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President Rodrigo Duterte’s directive banning travel to the US by members of his cabinet is just one more move of the president to curb junkets of officials in his administration. While the ban is his way of “getting even” with the US for cancelling the 10-year tourist visa of one of his favorite officials, former PNP chief and now Senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa (plus the likely cancellation of the visas of other officials involved in the incarceration of Senator Leila de Lima), Duterte’s move is in line with earlier directives banning “wasteful” foreign travel.

Last year he issued an executive order prohibiting public officials from going on foreign trips  ostensibly to participate in so-called team building seminars and “orientation tours.” Duterte thinks they are a waste of money.

Duterte refers to them as junkets — vacations at taxpayers’ expense, Also prohibited by the executive order are vacation leaves immediately after the government-funded trips. Obviously, Duterte saw the “palusot” (ruse) of officials, going on vacation on trips already paid for by the government. Often, these officials take along family members and even mistresses, at taxpayers’ expense.

During the Marcos regime, junkets and shopping sprees were the fashion thanks to the biggest spender of them all, First Lady Imelda Marcos. Imelda and her Blue Ladies were rumored to have closed down department stores in New York so that they could view the luxurious merchandise at their leisure.

We may also recall that trip to the US of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, with members of her family in tow, along with a huge “official” retinue, and how they splurged on meals and shopping — at the expense of the poor people of the Philippines (one difference between Gloria Arroyo and Imelda Marcos was that the latter insisted that the Philippines was really “a rich country pretending to be poor”).

In prohibiting overseas trips of government officials, Duterte is probably right in many respects — but not all overseas orientation and team-building trips are useless. As a life-long advertising and marketing practitioner, I have seen how exposure to overseas technology, systems, and techniques and postings in overseas operations can improve the skills and expand the minds of workers — and that includes civil servants.

I still remember handling the advertising of Nestle in the Philippines, with me and my team hardly ever having been out of the country while our client counterparts had undergone postings in Europe, the  US, and around Asia.

It took native Pinoy abilidad to survive that phase of my career without suffering a severe case of inferiority complex.

At any rate, I think Duterte should be applauded for banning the junkets. I also think that the ban should cover members of Congress, as well as the military and the police. And the ban should include, not just travel to the US, but to other countries, as well.

I am convinced that many of these officials own property and have families and investments in the US. There’s really nothing wrong with that, if it is done with personal “explainable” funds — but we know from the pork barrel scandals that many of the hogs in Congress were splurging on the country’s pigsty. Concerning Duterte’s banning members of his cabinet from traveling to the US, does it make sense?

Frankly, a total ban on official trips would be like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. If Duterte thinks he is “hurting” the US by keeping Philippine officials from going on a trip, he is kidding himself.

The US economy will hardly feel the “loss of tourism revenues” resulting from the ban. Even assuming profligate shopping sprees by the families of the officials, the department stores will not feel the loss as much as the competition being given them by Amazon and other online marketers.

But the Philippines will have to suffer opportunity losses from our officials being unable to deal directly and personally with their counterparts in business and government in America. While we can appreciate Duterte, to some extent, for believing that the Philippines is the center of the universe, our country is really just one dot on the map — just one source of raw materials and low-cost machine and computer parts, just one more export market for consumer goods and durables — and we are hardly the biggest source of revenues of America. In fact, it is the other way around. The US is one of the biggest markets for Philippine exports and one of the biggest investors in the Philippine economy.

Imagine the Secretary of Tourism and her team being prohibited from visiting one of the Philippines’ most lucrative tourist markets? That’s like pushing them into a boxing ring blindfolded. It’s bad enough that the Philippines has a meager tourism promotion budget compared to Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore, preventing the Department of Tourism from meeting with the US travel trade makes their problem worse.

Duterte’s macho ego isn’t doing the Philippines any good. He has refused foreign aid badly needed in the rural areas, and he is in the process of terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement, which is part of the defense umbrella provided by the US. Duterte has threatened to do more.

According to him, he is ”toning down” relations (whatever that means) between the Philippines and the US. Indeed, whatever the term means, it is obvious that Duterte believes he has a China card and a Russian card to play against America and that he can pit them against each other because the Americans cannot afford to lose their presence in the Philippines.

He is right about the strategic importance of the Philippines to the US. But he is wrong about two things. Believing that he can “use” the Chinese and the Russians and thinking that the US will let him have his way.

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are past masters at “using” countries and governments to their advantage. On the other hand, America has never allowed itself to be pushed around. If the US has a mind to, it can also put the squeeze on the Philippines in ways that even Duterte will feel.

But the Americans are probably just waiting for Duterte’s term to expire, with the hope that the next administration will be easier to deal with. But assuming that a Duterte clone wins the presidency, the Philippines may find itself caught in a game that only the big boys can play.

The memory of World War II, where the Philippines was the battleground of the US and Japan, is less than a century fresh in our minds. And the fate of Iraq, Libya, and Syria is something we should not wish for. Not for all the US visas in the world.

There is an old saying,”When elephants dance, the grass is trampled.” Guess who the grass is.


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.