You’ve got dictators, and you’ve got dictators. Some like Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions of their own people, but actually convinced themselves it was for the overall good of the remainders. Some like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro brought their nations’ economies to their knees out of arrogance and loyalty to a bankrupt ideology.
So where does Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte fit in the spectrum? He is in fact destroying his country on the level of Castro and Chávez/Maduro. He’s breaking his nation’s 12-decade special relationship with the United States to shift the vast archipelago of 110 million souls into the Chinese orbit. But for what? For the answer, look to the regime of the nation’s previous strongman and Duterte’s personal hero, Ferdinand Marcos.
While Marcos used a fake threat of communists to declare martial law, Duterte has imposed martial law disguised as a COVID-19 lockdown. If it were a true lockdown, it would be the world’s longest; it began last March, and there’s no end in sight. It’s enforced by soldiers and police with automatic rifles and armored personnel carriers. Although the laws are less enforced in the small-town areas away from Manila’s prying eyes, in major cities, quarantine passes are required that restrict movement to three days a week, and in a country with 5,000 occupied islands you can’t visit 4,999 without both a swab test and a 14-day quarantine (although it appears this may be in the process of changing).
Those over 65 (including expats) and under 15 are not allowed out of their homes at all without special permission. Masks are mandatory whenever outside the home regardless of being miles away from humanity. (I was walking alone — or so I thought — when a soldier approached from behind and berated me for not having my nose covered.) And if you don’t like masks, try wearing them under big clunky shields that are always getting dirty, blur your vision in any case, and do a great job of trapping the usual hot and moist Filipino air.
Clearly keeping people masked, separated, buttoned inside their houses, and so on has real advantages over traditional martial law.
The Philippines is the only Southeast Asian country that still doesn’t have face-to-face classes, contact tracing forms are required to enter all public buildings and businesses (granted, they’re tossed at night), and cheap transportation for the vast majority of those without private vehicles has essentially been wiped out.
Nor is there any end in sight. The rules stay; only the reasoning changes. The major city of Cebu imposed a curfew (because, naturally, the virus spreads better at night) that the mayor simply changed from being anti-COVID to anti–drug sales and thus made permanent. He also has once again banned the sale of liquor. But in fairness he surely dreads the prospect of Duterte once again pushing him aside (so embarrassing!) to directly seize control of the city, as he did last June.
Likewise, any alleged COVID-19 precaution can be made permanent. Masks, for example, can be claimed to reduce the spread of TB, flu, and cold viruses. And there’s reason to think the government will want them permanent. “While there are minimal physiological impacts on wearing a mask,” noted a peer-reviewed science journal last year, “theoretical evidence suggests that there may be consequential psychological impacts of mask wearing on the basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.” Masks are made to order for dictators.
Lest you think maybe, just maybe, Duterte’s actions and inactions merely represent a combination of overzealousness and sheer stupidity, it helps to know a few more things. Duterte also used the distraction of COVID-19 to shutter the opposition television station ABS-CBN, to have his minions sentence his chief journalist critic Maria Ressa to up to six years in prison for alleged cyber-libel that nobody even pretends she wrote, and passed a so-called “anti-terrorism act” that arguably takes away rights first recognized by America in 1899 and is so extreme it may make anti-government social media postings punishable by life in prison.
So just how well does tyranny work in controlling airborne pathogens? Even as the British medical journal the Lancet placed the Philippines in the bottom third of surveyed nations in terms of its management of COVID-19, the country is suffering possibly the worst economic decline in Southeast Asia. In fact, it’s by far the worst since the nation gained full independence in 1946, vastly deeper than even the worst of the Marcos years.
“I’ve never seen hunger at this level before,” said Jomar Fleras, executive director of Rise Against Hunger in the Philippines, which works with more than 40 partners to feed the poor. “If you go out there everybody will tell you that they’re more afraid of dying from hunger than dying from Covid. They don’t care about Covid anymore.”
Nikkei Asia’s William Pesek wrote, “If Duterte quit tomorrow, his legacy will be more about a disregard for the rule of law, damaging Manila’s human rights and a poor response to the pandemic that Vietnam and Bangladesh are handling much more competently.” He added, “Nor will history be kind to the backsliding on Transparency International’s corruption index” (currently at 115 out of 180 countries).
He’s fully reversed the fantastic gains in per-capita GDP since Marcos left office, from around $1,200 to $3,000 and growing. Until it collapsed.
Some of this damage may be permanent, such as to the tourist industry that’s more important to the Philippines than any other Southeast Asian country. Before COVID-19 martial law tourism comprised about 13 percent of GDP. But in fairness, there’s really not much for tourists in the Philippines not offered in nearby countries — or countries nearer to yours. Few historical buildings stand, and there’s probably not one example of interesting modern architecture. The tourist with a sudden need may well find that “It’s out of stock, sir!” since Filipinos (like almost all Latino countries) don’t understand the concept of inventory. Traffic in metropolitan areas practically moves backwards much of the day, and there’s no rail anywhere aside from two lines of moving sardine containers in the Manila metro area. Filipinos have not been smart about putting hotels, bars, and restaurants on their beaches, and both native food plus foreign imitations would get minus stars in the Michelin Guide.
But don’t say the strongman has done nothing to try to help the economy. He’s just announced the cancellation of three public holidays, so people will work extra long at the jobs they don’t have.
In late February, ignoring the advice of his own pandemic task force that noted the economy was in the trash heap, Duterte declared there would be no national lowering of martial law until, well, something to do with vaccinations. To be determined by… Duterte. But because of Duterte, the first token vaccinations were distributed on March 5, by far the last country in Southeast Asia. Myanmar, for all its problems, is distributing the vaccine. And as to when life will get back to its usual autocratic normality, Duterte says maybe sometime in 2023. That lengthy timeline is all the more interesting when you consider his term is supposed to end in mid-2022.
The major vaccine purchase by the Philippines, what little there is, comes from, yes, China. It’s the disappointing Sinovac injection with an efficacy rate in Brazil of barely over 50 percent. (Shortly after the Sinovac vaccine arrived, a somewhat smaller batch came from AstraZeneca.) But Duterte somehow claims Sinovac is every bit as reliable as Western vaccines. True, he said, “My preference is Sinopharm, China. I’m not into products by white people.” But he’s always making offhand remarks just to get attention, and we’re dealing with a truly vile man here, one who repeatedly makes fun of rape, including saying he wish he’d been first on the fatal gang rape of an Australian missionary.
Clearly keeping people masked, separated, buttoned inside their houses, and so on has real advantages over traditional martial law. Especially when spreading fear of contagion can be so effective without even need of soldiers or police. In many ways, the Marcos and Japanese martial laws were less intrusive, as indeed was the 31-month martial law Duterte imposed on the strife-torn, part-Muslim island of Mindanao, lifted just prior to the arrival of COVID-19. I had been in the island’s largest city, and you wouldn’t even have known there was martial law if nobody told you.
So from this incredible disaster, cui bono? Duterte, that’s cui.
You see, while Castro, Chávez, and Maduro presumably helped themselves to their nation’s treasuries, they didn’t directly gain from trashing their economies. Duterte does, by emulating his hero Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled from 1966 to 1986, used martial law to cancel elections, and stole perhaps $10 billion (not adjusted for inflation). Ultimately, the military turned on Marcos, and the U.S. government, needing a viable leader, told him he could have a splendid estate in Hawaii and keep his booty (the official U.S. customs record is 23 pages), but leave he must.
Duterte later stated proudly, “My father was one of the two who stood by Marcos in his darkest hours.” After he assumed the presidency, he ordered the late dictator’s body interred in the country’s Heroes Cemetery, from which it had been legally blocked. The Dutertes and Marcoses remain tightly connected politically.
But it’s one thing to admire, another to imitate. That’s where trashing the economy comes in. First, it gave Duterte access to over $8 billion in national emergency funds. Then more than $8 billion more in foreign loans and gifts poured in. How much of that he’s secreted away we don’t know, except even as those billions were pouring in from abroad in August Duterte announced the coffers through some form of black magic had gone dry: “I cannot give food anymore and money to people.”
You see, the Philippines has no “safety net” of any kind. No mandatory unemployment payments, no welfare, food stamps, rental aid, etc. So after the lockdown began and countless millions lost their jobs, Manila passed money down to mayors and then barangay (borough) captains, and you can bet the politicians took their cut at every level. But the very first level was Duterte. And then he simply dropped the whole pretense and just took everything.
But with even foreign aid drying up, how can Duterte squeeze blood from a stone? Well, he’s got what he considers a nifty idea.
Under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) now being renegotiated, U.S. forces provide training for anti-terrorist activity and engage in humanitarian aid. Between storms and volcanoes, the nation is almost in perpetual need of that aid.
But most important is deterrence of ever-growing Chinese aggression. Consummate with its growth in military might and seeking expansion opportunities easier than taking Taiwan, the Middle Kingdom keeps elbowing in on the Spratly Islands, which many countries claim but of which some were actually awarded to the Philippines by a world court. Even now, Chinese boats are harassing Filipino fishermen they claim are too close to the artificial islands they have created.
Meanwhile the Philippines (or even just part of it) would provide a strategic location for China, as indeed it did for the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese. But militarily the nation has little to bring to the table. That’s because while all the other countries informally allied to contain Chinese expansion can project military might, the Philippines armed forces is capable of little beyond skirmishing with small terrorist/extortion groups and helping keep the civilian population from getting any ideas about protesting Duterte’s autocratic rule. It has no tanks and uses ships that last saw action against Japan. In fact, Duterte cites this weak military for why he shouldn’t even confront China. Never mind that this is the purpose of alliances.
So if Duterte wants to keep his country independent, he needs the U.S. and America’s allies. Which makes it seemingly quite perplexing that he is demanding that he, er, uh, his country, receive $16 billion from American coffers to defend the Philippines.
Granted, Duterte has never been a big Yankee fan.
He’s alleged to hold a grudge against “the Kanos” for the 1898–1901 Filipino–American war after America seized the islands from Spain. It was indeed a brutal conflict on both sides — although the story about Pershing shooting Muslims with bullets dunked in pig blood and fat is a complete myth and the story comes from a later insurrection anyway.
In all fairness, nobody could foresee that Duterte would pounce on COVID-19 as his version of Marcos’ communists. What we can predict is he will never loosen his grip.
Never mind that since Filipinos cannot govern themselves even today, they obviously were in no position to do so in 1898, nor that the U.S. had a remarkably benevolent occupation that from the beginning was trying to prepare the country for democracy, nor that it allowed limited self-rule within mere decades and granted complete self-rule by the promised 1946 deadline. Filipinos as a rule like Americans and are quite aware that tens of thousands fell to keep out and ultimately drive out the Japanese. China as a country as well as the sizable Chinese expat population in the Philippines seem largely despised. (Japanese and Koreans, conversely, are liked.)
In other words, if you’re going to be occupied by a foreign power, you could do a whole lot worse than America in the Philippines.
Still, if Duterte is anti-American (again in contrast with Castro and Chávez/Maduro) he doesn’t seem to be pro much of anything, other than having the belief of too many Filipino politicians, inherited from the Spanish, that he bought his office fair and square and now deserves to cash in. He’s essentially a punk populist who made no bones about his plan for heavy-handed rule (his campaign symbol was a fist) including cold-blooded murder of both alleged drug pushers and users. He has made good on the promise to kill lots of people, to the consternation of the world’s humanitarian groups, but himself admits there seems to have been no impact on the drug trade. So now the killing is purely for sport and eliminating “undesirables” of any stripe.
Duterte is, however, either a Sinophile or at the very least highly susceptible to the flattery the Chinese have bestowed upon the diminutive former mayor.
But if polls are to be trusted, Duterte is the world’s most popular leader among his own people. Anyway, Filipinos won’t fight back even if their children starve, which we know because some have been on the verge of starving. Hard for Americans to appreciate, Filipinos like despots. “For my whole life I’ve witnessed a tendency among Filipinos to elect people who pose as saviors. We long for a disciplinarian,” wrote a Filipino in a 2016 New York Times op-ed anticipating Duterte’s election that year. They also seem enamored of marvelously stupid disciplinarians. My experience has been that the electorate there is vastly smarter than those they put in charge.
Still, in all fairness, nobody could foresee that Duterte would pounce on COVID-19 as his version of Marcos’ communists. What we can predict is that he will never loosen his grip. Another reason for delaying vaccines is to maintain the fear level. Further, while his term ends next year, the latest poll shows the frontrunner to replace him is… Duterte. That is, his daughter Sara, who already replaced him from his last job as mayor. As for the elder, he couldn’t really spend those billions in the Philippines. Not enough to buy. Presumably he’s China-bound. Let’s just hope that it will be China proper, and not — ahem — a new province.
The dynasty and the COVID-ocracy will continue. When you see those in other countries seemingly overreacting to their lighter versions of lockdown, it starts to make sense if you know of the Filipino experience.
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