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    Open Forum with Vice President Leni Robredo at the CSIS-Pertamina Banyan Tree Leadership Forum & US-Philippine Strategic Initiative

    Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.

    17 October 2018

    AMY SEARIGHT (CSIS): Thank you, Madam Vice President. Those were really interesting, thoughtful, inspiring remarks. You really gave us an overview of your view of the threats facing the Philippines, both internal and external.

    So let me start with the internal threats that you highlighted, about rule of law and democracy and human rights, and governance—the ability of good governance to deliver results for the people: When you look at that broad spectrum of issues under that rubric, what are your priority areas that you would like to focus on, and in what ways can the United States help?

    VP LENI: There are a lot of areas that we need to focus on, but basically everything really stems from extreme poverty—terrorism, the problem against drugs, a lot of other things. It’s really poverty that has been causing all of it.

    And again, I said this in my speech, that it would take a whole-of-government approach to really put up an anti-poverty program that will be effective. Government has been using resources to do anti-poverty programs, but you know, most of this… not most of it, but a number of these programs have not been successful because the metrics that are being used are not outcome-oriented. This is… this is…

    We have been advocating for a change in mindset as far as governance is concerned. We have been putting a lot of effort in training young local government leaders for this change of mindset to happen. A lot of resources are being spent on patronage politics, and most of the activities that are part of patronage politics do not really give long-term solutions to age-old problems. So it really is a change of mindsets in how governance should work. It’s strengthening local government units. It’s enhancing the capabilities of local government leaders. It’s, basically, making sure that government is truly accountable, that government processes are transparent, for trust and confidence to be there.

    Inclusion is one key. People empowerment is a big thing. Including ordinary people in planning and strategizing is a very important first step because that is a huge part of confidence-building. So while we are doing our anti-poverty program, we are also doing a parallel effort of doing leadership trainings to capacitate local leaders, so that the absorptive capacity of the local governments units where we’re in is sufficient to effect change.

    There are a lot for things that need to be given attention in the Philippines, and really most of this is having one strategic path in solving poverty and corruption in government.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): I also— To the audience, I forgot to mention: Again, please fill out any questions that you have on these cards and raise your hand, and they will be collected, so when I finish asking some questions, we will turn to your card for some questions.

    Getting back to the threats, another internal threat—I guess it’s a mix of internal and external—is the terrorism threat in Mindanao, in Marawi. You talked a little bit about Marawi in your remarks, but I wonder if you could share with us a bit more of your thoughts about where Marawi is now, what are the next steps, and again… you know, Marawi was an example of close cooperation between the United States and the Philippines. What can the United States do to help recovery in Marawi? We’re already doing some things together.

    VP LENI: Today, October 17, today, we’re commemorating the first year anniversary of the liberation of Marawi. Yesterday, I was reading in the news that the US Ambassador is in Marawi, was in Marawi, to launch a USAID (US Agency for International Development) program. It’s a package of programs that will support the rehabilitation of Marawi.

    Our office has been there since Day 1 of the siege. We put up a team, we have been doing relief operations, and right after the liberation, we’re deeply involved in rehabilitation efforts. We built a village of transitional housing there. The village is done. What we’re doing now is making sure that livelihood opportunities will be available to the residents.

    But again, as we speak also, while we’re commemorating the first year anniversary, there’s a lot of impatience as to how slow rehabilitation is. We don’t have… we don’t have access to all the information that’s there, of what has been causing… what has been causing the delays. One thing that was given was, Ground Zero—which is really the economic center of Marawi—was supposed to be— The rehabilitation of Ground Zero was supposed to be awarded to a consortium. The consortium that was the awardee in the first place turned out to have some Chinese companies who have been blacklisted by the World Bank. So that was one cause of delay. Another cause of delay was the lack of capital of some of the other companies in the consortium.

    And you know, these things could have been avoided. And that is causing a lot of impatience as far as the residents are concerned.

    Number two, we have been advocating for more inclusion, as far as strategizing and planning of the rehabilitation is concerned. While the siege was still happening, we had been receiving complaints from some of the affected residents, that they were not being involved in the planning of—meaning they are in the dark of what the next steps would be.

    And I think government has the very best of intentions; the problem is, it’s mostly the military approach which is being used. And we believe that it should be a whole-of-government approach. Rehabilitating Marawi cannot be just military; it’s really… it should really an involvement of all the agencies that are in a position to effect change.

    But we are hopeful that in the coming days, that is to be remedied. We have articulated our… our push for inclusion of the locals in the rehabilitation efforts, so that they will be in a position to understand what is causing the delays, where we are now, and the timelines, what is expected. I think what is adding to the impatience is the lack of knowledge of what to expect in the coming days.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): And I am turning to an external threat: You talked a bit about China’s encroachment in the West Philippine Sea, that many of us refer to as the South China Sea, and you know, President Duterte has, in many ways, downplayed the threats posed by China and has thought to distance, to some extent, the alliance efforts with the US military to deter and defend the Philippines against Chinese aggression. For example, Balikatan, the big battle exercises, has been scaled down, and EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) implementation has been rather slow. That’s just two examples. What are your thoughts about—I mean, you did mention that there’s increased presence and patrols of Philippine Air and Navy and Coast Guard vessels. But overall, how do you assess the situation in the West Philippine Sea, and is the Philippine government doing enough to prevent China from further encroachment?

    VP LENI: You know, I think what’s causing fear among many Filipinos is the public rhetoric that’s being used. There is… there is fear that we’re relegating to the margins the gains that we’ve had when we won the arbitral tribunal ruling.

    But again, despite—again, as I have said in my speech—despite the public rhetoric, I think government is doing all it can to thwart further threats to our sovereignty in the South China Sea—or in the West Philippine Sea. As I have said, following… following the Declaration of Conduct between claimants, we have been improving infrastructure on the Pag-asa Islands. We… we initiated an interagency task force, which meets every Tuesday, and that interagency task force continues to strategize on how we should move forward. We have increased our competencies as far as air and sea patrol is being done—of course with the help of the US.

    Because of this fear, it is always not enough. It is always not enough. We would hope that… we always hope that we could do more. Every time there is news of a new incursion— In fact, we’ve pushed government to issue protests, public protests against China, but… I think the men and women of DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and our Armed Forces have been doing all they can to make sure that… to make sure that the decision of the UN (United Nations) tribunal is given spirit.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): Okay, great. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. I know you’ve been in several parts of the country by now. It’s really political season here in the United States, especially in Washington. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a couple of political questions—

    VP LENI: Okay.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): —questions about politics, beginning with the fact that, you know, President Duterte has had some rather unkind things to say about you and your work, and given that the terms in the Philippines are long, it’s halfway through the Presidential term, how do you plan to work on that relationship with President Duterte, so that you can continue productively in your role?

    VP LENI: From Day 1, I always hoped it would have been better. I remember, right after we won the elections, I tried reaching out to him already. He did not want a joint inauguration for both of us. For our American friends who are here, in the Philippines, the Vice President is elected directly by the people, so most of the time, the Vice President comes from a different political party than the President. The worst thing about it is, as I’ve said in my speech, we don’t have any real mandate except to be ready to succeed the President just in case something happens to him.

    It has been a very… it gives a very precarious situation, especially if there is a lot of animosity between the President and the Vice President, so it would be to the benefit of the country if the President and the Vice President at least work well together. But shortly after we had our separate inaugurations, the President had a short of a change of heart and appointed me to head the Housing agency.

    But the honeymoon did not last long. [laughter] There had been a lot of street protests in Manila at the time because of the… because the burial of the former dictator was allowed in the cemetery reserved for heroes. It was allowed by the President, it was allowed by the Supreme Court. There were a lot of street demonstrations. I was accused of having instigated those street demonstrations. I was not allowed anymore in the Cabinet meetings, so I resigned.

    But you know, even after I resigned, I continued to try looking for avenues where we could be amicable. Even if we don’t share, you know, many values. Even if we don’t agree on many important issues, I still think that it would be to the best interest of the country if we can work together.

    The relationship has been civil most of the time, but the President would issue statements from time to time that are a little combative. And it’s… it has polarized our supporters. But you know, I am well-aware that we will still be President and Vice President for the next three years, so I keep telling my staff that in spite of the noise, we have to have our eyes on the target, to be mindful of what we want to achieve after six years. To have a laser-light focus on the things we want to do—despite the atmosphere.

    We have been surviving pretty well. I am, I think, the most vilified of all the national government officials. But it’s not… I have not allowed it to affect the work that I’m doing. Most of my days are focused on reaching the farthest peripheries of the country. Most of the adopted communities that we have under our Angat Buhay [program] are in the farthest islands of the country. We have been focusing all our efforts on that. So, despite the political skirmishes, I think it has not affected that I’m doing.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): And the last question I’ll ask you before we turn to our cards and questions from the audience is: The Philippines is also approaching an election season in 2019.

    VP LENI: Yes, in May of 2019.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): May of 2019. So where do you and your political allies… How do you look at the upcoming elections? And looking even further ahead to 2022, do you have any plans to run for president?

    VP LENI: Uhm… I’m sure I do not have plans. [laughter]

    You know… the elections in May of 2019 will be tough for the opposition. The President is still very popular, and the candidates that he will endorse would have… you know… would benefit from the President’s popularity. But we are hopeful that we will be able to… to win a number of seats—in the Senate, at least. We have— I’m not sure if you are familiar at all with the political landscape in the Philippines, but in the Philippines, political parties do not matter much. You belong to a political party, but then everyone switches political parties every election season. [laughter]

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): That sounds rather nice in Washington. [laughter]

    VP LENI: You know, it’s really more personality-oriented. You don’t… you don’t join political parties because you believe in the values of the political parties. For most, that is the case, so one of the things I have been advocating is for Congress to pass a… you know… an electoral reform law that will… will repair this particular situation.

    So it’s an uphill climb for the opposition. We decided not to put up a full slate for the Senate. Instead of 12, we’re putting up only eight. And it’s a strategy. It’s a strategy that we’re doing. We decided to put up names of really, very good people, so that we could differentiate from the names put up by the administration.

    It’s a big, big risk, considering that in the Philippines, popularity is the number one driver for winning elections.

    The second question is harder to answer. I don’t have any plans. But then, all my political life, I never planned on anything. My husband was the politician in the family. He was mayor for six terms—almost 20 years. I was a human rights lawyer while he was mayor. I never had anything to do with politics except to help him campaign during all of his elections. Every time… every time his term of office would lapse—local government officials are only allowed three consecutive terms—people… most of them, his supporters, would endorse me to take over, but I always said, “Over my dead body. I will never, ever join politics.”

But I lost my husband to a plane crash in 2012, while he was Minister of the Interior. When he died, it was a month before the filing for the certificates of candidacy for the 2013 elections, so after he died… you know… the party to which he belonged to, the local party, had a lot of problems because they were not prepared… they were not prepared for him not to be there. Last minute, I was drafted. I ran without any preparations—at all—for a seat in the House of Representatives. They felt that it was an opportunity to finally put an end to a political dynasty, which has been ruling our province for a very long time. Luckily, I won, but I said I would only be here for a term.

But before my term ended, I was drafted to run for the Vice Presidency.

    Again, it was a suicidal run. I did not have money, I was not known outside of the district that I represented. But when I accepted the draft, I really worked, very hard. I felt that it was my responsibility to seriously take on the challenge—and surprisingly, I won. I was the only female among the six candidates. I was the only non-senator among the six candidates.

    I won against the son of the former dictator. It was a surprise win—even for myself. More so for my opponent, that I’m—[laughter] I was accused of rigging the results of the elections. And it’s funny because I do not have the capacity to rig the elections. [laughter] There is still a pending protest case against me, but the joke is: in the Philippines, no one loses an election—it’s either you win, or… [laughter]

But you know, there is a protest case. We’re very confident of it. Again, all my life, I never planned on— When my husband was still alive, everything was planned. But after he died, we just take things one day at a time. But my promise to myself and to the people who support me is if I take on a responsibility, I do my best to keep on the challenge.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): Okay. I think we have some questions from the audience. I’ll try to get through a few of these… “President Duterte’s popularity is largely due to support for his war on drugs. This is difficult for Americans to understand. Can you help us understand?”

    VP LENI: It was difficult for us to understand also. But I think more than his campaign on the war on drugs, there’s a global trend—I said this in my speech—there’s a global trend where people are more drawn to populist leaders. And the President—the Filipinos in the audience are more familiar with him—the President was different from the rest of the pack. You know… he was not a smooth talker at all. He was rough, he was raw. He says what he thinks. No holds barred, always for him—until now. And people were attracted to that. For some reason, I felt like… maybe people were tired of, you know, diplomacy and decency that they wanted more authenticity. And they saw it in him. I think for… I think to a large part, people were able to, you know, see themselves in him. So he was very popular during the campaign. He was even more popular after the elections because he was different. He was different from all the other presidents.

    But he promised so many things that are difficult to… are difficult to comply with. For example, he promised that he would be able to eradicate drugs in three to six months. We have a… we have a difficult drug problem in the Philippines, and I share his view that it’s time to be serious about the war on drugs. We appreciate that it is one of his flagship… you know… flagship programs. We just disagree with the manner by which to implement the war on drugs.

    I think he was very effective in giving out a single message. He was very… I think the messaging was very good, in the sense that people were able to understand what he stands for. And I think… it was a time for—this is just a presumption—I think the authenticity of the President was really what endeared him to many people. Social media played a huge part in the elections, as it did here in the US. The President was able to use social media during the campaign. They had a really good infrastructure. Social media was one of the things that the other candidates were not able to take advantage of, and the President took advantage of that.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): Yeah. Next question is, “After President Duterte was elected, he pocketed the arbitral tribunal ruling and traveled to China, where he signed MOUs for $24 billion worth of deals for infrastructure projects. More than two years later, no work has begun for any Chinese infrastructure projects”—and I would add, there’s also talk about joint development in energy in areas in the West Philippine Sea—“so did President Duterte get a good deal from Beijing?”

    VP LENI: It’s difficult to say. It’s difficult to say in the sense that I am not… I do not really possess all the information that I need. We have been trying to look for information on the deals made, but it’s difficult to have access to them. I feel that government should be more transparent.

    I am not against the Philippines reviving our relationship with China, but you know, giving the impression that… the term that he used there, I think, is “pocketing”—

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): Yes.

    VP LENI: — “pocketing” the award of the arbitral tribunal is a cause for concern. As I have said earlier, despite the rhetoric, a lot is being done by our professional civil servants. But insofar as have the pledges made during that 2016 trip been… been… have the pledges come into fruition already is a question that even us do not know. There has been a lot of speculation that nothing is happening yet. There has also been a lot of speculation that China is withholding the signing of… of giving out these pledges, and the withholding is because of our indecision yet about the joint exploration.

    The joint exploration is a cause for concern. I myself have been very vocal about my opposition to the joint exploration. I feel that if a joint exploration is going to be made, it should conform to the provisions of our Constitution.

    Our Constitution is very specific about it. It says that all natural resources of the Philippines are not alienable and are solely owned by the State alone. The only alienable resource is agricultural land, but natural resources, no. Joint explorations may be entered into, but there are limitations—first, it should be done by government with Filipino citizens, or with companies at least 60% of which are owned by Filipino citizens. As far as marine resources are concerned, the Constitution is also very specific that it is only for the exclusive use of the State and of Filipinos. So any talk of joint exploration should conform with the Constitution. And any contract with China should always been—I feel that government should demand from them a recognition of our sovereign rights over whatever property will be used for any partnerships.

    Nothing has been entered into yet. Everything is all talk, so I think it would also be unfair for us to say that we have not gotten the end of the deal yet, because as I’ve said, we do not have enough information to say otherwise.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): Okay. “What is your response to Democrats here who say that the United States should not sign on a free trade agreement with the Philippines because of human rights violations in the Philippines? What do you envision a US-Philippines free trade agreement to look like?”

    VP LENI: You know, the Philippines will always benefit from a free trade agreement. In fact, we have been lobbying for it, especially now that the trade deficit at its largest… It is the responsibility of government to comply with the requirements of the US.

    There has been a lot of talk that the reason why we did not get the second tranche of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) was because of our failure to comply with some of the agreements. I said in my speech that I hope that in the future, we will still have that opportunity. We’ll always work for, you know, us being a recipient of the benefits of the bilateral agreement.

    I think all is not lost; it is an opportunity for the US to demand… you know… to demand from our government to comply with the basic tenets of democracy: respect for human rights, anti-corruption. You know, it should be a… it should be an incentive for us to… you know… It’s always good to work for something so we could get the end of it. I have not lost hope. I think we should to continue to exert effort to be worthy of, you know… to be a worthy party of that agreement. We all know that our people would benefit a lot from it. Especially now, inflation is very high in the Philippines, exchange rate is bad at this time. And it will be to the benefit of the country if that will happen very soon.

    SEARIGHT (CSIS): Unfortunately, we are out of time, so please join me in thanking Madam Vice President for her remarks. [applause] Thank you!

    VP LENI: Thank you!

    – 30 –

    Posted in Transcripts on Oct 17, 2018