President Rodrigo Duterte has been invited by President Donald Trump to the United States. I seem to have seen this scene before. A case of déjà vu.
In September 1982, President Ferdinand Marcos made a state visit to the US, during the incumbency President Ronald Reagan, amid circumstances uncomfortably similar in many ways to that of Duterte’s forthcoming trip.
Marcos had declared martial law ten years earlier, had full control of the government, and was routinely ass-licked by a compliant press. But he could do nothing about the international media that merrily broiled Marcos and the Philippines over hot coals.
Here is what the New York Times wrote about the Marcos visit:
“MANILA, Sept. 14— President Ferdinand E. Marcos left tonight for his first official visit in 16 years to the United States, the Philippines’ chief economic partner and military ally….
“Diplomatic and opposition sources here said they expected that President Reagan might sound out Mr. Marcos on how he could insure a stable political transition from his authoritarian rule (writer’s note: Read that to mean “cut and cut clean.”).
“Shortly before the Philippine leader’s departure, a demonstration against his rule was staged by some 2,000 people – workers, students and religious activists – who gathered in front of Manila’s Roman Catholic cathedral in the Old City.
“For three hours, the demonstrators chanted, prayed and otherwise voiced protests, charging that arrests of labor and youth leaders were continuing. Huge red banners branded the visit to the United States as ‘A National Betrayal’ and urged Filipinos to ‘Dismantle the U.S.-Marcos Dictatorship.’’’
And here’s what the same New York Daily wrote about Trump’s invitation to Duterte:
“WASHINGTON — President Trump on Saturday invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House, embracing an authoritarian leader who is accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and who crudely disparaged Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama…
“In fact, Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of several thousand people suspected of using or selling narcotics, as well as others who may have had no involvement with drugs. Human rights groups and many Western governments have condemned Mr. Duterte for the bloody campaign.”
With the imposition of martial law, Marcos had dismantled the media, particularly the Manila Times and the media empire of the Lopezes, consisting of the Manila Chronicle, ABS-CBN TV and a network of radio stations across the country.
Is it déjà vu that Duterte has now declared that he will not renew the franchise of ABS-CBN? And doesn’t it seem familiar that the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a daily that Duterte considers antagonistic to him, is currently on his crosshairs?
But, like Marcos, Duterte has no control over the Western media which has also been routinely broiling him over hot coals. The most that Duterte and his apologists could do about a recent New York Times article critical of the government was to label it “a well-paid hack job for well-heeled clients with shady motives.”
But the current anti-Duterte reportage is benign compared to how the US media—particularly late night TV—will go to town on Duterte once he sets foot on American soil.
In the first place, Duterte’s host, Trump, has become a virtual pin cushion for such late night show hosts as Stephen Colbert, as well as “Saturday Night Live.” Alec Baldwin’s riotous impersonation of Trump may yet be overshadowed by a Duterte look-alike and curse-alike.
In a demented sense, Duterte may actually relish his international fame—nay, notoriety—but I frankly do not welcome the prospect of the president of the Philippines—and, by extension, the Philippines and the Filipino people—being the butt of jokes on international media.
It’s one thing being portrayed as a human rights violator in the execution of his war on drugs. Pinoys can actually feel a sense of pride in being associated with a local version of Dirty Harry. But to become an international laughing stock is an entirely different thing.
I don’t think any self-respecting Filipino will feel any pride in that. I certainly won’t.
Even Donald Trump, as thick-faced and shameless as he is, bristles at the TV parodies, especially those of Baldwin and Colbert. But there’s nothing Trump can do but to call media “fake” and find comfort in the cheers of his hardcore supporters.
Unless Duterte’s communications specialists and apologists have resigned themselves to just brazening it (lilipas din ang kahihiyan—meaning, shame will pass), they will have to figure out how to, at least, balance or even just partly neutralize the inevitable tar-and-feather ordeal that Duterte will undergo – an ordeal that will rub off on Filipinos around the world.
During the Marcos regime, there was no Facebook and no YouTube to spread the trashing, worldwide in an instant. Duterte’s formidable army of trolls and his loyal supporters may find themselves overwhelmed.
Like Trump, the best that Duterte’s defenders can do is to shore up the spirits of the hardcore. But in those countries where Pinoys proliferate, the mischievous looks that they will get from others, as well as the snickers over private Duterte jokes, will not be funny.
They could attribute the attacks to the “yellows” and label them “a well-paid hack job for well-heeled clients with shady motives,” but that will be like shooting pellets at bazookas.
Did I say this could be a case of déjà vu? Well, it is for me, personally.
I was one of several advertising and PR executives conscripted by the late Greg Cendaña, Marcos’ Minister of Public Information, to act as advance party for the Marcos state visit and to field questions from the US media. The others were Leni Hontiveros, Joe Santamaria, Oscar Villadolid, Virgilio Pantaleon, Max Edralin, Charlie Agatep, Louie Morales, Greg Garcia, Tom Banguis, Quentin Pastrana and Emil Misa.
It was the bright idea of then Philippine Ambassador to Washington Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez to have ad agency and PR men face the Western media, believing that we were more charming than the usual press brigade that accompanied official trips of the president. Romualdez was not necessarily right, but back then, if you were conscripted, you could only “cooperate.”
But how to handle the expected barrage of punitive questions that the US media would fire at us? On our first day in Washington DC, we were herded into a briefing room by the late Rod Reyes, who acted as Western press liaison for Malacañang, and we went through what PR practitioners call “confrontation training.”
Anticipating every possible question from left field, we debated how to properly answer it. I recall that the most difficult question to dodge and parry had to do with then First Lady Imelda Marcos’s legendary extravagance and profligacy. The mischievous ones in our group actually suggested just throwing Imelda under the bus. Even the Philippine embassy staff thought that was funny.
But the best laid plans of mice and communications men were not enough to neutralize the hostile media reportage, made worse by the unbelievable ignorance of the U.S. press about the Philippines.
This brings me back to the subject of Duterte’s visit to the White House. Why not do it in reverse. Why not have Trump visit Malacañang instead? After all, wasn’t it Trump who first broached the idea of a visit to the Philippines?
In Manila, Duterte will have the support of his army of trolls and apologists, and he will not be the only one that the media will parody (if they still dare). There’s Leila de Lima, Noynoy Aquino, Pantaleon Alvarez and Antonio Trillanes, to mention a few—and maybe, just maybe, in the Filipino tradition of hospitality and politeness when there are guests, Duterte’s media nemesis, ABS-CBN and Philippine Daily Inquirer, will be on their best behavior.