Mud on her feet: Robredo’s ‘laylayan’ days
On of the most enjoyable moments that Vice President Leni Robredo remembers since winning her post in the May elections was the long slippery trek up Mt. Isarog in Sitio Bongcao in Pili, Camarines Sur province, where her slippers gave up the ghost, forcing her to walk barefoot on the muddy trail.
She and her team had been told that it would be a 20-minute trek to the place where a new schoolbuilding had been constructed, thanks mainly to the social media efforts that her office began in 2015.
But it had rained so hard the night before that the hike became an hour-and-a-half toe-gripping battle against a muddy trail that kept everyone slip, sliding away. Her tsinelas—both symbolic of her late husband’s grounded and mass-based leadership as well as a practical accoutrement of her no-frills laylayan trips—broke and left her wading through the muck on her bare feet.
“But we were all very happy because everyone we passed ended up joining us. It was such a novelty for them; their community was so rarely visited. We were like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. When we finally reached the top of the village, we were so many! It was fun!” Robredo recounted.
Despite the tight schedule she keeps at the Office of the Vice President (OVP), Robredo embarks every weekend on what her staff calls her “laylayan” (on the fringes) activities, visiting the country’s most impoverished areas to find out what they need and what her office can do.
More than a month since being sworn into office, Robredo maintains the pace and stamina that saw her through a bruising campaign to win by a hairline over the only son of the late President Ferdinand Marcos.
Early on, even without a Cabinet portfolio, she hit the ground running and reinvented the OVP into a more advocacy-centered office, with five core programs: hunger and food security, education, world development, empowerment, and universal health care.
When she was finally appointed to head the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), the work doubled almost overnight.
So far, Robredo has been averaging three speeches a week, most of them pushing for the need for a synchronized plan to provide housing for the poor while offering them the chance to improve their lives.
At a US Agency for International Development (USAID) event, she brought up the idea of developing secondary cities, not only to decongest urban areas like Metro Manila, Davao and Cebu, but also to promote people’s economic and social development as well.
In Bangkok earlier this week, where she was recognized as one of the Honorary Women of Asia in 2016, Robredo grabbed the chance to learn more about Thailand’s housing and urban development program.
The Vice President wants to hold by September a series of summits that will involve informal settlers, property developers and other stakeholders “to listen to everyone and come up with a revolutionary policy.”
Like President Duterte, Robredo shuns protocol, the subject of daily wrangling with her staff, who, she acknowledges, makes sure “everything (becomes) easy for me.”
Despite her high office, the Vice President said she wanted to keep her feet on the ground and not lose the “essence” of what she had vowed to do as a public official.
“In our culture, when you’re in a high position, people want to serve you hand and foot. That is the scary portion of my assignment,” Robredo said, adding that it’s so easy for people to get hooked on the trappings of power.
When she took over at HUDCC, Robredo discovered the agency “has not been performing in a way expected to perform.” For one, the policies of the six shelter agencies under the council “have not been quite in sync with each other” mainly because of the lack of an effective law. HUDCC is merely a coordinating body “with no real powers.”
17-hour work day
Like most elected officials, Robredo has been beseeched by an endless stream of people wanting to tell her how they want to help in any of her five core programs. This has meant a 17-hour work day for her, starting at 7 or 8 in the morning until late at night, the day punctuated by meetings every 30 minutes.
“There are so many people who are just too willing to help. Many of those I’ve spoken to say they have been looking for a partner they can trust and they say they found that in me,” Robredo said.
But she and her staff always explain that the OVP cannot implement projects, accept donations, or be involved in anything where money will pass through her office.
“What we are doing now is offering ourselves as a sort of secretariat, a clearing house for both supply and demand for these advocacies. Now, Mondays to Thursdays are spent taking care of the supply side— talking to groups, individuals, and organizations that have programs that fit our advocacies. Fridays and Saturdays are blocked off for the laylayan events where we go to the most far-flung areas,” Robredo said.
So far, she has been to Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Quezon, Laguna and Camarines Sur, among other provinces. These are trips where she feels most at home, having done this for decades as a pro bono lawyer for a private organization serving the marginalized sector in Bicol.
Finding her place
While initially an outcast because of her ties with the rival Liberal Party, Robredo is slowly but surely finding her place in the Duterte administration.
Mr. Duterte received her warmly when she finally got to speak with him at the change of command ceremonies of the Armed Forces of the Philippines on July 1.
That warm reception has not stopped her from showing her independent streak, though. Robredo has been vocal against extrajudicial killings, reinstating the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal liability, the last two being unequivocal policies of the administration.
She has also expressed reservations about the federal form of government that the President has been pushing, saying, however, that she is open to the idea if it would advance local autonomy, an advocacy of her late husband, former Interior Secretary and Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo, who perished in a plane crash four years ago.
For all their differences, Robredo believes the President and the rest of his official family will respect her contrary stand on some of his policies. “I feel secure in the thought that the President himself trusts me. That’s what is important,” she said.
She added: “When President Duterte offered me the (HUDCC) position, he sincerely believed I should be part of the government … I don’t think (there) is a grand plan to silence me.”
In her New Manila, Quezon City, office, Robredo makes sure she remains in touch with the people, giving her staff strict instructions not to turn away anybody who comes to the OVP, “even if they only want to have their pictures” taken with her.
Apparently, she has taken her husband’s leadership style to heart, just as she and their three daughters keep him next to their heart—literally.
All four wear a little gold and silver pendant around their neck, actually a small urn that holds some of the late official’s ashes.
“I always wear this, even when I sleep,” Robredo said, adding that being the country’s second-highest official is “a challenge in the sense that there are now so many responsibilities and privileges given.”
“You always have to remind yourself where you came from and why you are here,” she added. TVJ
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.