The Dutertes: A family in the national spotlight

Pia Ranada

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The Dutertes: A family in the national spotlight
More than a year after Rodrigo Duterte wins the presidency, controversy after controversy hound members of his family, heightening the nation's fascination with them

MANILA, Philippines – Since Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency, there has been increasing fascination with the members of his family.

In the past few weeks, such interest reached new levels, with many Filipinos hearing, some for the first time, about presidential granddaughter Isabelle Duterte, thanks to her Malacañang photo-shoot and extravagant debut.

There was the family drama that unfolded online, as Isabelle exchanged harsh words with her father Paolo, then vice mayor of Davao City, followed by his dramatic resignation from public office on Christmas Day, no less.

Then there’s controversy of another kind. Paolo and his brother-in-law Manases Carpio were summoned to the Senate on allegations they are involved in drug smuggling. The irateness of their responses, the toxic tension between them and their primary accuser Senator Antonio Trillanes IV were more than enough to satisfy Filipino viewers’ hunger for a scene.

The nation kept itself updated with Sara Duterte-Carpio’s pregnancy with triplets, was saddened by the passing of two of them, and cooed when it saw the President carrying tiny Stonefish in his arms.  

There would, of course, be passionate discussion later on about the little boy’s nickname. 

When a Davao City market was bombed one night in September, it was not just the local government that came under the microscope, but the father-and-daughter tandem of Digong and Sara, who, some would argue, constitute Davao’s government.

With the father occupying Malacañang and the children in high local government positions, the inner workings of the Duterte family do impact the nation.

Here’s what we know about the dynamics in this influential and powerful family.

Sara, the apple of Rody’s eye 

Multiple sources close to the family attest that Sara is Duterte’s favorite child. One even said the septuagenarian president is often scared of his eldest daughter. Sara, headstrong and independent, has not been afraid to clash with Duterte. 

Perhaps among the first times she did so was as a teenager, when she would show her disapproval for her father’s late nights out. Her mother, Elizabeth Zimmerman, Duterte’s first wife (legally, only wife) would be frustrated by Rody’s tendency to come home late.

Sara sided with her mother and doused Rody with some ice-cold silent treatment.

Duterte allegedly complained to a friend when Sara’s silent treatment lasted longer than usual. 

“Imagine, it’s been one week, she still isn’t talking to me!” the mayor supposedly said.   

Duterte has also told Rappler that Sara understands the way he thinks, can almost read his mind. Whereas her mind, to him, is inscrutable.

It’s no wonder that, of all his children, it was Sara he groomed to take his post as leader of Davao City.

Duterte’s fondness for Sara is evident even now, when he speaks of her in his speeches.

With a mix of amusement and awe, Duterte will always remind his audience that Sara punched a sheriff in 2011 for refusing her order to delay the demolition of shanties.

Ibang klase ang babae na yan (That woman is something else),” he said in an April 2017 speech.

So influential is Sara that her opinions and decisions have determined Duterte’s actions.

Her refusal to run for mayor in 2016 was one major reason Duterte repeatedly declined to seek the presidency. If she would not run, who would preserve his Davao City legacy if he runs for president?

When she finally agreed, Duterte pushed through with his presidential bid.

But on the day he took his oath as president, Sara sent him her resignation as mayor, as if to say she had kept her end of the bargain and was no longer bound to it because Duterte now occupies Malacañang.

Duterte has even higher hopes for Sara.

Could this joke about Sara’s “violent” tendencies give a clue? 

Kung wala na kayong makuha na ibang presidente, iyan ang kunin ninyo. Patay lahat. Ubos iyan,” said Duterte in the same April 2017 speech. (If you can’t find another president, get her. Everyone will die, everyone will be wiped out.) 

For now, Sara has dropped her plans to run for congresswoman in 2019, although she says the situation remains fluid. A recent survey also showed she could win if senatorial elections were held today, but she said she’d only do so if she gets annoyed with her father’s critics

Paolo, the embattled eldest

FATHER AND SON. President Duterte has a chat with his eldest son Paolo. Malacañang file photo

Paolo is perhaps the most controversial of Duterte’s children. He has been accused of being a smuggler, a member of the Chinese criminal syndicate Triad, a former drug addict. He has denied these allegations. 

While Sara is a daddy’s girl, Paolo is a mama’s boy.  

Duterte himself has spoken in public about Paolo’s wayward past. He recalled, with an air of resignation, how Paolo “eloped” with a woman when he was 18 and she was 24. The lady, Lovelie Sangkola Sumera, is the mother of the controversial Isabelle. 

Paolo had to stop his schooling and work in the ports to help with the importation business of Lovelie’s family. Duterte would not see his eldest son for years.

“One of my sad events in my life because I never saw him for more than 5 years. Until yung nalaman ko na nagkaroon na ako ng apo (I found out I had a grandchild), so I sought him out and made peace with him,” said Duterte in August 2017.

Paolo’s marriage to Lovelie would eventually be formally annulled by a sharia court in 2005. He has 3 children with her: Isabelle, Omar, and Rigo. 

Sources close to the family say Paolo has always sought affirmation from his father.

A misunderstanding between father and son convinced Paolo to resign from Duterte’s local political party in Davao City. 

At that time, in 2015, Paolo, who was then serving his first term as vice mayor, wanted to run for mayor. His father’s first pick for the post, however, was Sara. 

Explaining his resignation from his father’s party, Paolo said, “I feel that my presence is unappreciated and unacknowledged and sometimes even unwelcome to the current leadership of the party.”

Duterte, after hearing of Paolo’s resignation, surmised that his son likely must have been hurt when the party declared its vice mayoral slot open to other party members, perhaps considering the slot should have been reserved for him. 

But the elder Duterte said the slot was declared open so that, in case Sara would not run for mayor, Paolo would do so, requiring someone else to run for vice mayor.

Out of all his grown children, it was Paolo who was first by his father’s side on the night of the 2016 elections, when it had been apparent that Duterte had won the presidency by a landslide.

The company Paolo keeps has also attracted controversy. Charlie Tan, an alleged member of the “Davao Group,” a group of smugglers wielding influence over the Bureau of Customs, is a “drinking buddy” of his. He’s also been seen hanging out with Kenneth Dong, the alleged middleman in the P6.4-billion shabu shipment from China.

Tan was the same friend Paolo supposedly “protected” from law enforcers after he suspected Tan of inserting illegal drugs into a shipment.

Two self-admitted members of the Davao Death Squad claim Paolo tapped their group to kill his personal enemies. 

After all these heavy allegations, compounded by his daughter’s Malacañang photo shoot and their public squabble, Paolo resigned as vice mayor last Christmas.

Sebastian, the wild child

TRAVEL BUDDY. Sebastian Duterte tags along on his father's official visit to Russia. Malacañang file photo

While his visible tattoos and lip piercing give him a “bad boy” vibe, Sebastian or Baste is known as the most malambing (affectionate) of Duterte’s adult children – at least, when he was younger.

As the youngest, he would sleep in his parents room while his older siblings stayed in rooms of their own.

The only one not into politics (yet), Baste has been content to run his junk shop and spend his days surfing with friends. Recently, though, he’s been more visible as the endorser of Tapa King and host of a travel show on TV5.

Baste got the most of his father’s “que sera sera” side, an attitude of not meddling and just doing your own thing regardless of the consequences. He is Duterte’s most carefree and non-adversarial child.

He apparently also inherited Duterte’s unabashed love for women. 

He admitted in a PhilStar interview that his current live-in partner, the mother of his son, is his 6th girlfriend. Baste then got his taste of showbiz drama when it was revealed he had a short-term relationship with actress Ellen Adarna.

The nation tuned in when Duterte used the presidential podium to scoff at his relationship with Adarna and remind him to visit his child.

Yung isang bunso ko, isa pa ring tarantado. Di umuwi ng bahay, sige lang doon kay Adarna,” said the President in February 2017. (My youngest is another fool. He doesn’t go home, he’s always with Adarna.)

Umuwi ka na kasi iyong anak mo hindi ka na kilala,” he said two days after. (Go home because your child no longer knows you.)

Baste hardly meddles in the affairs or controversies of his older siblings or his father. But could this all change if his family convinces him to run for vice mayor in the next elections?

Elizabeth, the cherished wife

SUPPORTIVE. Elizabeth Zimmerman, ex-wife of presidential candidate Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, joins the campaign trail on April 5, 2016. Photo by Edwin Espejo

Elizabeth has largely been out of the public eye because of her stage 3 breast cancer. Her name only makes it to the headlines when the President sends her flowers and a cake for Valentine’s Day, a tradition of his.

The two are warm to each other in public, with Duterte dropping by Elizabeth’s 68th birthday during the busy campaign season in 2016. It was also a show of appreciation for her support. She had stopped her radiation treatment just to campaign for him.

But it was not always so. Court records from when Elizabeth sought their marriage annulment show she suffered from emotional abuse” from Duterte, who, she said, was a womanizer” and had frequent outbursts of temper.

Elizabeth, according to a transcript from the proceedings, said Duterte flaunted his women, brought them to parties, meetings, and political rallies, where he sometimes introduced them as Mrs Duterte.

In-laws, past and present

It was only during Duterte’s presidency when the country finally became acquainted with Sara’s husband, lawyer Manases Carpio.

Carpio, whom Sara met in San Beda Law School, was unceremoniously forced into the public sphere when he was accused of involvement in smuggling. He appeared in the Senate with Paolo in September 2017, where he denied the allegations.

CONTROVERSY. Presidential son-in-law Manases Carpio denies allegations he was ever involved in smuggling. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Carpio runs a law firm, Carpio & Duterte Lawyers, which counts among its clients Mighty Corporation, a tobacco company which agreed to pay the government P25 billion as settlement after Duterte ordered the arrest of its owners for “economic sabotage.”

WEALTHY FORMER IN-LAWS. Lovelie Sangkola Sumera (right) poses with her daughter Isabelle (seated) during her debut. Photo by Lito Sy from Sangkola's Facebook account

But perhaps more controversial than the Carpios are the Sangkolas, former in-laws of Duterte after Paolo separated from Lovelie Sangkola Sumera.

Things don’t appear to be rosy between Lovelie and the Dutertes. 

Back in June 2017, Paolo claimed Lovelie was calling herself “Lovelie Duterte,” leading to the spread of misinformation about the identity of his wife. 

Lovelie shot back, calling him “callous” for saying she was “misrepresenting” herself.

More recently, Paolo admonished his daughter with Lovelie, Isabelle, for allowing herself to be “pimped” by an unknown person. He said she lacked respect and even advised her to change her surname.

The squabble happened a week after Isabelle’s extravagant photo shoot in Malacañang. 

Paolo would later on attribute his resignation as vice mayor to his “failed” marriage with Lovelie.

“The other person in this failed relationship is incorrigible and cannot be controlled. And I take responsibility for all that has happened as a result of a wrong decision to marry at a very young age,” he said in his resignation letter, submitted to the city council.

Despite this bad blood, President Duterte himself has welcomed the Sangkolas with open arms. 

Lovelie and her children are invited to Malacañang events. They were seen on the campaign trail with Duterte. During the transition into the presidency, Lovelie was even able to arrange a meeting between the President-elect and her good friend, show business talent manager Annabelle Rama. 

Why the access? It could be because, during the campaign, Lovelie supposedly helped Duterte reach out to Muslim leaders in different parts of Mindanao.  

Duterte has described Lovelie as having a Tausug father and a Maranao mother. Her family, he said, are “Muslim vendors” selling “jars” and “ukay-ukay” (secondhand clothes).

A Davao-based businesswoman, Lovelie is influential in her own right. If it’s any indication, many of the guests at Isabelle’s debut were fabulously wealthy Muslims.

Lovelie herself is no poor relation, able to afford luxury brands (she collects Hermes bags), vacations at expensive resorts, and a fit-for-royalty debut for her daughter.

Lovelie’s wealth and her willingness to flaunt it are in stark contrast to the Duterte family’s projected simplicity.

The President, who calls himself “just a government worker,” is the first to speak out against unnecessary spending and the “wealthy elites” of society. 

Could this be why, despite an invitation, Duterte skipped Isabelle’s debut?

Duterte also took to the presidential podium in August 2017 to warn that a woman was going around government offices, calling herself Lovelie Duterte. There is no such person, he stressed to the public.

The steady partner

STEADY PARTNER. President Duterte and partner Honeylet Avanceña board a plane back to the Philippines from Beijing. Malacañang file photo

A silent but steady figure in all this is Duterte’s partner, Honeylet Avanceña. 

His First Lady in all but name, Avanceña has chosen to stay in Davao City to take care of her many businesses (Mister Donut franchises, meat shops). But she drops by Bahay Pangarap every now and then to make sure Duterte isn’t up to any shenanigans.

She met Duterte in 1998, and since then has endured the anger of his first family, and then the indignity of having to share his affections with other women.

Avanceña has learned not to rock the boat. She is careful with her actions, and is particularly wary of Sara.

Duterte has chosen not to give her the official title of First Lady, for fear of how Sara would react. If it comes to a showdown between Honeylet and Sara, a family friend surmises, Duterte would side with Sara.

Despite the chill relations between the two women, Duterte’s older children are warm to her daughter Veronica. 

For the most part, Honeylet has hidden her jealousy over Duterte’s other women. A deeply religious woman, she knows her role is to take care of Duterte in his old age, and to be the mother of his youngest daughter Veronica.

Duterte has had nothing but praise for his partner, calling her industrious and enterprising, a “millionaire” by her own efforts, though he has admitted that her status as the mayor’s partner has smoothened the path for her.

Despite her unassuming nature, Honeylet has been known to wield her influence over Duterte, with some appointments in government being traced to her. She is Duterte’s ravishing sidekick during major international events. She hobnobs with First Ladies of foreign leaders.

The go-to guy

SIDEKICK. Special Assistant to the President Bong Go is a constant companion of President Rodrigo Duterte. Malacañang photo

Then there is Bong Go. While not strictly family, Go is so often by Duterte’s side that he has become much more than just a family friend and assistant. 

Duterte’s own children reach their father through Go, who makes sure their needs are met. Back when they were younger, it was he or the driver Sonny who would give them their allowance. 

He has been a constant in their family since 1998, when he first started doing errands for Duterte.

It also helps that Go’s grandfather August was a very close friend of Duterte’s and Elizabeth’s. He was one of the principal sponsors of their marriage. 

A family friend says that, while the Dutertes now live largely separate lives, hardly speaking or meeting each other, they will unite behind any member of the family under attack. 

That unity was seen during the 2016 campaign, when they all rallied behind Duterte. 

With Paolo’s resignation and Sara’s potential bid for higher office, there will be shake-ups in Davao City and in their family. Manases may run for mayor while Baste may seek the vice mayoral post.

Claims about their hidden wealth persist. Allegations of murder and smuggling taint their surname. While their supporters revere their legacy, others cannot shake their suspicions. 

How will the Duterte family be remembered in Philippine history? –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.