IS the Cabinet listening to President Rodrigo Duterte?
Judging from recent pronouncements and actions, some may be hard of hearing.
Take Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Last year his boss said more than once that he wanted foreign troops out of the country in two years.
And the President had threatened to abrogate the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, noting that it was not a treaty, but an executive agreement which the President could terminate without Senate approval.
The EDCA allows American forces to escalate deployment in the country and use our military bases. Duterte also ended joint sea patrols, to avoid raising tensions with China.
Yet a month ago, Secretary Lorenzana announced that the United States would build and repair facilities in three Philippine bases over the next three years, under the EDCA.
The boss was quick to react. Three days later, President Duterte erupted with accusations that US nukes were brought into Philippine bases.
“They’re unloading arms in the Philippines now,” he fumed. “I’m serving notice to the armed forces of the United States. Do not do it, I will not allow it. … Provisions of the Visiting Forces [Agreement stipulate] there shall be no permanent facilities. A depot is by any other name a depot. It’s a permanent structure to house arms.”
There were denials all around of nukes stored in bases, from Lorenzana, the military, and the American Embassy. But Duterte had made his point: he didn’t like US forces using our facilities, let alone building storage for weapons.
Alter ego or altering egos?
Lorenzana isn’t the only alter ego of the President—as all Cabinet members should be—who may be altering what the principal wants his agents to say and do.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay miffed China over his statement about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers’ meeting in Boracay.
“On the South China Sea,” declared Yasay, “a number of ministers expressed concern over recent developments and escalation of activity in the area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region.” Many media promptly spoke of Asean concern over “militarization.”
Days later Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said: “Mr. Yasay’s recent remarks apparently deviate from the consensus of the two leaders, go against the current trend of the sound and rapid development of China-Philippine relations, disagree with the overall stable situation of the South China Sea, and run counter to the shared desire of regional countries to maintain peace and stability.”
Then Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng abruptly deferred his visit last week to sign documents for 40 infrastructure and other projects offered to President Duterte during his October visit revitalizing China ties.
Yasay and his Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana insisted the trip postponement was not over the Asean meeting remarks, but due to internal activities in China.
In fact, the trip got back on track after President Duterte declared: “I would like to assure China—and this is what I committed to do when I was there—that we will talk as friends. We cannot go to war because we cannot afford it. And that as much as possible, the bilateral relations of the two countries will be enhanced and improved.”
Now, Yasay may embarrass the President even more. Before the Commission on Appointments vetting his posting, he publicly denied becoming a US citizen. In truth, he was naturalized as an American in 1986 and renounced US nationality only last June, before being named foreign secretary.
This naturalization episode casts in a dubious light not just Yasay’s ruffling of China, but also his avowed wish to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and put US relations on sound footing, despite President Duterte himself being cool to Washington and not even appointing an envoy there.
Disagreeing with the boss
If the US seems to sway the foreign affairs and national defense heads, so do CPP-NPA-NDF rebels over the chiefs at the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Department of Agrarian Reform, and the National Anti-Poverty Commission.
Nominated by the National Democratic Front, civil society arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, DSWD’s Judy Taguiwalo, DAR’s Rafael Mariano, and NAPC’s Lisa Maza parroted the insurgent line that peace negotiations should continue even after the rebels ended the ceasefire, which Duterte set as a condition for talks.
The President recently met with the leftist Cabinet members. But the Palace still insisted that the NPA should stop attacks and extortion, for talks to resume.
Oh, and despite Duterte’s anger over the brutal killings of soldiers, including three unarmed troopers on furlough riddled with bullets, Taguiwalo, Mariano and Maza won’t breathe a word of criticism against the NPA.
There’s more: Taguiwalo’s charges at the DSWD recently joined a march in Manila, rallying for—you guessed it—resuming peace talks. That was probably the first time state personnel openly demonstrated against presidential policy.
The DSWD is also set to launch a radio program on the state network. One wonders whether that too would espouse the views of insurgents killing our soldiers.
Don’t tell the President
One more alter ego for the road: Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez is not going against President Duterte’s avowed green stance, but vigorously implementing it, as seen in his own staunch support for her.
Where Lopez may fall somewhat short of what loyal presidential lieutenants should do, is in giving advance notice of her controversial moves to close 23 mines and cancel 75 mineral production sharing agreements.
Surely, the Palace or at least the President himself should get early warning of such radical decisions with vast economic and social impact, so that he could prepare to deal with the fallout.
For all that, President Duterte has shown patience, not the tough persona of cuss words and killer threats. Maybe that’s why he wins support from all sides. They either appreciate his understanding, or they think they can take him for a ride.