WATCHING Alan Peter Cayetano being interviewed by Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan last Friday night, I was reminded of something Jeremy Paxman, the British broadcast journalist once said: “It seems to me that the way to remove people’s cynicism is, when asked a straight question, to give a straight answer.” This is what Cayetano, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, ought to have done. Excruciatingly, he did exactly the opposite. And the result was a rectum-clenching disaster.
The first minute was taken up by a question on his government’s position regarding North Korea. Cayetano, who didn’t personally seem at all worried by the threat of nuclear war and planetary extinction, responded by burnishing President Duterte’s yet to be seen peacemaker role. This fairly established how things were going to go for the rest of the 12 minutes of allotted time. The secretary would, by turns, lie or, as Paxman might say, talk bollocks.
When it came to commenting on the drug war, Cayetano brazenly lied, contradicted not only himself but also his President, and the administration’s official “line”. He asserted that all those killed in the drug war were criminal drug dealers and were armed with guns. He claimed every death was being investigated. He claimed the government was pumping billions into drug rehab centers. He argued how those who criticized Duterte—the international community, human rights groups, and the Catholic Church—were all just biased against the Philippines. He denied all the occasions in which Duterte swore at world leaders and joked about rape. He reasserted the claim that Davao was one of the safest places in the country, and so on and so forth, until his nose had lengthened to an outsize perch that could accommodate flocks of gulls.
Cayetano reached this point in his career with amazing velocity. At the age of 37 he was chairing the Senate investigative “Blue Ribbon” committee. Two years later he was Senate minority leader. In 2013 he showed his mettle, and apparent distaste for corruption, by wrangling with former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile whom he accused of giving senatorial privileges to a favored aide. In 2016 he campaigned for the vice presidency but that, on reflection, was a rather half-hearted attempt. His ambition lay elsewhere. While his wife Maria Laarni maintained the family stronghold as mayor of Taguig City, he decided to gamble on Duterte.
Investing over P70 million on Duterte’s presidential candidacy, despite declaring assets in 2014 worth only P23.32 million—where did all that money suddenly come from?—Cayetano was the second biggest donor to Duterte’s campaign. In true trapo style, he stood by his man atevery stump speech, smiling and applauding his candidate’s every rape joke, expletive, and admission of brutality and murder. Once Duterte was elected, Cayetano emerged as a deft apologist. He trumpets the country’s newfound closeness with China and Russia, defends Chinese presence in the West Philippine Sea, and excuses extra-judicial killings.
One might try and excuse Cayetano’s interview performance as the result of the interviewer’s overly aggressive style. Hasan, it could be argued, was being shouty, talking over his guest and subjecting him, and viewers, to disrespect with incredulous looks and bullishness—perhaps this is the peculiar trait of interviewers with British accents.
The trouble with that view is that it doesn’t hold up in the face of Cayetano’s own unflappability. He showed no signs of being either flustered or hapless. This is where his cringey performance was rather creepy. Watching him, one is immediately struck by his general calm deportment. He sits well back in the chair. His feet are still, though his heels are slightly raised from the floor. Aside from a few restrained gestures, he keeps his hands together and fingers neatly interlaced. He doesn’t sweat. His flaccid jowls never blush. It is a portrait of self-control that is surely meant to convey dispassionate and commanding authority.
Cayetano got to where he is by raw ambition, partisanship, and patronage. Yes, so far so typical. The most disturbing aspect of the interview was that it so clearly and fundamentally demonstrated the moral rot that has taken hold of the mindsets of those in charge of running the country.
Cayetano does not speak as if he is delusional or even as if he were blindly devoted to the President. Plainly, he could not care less about facts or whether, at the end of the day, he would be derided and mocked for being bereft of integrity and honesty. Spreading propaganda seemed to be his sole brief. Hence, the gruesome truth is that there was a knowingness and calculation to every single one of the lies the country’s top diplomat shamelessly chose to utter.