Voice of the Opposition: An Interview with Leni Robredo, Vice President of the Philippines

Conducted by Rafael Santa Maria (PO ’20).

Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo has served as the 14th Vice President of the Philippines since June 2016. As per the Constitution of the Philippines, she ran for the Office of the Vice President separately from the main presidential election and therefore did not run with now-President Rodrigo Duterte. In defeating Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Robredo became the second woman to hold this office. As Vice President of the Philippines, Robredo is first in the line of presidential succession but lacks specifically enumerated constitutional privileges, such as the power to preside over Senate meetings or impeachment trials. On paper, this limits the office to a ceremonial role. 

A member of the opposition Liberal Party, Robredo does not share many of the stances of President Duterte, the chair of the ruling Philippine Democratic Party-People’s Power (known as the PDP-Laban). As such, Robredo and Duterte have shared several high-profile disagreements, especially regarding President Duterte’s drug policy.[ref] While Duterte has advocated for violence against drug users and dealers, Robredo argues that drug addiction is a public health issue that requires a poverty and inequality-focused approach. See, e.g., Joseph Hincks, Philippine Vice President Slams Duterte’s Drug War in a New Video, Time (Mar. 14, 2017), https://time.com/4700506/philippine-vice-president-robredo-drug-war/ (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref]

Robredo initially came to the political fore in 2012 following the death of her husband, Jesse Robredo, who served as Interior Secretary in the administration of President Benigno Aquino III. Since taking office in 2016, Robredo has sought to transform her largely ceremonial role into a more active one.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

CJLPP: Arguably the main reason the Philippines has been making headlines in the last few years is President Rodrigo Duterte’s “War on Drugs,”[ref] Since taking office, Duterte has encouraged police and citizens to use violent force against drug users and dealers. Estimates of the death toll range from the government’s figure of 5,500 to NGO figures exceeding 12,000. Julie McCarthy, Philippine President’s War on Drugs Criticized as Crimes Against Humanity, NPR (July 19, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/07/19/743351006/philippine-presidents-war-on-drugs-criticized-as-crimes-against-humanity (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] and the effects it has had on the Philippine people. Do you believe the Philippines’ withdrawal[ref] Duterte filed to withdraw the Philippines from the International Criminal Court in 2018, following the court’s decision to launch a preliminary investigation into the drug situation. The withdrawal process concluded earlier this year, 2019 Jason Gutierrez, Philippines Officially Leaves the International Criminal Court, N.Y. Times (Mar. 17, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/17/world/asia/philippines-international-criminal-court.html (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] from the International Criminal Court will have any effect on the President’s War on Drugs?

Leonor Robredo: The involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was supposed to serve as a safeguard, to assure liability in the face of internal inaction. But despite our withdrawal, the ICC is intent on investigating the matter.[ref] Although the Philippines officially withdrew from the ICC, ICC officials insisted that they would launch an investigation into the drug war anyway. Typically, ICC investigations precede legal proceedings. ICC Prosecutor: Examination of Philippines Continues Despite Withdrawal, Reuters (Mar. 18, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-icct-philippines/icc-prosecutor-examination-of-philippines-continues-despite-withdrawal-idUSKCN1QZ29A (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] I hope our own government can cooperate with them in order to send the message that justice is our top priority. Regardless of the withdrawal, the drug war has already resulted in the worst consequence of making casualties out of innocent Filipinos. My fear is that the ICC withdrawal would send a troubling idea to our citizens: that accountability can take a backseat in the face of the administration’s agenda. I hope it does not embolden those behind the unjust killings nor get in the way of achieving justice for those who have been victimized.

CJLPP: Continuing on the topic of the drug war, what steps should the Philippines take to ensure justice for those denied due process or, in extreme instances, denied their lives[ref] Some Philippine activists and international rights groups claim that Philippine police, as well as unidentified “vigilante” citizens, often execute suspected drug users and dealers on the spot. Philippines’ ‘War on Drugs’, Hum. Rts. Watch,  https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] by the campaign?

Robredo: The demand for justice of the families of the victims must be treated with utmost urgency. They should be encouraged to file cases by ensuring that the means are accessible to them. The government must see to it that investigations into these cases are pursued. We cannot allow a culture of apathy to develop. People should remain outraged on behalf of the victims and the families left behind. If we begin to forget, the pursuit of justice becomes more difficult. Whether or not we are directly affected, we must continuously hold the government accountable. In addition, we should continue to call for an end to problematic drug war and instead support alternative, more humane approaches to the drug problem.

CJLPP: Under President Duterte, the Philippines’ foreign policy has shifted towards closer relations with China[ref] Duterte has often expressed an interest in strengthening relations with China, particularly in trade. Under Duterte, Chinese investment in the Philippines has grown significantly. Ian Nicolas Cigaral, Duterte to Maintain Warm Philippine-China Relations to Boost Economy, Philstar Global (Sept. 20, 2019),  https://www.philstar.com/business/2019/09/20/1953501/duterte-maintain-warm-philippine-china-relations-boost-economy (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] at the expense of closer relations with the United States.[ref] Duterte has decried the United States’ “paternal relationship” with the Philippines and sought to push American military bases out of the Philippines, going against decades of close cultural and military relations between the United States and its former colony. Richard C. Paddock, Rodrigo Duterte, Pushing Split with U.S., Counters Philippines’ Deep Ties, N.Y. Times (Oct. 26, 2016),  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/27/world/asia/philippines-duterte-united-states-alliance.html (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] Despite this, China has continued to assert itself in the contested areas of the South China Sea,[ref]Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea, Council on Foreign Relations: Global Conflict Tracker,  https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/territorial-disputes-south-china-sea (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] seemingly threatening the territorial integrity of the Philippines. How do you think the Philippines should respond to these infractions?

Robredo: I believe that it will be beneficial for the Philippines to have closer ties with China given our geographic and economic relations. However, this should not come at the expense of our sovereignty. We should call China out for disrespecting our territorial rights[ref] Some of China’s development activities in the region fall within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. Ditas B. Lopez, Philippines to File Protest Over China Ships Near Disputed Shoal, Bloomberg (Oct. 1, 2019),  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-02/philippines-filing-protest-over-china-ships-near-disputed-shoal (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] and more importantly, we should stop giving them reason to be so bold. The UN tribunal’s decision[ref] China’s activities in the area contradict a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that recognized much of the developed area as Philippine territory. Jane Perlez, Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] was an important victory for us and must be used deliberately in order to assert what is rightfully ours. Let us stop allowing China to bully us. It is not true that our only option is to wage war against China. Developing a multilateral, diplomatic approach is possible and more strategic. I am sure we can count on the support of other countries such as our allies and neighbors because our situation would set an important precedent for the rest of the international community.

CJLPP: On the topic of the South China Sea dispute, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. would help defend the Philippines in the case of an attack, citing the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty. Considering President Duterte’s shift towards China and away from the United States, how would he feel if the United States were to provide military aid?

Robredo: I am not privy to how the president would feel but I think such support from our ally should be welcomed. The offer is part of the aforementioned mutual defense treaty with the U.S. which the president has not pulled out of and in fact, continues to avow. Malacañang (the Presidential Palace) has previously declared support for U.S. presence in South China Sea. Based on that, I believe the administration would appreciate the offer of military aid from the U.S.

CJLPP: Considering Duterte’s stance on the U.S., as well as the United States’s “America First” approach adopted by the Trump Administration, how do you see the state of U.S.-Philippines relations moving forward?

Robredo: There have actually been recent affirmations[ref] Although Duterte has called for the expulsion of American military bases in the Philippines, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reiterated his support for the US-Philippines military relationship. Karen Lema & Neil Jerome Morales, Pompeo Assures Philippines of U.S. Protection in Event of Sea Conflict, Reuters (Feb. 28, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-usa/pompeo-assures-philippines-of-us-protection-in-event-of-sea-conflict-idUSKCN1QI3NM (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] of the Philippines-U.S. alliance from both countries which is a promising indication for our relationship moving forward. Just this month, the 2019 Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) was held, where both countries were represented to discuss strengthening our ties with one another. The U.S. remains a major trading partner, with exports to the country accounting for the highest shares last July 2019.[ref] As of July 2019, the United States was the most lucrative export market for Philippine goods. Highlights of the Philippines Export and Import Statistics: July 2019, Philippines Stats. Authority (Sept. 10, 2019), https://psa.gov.ph/content/highlights-philippine-export-and-import-statistics-july-2019 (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] Both countries recognize the value of our alliance to each other’s security, not only from a military standpoint but also economically. As such, it is in our interest to maintain a good working relationship with the U.S.

[. . .]

CJLPP: Pivoting away from President Duterte, I would like to focus on your own passions and experiences as Vice President. As Vice President, you have used your office to further various humanitarian causes. What issues, both unique to the Philippines and around the world, have you worked on the most?

Robredo: The Office of the Vice President (OVP) has a limited mandate based on the Constitution. The role of the Vice President is simply to be next in the line of succession should the President vacate office and the work of the OVP has historically only been ceremonial. Given that restricted mandate, the office has a limited budget, one of the smallest in the bureaucracy. But when I began my term, I decided that my office cannot spend six years restricted to that role, not when we could do so much more with the political capital we had. We thought about how we could best use that to help Filipinos in need and established Angat Buhay, the OVP’s flagship antipoverty program. Under Angat Buhay, we have six core advocacies: rural development, universal healthcare, public education, food security and nutrition, women empowerment, and housing and resettlement. We identified these opportunities for intervention in recognition of how poverty is a systemic problem that requires a holistic response. Projects related to these advocacies have been the priority of our office as we forge partnerships with groups that are willing to help disadvantaged communities across the country. Our office has also been extending support to the urban poor through making employment opportunities more accessible. We have been consistent in terms of disaster response, not only through providing immediate assistance but also engaging in post-calamity rehabilitation efforts. Other programs include leadership training for local leaders, women, and the youth. All of these are part of a greater goal to empower each member of the family and of the greater community which ensures that the support given is transformed into sustainable programs.

CJLPP: You have previously voiced support for the regulation of misinformation[ref] Robredo has decried the spread of fake news and other forms of misinformation on social media. Robredo: Regulation Needed vs Social Media ‘Abuse’, Philstar Global (Mar. 21, 2019), https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/03/21/1903381/robredo-regulation-needed-vs-social-media-abuse (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] on social media, which is a significant policy issue in the United States and EU. Do you think this issue of social media regulation is getting enough attention in the Philippines, which according to the UK-based consultancy We Are Social, has the highest[ref] According to this study, Filipinos spend the most time on social media than citizens of any other nation. Simon Kemp, Digital 2019: Global Internet Use Accelerates, We Are Social (Jan. 30, 2019), https://wearesocial.com/blog/2019/01/digital-2019-global-internet-use-accelerates (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] rate of daily social media use in the world?

Robredo: I think there should be more alarm over the rampant presence of fake news on people’s social media feeds. We have to realize how urgent of a problem this is so that we can push for appropriate interventions. It is especially dangerous how, in a democracy such as ours, there seems to be a concerted effort to spread misinformation. We must recognize its impact specifically on our institutions and more generally on society and our culture. This is an issue that deserves our attention in order for us to be able to put in place systems that would curb its problematic effects. Social media regulation to flag false content, for example, and ultimately stop the spread of fake news, can create a healthier environment for online discourse.

CJLPP: What is it like serving as a female vice president with a president who not only embraces a hyper-masculine[ref] Duterte often uses graphically violent rhetoric, makes jokes about killing criminals, and was nicknamed “The Punisher” by Time Magazine. Duterte has made these incidents part of his political brand. Ana P. Santos, The Price of ‘Machismo Populism’ in the Philippines, Atlantic (June 7, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/duterte-kiss-philippines/562265/ (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] persona, but has faced criticism for misogynistic[ref] In addition to making sexualized comments to Robredo, Duterte has faced complaints from women’s groups. Lara Tan, Roberdo: ‘Tasteless Remarks, Inappropriate Advances’ Have No Place in Society, CNN: Philippines (Nov. 9, 2016),  http://nine.cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/11/09/Duterte-Robredo-women-knees-Yolanda.html (last visited Oct. 7, 2019).[/ref] remarks?

Robredo: It is particularly challenging to be in such a position. On one hand, I choose to take this reality as an opportunity to show women the importance of taking a stand. We should refuse to allow a culture of misogyny to continue by calling out the actions and statements that contribute to it, especially coming from a person of such authority. My position gives me a platform to send a message to women who might find themselves in similar circumstances: We should not give into the expectation to laugh off our discomfort or play along in order not to make it a big deal because it is, in fact, a big deal. These situations are not isolated; our reactions [choosing to laugh it off or play along with misogyny] would either embolden or encourage a greater culture of sexism. This is not to say that the burden should be on us. Our leaders, in particular, should definitely know better and set a proper example. When they fail to do so, we must not be afraid to call them out.

On the other hand, the circumstances I have been in highlight the problematic responses to women who dare to demand respect. I have been told time and again to treat certain comments as jokes and felt the pressure to remain quiet in a room of people laughing about an objectifying remark towards me. It can sometimes feel easier to give into these to “keep the peace” but I know that would only contribute to a culture of victim-blaming in the long run. I have a responsibility to my fellow women to set an example of conviction against misogyny and as difficult as it is, I am glad that I can use my position to help the agenda of women empowerment.

CJLPP: Do you have any advice for young women who want to go into politics or law but fear harassment and backlash from their peers?

Robredo: One reason that we women in law and politics stand our ground is because we know that there would be young people looking to us for example. I understand where the fear is coming from, and I would not say that it is easy to follow this path. But my resolve is always further strengthened by the knowledge that I am not alone. As I navigate my way through the mess of politics, and this includes misogyny, I am surrounded by fellow women who step up against the sexist treatment. In doing that, we hope to contribute to making the path easier for the young women who would come after us. In the end, we have each other to rely on to fight against the system that tries its best to disadvantage us. I hope the desire to be part of that is greater than the fear. I know it can be a daunting task but our strength can be in our numbers and in being unrelenting.


CJLPP: Final question — it’s a lengthy one. Recently, University of California, Irvine professor Shawn Rosenberg presented a paper[ref]Shawn W. Rosenberg, Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism, in Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms (Domenico Uhng Hur & Jose Manuel Sabucedo, eds., 2019 (forthcoming)), available at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8806z01m.[/ref] to the International Society of Political Psychologists that largely argued that human psychology is incompatible with democracy. Rosenberg further argued that the Golden Age of Democracy is giving way to populist authoritarianism worldwide. As a democratically elected world leader, I almost feel obligated to ask you this question: Will democracy around the globe survive?

Robredo: Given the nature of democracy, it makes sense that human behavior, including our tendencies and motivations, would be the major consideration in democracy’s survival. In this regard, there are a lot of factors to consider. For example, we should look at the widening inequality and how this has affected people’s perception of the government and the system. Another phenomenon to consider is social media, specifically how it has been used to spread misinformation and how it has affected how we relate with one another.

The rise of right-wing populism is a reaction; it is a reflection of people’s dissatisfaction in the political order which they feel has not been working for the majority. It sends the message that, as leaders who claim to care about [our people], we must take it upon ourselves to know the people better, especially those who suffer the most. If we want them to keep believing in democracy, in its values of freedom and equality, then we must do the hard work of showing them how they stand to benefit from these. Maybe one reason for the shift from the “golden age” to the system being threatened is because we have taken it for granted, assuming that people would always understand its relevance. But in the face of their problems, this has not been the case and we should figure out why. Democracy is not a perfect system; it relies on the dynamics of human beings who can make mistakes. But despite the difficulties, I still believe that democracy is the way to go. Its imperfection is not meant to justify the suffering of others. Instead, it should be seen as a challenge to do better and reach out to them as we come up with solutions. It is an opportunity to highlight the significance of democracy wherein power is shared among the people in recognition of the diversity of their experiences. No other system values the voice of the people to the extent that democracy does. And in a democracy, the more voices we include, the greater the ownership people would have over government plans and programs.

Our biases as humans may seem to be at odds with the demands of a working democracy but I also strongly believe in the power of human empathy. A system that is of, for, and by the people — one that celebrates their liberties and diverse perspectives — is a system that cultivates compassion. We should strive to reclaim democracy as a tool for collective progress instead of oppression. We can show our citizens that they do not have to settle for what the populist system offers. Instead, they can enjoy their social, economic, and political rights in a healthy democracy. We must step up to the task of making this possible. This is how we can keep democracy alive.

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