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Becoming Duterte: The Making of a Philippine Strongman

‘A Simple Man’

Becoming president has been an adjustment for Mr. Duterte, who is 71. For months, he still thought of himself as mayor and often called himself that.

He prefers to go home to Davao City rather than stay in the sprawling presidential palace complex in Manila. In a land that is notoriously corrupt and where government officials often live like kings, he has lived for decades in the same modest two-story house where he only recently installed air-conditioning.

Pomilda Daniel, a neighbor, calls him “a simple man.” She said that Mr. Duterte once admired her large new television and asked if he could have it if it ever broke so that he could fix it and use it.

Yet when he discovered during a visit to the House of Hope, a child cancer treatment center in Davao, that the children had no televisions, he returned the same day with nine TV sets and had them installed, said Dr. Mae Dolendo, a pediatric oncologist who heads the center.

“He is very, very compassionate,” she said. “We have had presidents who conducted themselves like we would expect presidents to conduct themselves, but they haven’t solved the country’s problems. He’s not perfect. He curses. But he gets things done.”

Mr. Duterte has no official first lady and boasted during his campaign that he had two wives and two girlfriends. Later, he said that he should give Pfizer an award for creating Viagra.

In 1973, he eloped with Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former flight attendant, after courting her for a month. The marriage lasted until 2000, when it was annulled.

The psychological assessment of Mr. Duterte prepared for the annulment, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, was based on an examination of Ms. Duterte and is not a diagnosis.

In addition to the finding of narcissism, it described Mr. Duterte as a “control freak” and womanizer who began having affairs soon after he was married and flaunted his infidelity by bringing girlfriends to public functions.

While still married, Mr. Duterte met Cielito Avanceña, a teenage contestant in a beauty pageant who goes by Honeylet. She is 25 years his junior. He has described her as his second wife, although they never married.

Ms. Duterte and Ms. Avanceña declined to be interviewed.


President Duterte at an armed forces celebration in Quezon City in December. Credit Erik De Castro/Reuters

Duterte’s Other Drug Problem

Perhaps some of the president’s mercurial behavior stems from the constant pain he suffers and his use of narcotics to treat it. Mr. Duterte has made a political career of fighting drugs but acknowledged in December that he had been abusing the opioid fentanyl, the powerful and addictive drug that killed the musician Prince last April.

Mr. Duterte began using fentanyl to treat back pain and migraines from a spinal injury, apparently a result of a motorcycle accident a few years ago.

His doctor prescribed a quarter of a fentanyl skin patch, the president said, but he began using an entire patch at a time. When his doctor discovered that, he ordered him to quit.

“He said: ‘Stop it. The first thing that you would lose is your cognitive ability,’” the president recounted. “‘You are, you know, abusing the drug.’”

Mr. Duterte has not said publicly when he started using fentanyl or whether he has stopped. In December, he denied being addicted.

His communications director, Martin Andanar, said that Mr. Duterte had stopped using fentanyl “way before he was elected president” last May. But a person with knowledge of his condition told The Times in September that Mr. Duterte was using the drug then.

Mr. Duterte’s energy and jet-black hair belie his age, but his afflictions have taken their toll. During public appearances, he often presses his fingers against a nerve on the side of his face to reduce the pain. He has skipped several public events because of illness.

In his speeches, he sometimes suggests he will not live to serve out his six-year term. He has not explained why.

Decades ago, Mr. Duterte learned that he had two rare conditions, Barrett’s esophagus and Buerger’s disease, which prompted him to quit drinking and smoking. As mayor, he enforced a strict public smoking ban, and he is now considering a similar measure nationwide.

He dislikes being questioned about his health. After a reporter asked for his medical report, he publicly rebuked the journalist, demanding, “How is your wife’s vagina?”

Source: NYT > World

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