ON June 30, 2016, just before 9p.m., Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Tondo to dine with some of the poorest families in the country. It was his inauguration night and rather than attend some lavish ball to celebrate his victory, Duterte chose to eat rice in the slums.
When he spoke to those who turned out, a few hundred or so, he was polite—no swearing, no cursing—and grandfatherly in tone and manner. He made several promises that night. He promised he would make the lives of the poor better. He promised he would prioritize education, health care and medicine, and support agriculture. But he also extracted a promise from his audience. “I’m asking you,” he said with sincerity and conviction, “don’t get involved in drugs. Because if you do, I will kill you.” His audience clapped and whooped.
Hyped in the media as a solidarity dinner with the poor, the event was the President’s first official public engagement and was a public relations masterstroke. It cemented the image of the newly minted Philippine President as pro-poor. Accompanying Duterte was the future foreign affairs secretary, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. He had contributed P71.3 million to the Duterte election campaign, an amount three times higher than his declared net worth. He had stayed with his investment every step of the way. Fresh from the resounding campaign triumph, Cayetano looked as if he didn’t at all mind sitting for an hour or so in the depths of urban hell.
And there was also the militantly left-wing feminist Judy Taguiwalo, the nominated social welfare secretary. She told the assembled crowd that night that Duterte put the interests of the poor at the heart of everything he did. A few months later, she went back to being a professor at the University of the Philippines after the Commission on Appointments rejected her nomination.
It’s absurd to try and look for traces of Chief Lakan Dula’s proud and illustrious pre-hispanic trading port that was Tondo in the sixteenth century. Eighty thousand people per square kilometer now live in the maze of Tondo’s shanties and along the banks of the Pasig River. It is some time ago since I first ventured into the district. I can tell you about the acidic smell, and the shacks, cobbled from bits and pieces, clumped in alleyways and under crumbling bridges, and giant cement pipes inhabited by whole families. There was no clean water and sanitation to speak of, but plenty of fetid puddles and stinking slurry that were happy breeding grounds for malaria and dengue and parasitical worms.
For Duterte’s visit, the residents of Isla Puting Bato were treated to white tablecloths on plastic tables, free bottled water, and styrofoam boxes filled with free food. Those who listened to him included children, small, thin, and wide-eyed with excitement. Were they filled with hope? It’s possible.
The nominated health secretary Paulyn Ubial vowed to pursue the dream of universal health care. In August 2016, she was sent to Cuba to learn how the Cubans managed it. She said she’ll spend to the max on front line services.
By mid-2017, Duterte’s health agenda was being seen as a sham. In her withering report to Rappler, Eleanor A. Jara, director of the Council for Health and Development, found the Duterte administration responsible for devastating budget cuts on direct health services and aggressively pushing to privatize and corporatize public hospitals. Thirty-three out of seventy-two public hospitals, including the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial for maternal and child health care, are set to be corporatized for profit. Nothing was being done about the high maternal mortality rate, and frontline services as immunization and basic check-up programs promised to 20 million Filipinos, never materialized. Neither was there an increase in the salaries of health personnel, and there was no funding for additional barangay health stations in rural areas. For reasons other than these failures, Ubial’s nomination was not confirmed. That’s life, she said.
Hopes were also raised, then dashed, within education. The bill for free tuition for state universities and colleges was passed by Congress in August 2017. But the P8.3 billion allocation was missing in the 2018 budget. His education secretary nominee, Leonor Briones, however, managed to keep her job.
Unlike Rafael Mariano, whose brief stint as Secretary of Agrarian Reform ended with the rejection of his nomination in September 2017. Mariano, who had spent his entire career working to promote the rights of peasant farmers and their struggle for land, was considered far too radical for the post. Citing his alleged links to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed guerrilla wing, the New Peoples’ Army, the Commission on Appointments put a brutal end to his mainstream political ambitions. Duterte, evidently, likes to toy with leftists.
And he doesn’t have any patience or sympathy for the struggles of the poor. In October 2017 he was determined to ram through his public utility modernization program, which forces jeepney drivers and operators to take out punitive loans from the government to replace vehicles that were fifteen years old or older. Jeepney drivers cried foul. They threatened, and then went ahead, with strikes. An enraged President wanted to charge them with rebellion. “Mahirap kayo?” Duterte fumed at the transport unions. “P***** ina, magtiis kayo sa hirap at gutom. Wala akong pakialam”! (You’re poor? Son of a whore. You can suffer hardship and hunger. I couldn’t care less.)
It’s doubtful Tondo’s residents will hold President Duterte accountable for his un-kept promises. He wasn’t the first politician and certainly will not be the last. Besides, he proved to be true to his word on one pledge.
Less than a week after Duterte’s visit to Tondo, dead bodies started turning up in conspicuous areas of the cityunder the MacArthur Bridge in Santa Cruz, in front of the Intramuros golf course, and the dilapidated Metropolitan Theater. The bodies were mutilated. The heads of the victims were wrapped tightly with packing tape, and a piece of card was left on their chests: Huwag tularan. Pusher ako. The date was July 10, 2016.