Is Duterte’s Cabinet ready for Duterte?

Teddy A. Casiño

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Is Duterte’s Cabinet ready for Duterte?
Instead of finding ways to back up Duterte’s strong policy pronouncements and make them a reality, these Cabinet members are trying to water them down to within their comfort zones

For a Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte has been saying very strange things. And I’m not talking about the curses, the insults, the rambling speeches and press conferences, although there is that, too.

What I mean are the President’s statements that radically depart from previous official policies. Those bold and daring declarations that, if followed, would give us what we desperately need – a governance that is truly patriotic, democratic and pro-people. 

But reactions and “clarifications” from his own Cabinet members beg the question, do they actually share his vision for the country?

Independent foreign policy

Take the President’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy.

Duterte’s colorful language notwithstanding, what he is essentially saying is that it is time to end the Philippines’ decades-old economic and military dependence on the United States of America. He is the only Philippine president, perhaps since Andres Bonifacio, to have openly criticized the US and the European powers for their hypocrisy and imperialist atrocities. And rightly so.

In furtherance of such a policy, Duterte has expressed his intention to keep US military forces out of Mindanao, to stop joint Philippine and US military exercises in the country as well as joint patrols in the disputed areas of the South China Sea, to acquire non US-made weapons for the armed forces, and to review or even abrogate the PH-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). 

His corollary efforts to strengthen and develop security and economic ties with Russia and China are equally bold assertions of this independent posture and a rejection of our traditionally US-centric foreign policy. Not since the Senate rejection of the US bases treaty in 1991 has the Philippines taken a position that threatens to undo the ironclad PH-US security alliance. Done correctly, and in a well-balanced manner, such a foreign policy can help bring about more balanced and meaningful relations with other countries and a more diverse, self-reliant economy.

Unfortunately, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, Defense Secretary Delfin Loranzana and AFP chief of staff Ricardo Visayas are all scrambling to contradict everything the President says against the presence of US troops and facilities in Philippine soil.

Free healthcare

Another of Duterte’s bold and radical moves is to replicate Cuba’s socialist health care system in order to expand access to our marginalized, mostly rural, communities. For this reason he sent a fact-finding team to Cuba, led by Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial herself, to learn how the small, Latin American country subjected to a most brutal economic embargo by the US can still maintain a healthcare system matching the most advanced countries in Europe and North America.

In Cuba, there are no private hospitals or clinics. Healthcare is free and provided for by the government. To duplicate this, Duterte would have to buck the two-track policy of income-generation and privatization (via public-private partnerships) imposed by the Department of Health (DOH) and Department of Budget and Management (DBM) on our fledgling public hospitals. 

Ironically, instead of increasing the budgets for public hospitals, Ubial and Budget Secretary Ben Diokno even slashed the maintenance and operating budgets of 66 of 72 public hospitals in the amount of P1.5 billion. Moreover, Ubial is pushing through with the previous governments’ privatization program that threatens to make healthcare even more inaccessible to the poor.

Job security, higher incomes for workers

Among Duterte’s popular campaign promises was ending the contractualization of labor, particularly the practice of perpetually keeping workers on short-term contracts in order to avoid giving them salaries and benefits due regular workers. This has given rise to a dreaded term among laborers: “endo” to mean “end of contract.”

Ending “endo” is an especially tough challenge, as more than half of the employed workforce are now tied to such oppressive contracts. There are thousands of manpower agencies that serve as buffers for companies that refuse to give their workers security of tenure, higher wages and proper working conditions. Top corporations in the retail trade, manufacturing, banking, BPO, security services and real estate, among others, have replaced regular workers with contractual employees. The biggest user of contractual labor is government itself, with hundreds of thousands of casual or contractual employees without regular items. 

To increase workers’ incomes, Duterte has promised to raise wages substantially and decrease taxes for rank and file employees.

In contrast, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez has outrightly rejected Labor’s demand for a P125 daily wage hike. To end contractualization, he and Labor Sec. Silvestre Bello III have teamed up with the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) and Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) in trying to persuade Labor to accept a “win-win” solution that essentially perpetuates the system, albeit with some adjustments.

Meanwhile, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III wants income taxes reduced not only for the rank and file but also for rich individuals and big corporations, even as he wants to impose higher taxes on ordinary consumers by increasing excise taxes on oil and removing discounts for senior citizens and persons with disabilities.

Peace and development

Finally there is Duterte’s unprecedented peace efforts with the communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The talks have resumed in earnest, with a comprehensive agreement on socio-economic reforms as the top agenda. A ceasefire unilaterally and separately declared by both the government and the New People’s Army is in place. 

The road to peace will be long and difficult but Duterte’s respect for the NDFP and his openness to it’s two key development policies – agrarian reform and national industrialization – bodes well for the talks. In several instances Duterte has mentioned his plan to revive the local steel industry as a key element in his vision of an industrialized Philippine economy. Such shared ambitions between the NDFP and Duterte are incompatible with the dominant neoliberal economic framework that promotes the same old export-oriented, import-dependent, private sector-led and debt-driven service economy.

Duterte has made similar efforts to reach out to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). He has promised to pass a watered-down version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law with a pledge that the Bangsamoro will be granted full autonomy under the federal system of government he is pushing.

So far, no one in the Cabinet has expressed any disagreement with resuming the peace talks. But hardly anyone has shown support either, except for those directly involved in the processes. Cabinet support will be crucial as the agreements to be negotiated cover a wide range of policy issues, from social and economic reforms, political and constitutional reforms, to peace and order and security. 

Misinterpreting Duterte

Duterte is pushing for many more positive changes like a stop to destructive mining and a limit to mining in general, free irrigation for farmers, a more aggressive implementation of agrarian reform, and a strong campaign against corruption.

Because the changes he wants to make are so challenging and require so much work and unprecedented political will, Duterte needs the solid support of his Cabinet members who are, after all, his alter egos.

Unfortunately, despite Duterte’s clear positions on the radical changes he wants for the country, some Cabinet members apparently are still stuck in the old paradigms of the previous administrations. A number of them appear to be too eager to “interpret” Duterte’s pronouncements to the point of opposing it.

Instead of finding ways to back up Duterte’s strong policy pronouncements and make them a reality, these Cabinet members are trying to water them down to within their comfort zones. This is a disservice to the President, whose vision will be compromised right off the bat.

With Cabinet members like these, who needs “Yellows” to undermine his promise of change?


The author is a former representative of Bayan Muna in the House of Representatives.

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