Duterte nurses old grudges against US

Philippine leader's grievances against the US go back all the way to his youth

Mr Duterte's anti-US sentiments became personal when the US started criticising his deadly crackdown on criminals in Davao city when he was mayor.
Mr Duterte's anti-US sentiments became personal when the US started criticising his deadly crackdown on criminals in Davao city when he was mayor.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

President Rodrigo Duterte really doesn't like America. And, at 71 years old, he is unlikely to change his mind.

He may take a second look as the United States elects a new president this week. But his personal grudges over what he sees as US insults and arrogance run so deep, it doesn't take much to set him off.

On Oct 27, he vowed to stop cursing. At God's request, he said. It was "a promise to God", and "a promise to the people". After one long weekend, though, he broke that promise.

What set him off? The US, of course. He chafed at reports that a US senator had blocked a planned sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to his country because of his human rights record.

To understand why, in his own words, he "hates" the US, one has to take stock of the sort of man he is.

  • Fooled you, 'talk with God' was just a joke

  • MANILA • It was, in the end, just another joke meant to take journalists for a ride.

    After claiming that he promised God on a plane from Tokyo that he would stop swearing, and then breaking that vow after just one long weekend, President Rodrigo Duterte last Friday said "only fools" would believe he actually talked to God.

    In a speech to lawyers, he said it was a "joke", one of the many preposterous statements he likes to make and then retract later.

    "Those fools, they believed me," he said. "I'm no Bar top-notcher, but I'm not an idiot," he said, referring to the exams administered to aspiring lawyers.

    He said it was just one of those "pranks" he used to play on the media when he was a city mayor.

    At a news conference on Oct 27, shortly after visiting Japan, Mr Duterte said he heard a voice he believed was God's telling him the plane he was on would crash unless he stopped cursing.

    So, he said, he agreed to hold his tongue. "A promise to God is a promise to the Filipino people," he said.

    For a few days, Mr Duterte appeared to honour that pledge, holding himself back when he was on the verge of mouthing an expletive.

    But last Monday, he cursed at some police officers.

    "Never enter into illegal drugs," he told them. "Son of a w****, I will kill you, I'm telling you."

    By Wednesday, he was back in his prime cursing form after receiving reports that US Senator Ben Cardin was blocking the sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine police.

    And for good measure, he also called those behind the move "fools" and "monkeys".

    Raul Dancel

As a student, he was a brawler and used to having his way.

Once, he staggered home with a knife wound from a street brawl. He later shot a classmate in the leg for bullying a friend.

When he became a politician at 41, he ruled with an iron fist, brooking no dissent.

He became a man who resents being humiliated and told what to do. And he feels that the Americans have humiliated him several times and are still telling him what to do.


When you pick a fight with him, he will not let it pass. He will deal with you.

MR JESUS DUREZA, a long-time friend who now brokers peace for Mr Duterte (above), on the President holding grudges.

"When you pick a fight with him, he will not let it pass. He will deal with you," Mr Jesus Dureza, a long-time friend of his who now brokers peace for him, told The Wall Street Journal.

But his anti-US sentiments are more than about being told what to do and hating it. Since his youth, he has held the view that the US is not a friend.


Despite his troubles growing up, Mr Duterte finished law school.

By the mid-1980s, he was making a name for himself as a prosecutor. When dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled in 1986, newly sworn-in President Corazon Aquino appointed him officer-in-charge of Davao city, his hometown.

Two years later, he ran in the mayoral election and won.

"He already had anti-US leanings then," said Representative Carlos Zarate, who was a young reporter when he met Mr Duterte in 1986.

Like most youth caught up in the activism of the 1970s, Mr Duterte drifted to the left.

But it was seeing his mother, Ms Nanay Soling, marching in the streets against the US-backed Marcos dictatorship, arms locked with communist sympathisers and progressive politicians, that drove the message home: America is not a friend.

Mr Duterte would remain Davao's mayor for over 20 years. He imposed curfews and restricted smoking and drinking in public. Once, a revolver in hand, he forced a tourist at a bar who mocked his anti-smoking law to swallow a cigarette butt.

He moved in on criminals in Davao. He came down so hard on crime that he drew the attention of the Americans.

US State Department officials began digging into the growing number of suspects being killed by "death squads" that Mr Duterte was purportedly nurturing to drive drug dealers, kidnappers, car thieves, and petty crooks out of his city.


Up to that point, the US had been just a distant adversary. But when the US began criticising the killings, it became personal. Mr Duterte started nursing grievances over perceived slights.

He seethed over an incident in 2002, when men supposedly from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation spirited a self-styled treasure hunter out of a hospital in Davao and flew him out of the Philippines. The man, Michael Meiring, had accidentally set off an explosive in his hotel room. Mr Duterte was outraged that the US would help a criminal escape.

Then there were the visa troubles.

He recalled in one rambling speech: "The first time I went to America, the consul asked me, 'Why are you going to America?' I said, 'To visit my girlfriend.' Then he said, 'What if you decide to marry your girlfriend and you do not come back here in the Philippines?'"

Offended, he replied: "Mr Consul, even if you grant me a multiple lifetime visa and even if you give me US$50,000, I will not go there any more."

Soon after the Meiring incident, the US denied Mr Duterte a visa, and his partner, a nurse, had her US work visa cancelled.

This year, at an Asean summit in Laos in September, Mr Duterte felt slighted after he approached US President Barack Obama to clear tensions between them but did not feel he was treated as an equal.

For Representative Gary Lejano, who represents in Congress a group of soldiers, both retired and in active service and mostly pro-US, Mr Duterte's relentless dredging up of his personal resentment towards the US is part of a grander design.

"This is in line with his intentions to consummate a socialist, communist country. That includes physical removal of US forces in the Philippines, uprooting Western influence in the country."

The anti-US rants, he said, are meant "to condition the minds of the people that the Americans are our colonisers and oppressors".

But for Mr Zarate, who represents the leftist Bayan Muna (Nation First) party which supports Mr Duterte, the suggestion is absurd. It may just be a case of a "patriot" miffed at a superpower throwing its weight around, or it may be something deeper, he said.

But who can tell? Mr Duterte "is an enigma to everybody", he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte nurses old grudges against US'. Subscribe