

Lero extended her stay so she could join the International Observers Mission (IOM) 2007, a civil society initiative to monitor the balloting and draw global attention to signs of fraud. The lone Fil-Am was also the youngest of the 16 IOM delegates from nine countries.

“It was very important for me to come back and work here,” Lero told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of, on Wednesday at her uncle’s house in Quezon City. (Her Filipino parents last brought the younger of their two children to the Philippines in 1989, when she was only four years old.)

Her special area of research is democracy development and institute building, especially in the Third World, and after finishing college in May 2006, she “definitely considered traveling and choosing among several community-building and development programs [abroad].”

“But in the end I chose to come here because if I’m going to help develop a country, it should be my own,” Lero said, her voice often lost in the cacophony of tricycles and trucks plying the street outside — a reminder of how far she had wandered away from her Brooklyn apartment.

Lero managed in January to land an internship with the Institute for Popular Democracy, a reform advocacy center also based in Quezon City. As an IPD fellow, she got a chance to put her training to use as a lecturer or project facilitator.

Her original travel plans specified returning to New York in March to resume her job hunting. (She has actually kept in touch with non-government organizations in the United States and was interviewed on the phone by up to three prospective employers.)

“But all these opportunities and emotions came up,” she said, referring to the election fever beginning to peak at the time.

Lero easily got a slot in the IOM, especially because the mission included IPD among its organizers. Her scheduled flight home had to wait.

But her parents based in North Carolina were not pleased.

“They were not supportive at all,” Lero admitted, referring to her folks, both Visayans, who migrated to the United States for “common — economic — reasons” in the 1970s.

“Huwag! Bakit mo gusto pumunta doon? Delikado doon! Magulo doon! [Don’t! Why do you want to go there? It’s dangerous there!]” she recalled her parents saying on the phone.

“Knowing that they had worked so hard to live in America, to give up what they knew here, I’m sure they definitely had a lot of fear about my getting involved in politics here,” she said.

At this point, Lero appeared to struggle to get the words out: “But my feeling is that I can do something, it is my duty, because people who have the opportunity should help those who cannot help themselves. That’s my belief.”

“So while it may be a little, you know, hokey and mushy, I did not feel that I was losing anything by coming here. Because if I decided it would be useless, I could always just go back.”

Lero was part of a three-member IOM team that monitored the elections in Pampanga, touring the capital city San Fernando and at least six more towns, on May 12-15.

Her parents’ “fears for my safety” seemed to have been validated during her team’s road trip.

Consistent with what other IOM members have reported, Lero said her team encountered crowds curiously gathered in one place where either a town mayor or barangay (village) chair was holding court, distributing sample ballots and “envelopes” on the eve of the elections.

It particularly “disturbed” her team, she said, to see “children being used” to distribute campaign materials.

The team also caught parts of a mass being celebrated to “bless” independent poll watchers before they were deployed. And at the very moment the priest was warning in his homily about blackouts mysteriously occurring on election day, the power did go out suddenly in the neighborhood.

And based on ”reports” reaching her team, the going rate for alleged vote-buying operations in Pampanga were P500 each for members of drivers associations, P300 to P500 each for members of senior citizens groups, and P3,000 each for school teachers who were to man the polling precincts.

Lero said the IOM team sent to Negros Occidental reported encountering ”five different election returns with the same penmanship. It can become so obvious and outrageous that all they could do was just laugh.”

But seriously, she said, ”the overall feeling [of IOM delegates] is that the world is watching and that the world cares.”

”Our general belief is that Filipinos deserve better than a deficient democracy – or democracy that is nominal only,” she added.

”It’s been quite offensive and quite depressing to see how much immoral action has occurred. Before I came here, when I told people that I was going back to hopefully work on reforming the Philippine political system, a lot of people laughed at me. They said it was beyond hope, they said it was too far gone.”

”But I think [otherwise], seeing especially the outpouring of interest from civil society, seeing especially the group gathered in San Fernando who were private citizens with no organization, the multitude of volunteers of my age and younger, barangay captains who refuse to be afraid. These are stories that inspire me personally.”

They have gone “with no sleep, no food, looking over the shoulders” of their election officers and “very alert to the mechanisms of dagdag-bawas [vote-padding and -shaving],” Lero noted.

Professing no interest in entering politics in the future, Lero said she saw herself staying in academe, perhaps earning a PhD, and doing NGO work “designing institutions” and “understanding their failures.”

“People want to study things, to understand them, and so a responsible government would seek the advice of these academic experts in order to better formulate their policies and institutions. And so I hope to be someone who could offer advice to people or policymakers who are dedicated to reform,” she said.

Perhaps, she said, unlike the other IOM members who saw her “home” country in such a state these days, “my desire for reform tends to come from a lot more emotional place.”

But before she gets carried away, isn’t she supposed to be calling her airline now, or at least following up her job applications in New York?

Said Lero: “It has gotten me thinking: There are so many qualified applicants there. It’s not that I’m scared I won’t get the position, but it’s obvious that there is a lot more need here.”

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