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The Philippines: From Despot to Exile

5 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

Fallen dictators age badly, even in Hawaii. Toward the end, Ferdinand Marcos, once overlord of the Philippines, had become a joke. He mumbled that he was living on charity, but visitors to his rented $2.5 million residence $ outside Honolulu saw the dozen servants, the 30 bodyguards and the chauffeured limousine. His wife Imelda was a regular at posh local shops and every now and then gave in to the temptation to show off her finery — except for new shoes.

His eyes disappearing into puffy cheeks, a cervical collar ever at his neck, Marcos insisted he was too sick to travel to New York City for arraignment on charges of racketeering and real estate fraud. Still, he argued he was up to a trip to the Philippines, ready to win back his kingdom in MacArthurian style. Hawaii, Marcos proclaimed, was only his Elba. Everyone else knew it was St. Helena.

His last attempts at manipulation were unwitting acts in a black comedy. When his mother died in Manila, Marcos refused to give permission for her burial, using her corpse to prod the government of Corazon Aquino into allowing him to return to mourn. He was turned down. In December 1988 a physician testing the deposed President’s fitness to travel to New York said Marcos faked pains. A week later, when Marcos was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, many scoffed. As if to spite his critics, Marcos became truly ill and died last week at 72. Imelda once said she might refuse to bury him unless Manila allowed her to bring the corpse home. But though Aquino had flags lowered to half-staff, she reiterated that Marcos, even in death, would remain an exile for an unspecified time. As Philippine forces girded for protests by Marcos loyalists, Washington banned planes from flying his remains to the islands.

At the zenith of his power, in 1981, Marcos said his country was caught between “a world that was dead and a world that was too feeble to be born.” The vision that he alone could lead it to prosperity and greatness proved painfully illusory. He died his country’s greatest villain.

Marcos could easily have been a hero. When he was first elected President of the Philippines, in November 1965, he had history within his grasp. His uncommon combination of political shrewdness and ironfisted determination gave a strong measure of national identity to the fractious Southeast Asian archipelago. Encountering minimal opposition when he took on dictatorial powers in 1972, Marcos thoroughly reordered Philippine economic and political life, impressing both his people and his key ally, the U.S., with his irreplaceability in one of the most strategic corridors of the world.

Deliberately patterning their life-style on John Kennedy’s Camelot, Marcos and his wife enthralled most Filipinos when he initially took office. He also set about fulfilling his campaign promises of reforms in industry and education. But by his second term, in January 1970, the tide had begun to turn against the brilliant young President. Protesting the country’s economic inequities, militant anti-American students pelted the Marcoses with rocks and bottles, forcing the couple to bolt themselves inside Malacanang Palace for their own security.

In September 1972 Marcos imposed martial law, citing the growing strength of the Communist New People’s Army (N.P.A.) and the collapse of public order, some of which he may have orchestrated. In a meticulously executed crackdown, thousands of students, journalists, labor leaders and politicians were arrested. The government shut down the press and confiscated all firearms. Marcos then set the country on a forced march toward what he called the New Society.

One-man rule had its salutary effects. Inflation dropped, and government revenue increased. If Marcos had dismantled martial law by 1977, said his former Defense Chief Juan Ponce Enrile later, “he would have been enshrined as the best President the country ever had.” Marcos, however, decided to hold on to absolute power and legitimized it as “constitutional authoritarianism.”

With rising hubris, Marcos tailored Philippine politics to fit his needs even as the Treasury was slowly siphoned into his secret Swiss bank accounts. With the loyalty of a military that kept his enemies under control through detention, torture and murder, the President sat confidently in Malacanang, turning down all calls for democracy with pedantic arguments and withering hauteur. Marcos, said Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, “believes he is the only intelligent human being in the world.”

The beginning of the end came in August 1983 with the assassination of Marcos’ rival, Benigno Aquino. Marcos blamed the N.P.A., which had prospered during his dictatorship, but few Filipinos believed him. Public protests blossomed.

In November 1985, in a ploy to satisfy U.S. demands for the reinstatement of democracy, Marcos announced an election, confident he could still win. It was a stunning miscalculation. Marcos counted on the inability of the opposition to unite under a single candidate. Instead, his foes — and the powerful Roman Catholic Church — coalesced under Aquino’s widow Corazon. The President’s ) blatant attempts to steal the election stirred reform elements in the military and the public into the decade’s first great exercise of People Power. With large elements of the military defecting, Marcos was effectively trapped within Malacanang, besieged by civilian mobs and air-force rocket attacks. Three days after the rebellion broke out, on Feb. 24, 1986, his family was evacuated by U.S. helicopters. Within 48 hours, Marcos was in Hawaii.

Six years before that ignominious flight, Marcos seemed to glimpse how his own downfall would come about. During a visit to Honolulu, he delivered a telling analysis of the decline of Presidents. “I do not care how brave a President is; I do not care how many medals he may wear,” said he. “I do not care how well trained his guards may be. If he violates the will of the people, he shall be eliminated.”

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