On Christmas Day some 430,000 people were evacuated from their homes as they awaited the Christmas gift they really didn’t want – the arrival of Typhoon Nock-Ten (Nina), a powerful weather system that ripped away houses and tore up crops in a 110mph fury that blazed through the Philippines’ Bicol region.
Some 13,710 kilometres away, New York City was enjoying its warmest Christmas on record. And there, somewhere – either in the Big Apple itself, across the Hudson River in New Jersey, or in the next-door state of Pennsylvania – the vanishing Vice President of the Philippines, Leni Robredo, was enjoying Christmas Eve. It was the Christmas gift she’d given to herself.
Bicol born and bred and a former House of Representative member for Camarines Sur’s Third District, the news of the impending typhoon will have rattled Robredo. Of course she would have been concerned for the welfare of her compatriots – but she’d also be concerned about the optics. While teams battled on the ground to save lives and property in the biggest late-typhoon ever; as food and shelter were being scraped together in a desperate bid to provide warmth and welfare for an exodus of near Biblical proportions in a dark pastiche of the Christmas story, Robredo was holidaying with family and friends in the bosom of liberal east coast America and, apart from those irritating optics, she wouldn’t have had a care in the world.
New York City is the home of close friend, mentor, vocal supporter and campaign donor, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the Philippine-born millionaire socialite – and a fellow Bicolana – who just recently called for President Rodrigo Duterte to step down and hand over the reigns of government to her Liberal Party sister, Leni: The Three Stooges – Leila, Leni, Loida.
There’s every chance the two ladies got together to exchange Christmas greetings and if they did those optics would almost certainly have been discussed.
And so, the vice-president-in-name-and-little-else swung her PR machine into top gear to present a very different optic – one of a concerned mother looking out for her children a continent and an ocean away. The Office of the Vice President was suddenly up an operating in the US. Through the Philippine domestic media she transmitted bulletins that she was monitoring the situation in Bicol; that she was coordinating with her team. She was on top of things; and the subliminal message – ‘Trouble not; I’m with you; I feel your pain’.
Back in the Philippines her spokeswoman, Georgina Hernandez, wasted no time in releasing a more-detailed statement – that the VP had been “directing the Office of the Vice President to work with regional officials and agencies in setting-up relief centers for immediate emergency response on the ground … Furthermore, the Vice President has been in constant communication with her team since [23 December]. She has also deployed a team in Bicol to assist relief operations”.
Leni Robredo, Action Woman. The same Leni Robredo who flunked as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, quitting after less than a handful of months. There, of course, she was ‘monitoring and coordinating’ the re-housing of victims from the 2013 Typhoon Yolanda – a lacklustre performance that ended up with the project being handed to a subordinate.
The same Leni Robredo who saw part of her “pet project” – a PHP50 million stretch of embankment; part of the PHP650 million Bicol River Rehabilitation at Naga City, Camarines Sur, which she’d financed through the Countryside Development Fund – end up in the Bicol River. As she keeps quiet about that calamity, the contractor is claiming he’s not been paid in nearly a year and an investigation is being urged from a number of quarters.
So, based on that very recent form in handling issues locally, forgive us for having little confidence in the VP’s ability to coordinate something of Nina’s scale from the eastern seaboard of the United States. On all available evidence, Robredo is not ‘Can Do’.
It’s no surprise, then, that the vice president’s “satisfaction rating” plummeted in the latest Social Weather Station survey, affording her a score of +37 The surprise was that it only fell by 12 points, given that her main governmental input recently has been to openly criticise the administration she’d sworn to serve.
But as the clean-up of Typhoon Nina continues; as the cost in lost crops and buckled buildings is assessed; as the victims of the winds and flood attempt to put their lives back together, many will wonder just how much real assistance the absentee VP was able to afford her region – how much time out of her busy holiday schedule she’d been able to sacrifice. Certainly, she hasn’t made any plans to cut short her US trip and see first hand Nina’s parting Christmas gift. She’ll return apparently at New Year as originally planned.
They may also question as to why precisely Robredo was in the US this Christmas? Her office had explained that the vacation was planned a year ago – so long before the May 2016 election and its eventual outcome that saw her elected to the vice presidency. But, apparently – and according to her – she couldn’t be in Bicol because it would bring back too many bad memories about the loss of her husband, Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Jess Robredo, who died in 2012 when his light aircraft crashed off the coast of Masbate Island.
Certainly, there can be no time limit put on grief; but does Mz Robredo suffer from episodic grieving? In 2013, one year after her husband’s tragic death, she celebrated Christmas with her family in Naga City; the following Christmas she made a trip to her husband’s grave at Naga City’s Eternal Gardens. So 12 months ago, when she apparently planned this vacation, did she know then that she would be overcome by grief if she remained in Bicol.
The point is she is supposed to be the vice president of the Philippines, a role in which personal considerations should take a back seat to public duty. In times of crisis, those in authority can do great good – not just in practical terms, but in being with those who are suffering.
By contrast, President Rodrigo Duterte visited the area to check personally on the relief measures, to pledge an immediate PHP50 million for basic food needs and to tell farmers and local residents that he’ll try to find additional money from the budget to help them get back on their feet. Early estimates by the Department of Agriculture put the cost to agriculture at PHP4 billion, with an expected rice-production loss of 268,355 metric tons.
In Pili, Camarines Sur, Duterte declined to provide a photo-op of himself distributing the packs of rice, sardines, corned beef, a blanket and a mosquito net. He wasn’t there to shore-up his image; he was there to let his people know they can count on him. In case no one’s noticed the current president of the Philippines doesn’t have a PR machine – nor does he want one. We won’t tell you what he thinks about photo-ops that sort of political showmanship but here’s a clue, ‘bovine waste’.
He had wanted to be in Pili the day before, but instead he was visiting victims of the Christmas Eve bombing at the Archdiocesan Shrine of Santo Niño de Midsayap in North Cotabato on the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
That was Duterte’s Christmas – that time for giving – a far cry from the world of bubby and canapés of the Loidas and the Lenis. And far more helpful to the people caught up in that menace served up by nature than any amount of press releases expressing empathy from afar.