EXPLAINING the flurry of Cabinet appointments, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said his boss wanted to end uncertainty and speculation.
Whatever the reasons, President Rodrigo Duterte did squelch further guesswork with the naming of his defeated running mate Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano as foreign affairs secretary, Armed Forces chief Eduardo Año as interior secretary, and former AFP chief Roy Cimatu as environment secretary.
Now, the tongue-wagging starts on what these new helmsmen mean for the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. And that won’t be so easy to squelch.
Into the deep end at the DFA
Let’s start with the DFA, the agency most closely watched from abroad. Duterte promised Cayetano either the DFA or the Department of Justice once the one-year ban on appointing election losers ends.
But even after the previous secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr., was rejected over nationality issues, the talk was that Cayetano may be needed in the Senate as advocate of the President’s agenda and defender of the administration.
But his defense of the Philippines at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva aced the foreign affairs post for him. He faced more than a hundred nations, and many would not change their assessment, whatever he said.
That’s because for most nations, only their ambassadors may change their positions, and quite a number sent lower-level officials to the rights council meeting.
Moreover, the review actually covered the past five years, not just the eight months of the Duterte administration. So, Senator Cayetano had to defend the previous regime as well, when homicides hit between 11,000 and 16,000 a year, far above the level in the current administration.
Still, Cayetano and other officials in the Philippine delegation managed to keep the expressions of concern about the anti-drug killings to a minority of 45 states—surely a creditable performance on the international stage worthy of the foreign affairs portfolio.
Now, there are even bigger challenges ahead for the incoming DFA head. Bilateral talks with China on territorial and maritime issues begin this month, and Cayetano must balance our positions to assert our sovereign rights while keeping everything friendly, as President Duterte wants it.
Luckily, Beijing too wants to avoid frictions, so the talks will probably stay cordial. Ideally, there could be something substantive that Cayetano can push for, though probably later.
On the side, former speaker and China advocate Jose de Venecia has urged joint oil exploration in the Spratlys. Cayetano would be wise to thank him for the suggestion, but let the legal experts, including Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio and Law of the Sea signatory Estelito Mendoza, study the idea first.
A different kind of all-out war
Turning to the DILG, the priority here is internal security. General Año retires only in October, but President Duterte evidently wants him to begin giving his future agency guidance on the comprehensive counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaign Año is mandated to prosecute.
“Whole-of-nation” and “whole-of-government” are the phrases he used to describe his coming internal security thrust. That means harnessing all levels of both government and community in the war on lawless violence. This very approach proved its effectiveness in the interdiction of Abu Sayaff terrorists in Bohol.
In beefing up internal security through Año’s appointment, President Duterte may be getting ready for both jihadist infiltration from the Middle East, and the possible failure of peace talks.
Recently, a Singapore security conference warned that Southeast Asian extremists returning to the region after fighting for the brutal Islamic State, may seek haven in Mindanao.
At the same time, Duterte has expressed concern over peace talks with Muslim rebels due to disagreement between factions. And negotiations with leftist insurgents were recently cast in doubt by the admission of communist leader Jose Maria Sison that he could not control the New People’s Army fighters on the ground.
Año at the DILG will certainly give the internal security campaign a tougher hand, which is exactly why leftists in Congress and perhaps even in the Cabinet may try to block his confirmation. The rebel National Democratic Front and the opposition will almost surely portray his appointment as part of Duterte’s creep toward autocracy.
That won’t get many nods among the people, however. Four out of five Filipinos trust the President, the same proportion who feel safer. They will certainly not lose trust or sleep over a new interior secretary who will fight more vigorously the threats to peace and security.
The shadow of Gina Lopez
If the future Secretary Año can win kudos for taking a hard line against violent groups, many may also want Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to show toughness, especially against the mining industry blamed by environmental groups for the ouster of his predecessor Gina Lopez.
That pressure to maintain her uncompromising stance toward mining, even instituting regulations not explicitly covered by law, may get particularly strong, if not overbearing, if rumors that Lopez may be appointed DENR undersecretary come true.
Then Secretary Cimatu would feel the agitation from both environmentalists on the street and one of his top deputies who used to run the agency.
Even without Lopez in the DENR, her sweeping and unprecedented initiatives in protecting the environment from irresponsible mining, unauthorized Laguna fishpens, and other blights, set a high bar for Cimatu even before he took office.
On the other hand, the ex-general with decades of experience on the ground in his military career, knows that stopping environmental destruction takes far more than just issuing orders and talking tough.
In the end, the DENR mission has to be a balancing act of safeguarding the environment while harnessing natural resources for economic growth and grassroots development. And in this mandate, there must be paramount adherence to the law.
So, those are the challenges that incoming Secretaries Cayetano, Año and Cimatu must face for President Duterte. Good luck. You’ll need it.