If there is one thing a foreigner will know about the Philippines in recent history chances are it will be about Ferdinand Marcos and how he ran the country. While he had passed away in 1989, his wife and kids continue to be alive and politically well despite of what he did to the country while in public office. One saving value of this situation is our much forgiving culture to look the other way and give his family a second chance. It may be possible also that this was a result of massive poverty and the absence of an educated electorate that makes people indifferent. Regardless, in the end, no one lives forever even for a dynasty.
From the Sydney Morning Herald
“A dynasty on steroids”
Published: November 24, 2012
Human-rights abuses, criminal activities and the embezzling of billions of dollars were defining features of the US-backed conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Twenty-six years after they fled the Philippines, Jackie Dent talks to the family and finds it as arrogant, entrenched and popular as ever.
She arrives looking like a teenage girl en route to a music festival, with tousled sexy hair, reflector shades, tight denim jeans, purple thongs with purple flowers and two brightly coloured fashion rubber bands on her wrists. But 57-year-old Maria Imelda Marcos, known by everyone simply as Imee, has just come from dealing with the aftermath of a typhoon that destroyed a major bridge in Ilocos Norte, the northern Filipino province of which she is governor. Down by the river, she had bought bananas from a trader whose truck was stranded. “He couldn’t cross the river and they were going ripe in the hot sun,” she sighs. “Poor sod.”
For the glamorous Imee – first-born child of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, Princeton graduate, former international fugitive, lawyer, filmmaker and actress – the banana-buying of grassroots politics is a fate she has reluctantly accepted. Dry, sleepy, tobacco-growing Ilocos Norte has been Marcos territory ever since Imee’s father was elected to the House of Representatives in 1949. And for the Marcos family – as it is for the rest of the wealthy, oligarchic families that control their own fiefdoms in this impoverished nation – it must stay that way.
US historian Alfred McCoy estimates that the Marcos regime killed more than 3200 people, tortured 35,000 and incarcerated 70,000, surpassing the brutality of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. And yet, despite the family’s history, it is still political and financial business as usual for the Marcos clan and many of its associates.
Ferdinand may have died in exile in Honolulu in September 1989 of kidney, heart and lung ailments, but since the remaining members of his family returned to the Philippines in 1991, they’ve been passing the baton among themselves for various political posts in Ilocos Norte – that of governor, vice-governor and seats in the House of Representatives and Senate. While Imee is currently governor, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, 55, is a senator. Their mother Imelda, 83, still impressively bouffanted and clad in the terno, a traditional butterfly-sleeved dress, has a seat in the House of Representatives. A third daughter, Irene, has stayed away from politics, while adopted Aimee is a musician.
Imee – whacky, wise-cracking and a crush for some male journalists in Manila, the capital – admits she struggles with the governor’s job she has “avoided for years”; she’d rather be in Manila, making films, cartoons and games with Cream, her production company. Her film career has had some success, too; her part-animation hip-hop fairy tale, Pintakasi, won a number of awards at the recent Metro Manila Film Festival. But she was forced to take on the job when her cousin, Michael Marcos Keon, who became governor of Ilocos Norte in 2007, declined to run again in 2010. No one else in the family was available or interested.
Why does a Marcos have to run all the time? “It’s the whole Filipino system – they really count on you, they have all these expectations,” she tells me. “Your family is taking care of their family, which is taking care of your family and it just goes on and on and on. It’s pretty feudal in the Philippines still, even though we like to fool ourselves.”
It is normal in the former US and Spansh colony for families to control provinces for generations – the Laurel clan run Batangas, the Osmeñas control Cebu, the López family manages Iloilo. The Aquinos – arch foes of the Marcoses – have run Tarlac for five generations and are currently the most powerful clan, with Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III now president, a job held by his mother Corazon (or “Cory”), who succeeded Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. The animosity between the two families is akin to that of the Montagues and the Capulets. Like a grand sporting game, Filipinos root either for a Marcos or an Aquino. Or hate them both.
When Imee isn’t buying bananas to help a poor trader, other items on her agenda include urban planning, tackling rabid dogs and revitalising tourism, in particular the “Marcos Trail”. The tour takes in the family’s former summer home, a rundown, hagiographic museum to Ferdinand and Imelda, and a bizarre mausoleum where her father’s body lies on permanent display.
“At the end of the day, aside from being melodramatic, we [Filipinos] are all gossipy villagers. We like to see where he slept and what she ate for breakfast … so we’ve opened our houses,” Imee says. “The only problem is that I was staying there once – it is early in the morning, you haven’t washed your face, or brushed your teeth … and they want to take photos of you and the kids!” (Imee, who’s separated from her husband, Tommy Manotoc, has three sons, Fernando Martin – or “Borgy” – Michael and Matthew.)
Locals in Batac, the friendly, small, scruffy town where Marcos was born, tend to roll their eyes when asked if the body is real. A guard at the mausoleum, against a soundtrack of Gregorian chanting, tells me it is “coated in wax”. At rest in a glass coffin in a black, high-ceilinged room reminiscent of a medieval dungeon, Ferdinand’s “corpse” is dressed in a barong – the embroidered traditional shirt worn by Filipino men – and is shoeless according to Ilocano tradition. His coiffed hair looks disturbingly similar to the style sported by actor Christopher Walken. While receipts have shown that Imelda used to request her room at the Waldorf be filled with $US10,000 worth of flowers whenever she arrived, the flowers filling the space here are composed of small, glued-together seashells.
Ferdinand Marcos was considered a genius. He knew the Filipino constitution backwards and topped the bar examinations in 1939 while appealing a murder charge. (He’d been convicted of the 1935 murder of his father Mariano’s political rival Julio Nalundasan and, after initially receiving the death penalty, was acquitted in 1940.) “He came from the post-war generation whose notion of nation-building involved a lot of planning, development – literally, building – because the Philippines was bombed to the ground duringWorld War II,” says Imee. “It is not a surprise, it is not unpredictable, that a lot of ‘strong men of Asia’ derived from that generation.”
While Marcos had a top-notch cabinet (my father, Desmond Dent, worked for Philippines transport minister Jose Dans in the early ’80s), built swathes of infrastructure and tried to end the power of the oligarchs, Marcos’s power ultimately became corrupted. Given that he declared a state of martial law in September 1972 over exaggerated fears of a communist insurgency, it’s ironic that he shares the same encased-in-glass fate as Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.
When asked directly whether the return of the Marcoses is merely perpetuating the oligarchic politics that plagues the country, Manila-based Bongbong, whose demeanour hovers between playful schoolboy and displeased patrician, replies with mirth: “I always find the ‘return to politics’ a misnomer: we never left, we never left!” Or, as Imee remarks drolly about Filipino politics, “It is nepotism plus plus, a dynasty on steroids.”
While the pair make light of the Filipino political structures that have long favoured their family, the hunt for the estimated billions their parents and cronies are alleged to have stolen from the Filipino government – and the hope for the dispensation of justice to those who suffered directly at the hands of the regime – continue.
The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), established in 1986 after the fall of the Marcos regime, has so far managed to recover $US2 billion stolen by Marcos, his immediate family, relatives, subordinates and close associates, and has identified a further $US5 billion that still needs to be recovered. Of the $US2 billion returned, more than $600 million came from bank accounts in Switzerland, where the late Marcos secretly deposited money.
Exactly how much money Marcos pilfered will probably remain a mystery. A 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank estimates that $US5-$10 billion worth of assets were taken – a figure disputed by Bongbong, who says these numbers “were thrown out and taken on”. The modus operandi is said to have ranged from the audacious to the highly secretive. Large private companies were taken over, money from foreign aid was skimmed off and state-owned monopolies in crucial parts of the economy were created. In some instances, public coffers were directly raided, as if they were personal bank accounts.
Imelda Marcos is currently listed as the second-richest person in the Filipino parliament (the richest is international boxing sensation Manny Pacquio), while her alleged cronies also remain comfortably off. The PCGG recently lost a 25-year-old case against tobacco tycoon Lucio Tan, the second-richest man in the Philippines. While Forbesmagazine estimated his worth to be $US2.1 billion last year, the government has accused him, alongside the Marcos family, of having amassed his wealth through a number of illegal avenues.
The chair of the PCGG is Andy Bautista, a well-known lawyer and academic in Filipino legal circles, and a recent nominee for the position of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Dressed in a barong, he exudes a curious mix of pragmatism and bemusement at the magnitude of his job, which he took on in 2010. The PCGG itself has borne accusations of having failed to deliver on its mandate and of profligate spending, including nearly $US4 million on foreign travel between 2005 and September 2010 – 19 of its members travelling to Rio De Janiero to attend an international law association conference in 2008 spent $US160,000. In a country where poverty is rife, these figures are significant. Bautista also believes that former staff were leaking information to the cronies they were investigating.
The PCGG team includes Filipino graduates of Oxford and the London School of Economics. While hunting missing assets, they are also overseeing 11 sequestered and surrendered corporations that either Ferdinand Marcos or his cronies took control of, as well as monitoring 279 cases still pending in court, most of which were filed in 1986 and 1987.
“After 25 years, people have forgotten, evidence has been lost, the witnesses are gone and it’s been business as usual as far as the majority of Filipino people are concerned,” says Bautista, who now travels with a bodyguard.
When asked to describe the nature of the corruption, Bautista remarks: “It was really total control of the economy.” He then shakes his head. “It was excess to the max, it was too much.” These excesses of wealth and power eventually toppled the Marcoses in 1986 when the bloodless “People Power Revolution” erupted over four days in February. Realising that Marcos was finished politically, the US government withdrew its support and the family was forced to dramatically flee the country on Feburary 25, 1986 – first by helicopter out of Malacañang Palace and then on a jet provided by the US government.
Receipts, contracts and Ferdinand Marcos’s personal diaries left behind in the palace when the family fled are now stored in vaults in the basement of the PCGG. Three caches of Imelda’s jewels valued at between $US10 million and $20 million, including a 37-carat diamond, tiaras and an intricately woven 18-carat gold belt, are at the Central Bank, with Bautista hoping to put them on display before they are sold, the eventual monies from the sales to be returned to the Philippines government. Eight hundred pairs of shoes from Imelda’s notorious collection are now housed in a small museum in Manila.
But an unknown number of properties and assets remain missing, including 145 paintings by masters such as Cézanne, Magritte and Brueghel the Younger. All that is left of Van Gogh’s Peasant Woman Winding Bobbins is its brass plaque, which was found at Imelda’s townhouse on East 66th Street in New York City in 1986.
While the Marcoses have not been convicted of any crimes in their homeland, international courts have been tougher. In 1996, more than 9500 Filipino victims of torture and the relatives of those who were executed or disappeared obtained a final judgment in a US Federal Court in Hawaii against Ferdinand Marcos’s estate for almost $US2 billion – approximately $US200,000 per person. In October this year, the Marcos family was fined more than $353 million for having ignored the court order for the last 16 years. Collecting the money from this judgment has turned into a complex international saga, as the governments of the Philippines, Switzerland and the US have argued that all recovered assets belong to the Philippines treasury and cannot, therefore, go to these victims.
The separate recovery in the United States of $10 million from Jose Yao Campos, a Marcos crony, led to the distribution of $US1000 to some 7500 victims and their relatives in 2011 which, while small, is considered a start.
The High Court of Singapore recently ruled in yet another complex case that human rights groups had no claim to more than $US23 million in illicit Marcos funds that had been located in Switzerland and moved to banks in Singapore.
Senator “bongbong” marcos’s office on Roxas Boulevard in Manila has been transformed for an interview with Wasak, a kooky Filipino comedy series. When the senator arrives from a busy day in parliament, the presenters, crew and hangers-on greet him warmly. Despite the persistence of a bizarre urban myth in the Philippines that the real Bongbong Marcos was killed in London and that this man is a replacement, today it is possible to see unmistakable glimpses of his father in his bearing.
Portraits of Bongbong in various poses – wearing flares in the ’70s, toting a gun, in earnest discussion with his father – line the corridors and walls of his large and bustling electoral office. There are numerous certificates of appreciation and plaques, including one thanking him for being part of an “Island Paradise Adventure Race”.
Affable and talkative, Bongbong Marcos is a polished political performer who carries the confidence of a man whose way was always well paved for him. Sent to board at Worth School in West Sussex in the UK because of fears he would be kidnapped, he went on to study political science, philosophy and economics at Oxford and gained an MBA at Wharton University of Pennsylvania.
Once, in the company of his colourful mother, he met an aging Mao Zedong and recalls that she gave the communist dictator a lozenge after he coughed. Later, in the family’s apartment in the Carlton Hotel in New York, he met Andy Warhol. “He had decided that we shouldn’t speak to him, but to his dog,” Bongbong confides. “And I was wearing a barong for some reason and he said, ‘That’s a beautiful shirt’ and I said, ‘Have it.’ So Andy Warhol had a barong of mine!”
I ask him, light-heartedly, if he ever developed a shoe fetish as a consequence of his mother’s most famous indulgence and he stammers a reply. “After that whole thing with the shoes, I walk into other people’s homes and think these people have a more severe case of shoe collecting than my mother did. But me? Not really – I am simply not a vain person,” he says.
Since the collection is almost emblematic of Imelda’s extravagance, I ask him, “Has it haunted you a bit – the shoe thing?”
“We know where the shoes came from,” he says. “It’s not as if the woman spent 24 hours just doing nothing but buying more and more shoes because we needed more shoes. It simply did not happen that way at all. I mean 20 years of being sent shoes by the shoe industry will account for a great number of shoes that were found.”
He says he decided initially that he didn’t want to be a politician. “My dad had pretty much done it all as far as politics [was concerned] – what else are you going to do that he hasn’t done? And whatever happens, no matter what you do, you will be in his shadow. No matter what you do, you will be compared because it’s very easy to compare one politician against the other.”
While Bongbong doesn’t say if and when he will make a play for the presidency, he seems interested in the job. “My view is always this: any person in any kind of organisation wants to reach the top and I think any politician would dream of being president.”
Curiously, Bongbong seems to think that his family did nothing wrong and has nothing to apologise for. He says they have either won cases or they have been dismissed.
I say: “You have money and power. In terms of the victims of your father’s regime …”
“We have a judgment against us in the billions. What more would people want? That we open our veins and die before them? Is that the solution?”
I put it to him that it has been documented that people were tortured, money was appropriated and a Hawaiian court has found against the family. He laughs. “Well, that is one opinion and that is what the prosecutors would say,” he says.
He argues that history will be the best judge of the family, choosing to turn a blind eye to the extensive body of work already published by Filipino and international academics documenting the brutality of his father’s government. He points out that if people believed that the family deserved to be punished and jailed, various members of the clan would not keep getting voted back into office. He then tells a story about when he returned to the Philippines from exile in 1991 expecting trouble and felt welcomed at the airport. He asked for a phone and immediately called Imelda in Hawaii.
“‘Mom, it’s time to come home,’ ” he told her. “ ’We will walk the streets, nobody is going to hurt us.’ And sure enough, when she came home, people were out in the streets cheering her on.”
I first meet Imelda in January of this year, in a beautiful, old, Spanish-style house in Pandacan, a busy inner-city district in Manila. It is the day of the Buling Buling, a local religious festival, which typically involves singing, dancing and the wearing of incredible costumes.
She claims that the mansion is her ancestral home; in fact, it belonged to a wealthy uncle, Miguel Romualdez, and two gold lions sit at the front door, their paws hanging over embellished MR letters. Imelda’s father Vincente was the dreamer of the family and she subsequently grew up in poverty, living in a garage in Manila and, later, in a thatched hut in provincial Leyte. Her childhood poverty goes some way towards explaining her extraordinary acquisitiveness as an adult.
Imelda, now 83, is probably the most famous Asian woman of her generation, a cultural figure who has inspired musicals, walking tours, plays, transvestites and the adjective Imeldific, which means to be … well, like Imelda. In the two hours I spend hanging around her, she is charismatic and entertaining, yet bizarre.
She hands out a booklet on her life theories called Mothering the Rising Spirit which includes strange charts and a raft of theories involving Pac-Man, infinity symbols and triangles. The booklet also lists her and Ferdinand’s achievements, ranging from land reform to sharia courts for Muslims to the delivering of “basic services” to the general population.
Imelda is still beautiful and still exudes wealth, qualities that made her a heroine for the poor and a hit in the international political arena. Like a number of urban Filipino women, her skin is unblemished, almost like a child’s. As she speaks, her fingers are busy with enormous rings, her wrists laden with a collection of jade and gold bracelets.
At one point, two young girls in white, high-necked outfits reminiscent of a chemist’s are sent to get a picture book about her life. It features hundreds of photographs of her younger glamorous self with various state leaders, including Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro – all the bad boys of global politics in the ’60s and ’70s. “Gaddafi was good-looking,” she recalls, then mentions Castro once said he was driven by two people: his mother and Imelda Marcos.
Later, we’re called to the front of the house, where Imelda waves to the crowds from a balcony. A huge throng of men, women, children and press are waving back and grooving along to a brass band, which is playing an impressive rendition of Jesse J’s Price Tag. She listlessly throws lollies at the children.
At one point, she pulls me over next to her and I look down to see the children yelling out for more lollies. She stands waving, oblivious to their urgency and I say to her: “Imelda, you need to throw the lollies at the children.” She throws more, but the children aren’t satisfied, so I start throwing them down from the balcony. She descends and climbs into a vehicle that’s part of a motorcade that crawls through the streets of Pandacan towards the main stage for the festival. The crowd cheers her in the way that they would cheer on a returning Olympian or the Queen.
Dictators have all faced unique and varied fates. Benito Mussolini was executed outside an Italian villa; Gaddafi – Imelda’s former friend – died in the desert, killed by rebels; Robert Mugabe and Castro will probably die in power. Why are Filipinos so willing to embrace the Marcos family again?
Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for three decades, writes of the Philippines in his recently published From Third World to First: “It is a soft, forgiving culture. Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.”
Yew is not unique in his assessment: Filipino friends I talk to share a similar viewpoint. But for journalist Carmen Pedrosa, the reason the Marcoses have re-established themselves is a complex mix of poverty, lack of education and flawed political structures. The well-known columnist wrote a sensational biography about Imelda in 1969, in which revelations about the First Lady’s impoverished childhood forced Pedrosa and her family into exile.
“There are basically apolitical people in this country because of the poverty,” she says.
“My daughter says this is the most ‘existential’ country in the world – people just want to live. Basically, people don’t ask what does this mean or how did it happen? They have to earn their living.”
Pedrosa says dissatisfaction with the current Aquino regime has led people to ask whether the Marcoses were so bad. “They contrast the two families and say things like: ‘At least during Marcos’s time we saw things being built and now there is nothing, just incompetence,’ ” she says. “There is also disappointment that we had a revolution but it did nothing to change lives. People think: ‘What does it matter? It is just the same whether we have Marcos or Aquino.’ ”
She says the country needs to introduce a parliamentary-style party structure and move away from a system where people vote for one president. “With 50 million people nationwide, 90 per cent are politically illiterate – what would you expect of the result? It is about money and popularity,” she says, adding that this is why actors are often successfully voted in. “There is no way you can win an election without patronage, funding and pork barrelling.”
Pedrosa believes that the Marcos family are a “finished thing … they may be attempting to come back, but it will not be a success.”
It is July. The large open-air gymnasium in Batac is decked out in flowers and colourful lights for Imelda’s 83rd birthday party. Hundreds of people are seated at round tables, including a party of stylish old women in traditional Ilocano outfits – long skirts, embroidered blouses and embellished gold necklaces. Bats hang from the rafters above. Poor people stand on the sidelines to watch what turns into a singing, dancing and eating extravaganza.
Imelda hits the dance floor for a boogie with her grandson Borgy, 29, and his stunning model and TV-presenter girlfriend Georgina Wilson. Later, Imelda gives an impassioned speech about how she once advised Chairman Mao. Towards the end of the evening, Imee turns up, elegant with her hair swept back. Soon after, Imelda sits on a throne with a floral wreath on her head – the flowers a tradition for those celebrating their birthday in Ilocano culture – and people line up to give her more bouquets. I watch Imee shake hands and pose for photographs with a long queue of people – polite, professional, her smile only intermittently falling. It strikes me what an impressive show the Marcoses are putting on for this grubby little provincial town and how tiring it must be being a politician. And then I recall something Imee said in our interview.
“Your brother [Bongbong] says that politics is the national sport here,” I’d remarked to her.
“It’s not very sporting, though,” she had replied. “No fair play, no rules, very movable goal posts. Not quite right as a sport. It is better as something else. Vaudeville, maybe?”
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This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/a-dynasty-on-steroids-20121119-29kwy.html