Published on October 27, 2015.
In 2013, in “Marcos was the worst,” I compared Gloria Arroyo and Joseph Estrada to Ferdinand Marcos in terms of “fiscal dictatorship” and outright corruption, and called them “rank amateurs.” There was simply no comparison.
As I wrote then: “Marcos institutionalized corruption on such a scale we continue to feel its effects today. In his 20 years in power, the country’s foreign debt metastasized from about $1 billion to over $25 billion; in a statement released last year, [the Freedom from Debt Coalition] repeats the estimate that as much as a third of all that debt, about $8 billion, went into his pockets or those of his cronies. The country will continue paying for all that debt until 2025.”
The point I sought to make was that Marcos, by far, was the most corrupt man in Philippine history.
In 2014, I followed up with a consideration of Marcos’ subversion of the Supreme Court of his time. In “Marcos was the worst (2),” I related his “consulta” with incumbent justices, which was his way of lobbying them to rule in his favor. “The discussions did not only reek of legal and ethical conflicts; they were patently illegal, deeply unethical—and subversive.” But the truly troubling thing was that “the sessions with [Fred Ruiz] Castro (or other justices) did not end in 1971. In the same way that Marcos’ suspension of the writ was a trial run for the declaration of martial law, his meetings with the justices paved the way for more secret consultations” after martial law had been declared.
The point: The man could rationalize his dictatorship as “constitutional authoritarianism” because he was the authority dictating policy to the supposed guardians of the Constitution. In that sense, there has truly been no other president like him.
Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s decision to run for vice president raises the question of the true nature of the Marcos legacy yet again. Would his father have transformed the Philippines into another Singapore, as the son has argued, if he had been allowed to continue in office? Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew’s candid and unflattering views of the Marcoses, as expressed in a couple of his books, should serve as a simple corrective to that line of speculation.
A review of the economy’s near-collapse in 1983 should also quiet the fantasists; after the rapid economic growth in the first few years of martial rule, the limits of Marcos’ debt-funded crony capitalism became stark by the early 1980s. By then, Marcos had been president for almost 20 years, and dictator for 10. When was he going to start creating another Singapore?
Easy enough to dismantle the young Marcos’ argument, but the fantasy part has some traction. Why is it that some Filipinos—not only those who are too young, but even those old enough to have lived through the Marcos years—seem ready to buy into this counter-factual version of history?
Many factors must be at work. The loss of perspective: The events have receded into what is now the distant past (more years separate our time from the declaration of martial law than from the start of World War II to military rule in 1972). The failure of education: Our generation has not done an adequate job of reminding the nation of the atrocities of the Marcos dictatorship. The power of myth: Marcos allies have been successful in presenting the beginning of an alternative history, especially online. The relativism of protest: Antigovernment critics of whatever stripe fall into the relativist habit of denouncing the incumbent president as the worst of the time (scroll through newspaper pages and see the vilification of one president after another: Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo, Aquino again). Not least, the lure of innocence: Media organizations today are too noisy, busy with present-day stories of iniquity and inequality.
Those who pine for quieter days under the Marcoses must have not known or must have chosen to forget, as the scholar David Wurfel wrote in 1977, that “Media control is essential for maintaining two important myths about the ‘New Society’ — first that crime has practically been eliminated, and second, that corruption is rare or, in any case, always punished.” In the Age of Imelda, inconvenient truths were airbrushed out of existence or buried under quick-drying cement.
But this choosing to forget: On further consideration, this strikes me as an ideological response, and makes me regard the entire Marcosian era in a new light.
Let’s borrow the anthropologist Chris Kortright’s summary of the “colonial complex” for a moment: “(1) colonization begins with a forced, involuntary entry; (2) the colonizing power alters basically or destroys the indigenous culture; (3) members of the colonized group tend to be governed by representatives of the dominate group; and (4) the system of dominant-subordinate relationship is buttressed by a racist ideology.”
Forced entry: check. Altered culture (militarized bureaucracy, politicized military, behest capitalism, subverted institutions, the art of the “Imeldific”): check. Dominate group (military, Ilocano, Waray, “Blue Ladies,” favored lawyers): check. Only the fourth criterion seems unpromising, although perhaps an element of racism led to the destructive Moro wars of the 1970s.
My point? In 1981 Marcos inaugurated what he grandly called the Fourth Republic. But it is closer to the truth to say that his regime was, in fact, the Fourth Occupation. After the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese, Marcos used martial rule to colonize the Philippines.