To save its international reputation, the Philippines sent a man named Jesus to the US this month. Jesus “Jess” Dureza is the presidential advisor for peace negotiations and a high school classmate of president Rodrigo Duterte.
“I’m here to give the rationale and the atmospherics of this presidency,” said the veteran politician and former journalist to a group gathered at the Philippine Consulate in New York City on Dec. 9 for a diplomatic briefing. Over a meal of dill salmon and braised beef—peppered with an unsavory sequence of sex jokes—the 4-hour luncheon was as unusual and unorthodox as the strongman president’s leadership style.
Dureza’s visit was timed to address major blows to the populist president’s reputation abroad. A damning character portrayal of Duterte appeared in the New Yorker in November, and in December the New York Times published a photo essay, “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals,” providing the world with a vivid picture of the brutal antidrug campaign that is leaving death and blood on the streets of the country. The Philippine government has since dismissed the New York Times article calling it in “one-sided” and “furthest from the truth.”
Dureza also met with Loida Nicolas-Lewis, a respected Filipino-American billionaire and philanthropist who has publicly called for Duterte’s resignation.
Dureza’s first order of business: An explainer on Duterte’s mouth.
Unpacking the so-called “Duterte enigma” for about 150 Filipinos at a traditional Christmas mass at the consulate Dureza said, “Don’t take him by his word. He’s a very colorful person, he exaggerates but he has a poker face. He never smiles, even through jokes.” Dureza said that Duterte is amused whenever his incendiary statements make headlines. He thinks that news outlets who put his wild comments on front pages are fools for taking his words seriously.
“My advice for those who are shocked by his outbursts: He’s different from other presidents. Always, we caution everyone, don’t ask us to interpret what he said. Don’t ask us what it means,” says Dureza who once served under two previous presidents. “We often just massage his statements…Wait until things roll out in action.”
Dureza explains that Duterte’s “maanghang” (fiery) statements against president Obama came from a personal grievance. He also said he listened to Duterte’s congratulatory phone call to US president-elect Donald Trump. He recalls Duterte’s warm words recognizing their similarities: “Congratulations Mr. Trump, I like you, we have the same kind of mouth.”
The Duterte government is working very hard to justify its gruesome war on drugs. During the meeting, Dureza introduced new numbers from the office of the president stating that 94% of neighborhoods in the capital region are affected by drug use. Short of portraying the Philippines as a narcostate, the government sees drug abuse as the root of many social ills.
He explained that Duterte is practicing dog whistle politics, exhorting the type of coded speech to scare drug users in the country. Dureza brags that over 800,000 addicts have voluntarily turned themselves in just through the intimidation tactics. “Tokhang,” a coined term from two Cebuano words ”toktok” (door knocking) and “hangyo” (beseech), has been a strategy used by the Philippine police. As of this month, the police have knocked on the doors of almost 4.5 million suspected drug users and sellers.
“It’s very important that we create a climate of fear to address those involved in criminality,” argues Dureza.
With delicious toffee cheesecake, hot coffee and calamansi juice, Dureza warmly welcomed New York-based journalists, Filipino business professionals, and a group of protestors into the conference room. About eight to 10 protestors gathered in front of the consulate calling for the release of aging political prisoners in the country. The mood in the windowless room was convivial, if not confounding, as the human rights advocates mingled with the rest of the attendees, waiting for over an hour for Dureza to return from a UN meeting across town. “We have to go back to work,” said one of them excusing herself, as she replenished her coffee.
A smiling Dureza eventually returned to the room, reported on a productive meeting with Helen Clark, the United Nations Development Programme administrator. He gamely fielded more questions from the group, bolstering his arguments with new data, and at times using sex jokes to weirdly break the ice.
Surveying the buffet for healthy choices, “I never get sick. You know why? I always use a condom,” Dureza laughs. To a senior Filipino who asked for his card, “show my business card when you visit my city, you will get the prettiest GRO (guest relation officers or sex workers) in town.” And to this reporter, “I was born on December 24, so I was baptized Jesus. ‘If you want to sound religious what would you call me? Jesus, right? If you are my friend, you may call me Jess,” he explained as I gathered my bearings. ”But if you’re such a pretty lady, you may call me…Anytime.”
The four-hour meeting was a microcosm of the Filipino hospitality, cronyism, tolerance for off-color humor. At the end of the day, supporters and antagonists even posed for selfies and a group picture. Dureza gave out his personal Gmail address to everyone in the room and asked to be tagged on Facebook As they gathered to smile for the photograph, he urged the group, ”Say, sex, sex, sex.”