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Doing the unthinkable

President Rodrigo Duterte has once again done the unthinkable: He has told the European Union that the Philippines will no longer accept any new grants, to “prevent [the EU] from interfering with our internal affairs,” as Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea explained.

The refusal is more than just symbolic. Duterte has turned down nearly $280 million in aid and put in jeopardy millions of dollars more in exports to the bloc, which some years ago gave preferential, tariff-free treatment to all sorts of goods coming from the Philippines.

Duterte’s chief economic planner, Ernesto Pernia, scrambled to explain that refusing aid was not the administration’s policy and that he hoped that the president would reconsider his decision, which he apparently made without consulting Pernia. His trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, was quick to point out that the Philippines was already starting to benefit from Duterte’s new policy of friendship with China, which has begun giving funds from a promised $24-billion package of aid and assistance to Manila.

The President has long been railing against the United States, the United Nations and the EU for calling him out on his war against illegal drugs, which has killed thousands of suspected drug users and pushers. His refusal to accept further aid from European nations who want him to end his showcase anti-crime campaign and to answer charges of violating human rights is his way of putting money where his mouth is, so to speak.

Of course, Duterte knows that the EU is not going to beg him to take its money and to continue his fight against illegal drugs if he does. He also understands that the bulk of the EU aid is intended to help poor Muslim communities in Mindanao and that he has to find ways to make up for the loss.

But Duterte has decided that the Philippines should no longer be held hostage by Western countries who have the power to withhold aid to those who do not comply with their wishes or support their favored causes. And since the EU, like the US, has already warned of sanctions on the Philippines if Duterte doesn’t dance to its tune, the President might as well refuse aid, if accepting it will make him fail to fulfill his promise to the Filipino people to end the problem of illegal drugs.

Duterte is also betting that the people who put him in Malacañang last year and who continue to support him now will back him up as he pursues an independent foreign policy simultaneous with his campaign against narcotics. After all, Duterte knows that he only has to make his countrymen—not the Westerners who can’t seem to understand our problems and priorities—happy.

There will always be those who will castigate Duterte for doing what other presidents before him have never done—putting the interest of his country first before the demands of foreigners who think they know better. I’m willing to give him a chance to show that he is not leading us to perdition, but to a whole new world of long-overdue independence.

* * *

Creating a sensation in the US media these days is an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon, who died recently without seeing his last, most controversial work published. The Atlantic ran the long-form story written by Tizon about his family’s “slave,” a woman they called Lola who served three generations of his family in two countries (mostly without pay, praise or even enough sleep), as its cover story in its current issue—and people have not stopped talking about it since.

Even by Filipino standards, Tizon’s story of Lola’s modern-day slavery is mind-blowing. “My Family’s Slave” is as excruciatingly painful as it is voyeuristically compelling; I had to keep stopping to ask myself how an otherwise upright and thoroughly assimilated Filipino immigrant family could have committed such an injustice in a country where what they did was not only frowned upon but also carried heavy penalties.

Tizon recounted in terrific—and often terrifying—detail how Lola, or Eudocia Tomas Pulido, an unlettered farm worker’s daughter in Tarlac, became their unpaid, overworked servant after she was taken in by his grandfather, a troubled military man who eventually killed himself. Lola was brought by Tizon’s parents with them when they immigrated to the US, did all the housework and raised him and his siblings while his parents worked multiple jobs before eventually ending up with Tizon and his own family, receiving regular pay and a much-needed set of dentures.

Tizon’s excellent journalistic prose kept Lola’s unbelievably revolting story from descending into the maudlin. But I could sense that Tizon grappled with powerful demons in order to keep his emotions firmly in check and succeeded only because he brought all of his journalist’s and journalism teacher’s training to bear on what was really a story of unspeakable personal horror.

Tizon did attempt to seek redemption in the end, an effort that culminated with his personally delivering the ashes of Lola to her relatives in their hometown after she died. It is unfortunate that Tizon died when he did, only weeks before the publication of Lola’s story—but perhaps it is better that he is no longer around to face not only the firestorm of criticism in his adopted land but also anger from his outraged countrymen here.

If you haven’t read Tizon’s story yet, I strongly advise that you do. He is a great writer and an unforgiving reporter, sparing no one in this final journalistic tour de force—not even himself.

Topics: Jojo Robles , President Rodrigo Duterte , European Union , EU , financial aid , Pulitzer Prize-winning , Filipino-American journalist , Alex Tizon , The Atlantic , My Family’s Slave , Eudocia Tomas Pulido
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