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Inflation-strapped Filipinos criticize the president's many foreign trips


The World Economic Forum wrapped up in Davos, Switzerland, this morning. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was there to pitch his country as a destination for investors. It was his eighth trip abroad since taking office last summer. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, inflation-strapped Filipinos are wondering what all the globetrotting has accomplished.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: As the only Southeast Asian leader to attend this year's Swiss alpine confab, President Marcos Jr. trumpeted the Philippines in a one-on-one with World Economic Forum President Borge Brende. Marcos boasted his was the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia and has the youngest workforce in Asia.


PRESIDENT FERDINAND MARCOS JR: You might be surprised to learn that the average age of a Filipino worker is 23 1/2 years old, so that is a huge demographic dividend.

MCCARTHY: Overlooked was a World Bank report that found 9 in 10 Filipino schoolchildren aged 10 struggle to read simple text. But Marcos spoke with ease about the great power rivalry between the U.S. and China and how tensions in the South China Sea kept him up at night. Manila-based analyst Richard Heydarian says Marcos is positioning himself as an internationalist and that the extensive foreign travel in recent months provides the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos the opportunity to rebrand the Marcos family on an international level.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: So there's definitely a lot of, let's just call it, family diplomacy going on here. But clearly, in fairness to Marcos Jr., I think there's also a lot of damage control and airbrushing of the populist catastrophe that was the previous administration, namely President Duterte.

MCCARTHY: However, Heydarian says Marcos has embarked on so many foreign trips in his young presidency that he's nicknamed Ferdinand Magellan Jr. for the legendary Portuguese explorer.

HEYDARIAN: The implication there is the president just trying to escape the problems at home and hope that things will autopilot themselves into solutions. So this is really the issue.

MCCARTHY: That's the issue for Karen Villamor.


MCCARTHY: She cooks up fish bowls at her food stand near Manila City Hall. Villamor earns $12 a day and wants to know exactly how much tax money the Marcos administration spent on travels abroad.

KAREN VILLAMOR: (Speaking Filipino).

MCCARTHY: She says, "when you travel, it's very expensive. So just use the internet to hold meetings and save money. Our internet has wide coverage." "You don't need to travel to other countries," she says. Around the corner, retiree Joseph Ravanzo sits with his wife on a park bench and laments that people are suffering while the government seems rudderless.

JOSEPH RAVANZO: (Speaking Filipino).

MCCARTHY: "Farmers complain about expensive seeds and fertilizer. Bakeries complain about the high cost of eggs, sugar and oil," he says. Forty-two percent of Filipinos told pollsters last fall they disapproved of the Marcos administration's handling of inflation. Thirty-one percent approved. And Ravanzo says Marcos belongs at his desk finding solutions. Richard Heydarian says the danger for Marcos is appearing to indulge in lavish travel while the country is in pain. That, he says, could unravel the huge mandate that put Marcos in power.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWEEPS' "NARDIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.