INSIDE STORY: How Duterte decided on Boracay closure

MANILA, Philippines – The closure of Boracay is a classic example of President Rodrigo Duterte’s distinct decision-making style – instinctive, abrupt, and with a penchant for the dramatic. 

The public first heard of Duterte’s plans for Boracay in a February 9 speech he gave in Davao City where he said he would “close” the island because it had become a “cesspool.”

Tracing the real timeline of events shows how Duterte, with the help of his Cabinet, made the decision to close Boracay to tourists for a maximum of 6 months.

Where it all began

Boracay first came into Duterte’s radar during the February 5 Cabinet meeting – 4 days before he publicly threatened to close the island.

During that meeting, Tourism Undersecretary Kat de Castro made a presentation about the aerial survey over Boracay conducted by Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu.

The presentation included interviews with locals who were complaining about pollution and flooding in the island. There was also a video of the aerial footage over Boracay.

“DOT showed the complaints of the people, because it is already flooding in Boracay. There were photos of garbage, overcrowding, traffic congestion,” Environment Undersecretary Jonas Leones told Rappler. He had been in Malacañang for the meeting. 

By that time, Teo and Cimatu had already begun to look into Boracay’s problems. Their aerial survey took place on January 9, a month before the Cabinet meeting. On the island, they held a meeting with tourism stakeholders and publicly spoke of an executive order they would propose to Duterte. 

The EO for the creation of a Boracay task force was suggested by Teo during the February 5 Cabinet meeting. Duterte approved it “in principle,” Cimatu said. It was also then when a “6 month” timeline was first mentioned. Duterte wanted Cimatu to take the next 6 months to come up with “a final recommendation on the possible solution” to Boracay’s woes.

Total closure: Duterte’s idea

During the meeting, there was no talk of totally closing the island to tourists, according to a source present. The most drastic suggestion at the time was to close down businesses violating environmental regulations.

Thus, it came as a surprise even to Cabinet members when Duterte announced days later that he wants to close down Boracay. As Roque had told CNN Philippines, there had been “differences in interpretation” even within the Cabinet of Duterte’s sensational but vague instruction.

The idea for a total closure was all Duterte’s own. More than that, he decided to go public with it rather than discuss it with Cabinet members first.

Public opinion seized on his dramatic statement. That weekend, headlines proclaiming Boracay’s possible closure gave rise to various sentiments. Some didn’t want to take Duterte seriously. Others applauded the show of political will to fix a perennial problem. There were those who thought a closure was too much, too soon.

But public attention, and the President’s, was also divided. It was around this time when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it began its preliminary examination into Duterte’s bloody anti-drugs campaign. In fact, the ICC news broke the day before Duterte’s speech about closing Boracay. 

That Cabinet members were also taken off guard is apparent in their public statements after the speech. Teo, for instance, still stuck with the discussions in the February 5 Cabinet meeting where closures of business establishments, not the entire island, was proposed.

Come March 2, Teo and Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) officer-in-charge Eduardo Año began pushing for a 60-day “tourist holiday” or closure of business establishments and a 6-month “state of calamity.” 

During the following Cabinet meeting on March 5, there was “no mention” of Boracay’s closure, said Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque. In fact, there had been “no specific course of actions” on Boracay decided on then. 

BORACAY'S FATE. President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet tackle proposals on Boracay during the 24th Cabinet Meeting on April 4. Malacau00f1ang photo

BORACAY'S FATE. President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet tackle proposals on Boracay during the 24th Cabinet Meeting on April 4.

Malacau00f1ang photo

Duterte merely assigned the DILG to take the lead in identifying local government officials who ignored or allowed environmental violations. He also repeated his order to Cimatu to come up with a recommendation.

Then come April 3, the DENR, DOT, and DILG changed their recommendation. This time, they batted for a 6-month total closure. Their suggestion was relayed through a very short “two-paragraph” letter to the Office of the President (OP). So sparse were the details in the letter that then Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra admitted the OP had asked for a longer explanation.

Why 6 months? Why April 26?

It was on April 4, by then the 3rd Cabinet meeting where the fate of Boracay was discussed, when Duterte finally made a decision.

During the meeting, the DENR-DOT-DILG proposal – a 6-month closure of Boracay beginning April 26 – was weighed against the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) proposal for a closure in phases. The discussions, said Roque, were “exhaustive.”

The 6-month closure is a downgrade from an earlier one-year closure suggested by Cimatu. But, in a huddle of DOT, DENR, and DILG officials before the Cabinet meeting, it was decided that “one year is too long,” said Leones. Hence, the 3 secretaries agreed to recommend a 6-month closure instead.

Why April 26? The date was suggested by the DOT because they wanted to prevent Laboracay, a celebration that begins on the weekend closest to Labor Day, from happening. It's a huge summer party that draws local and foreign tourists to the island.

“The problem with Laboracay is it lasts for one week so things will get messy again. The tourists will be at the beach 24/7 so it will really get polluted and chaotic. So the agencies decided on [April] 26 to prevent Laboracay,” said Leones.

But not all Cabinet secretaries were on board with the idea. Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez wanted closure done in phases, starting with a few barangays, and then expanding eventually.

Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez had concerns of his own though he did not outrightly oppose total closure.

Dominguez had issues with the impact on revenue and income. 

“They were also concerned that if we close Boracay, we’ll have a hard time promoting Boracay Island,” said Leones.

How did Duterte react during the debate? 

“In fairness to the President, he just listened to the recommendation of the 3 agencies,” said Leones.

At the end of the part of the meeting devoted to Boracay, Duterte approved the DOT-DENR-DILG proposal. But towards the end of the meeting, sources present said the President muddled things up a bit.

“Now at the end of the meeting, the President though clarified that one of the first things that will be done upon closure of Boracay is validation on which resorts are complying with the existing environmental rules and regulations,” said Roque. 

“He will see right away what can be done for those who have been validated to be complying with environmental laws,” he added.

A pattern emerges

Duterte’s manner of deciding on Boracay shows a pattern. For one thing, it’s clear that he is moved by graphic images. It was a video of Boracay’s problems that drove him to consider closure. It was photos of bruised and frozen bodies of female domestic workers that drove him to ban Kuwait deployment of Filipino migrant workers. It was a documentary on mining that led him to threaten mining companies with taxation and an open-pit mining ban.

Another pattern is that Duterte’s most controversial or drastic decisions are often announced in speeches, and before he gives formal orders to Cabinet secretaries. Thus, his secretaries are often left to scramble for a clarification on his public statement and then to find a way to implement his order by recalibrating according to what laws, protocol, or diplomacy allow. 

When Duterte makes a crucial pronouncement, his focus is on the impact of his messaging rather than the nitty-gritty processes and nuances needed to make the policy happen. He leaves his Cabinet secretaries to find ways and, if needed, work-arounds.

Aside from Boracay, we’ve seen this in Duterte’s OFW deployment ban, where Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III admitted right after the speech that he was yet to receive any formal orders from the President about the ban.

There was also Duterte’s announcement of his military and economic “separation” from the United States in favor of China and Russia. His defense officials were dumbfounded and had no ready responses to media. But eventually, they were able to get Duterte to continue certain military exercises with the US. His economic advisers also later on tempered the messaging to the Philippines’ “pivot to Asia.”

More recently, Duterte announced in an event with rice traders that he would “abolish” the National Food Authority Council. Roque later on “clarified” that while Duterte did say that, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea informed the President that such abolition requires the action of Congress. 

“It’s true the President mentioned that but after, he was approached by Secretary [Manuel] Piñol and Executive Secretary Medialdea who explained to me that, that it was agreed, he kind of shifted gears and said that the NFA must be put under the Office of the President,” said Roque in Filipino. 

Duterte also likes to use “overkill” pronouncements to highlight his populist bent, his championing of the poor over the rich. This is likely the root of his declaration that he will put Boracay under land reform and distribute land to farmers. This obviously threatens the “rich” resort owners.

Political scientist Aries Arugay had said about populist leaders: “It’s not enough you give to the poor, you must take from the rich.”

Whether Boracay will really go to farmers is an entirely different matter. The controversy of the Chinese-backed integrated casino and resort sticks out like a sore thumb. With all the other high-end establishments  set to rise in Boracay, the opposite could happen – that Boracay will be a paradise for the elite.

There's also that curious Duterte postscript during the April 5 Cabinet meeting – that he might "see what can be done" for Boracay establishments found to be complying with regulations. Is he dangling a carrot over businessmen desperate to save their enterprises and making room for exceptions to be made? Deciding on who gets exempted is a powerful bargaining chip.

A source said that the controversial casino-resort was never mentioned during any of the Cabinet meetings where Boracay was discussed. Duterte himself claims he knows nothing of it, even if he met with representatives of the companies behind the project and discussed the project with them.

Is Duterte lying or did he simply not make the connection between the casino and his Boracay closure? Whichever the truth is says a lot about how he decides on policies with far-reaching impacts on the country. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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