August 19, 2005


Dusting Off a Dictator: Ferdinand Marcos is enjoying a renaissance in the Philippines. As some push for a hero's grave, others gasp at their short memories. (Bruce Wallace, August 19, 2005, LA Times)

He doesn't look like he could cause much trouble anymore, flat on his back in an airtight glass box, toes up, eyes waxed shut. Dead.

But almost 16 years after dying in exile and infamy, deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos — or at least his reputation — is being resurrected in the Philippines. And it's causing a commotion.

Filipinos are no longer sure how to remember the man they drove from power in a massive but peaceful street revolution in 1986, turning him into an international byword for dictatorship and corruption.

These days, watching their tired cast of politicians fiddle while poverty deepens and Asia's economy takes off without them, many exasperated Filipinos look at the Marcos era as happier times, the good old days before their hard-won democracy turned into what they now call "democrazy."

Was Marcos really a tyrant? they ask. Or just another Asian strongman imposing order on a country desperate for stability? A crook who stole from his own people and stuffed billions into Swiss bank accounts? Or a politician no different from the rest, in a country where everyone knows corruption is the oxygen of politics?

They can't even agree on how to bury him.

The ex-president has never had a funeral. Though he died in 1989, a standoff over where his final resting place should be divides Filipinos, exposing the cleft between those who feel a rosy nostalgia for the Marcos era, and those with unhealed wounds from his rule. [...]

Marcos ruled — and defined the Philippines to the world — for 21 years. Twice elected president, he turned to martial law in 1972, when communists and other opponents were jailed and tortured. [...]

The hole has already been dug. All that is needed for a state burial is the permission of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the sitting president.

"Marcos deserves it," Imelda says with customary defiance. She cites his record: the roads and hospitals built; the diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union and communist China, which she claims "knocked down the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain at the height of the Cold War"; the deals struck with foreign governments to allow thousands of Filipinos to work abroad and send home the foreign currency that is now a pillar of the economy.

Above all, she says, there was "Marcos' greatest achievement:" choosing exile over further bloodshed, and refusing to allow loyal elements of the armed forces to use their guns against the civilians massing against him in the streets.

But what might otherwise be dismissed as a political widow's relentless attempt to polish history has found some surprising traction with the public.

A nationwide poll last month rated Marcos the best of the last five Philippine presidents. He ranked not only far ahead of Arroyo, who is battling allegations of corruption and electoral fraud, but even topped Corazon Aquino, who led the revolution that toppled his dictatorship.

For Imelda, sitting ramrod-straight on her sofa, paintings by Picasso and Gauguin framing her like epaulets, the poll is an auspicious sign: Forces may be aligning at last to give her husband a burial with honors.

"Was Marcos the greatest president? No doubt about it," she says. "He was a mother to the nation; he could not destroy his country and his children. He sacrificed himself.

"Eventually," she is sure, "they will see it that way." [...]

But politics is fluid; alliances shift. Facing impeachment and desperately seeking allies, Arroyo had a private dinner with Imelda last month and, when news got out, the president told reporters she wanted to "have a healing of the wounds" caused by the anti-Marcos revolution.

The Manila media pack swiftly concluded that Arroyo was preparing to give Marcos the presidential burial, and church and civic leaders pounced on her.

"Every time there is a political crisis in this country, people say maybe we should go back to dictatorship — they are looking for quick fixes," says Monica Feria, 51, who was jailed twice under Marcos and now edits a lifestyle magazine in Manila. "People have forgotten what it was like to have no free press, to have people killed in detention. Torture was standard operating procedure.

"It bothers me when people say nothing has changed."

But reaching out to the Marcos family is tempting for Arroyo, who is desperate to weaken the coalition of forces gnawing at her presidency.

Many old Marcos associates are back in positions of influence in politics and business. Among the prominent Arroyo critics accusing her of corruption and electoral fraud are Marcos' son, Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos Jr., 47, the second-term governor of Ilocos Norte, and daughter, Imee Marcos, 49, an articulate congresswoman who has become a champion of the arts and is enough of a celebrity to appear on the cover of Philippine magazines.

The Marcos family and their allies now find themselves part of an anti-Arroyo coalition that includes the same church leaders and civil rights groups that helped bring down the elder Marcos.

"Yes, the Marcoses are on the side of the progressives," says Satur Ocampo, a leading Arroyo critic, acknowledging the irony. "We find ourselves in a tactical alliance with the remnants of the junta ousted by popular power. But we are accommodating them, not forgetting what Marcos did.

"Look, Imee is quite an adept politician," he continues. "We are not attributing the sins of the father to her. But people expect them to realize the degree of suffering under her father. And Imelda and the children have not owned up to any responsibility."

Nonetheless, this region of farmers, fishermen and soldiers is solid Marcos turf. There's even a Marcos cult that can point to biblical passages they say prove the ex-president was a messenger from God.

A onetime presidential residence is open to the public, everything of value sold off by the Aquino government, its bookshelves empty but for a few political books written by Marcos ("Today's Revolution: Democracy").

An Imelda-funded museum will open here in September. The walls are already papered with floor-to-ceiling photographs of Marcos shaking hands with long-forgotten dignitaries.

But for Imelda, only her husband's burial at Libingan will completely rescue the Marcos name.

It's hard to imagine the Phillipines would be in as good a shape as it is today without the heavy hand of Marcos. He may not have understood what he was doing as well as a Franco or Pinochet did, but it worked.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2005 6:14 AM

Marcos deserves credit for keeping order and preventing communism, but he was a crook and fleeced the Philippines of wealth. Stopping corruption is one of the prime rationales for any benevolent dictatorship. If the Philippines had a near equivalent economy to South Korea, Taiwan, or even Thailand, I'd sing his praises, but he left nothing, and the Philippines was well rid of him.

That he may be considered the best President out of the recent past is sad. Fidel Ramos did a very good job, but the lot coming after him was just terrible.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at August 19, 2005 11:41 AM

Good shape?

Posted by: Al Cornpone at August 19, 2005 1:47 PM