When the Vice President of the Philippines returns to her office at dusk of November 9th, her staff have just finished watching Donald Trump quite graciously delivering his victory speech as president-elect of the United States of America. I stood with her in-house think tank in that half-circle gathered before the television, reading over and over the marquee that declared, in too-big and too-bold type, that Trump—uncouth, unqualified, unabashedly racist and sexist Mr. Trump—was the new leader of the Land of the Free. I killed time listening to the first bars of his speech, waiting for my appointment with my Vice President, wondering for the nth time when exactly this world stopped making sense.
Trump’s win is a blow for Filipinos of a certain political, perhaps even moral bent. Its transatlanticism can only underscore the increasing powerlessness individuals have against the machinations of states, of the maddeningly frequent irrationalities of groupthink. All these sorrows are growing larger; the bleeding hearts among us rail at the apparent uselessness of one’s faith in humanity.
“Nanghihina ako,” says the Vice President when I finally sit down with her and confirm the Trump news. And she laughs, and it is the kind of laughter relieved to be let out, the kind of laughter that understands it is the very best thing it can be after weathering through a battery from the past few days. It’s the kind of laugh that escapes you before you brace yourself for another round of punches. “As in, physically, nanghihina ako.” And what can you do, besides stand with her in her bracing?
And, consider: Vice President Leni Robredo has just emerged from an immensely charged November 8th in Tacloban—the third anniversary of the landfall of Super Typhoon Yolanda, on its own an occasion weighted with grief and duty, but one that made salacious headlines when President Rodrigo Duterte
saw it fit to boast to an alarmingly receptive audience about how he made a habit of ogling Vice President Robredo’s legs. This, as the Vice President shared the stage with him and with a coterie of their colleagues, looking like she was reaching into her considerable reserves of restraint and class to not let the prattle and snigger of immature boys get to her. Let this pass, was the Vice President thinking? Let it pass quickly; there’s so much work I have to do today.
What can you, a citizen, do when your country’s president bandies about his habitual harassment of the
second-highest executive in the land? What can you, a citizen, do when a man who was swept into power by 16 million Filipinos has habitually tagged your Vice President a woman-as-object, subject to male desire, first and foremost? What can you, a mere citizen, do to protest the tastelessness,
the sheer offensiveness, of the country’s most powerful man—especially since he was elected into office riding on his repeated admissions of his womanizing ways, his tendency to shower women on
the campaign trail with his advances, his “joke” about wishing he’d been the first in line to rape a missionary? Especially since this government has inexorably embraced misogyny as a guiding principle
You reach into the considerable reserves of anger and outrage that you possess, and you protest and you condemn, and you make sure to do so standing with her.
Following the furor that met the president’s demeaning, the Vice President released a statement: “When President Duterte made inappropriate remarks, I deliberately chose to ignore these. There
are larger and more urgent issues we confront as a nation that demand our collective attention... Tasteless remarks and inappropriate advances against women should have no place in our society. We should expect that most of all from our leaders.” She capped her statement with a promise to fulfill her mandate as “the duly elected Vice President,” regardless of the noise around her.
“Sana he won’t take it against me,” the duly elected Vice President says now, “in the sense na, dahil sa statement ko, ipitin niya ‘yung work.”
Has that ever happened?
“Hindi naman,” she says. “In fairness to him. Ako, I’ve been very vocal about my opposition to the extrajudicial killings, death penalty, Martial Law, Libingan ng mga Bayani. And sometimes he jokes about it during Cabinet meetings. Halimbawa, ‘Extrajudicial killings. Ay, ayoko na ‘yan pag-usapan, nandito si Ma’am, magagalit na naman ‘yan sa’kin.’ ‘yung mga ganun. ‘Yung sa akin naman, basta ma-retain sa level na yun, ‘yung nakakapagtrabaho pa ako. ‘Di ba? There are things na kailangan mo na lang lunukin, kasi may mas malaking obligasyon ka.”
It was on November 8th, too, that the Supreme Court rejected all petitions seeking to prevent the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos’ burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, sending shockwaves of stunned outrage among what was looking like an increasingly powerless opposition. Outrage—and anger, and betrayal, and grief. A move campaigned for by Marcos progeny who were rising higher and higher in the political ranks, and with the President’s blessing: Rendering the highest honors to a man who masterminded one of the bloodiest regimes of modern Filipino history, who plunged the Philippines into a kind of political, social, economic muck that, 30 years on, we’re still struggling to get out of.
And the Vice President, in a Romualdez country, surrounded by tarpaulins bearing the late dictator’s son’s name instead of hers—the very same late dictator’s son who’s filed a case against the Supreme
Court protesting his loss against Vice President Robredo—had to roll with that punch, too: “Ako kasi, I have always been very vocal about my opposition. There were talks already that they would decide
that way—pero alam mo ‘yun, because you felt so strongly about it, parang you were always hoping that until the very end, they would have a change of heart? Sa’kin, nandoon ako sa Yolanda anniversary when I learned of the decision. ‘Yung physical manifestation, talagang...” The Vice
President sighs, shrugs, waves that away. “Pero, alam natin na wala tayong magagawa.
Nirerespeto natin ‘yung Supreme Court. Palagay ko, sana hindi mahinto ‘yung pag-express natin ng feeling of indignation. Kasi tingin ko, it’s not as simple as—sasabihin na, ‘Patay na ‘yun e, kalimutan na lang natin.’ Parang, tingin ko kasi: ‘Yung values natin as a nation, ‘di ba?”
I tell her that a lot of people are scared—by this seeming denial of historical fact, of the plight of thousands who suffered under the dictatorship. She says, “‘Yun nga eh. Parang may chilling effect siya. May chilling effect ‘yung ginagawa na... Ako kasi, parati akong optimistic. Parati akong optimistic na everything happens for a reason. I think in the end, parati ring ‘yung good will prevail over evil.”
Before that rallying cry has a chance to sink in, she continues: “Kaya lang, ‘yung tanong lang: Yung wounds sa atin: How much can we carry? Kasi sunod-sunod. Sunod-sunod.”
What Does a Vice President Do?
After nearly two weeks of filling up key positions in his Cabinet (and following a pointedly separate inauguration ceremony), President Duterte appointed his Vice President to head the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council—a position occupied by two of her predecessors. But what her predecessors didn’t inherit was the backlog of pledges and obligations following the widespread devastation wrought by Yolanda—a workload that necessitated an immediate expansion of the HUDCC’s mandate of merely coordinating (and not supervising) the activities of the government’s six housing agencies, all of which have charters of their own.
Given the enormity of the things she’s seeking to accomplish, and with a keen awareness of the limitations of the post, Robredo has made moves to strengthen the council’s mandate by transforming it into a Department—by way of a draft Executive Order that, as of this writing, is currently sitting unsigned on the president’s desk. “Until and unless hindi siya ma-convert into a Department,” says the VP, “kaya sa amin, ang dami na naming gustong gawin, hindi namin magawa kasi wala sa mandate namin...Kung department sana kami, magagawa na namin at our level.”
The VP points out that over the years the HUDCC has taken on a reputation for underperforming—and not because of incumbent chairs, but because of institutional lacks that need to be addressed. “‘Yung point ko naman, nandito tayo para mag-trabaho, so gawin na natin ‘yung lahat. Lalo na kasi 5.6 million yung ating [housing] backlog, tapos ‘yung policies natin ngayon ay...mag-eescalate ‘yung backlog.”
She adds: “Meron din kasing mindset na: ‘Basta lang.’ Parati kong ine-emphasize ngayon sa kanila na ang accomplishment natin: Building homes, building communities, not just building houses. Kasi parang over the years, yung pinaka accomplishment ay number of houses built—kahit masama, kahit ang layo, walang tubig... Accomplishment na yun, kasi ang metric, number of houses built.” She’s also pushing for government to remain cognizant of its duty to relocate citizens with as little disruption as possible. “It’s a lot of work... pero ayoko rin na uupo ako, gagawin ko yung dating ginagawa kahit mali. Sabi ko, kahit na matagalan, basta inayos na natin. Para rin sa mga susunod sa atin.”
Does she have the president’s backing on her plans for government housing?
“At least, doon sa mga areas na kailangan—halimbawa, housing—the president has been very supportive. Sobrang daming problema sa housing ngayon, and every time na nagre-report ako sa kanya, parating sinasabi ko ‘yung proposed na next steps, so far very supportive naman siya.”
The VP has also taken it upon herself to expand even the scope of what services her office is expected to provide the citizenry: “Traditionally kasi, ‘yung Office of the Vice President ginagawa niya, mas political at mas ceremonial... I told my staff, I can’t spend six years doing just ceremonial stuff. So, sabi ko, gusto ko, to make the office more advocacy-heavy. So, eto na, nag-isip kami. We don’t have the mandate naman to execute programs, and we don’t have the budget to execute programs, pero I want to continue my anti-poverty programs from before on a more nationwide scale. So, inisip namin, paano ba kami makakagalaw without money? So, naisip namin, to make the office a sort of a conduit between those communities in need and ‘yung mga gustong tumulong.”
I want to continue my anti-poverty programs from before on a more nationwide scale.
And so the past four months have seen the Vice President travel across the archipelago, sometimes to municipalities that have never been visited by national government officials, sometimes holding meetings in the middle of rice fields— touching base with communities to learn firsthand what kind of help they need and bridging them with private institutions eager to lend a hand. It’s an echo of the VP’s career as an alternative (pro bono) lawyer for the poor—and her continuing to advocate for “the last, the least, and the lost” is an impressive push against the institutional limitations of her position.
And yet. It’s a particularly noisy government we have, complete with chest-thumping, cat-calling, and careless jokes disguising public policy. How do you work in this atmosphere—how do you do your job?
“Sa akin din, six years is a short time, and there is so much to do. Kung mag-eengage pa ako, papatulan ko pa lahat ng bagay? Halimbawa, tulad ng kay Presidente, two sides of the coin parati, merong happy na nag-co-cooperate ako sa kanya, merong unhappy kasi magkaiba kami [ng partida]. Pero sa akin naman, ‘yung point ko, there’s a job to do. I might not agree with all that he is or everything that he says, pero as long as I communicate to him the message, and as long as he respects me despite the differences in opinion—tapos hayaan niya akong gawin ang trabaho ko, ako, hundred percent talaga. And so far, in fairness to him, marami na kaming disagreements, pero, in fairness to him, as far as ‘yung housing is concerned, he has been very supportive. That’s good enough for me. Kung may magawa akong something in a few years, ‘di ba?”
The VP points out: “Ang daming kaguluhan sa paligid. Parati kong sinasabi, I’m focused on the targets, I keep my eyes on the ball. I will not allow myself to be distracted by all of this. Halimbawa, nung nag-decide in favor of Libingan, ang daming nagsasabi, ‘Sunod nito, tatalunin na ako [with the electoral protest].’ Ang sa akin naman, hindi naman ako nagpapabaya. Nandiyan yung mga abogado ko, inaasikaso ‘yung kaso ko.”
I tell her, with the force of the sorrows wrought on bleeding hearts across the country, in a desperate bid for the world to start making sense again: Whatever happens, we’ll have your back.
“Ang daming kaguluhan sa paligid. Parati kong sinasabi, I’m focused on the targets, I keep my eyes on the ball. I will not allow myself to be distracted by all of this.
“I appreciate that, but I also want to rally people to unite. Kasi, hindi ko rin gusto na parang, dinidivide ko lalo. Ayoko ‘yun. Kaya, ang effect naman noon sa akin, may tendency akong mag-low profile, para lang hindi—I think, kasi, it’s too early in the day. Ang dami nang nangyayari. Pero, alam mo ‘yun, parang I think it will always be to the benefit of everyone ‘pag... hindi pala-away ka. Mas parating: Between several choices, doon ka sa choice that would create minimal [damage].”
Duly chastened, but not quite enough, I ask if she’s okay with being thought of as an opposition leader.
“No. Kasi tingin ko, even if I’m in politics already for the past four years, I still don’t see myself as a politician, in the sense na I know how to traverse this route. I think, eventually, kailangan kong maintindihan. But I’m not rushing. I’m not pressuring myself into following the same paths na finollow ng iba. Ako, palagay ko, there will always be better ways of doing things.”
And Vice President Robredo has work to do, better things to do, than go toe-to-toe with all the noise.
THE EVENING BEFORE I met with the Vice President— fresh from the Supreme Court’s decision on the Libingan issue—a man wearing a Duterte baller approached me, trying to sell me a Philippine flag fashioned out of plastic beads and crystals. I nod at his baller, ask, “Binoto mo si Duterte?” “Of course.” “Naniniwala ka pa rin sa kanya, kahit ang dami nang namamatay?” “Ay, ma’am, but the police only kill them because they’re nag-laban, you know? And, others, they kill each other.” I did not argue.
Encounters like this hammer home one’s seemingly indelible status as political minority—even in the midst of the social turmoil, the rise of human rights violations and murders, the sheer unpredictability of our government’s moral compass. Encounters like this hit you with the realization that despite all that, there are still people who choose, every day, to slip those rubber bracelets around their wrists, to announce their as-fervent-as-ever support for the strongman they very proudly put in power, all 16 million of them. At some point, you get tired of arguing.
Opposition has always been paramount to a functioning democracy. But the current political atmosphere has presented to the minority the options of: Get in line, or else. The administration’s communications secretary is in one broadsheet branding those who protest a hero’s burial for the dictator “temperamental brats.” In another broadsheet the mascot-cum-mobilizer of Duterte supporters online insists on her right to manipulate facts to provoke her considerable lynch mobs. In the halls of Congress, political party lines have blurred in service of popular thought and the promise of a reinstituted pork barrel. Over at the Senate, vocal critics of the administration are persecuted and steam-rolled over—with Senator Leila de Lima foremost among them weathering through months of sordid accusations involving sex tapes, drug money, and being carelessly tagged by the Justice Secretary as the mastermind behind the death of a surrenderee mayor murdered in his cell, all after being forcibly wrested from heading the one government committee that dared investigate murders carried out under the guise of an indiscriminate war on drugs. Online, dissent is hushed, and often by hordes who’d not hesitate to shower you with all iterations of verbal abuse.
And so: How do you, a mere citizen, protect the Vice President from the legion—headed by the unapologetic son of a dictator, condoned by the President who’d tagged the dictator’s daughter as his primary donor during the elections—eager to unseat her? How do you, a mere citizen, fight the battles she’d rather not fight because she’s got so much work to do, and someone in this damned government has to keep the wheels running, someone among our nation’s top officials has to make that necessary trek to sitios difficult to place on maps to hold meetings in rice fields? How do you rally around someone beset at all sides? How do you stand with one of the last pure bleeding hearts in the Republic, when your own has grown too weary? How many more wounds can you carry? How much more bracing can you take?
What do you tell Filipinos losing hope?
“Sana isipin na the power is in our hands,” says the Vice President. “‘Yung mga ganito, tingin ko, minor upheavals ‘to. They were allowed to happen for a greater reason. Puwedeng hindi pa natin alam kung bakit, pero always naman—yung tawag ng asawa ko diyan, connecting the dots. Eventually it will make sense. Pero what’s important is what you did while you try to make sense out of things. You do not lose sight of what you believe in, you do not lose sight of the goal. You drown out the voices, because there are bigger battles to fight.”
This article was originally published in Esquire's November 2016 issue.