Art by TJ Espinosa based on a MalacaƱang photograph taken on March 2017.
Culture Spotlight

Delfin the audacious

Is Lorenzana on a “kamikaze” dive as a way out of the Palace? Could he be the last and only honest man in the Duterte Cabinet?
Alcuin Papa | Dec 13 2018

In the Duterte cabinet, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is a rarity. No one could be as straight a shooter as the 70-year old former soldier. In recent weeks, Lorenzana has come out with audacious statements that would be considered dissonant, if not outright contradictory, to statements issued by the Palace, the President himself and his allies.

In a speech on November 27, President Duterte declared he would form his own ‘Duterte Death Squad’ to go after assassins of the New People’s Army. The next day, Lorenzana warned that such an idea would give rise to abuse and mistaken identities.

After the recent visit of China President Xi Jinping to the country, Lorenzana revealed that in 2016 after the Philippines won a maritime arbitration case against China over disputes in the South China Sea, he called off his plan to send a Philippine Navy contingent to the Scarborough shoal. He said President Duterte told him this might offend China. Lorenzana also said China tried to block his plan to rehabilitate the facilities on Pag-asa island in the Spratlys. Finally, he revealed the Chinese ambassador tried to prevent him from visiting Pag-asa Island.

Just last Dec. 11 at the sidelines of the handover ceremonies for the Balangiga bells, Lorenzana told reporters that allegations made by presidential son Paolo Duterte online that Vice President Leni Robredo was involved in a plot to oust the president were “fake news.”

And after all of this, strangely enough, not a whimper is heard from the Palace about sacking Lorenzana. Is Lorenzana on a “kamikaze” dive as a way out of the Palace? Could Lorenzana be the last and only honest man in the Duterte Cabinet?

Like many in the military, Lorenzana is a balance of patriotic hawkishness and a calm and reasonable demeanor.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana meets with the US Congressional Delegation during a courtesy call at the Malacanan Palace on March 2017. 

Like the president, Lorenzana is from Mindanao, a native of Midsayap, Cotabato, a region that saw intense fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

He graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1973. Through his career, Lorenzana served as commander of elite units in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) like the Special Operations Command, the Light Armored Brigade and the Second Scout Ranger Battalion.

Lorenzana then moved to another elite unit, the Presidential Security Guard, under Presidents Cory Aquino, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

From 2002 to 2004, Lorenzana served as defense attache to the United States then as Presidential Representative for Veteran Affairs at the Philippine embassy in Washington until 2015. It was probably during this time that Lorenzana mastered the ‘art’ of the straight talk ala the Americans as well as cultivating close ties with the US.

It was his stint as commander of Second Scout Ranger Battalion based in Davao City that might have cemented his relations with Rodrigo Duterte. Lorenzana is said to have helped clear the city of criminals and insurgents.

Obviously, the president likes to have Lorenzana around. And Duterte will need him to deal with a host of domestic issues like martial law in Mindanao, the fight against terrorism and the communist insurgency. The military looks up to and likes nothing more than a former military man as Secretary of National Defense. Lorenzana might look to leverage his closeness to the president when dealing with the communist insurgency as the peace talks between the two sides blow hot and cold, depending on the latest statements from President Duterte and CPP Founder Jose Maria Sison. But Lorenzana might have to tread more carefully on the issue of the South China Sea as the Duterte administration tries to cultivate closer ties with China.

Lorenzana’s tenure at defense isn’t without its share of controversy. On December 17, 2017, he sacked Navy chief Ronald Mercado for failing to follow orders to pick South Korean company Hanwha Thales to provide the critical Combat Management System (CMS) for two frigates to be built by Hyundai Heavy Industries. Mercado was bent on picking Tacticos Thales for the CMS, which is said to be a technically superior system than what Hanwha is offering. In retaliation, Lorenzana did not mince his words. “How can you continue to have confidence and trust in a leader who interferes in a legally binding contract, usurps your authority and ignores your orders?” an obviously miffed Lorenzana told a House hearing on the issue. Many in Camp Aguinaldo still believe Lorenzana should have probed the controversy deeper.

As a side note, there were allegations that then Special Assistant to the President Bong Go intervened in the project. In 2017, Go asked Mercado through Lorenzana to answer a technical paper that argued in favor of Hanwha. Also, Mercado was replaced by Rear Admiral Rogelio Empredad who pushed for Hanwha.

Recently, there was talk of a brewing controversy over the acquisition of new attack helicopters from Turkey by the Philippine Air Force. It seems certain quarters were again pushing their own bets in a bid to take out the dealer of the Turkish choppers, which met the specs of the technical working group.

This, it was implied, was the reason why PAF Chief Lt. Gen. Galileo Kintanar was making the rare move of leaving the military service 13 months before his mandatory retirement.

But thankfully, Lorenzana himself said the AFP was sticking with the attack helicopters from Turkey. Was the statement meant to preempt any more moves to scuttle the deal? Who knows.

For now, Lorenzana has no intention of fading away, like good old soldiers. Whether his fast and loose but otherwise honest tongue will get him into trouble with the president and the snakes in the Palace seems a remote possibility for now. But for how long can Lorenzana stay honest and speak his mind?

Most of the time, it’s not so much what a soldier says, but what a soldier does.