Can Aquino work with Robredo?
I only met Gen. Aaron Aquino once, when I sat beside him at a meeting convened by Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle at the Arzobispado in Intramuros in August 2017; he was set to retire in two weeks, and had been named director general of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) just a few days before. Something about his demeanor then — he listened intently to the discussion, which included an eyebrow-raising presentation from the DILG and stirring responses from priests and bishops working on successful drug rehabilitation programs, and when he spoke, he spoke directly and briefly — seemed reassuring; he was no Bato dela Rosa. When I asked sources and other journalists about him, the feedback was generally good.
It was no surprise that he (albeit reluctantly) added his voice to that of another ex-general, Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong, when the time came, about two years later, to speak out against the most powerful policeman in the country, PNP chief Oscar Albayalde. He had to take back an earlier misstatement, but after having weighed the true costs of speaking out, he finally confirmed, under oath at the Senate, that Albayalde had once asked an illegal favor of him.
He seems to pass the character test; does his performance as the chief antidrugs buster pass muster? Depending on who you ask, and what statistics you cite, and which framework you use, the signature policy of the Duterte administration is either a major achievement or a catastrophic disaster.
Voting-age Filipinos say that the antidrugs campaign is a success. The June 2019 Social Weather Stations survey found that 84 percent of respondents were satisfied (“nasisiyahan”) with the campaign. A big part of the reason must lie in this unmistakable trend: The proportion of respondents who said they thought their neighborhood had too many drug addicts (“Sa lugar na ito, napakarami na ang mga taong na-aadik sa mga ipinagbabawal na gamot”) fell from 56 percent in September 2016, the first time this question was polled in the Duterte presidency, to 38 percent in June 2019. (Incidentally, that was the level at which Benigno Aquino III started.)
But the same surveys show an undercurrent of dissatisfaction—or, shall we say, of higher expectations still unmet. The same June 2019 poll found that 60 percent of adult Filipinos agreed with the statement “The government should not block the investigation of international groups, like the United Nations, into the killing by Philippine police of so many drug suspects who supposedly fought back.” (The prickly Duterte administration will not hear of it.) Earlier surveys, such as the one conducted in December 2018, confirmed an under-remarked pattern of anxiety: 78 percent of voting-age Filipinos say they are worried (“nangangamba”) that they or someone they know will be a victim of an extrajudicial killing. And the government’s own prettied-up numbers cannot disguise the reality that illegal drugs remain a serious problem, three years after President Duterte vowed to solve it within three to six months.
Can Aquino’s performance be disaggregated from all this? Again, character is key. He was, for instance, forceful in stating that the four magnetic lifters found in Cavite in 2018 were packed with now-missing “shabu”—something that the President himself had questioned.
So why is Aquino critical of Vice President Leni Robredo’s view that the government’s so-called war on drugs is a failure? Part of the answer must be that he feels his own competence is called into question; part may lie in an unquestioned sexism, which thinks that women have no real role to play in the macho world of antidrugs operations; and part may be explained as Aquino himself feeling his way through the shock waves triggered by Robredo’s unexpected acceptance of her new post.
I understand that the PDEA is questioning the basis of Robredo’s appointment as cochair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (Icad), if only to clarify matters. It is right to do so, because Executive Order No. 15, which President Duterte issued in 2017 to establish the Icad, only created one chairmanship (and designated the PDEA chief as chair). This is a simple enough matter to resolve, if the President wants to, but it hints at the scale of surprise that overtook the administration when Robredo accepted the appointment. Her statement was nuanced, principled and powerful; it had the immediate effect of galvanizing her supporters and framing her response as deeply Filipino. If she could save even just one life, it would be worth it.
But she can save many more, if Aquino—reconsidering his earlier position, recalling his promises to Cardinal Tagle, reweighing the true costs of a genuine commitment to the real public interest—learns to work candidly and completely with her.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]
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