It’s hard to imagine a head of state who’s more outrageously confrontational, incendiary or vulgar than Donald Trump. Maybe that’s part of the reason Trump admires Rodrigo Duterte so much.
Elected president of the Philippines in May 2016 with 38.5 percent of the vote, Duterte — who at 73 is one year Trump’s senior — raised eyebrows from the moment he moved into Manila’s Malacañang Palace. During a September 2016 press conference, he compared himself to Adolf Hitler, boasting that “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. We have 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
That same month, he called then-President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for criticizing Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign. The former mayor of Davao also bragged about once tossing a Chinese rape and murder suspect from a helicopter; publicly suggested that journalists “are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch”; labeled Philip Goldberg, former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, as gay (and also a “son of a whore”); and told shocked business leaders during a recent meeting that “when I take Viagra, it stands up.”
And this past February, he famously ordered his soldiers to shoot female communist rebels in their vaginas — a threat that makes Trump’s “grab their pussy” remark tame by comparison.
But Duterte’s actions speak even louder than his words. Under his presidency, an estimated 12,000 suspected drug dealers and users, including children, have been killed by police and police-backed vigilantes, according to Human Rights Watch. Duterte, who gained prominence for his “tough-on-crime” approach as the gun-toting mayor of crime-ridden Davao City, has openly bragged about personally killing three men suspected of kidnapping and rape.
“And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill,” he reportedly told a group of business leaders in late 2016. One self-confessed former death squad member said he witnessed Duterte execute a government official with a machine gun in the early 1990s.
In fact, when Trump and Duterte met in the Philippine city of Da Nang last November, Trump asked his host if the Philippines had reinstated the death penalty — a campaign promise Duterte has made numerous times.
The two leaders, described by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank as “brothers from another mother,” certainly have a lot in common. But just as Trump’s sledgehammer approach continues to be popular among his base, especially when it comes to issues such as immigration, Duterte’s bluntness remains popular with his supporters, many of whom are fed up with drugs, crime and corruption.
That’s partly why Duterte’s chief defender in Washington, Philippine Ambassador Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, advises critics not to take his president’s off-the-cuff remarks too seriously.
“There was some disagreement on human rights issues raised by the Obama administration. It was precipitated by a question asked by a foreign reporter trying to get the president’s goat. The president was angry that he was being lectured,” Romualdez explained in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat.
“Our president listens to advice, but he doesn’t like advice that’s given publicly through the media. This president is particularly sensitive to people trying to make a show of something,” said the ambassador, who himself used to be the CEO of Stargate Media Corp. and publisher of People Asia Magazine (an affiliate of the Philippine Star). “But this administration is more prudent in the way it raises issues, and since Trump went to the Philippines, that relationship has changed dramatically.”
In fact, Romualdez recalled that “when I presented my credentials to Trump, the first thing he told me was ‘your president sings like Frank Sinatra [a reference to Duterte’s on-stage performance during the November 2017 ASEAN Summit in Manila]. There’s friendship now. Our relationship has warmed up.”
It certainly has. On June 12, the Philippine Embassy threw an extravagant Independence Day party at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. Some 350 guests came out to celebrate the country’s 120th anniversary of independence from Spain, feasting on lechón asado (roast pork), sisig (pig head and liver) and other Filipino dishes that were prepared by embassy chef Abie Sincioco-Mateo (who won both the People’s and Judge’s Choice Awards at this year’s Embassy Chef Challenge for her pork sisig). According to the Philippine Star, the party at Trump Hotel didn’t cost Philippine taxpayers a cent because the cost was borne by private businesses like Asia Brewery, PAL/Megaworld and other big companies.
Was that a conflict of interest? Absolutely not, as Romualdez himself suggested in a column for the Philippine Star back home.
“The Trump hotel may have some political undertones because it is associated with the U.S. president,” he wrote, ignoring any mention of the 30 or so protesters waving anti-Duterte placards outside the hotel during the event. “But since several other embassies have also held their national day celebrations at the Trump hotel which were well-attended, I decided, why not do it there too?”
Envoy is Manila’s Third in D.C. Named Romualdez
Romualdez, a Manila media executive who has never held political office, is president of the Manila Overseas Press Club and vice president of the Rotary Club of Manila. Unlike the man who named him ambassador, Romualdez thinks carefully before he opens his mouth to speak.
But when he does, he expresses only admiration for Duterte.
“I’ve met seven presidents and this one is totally different from any president we’ve ever had,” he said. “Any president is a product of his time. Donald Trump became president through the electoral system because voters are tired of the old kind of politics that go on here. Middle America wants to see some changes made, and they want him to talk that way. Duterte is saying the things many people want to say about their government, but they can’t say it because they don’t have a voice.”
Asked about the vulgarities and sexual jokes, Romualdez paused for a moment.
“I’m not going to justify anything that is said in that manner, but our president has made it clear that he didn’t become president to be proper and politically correct,” the ambassador said. “He became president because the people elected him to do what he promised. I think it’s clear that the language he uses is the language he’s been using all his life. Sometimes he controls himself, but it’s not going to change.”
In effect, the Duterte presidency has split his nation’s 103 million people into two camps.
“Duterte is a source of deep dissonance among Filipinos today,” Jessica Mendoza wrote in an April 6 article for the Christian Science Monitor. “Either he is leading the Philippines to ruin, paving the way for the demise of democracy and human dignity; or he is carving a violent path out of the mire of crime and corruption that has corroded the nation’s soul for more than three decades, and shattering status quos along the way. In each side’s eyes, the other lives in a fantasy wrought of malice, ignorance, or some warped combination of both.”
Romualdez said Duterte is especially popular with Filipino housemaids, laborers and others working in the Middle East and Asia who send back $26 billion a year in remittances, keeping the Philippines afloat economically.
“I have gone with him on many occasions to address overseas workers in Japan, Laos and elsewhere,” said the ambassador. “We call these people heroes, but they’re not well treated. He really feels for them.”
Romualdez is his country’s third ambassador to the United States with that surname.
The first was the brother of the current envoy’s father (at the same time another brother was speaker of the House of Representatives). The second was a cousin of his father. But the family dynasty is not why he was selected to represent the Philippines in Washington, the ambassador said.
“In the Philippines nowadays, there are no more name brands,” he said. “It’s perhaps because the president has read many of my columns and feels I’m the best person to communicate what his program is to a host country like the United States.”
In fact, the first time Duterte offered Romualdez the job in September 2017, he declined. Later he said OK, but postponed the appointment because of upcoming eye surgery.
“He asked me again in July last year, and I said, ‘Mr. President, I will do it for you.’ He responded: ‘Don’t do it for me, do it for the country.’”
‘Worst Human Rights Crisis’ Since Marcos Regime
Romualdez, who in November 2017 took over from his predecessor, the highly respected José E. Cuisía Jr., said Filipino-American relations are good, despite differences in many areas.
“Generally, the relationship remains pretty solid,” he said. “Our military agreements are being followed. Our president has said that whatever defense treaty we have with the U.S., we will honor.”
Despite the condemnation Duterte has received from other world leaders, back at home, the president retains wide swaths of popular support. His pledge to root out corruption, bridge the country’s vast inequality gap and streamline its notorious bureaucracy — instituting a nationwide complaint hotline, for instance — has been met with cheers. At the same time, Transparency International notes that corruption has actually spiked since Duterte took office.
Most notably, as mayor of Davao for nearly 20 years, Duterte earned a reputation for his brutal drug crackdown that included allegations of death squads and extrajudicial killings. Duterte pledged to replicate those tough tactics as president, vowing to dump all drug traffickers in Manila Bay “and fatten all the fish there.”
Romualdez insists that when Duterte talks about “killing” drug traffickers, it’s a misnomer.
“When you say that, it sounds like you’re putting a gun to their head,” he said, calling it instead an act of resistance or self-defense.
“These drug traffickers are violent people, and when there’s a drug war, they kill each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of collateral damage. It’s a war and some of them may be innocent, but at the end of the day, it’s something that really needs to be done. This is what he promised the Filipino people.”
The ambassador justifies his government’s all-out war on drug dealers on the restive island of Mindanao because of the links he says exist between traffickers and terrorists.
“Afghanistan became a center of terrorist activity precisely because of drugs. That’s how they fund themselves. It took our armed forces five months to finally quell that war. Their resources came from drug money; U.S. intel clearly showed that.
“You’re assuming that human rights violations have already been committed. But what he did in Davao is what he’s going to duplicate. He cleaned up Davao from crime. It’s hyperbole when he says, ‘You make trouble here, I will shoot you.’ It’s actually the fear factor, which is normal for any strong leader to do. The drug war is where the stage was set. He’s a no-nonsense president.”
Some streets were unsafe for pedestrians even during the daytime, he added, “because they were a drug den. Now they walk there at 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Yet that campaign has come at an enormous cost, and experts disagree on whether Duterte’s tactics have actually resulted in fewer crimes or reduced drug consumption.
According to Human Rights Watch, Duterte “has plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s.” The New York-based group says his war on drugs, launched in June 2016, has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives of mainly poor urban dwellers, including children.
“Duterte has vowed to continue the abusive anti-drug campaign until his term ends in 2022,” HRW noted in its latest World Report. “Throughout 2017 and the latter part of 2016, he engaged in harassment and intimidation of individuals and agencies tasked with accountability — including United Nations officials. In the face of mounting international criticism, the Duterte government has adopted a tactic of denying as ‘alternative facts’ well-substantiated reports by human rights and media organizations of high death tolls linked to the ‘drug war.’”
‘Fake News’ and a White House Invitation
It is perhaps ironic that Romualdez, a former media executive, says he has little patience with “fake news” — the kind Trump fumes about, and the kind the ambassador himself says distorts the truth, especially when talking about Duterte’s alleged human rights abuses.
“We media people love intrigue; that’s how you get stories. So, you try to lure a person to say something so you can quote him. Our president has told journalists, ‘I don’t really care what you say.’ Sometimes media people have a tendency to think they’re God’s gift to the world. This president doesn’t really care. It also sends a signal: ‘You better write something that’s correct.’”
He added: “If I could say the same things he does, I’d do it, but I’m wearing a different hat now. I created a few enemies when I was a columnist, so whenever I got threats, I used to tell them to take a number.”
Trump has not only refused to criticize Duterte’s record on human rights but has gone out of his way to praise his friend, suggesting that the United States, too, should execute drug dealers. In April 2017, he even extended a White House invitation to the Philippine president, though that visit has yet to materialize.
“So many things are happening that people don’t see, but I see it,” said Romualdez. “The fear factor is so prevalent now because he doesn’t fool around with corruption. For example, he had a good personal friend who was the local government secretary. There was a smell of corruption, so he fired him right there in the cabinet meeting. He said, ‘I don’t want to see your face ever again.’ It’s sifted down to every level of government that this president is not going to tolerate any form of corruption.
“It all boils down to personal feelings,” Romualdez added. “When you’re a friend, you talk to me like a friend. When you start telling another president what to do, it’s not correct.”
Shifting Attitudes on China
A number of issues still separate Washington and Manila — most notably Trump’s get-tough attitude toward immigrants, even those who are in the U.S. legally. The Philippine government warns that some 10,000 Filipinos might be affected if the Dreamers program, which allows undocumented immigrant children to stay legally in the United States, is rescinded.
Hawaii would be especially hit hard; Filipinos in that state number about 209,000 and constitute 14 percent of the 50th state’s population. About a decade ago, Filipinos overtook the Japanese as Hawaii’s largest ethnic minority; they now make up nearly half of the state’s foreign-born population.
“We’re here to obviously assure our friends in Congress, the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon that our relationship is solid,” Romualdez said when asked whether he was worried. “Regarding immigration, obviously we’re expressing our concern. But every time I talk to these legislators, one thing I hear from them is the good reputation Filipino workers have in this country. I hardly ever hear anyone say they don’t like Filipinos.”
Meanwhile, Romualdez predicted his country would see GDP growth of 6.7 percent this year, with even faster growth in 2019. The Duterte government plans to spend $175 billion on basic infrastructure over the next five years, and also aims to bring down the percentage of Filipinos earning less than a dollar a day from the current 24 percent to 14 percent by 2020.
When it comes to foreign policy, perhaps the most glaring example of Duterte’s unpredictability is his relationship with China. Barely three years ago, Romualdez’s predecessor, Cuisía, warned that Beijing’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea were threatening the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region.
“Security continues to be a major issue in Southeast Asia, and the Philippines remains very concerned over the exacerbating tensions in our region,” said Cuisía, speaking at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies right across the street from the Philippine Embassy.
In contrast, Duterte — who’s been accused of being too lenient toward China — publicly declared in April that he loves Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yet only a month later, Duterte said he’d go to war with China if it unilaterally begins exploiting oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. Tensions worsened after reports of the Chinese military landing long-range bombers on their artificial islands for the first time.
“Our government’s policy is to engage China,” Romualdez explained. “Our president is practical enough to say we don’t have the arms or resources to fight a country like China — to go into the islands and say, ‘This is ours and we’re ready to die for it.’ The best thing is to engage them economically. Xi has been very generous in offering to help our country.”
In fact, during an October 2016 trade mission to Beijing, Duterte declared that “there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia.”
It was during that same visit that the Philippine president famously announced his “separation” from the United States — a declaration Romualdez plays down.
“Obviously, people will have to accept that China will become a powerhouse. Russia is now flexing its muscles,” he said. “In our case, we don’t have any real fight with any of these countries. We just have to talk to them. This is what we call an independent foreign policy. It’s time for us to start doing things we feel are good for us.”
Romualdez added: “The bottom line is we don’t want to be taken for granted. Respect is very important for any nation. People won’t respect you if you have no respect for yourself.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.