It is painful to read the transcript of the briefing held by Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella before Palace reporters.The context: The announcement that President Rodrigo Duterte would no longer accept any aid from the European Union.
Abella, who perhaps holds the most unenviable job in the country, was in his element: Sticking to vague answers and refusing to identify specific aid packages. He did not define what interference meant or explain how existing program beneficiaries were expected to manage when external help stops.
The President said he was refusing a $280-million grant package from the EU, mostly for peace and development projects in Muslim Mindanao, so that the bloc cannot interfere with our internal affairs. The EU has been critical of the reported thousands of killings, in the name of the war against drugs, under the Duterte administration.
Not everybody in the official family agrees with the President. Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said the aid refusal was never discussed in Cabinet meetings. Hence, this did not constitute policy. He said he believes the President is open to suggestions. “You know our President has a style of doing something and then taking it back later. It’s some kind of a tactic.”
Whatever the President’s ultimate objective is, the pronouncement is damaging to the country—and not just for economic reasons.
That the European Union figures as one of the top sources of grants and official development assistance, overseas remittances, tourists and foreign direct investments as well as export destination, has been much discussed. Remember, too, how swiftly it helped us when Typhoon “Yolanda” struck in 2013.
There will always be criticism of anything the President says and does, and anybody is always free to comment. But does commenting constitute interference? And can we truly say we don’t need any help?
The haughty stance would have been more credible were the administration consistent with its rejection of foreign meddling. Alas, all the tough talk crumbles when the other party is China. In sharp contrast to his behavior with the US and EU, Mr Duterte does not seem to mind interference from China.
True, it is silent on the issue of human rights, and logically so. The meddling comes in another form—staking claims on what international law established are within our territory, or conducting joint exploration of resources when delineations are not clear.
Of course, as Abella noted, Mr. Duterte brought home “huge slabs of bacon” —pledges of aid and investment—from China. But is not bacon bacon, regardless of origin?
Business groups, like Pernia, now say they are banking on the President to reverse himself on the issue. A reversal will avert the dire consequences of the display of arrogance. Unfortunately, it will validate, yet again, that we have a President whose words we cannot take at face value, and who is so whimsical his rules change depending on whom he is talking to. If this is indeed a tactic, we cannot see the strategy that promises to redeem it.