Duterte prohibits Cabinet members from traveling to U.S.

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday, January 29, barred Cabinet members from traveling to the United States, his latest move after threatening to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

"I will leave it siguro sa (perhaps to) foreign affairs, but I will not allow any Cabinet member to go there at this time. No Cabinet member should be allowed to go to the United States...indefinitely," Duterte told reporters in an ambush interview on the sidelines of the Department of Social Welfare and Development's founding anniversary.

Duterte's order stemmed from his earlier threat to terminate the VFA, which came after the US government canceled the visa of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa. Dela Rosa, who was Duterte's first Philippine National Police chief, is known as the architect behind the government's bloody anti-drug campaign.

With no Cabinet-level official making trips to the US, Duterte said he would "limit" the Philippines' interaction in "whatever aspect of international relations would be discussed or subject to talks."

"Parang boycott (It's like a boycott)," Duterte said.

Reckless leader? The Philippine President fired back at critics who think his decision to scrap the VFA was done "on a whim," insisting he has been serious about the move from the moment he said it.

"I am terminating it. I was not joking. The day I said it was the day I decided it should be [terminated]. Alam mo (you know), they said it's subject to my whim – no," Duterte said.

Duterte also claimed his decision was not solely based on Dela Rosa's canceled visa, but was also anchored on the US Senate's adoption of a resolution that seeks Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Philippine officials involved in extrajudicial killings and the detention of Senator Leila de Lima.

"It started when they mentioned the US resolution in the Senate.... They were trying to figure out who will be the person who will be barred from entering. I just announced late. Pinapaupo ko (I sat on it), but at that time, I have decided if they do this, I will do it not only for Dela Rosa but for every Filipino, lalo na 'yung mga [opisyal ng] gobyerno na pupunta doon (especially government officials who will go there) supposedly for a business concern officially," he said.

If Washington's sanctions are imposed, affected Philippine officials may be denied US visas and may have their bank accounts and assets in America frozen.

What happens to Philippines-US relations? Duterte said that with his orders, he is "slowly toning down" the Philippines' bilateral relations with the US.

He insisted that the VFA must be terminated, despite experts and some lawmakers' concerns that doing so could compromise national security and interest.

Justice and foreign affairs officials have said that the Philippines is studying the VFA's possible termination, following Duterte's remarks. Malacañang earlier ordered an impact assessment on the termination of the decades-old military pact.

Duterte has long expressed his dislike for the US, pushing for an "independent foreign policy" that has largely been characterized by a pivot from the Philippines' longtime ally to countries like China and Russia. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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