Opinion: many Filipinos may not remember Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ scary rule, but I do

Even though most Filipinos living today don’t remember what those days were – half of the country’s population was under 8 when Marcos’ parents were ousted – I certainly do. Those were days of wine and roses and almost unprecedented kleptocracy: many of Imelda’s infamous 3,000 shoe collection are reportedly now in a Manila museum.

The stories of the Marcos family’s extravagance and corruption are legendary, and as a former journalist from the region, I have my fair share. In October 1976, the IMF / World Bank held its annual meeting in Manila. To prepare, the Marcos have designed an almost unprecedented building boom: 14 new hotels of international class in just as many months. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 700-room Plaza Hotel, 2,000 guests were greeted by tables moaning under appetizers.

Friends and relatives of the family owned these hotels, most of them built with government capital that did not go to the priorities of the most desperately impoverished Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Philippines had received a grant from the World Bank to rebuild parts of the nearby Tondo slum in Manila, one of the worst in Asia. These funds had disappeared and Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense and then head of the World Bank, was on his way to town.

Imelda, governor of the Manila metro, simply ordered the demolition and paving of the slum, with 60 families transported to vacant land 20 miles from the capital, where they had been dumped in a large field.

I discovery the malicious scheme. McNamara was furious, Imelda never forgave me. The day my story aired, I was sent to follow a coup in Thailand, while thousands of Filipino families remained in limbo, some in other parts of Tondo, some far away on the outskirts of Manila. Today Tondo remains one of the poorest slums in Asia. And young Marcos said little during his campaign that he suggests he will do a lot to change that, just one of the many toxic consequences of his parents’ rule.
Imelda Marcos sees her old shoes during the inauguration of a shoe museum in Manila, 2001.

Despite everything, Bongbong had a spoiled and golden upbringing. Imelda – who is now 92 – still supports her child’s ambitions firmly, albeit lately in silence. Dindo Manhit, CEO of the Stratbase ADR Institute, a major political think tank in the Philippines, told me that Imelda has “disappeared from the public”.

Many people still believe that the Marcos family cared for ordinary people. Bongbong is playing on this, out loud. And there are some experts who believe that Imelda sees Bongbong put an end to the continuous search for the huge funds they had stolen and the prison that might still await her.

How is another Marcos possible in this democracy that Filipinos struggled to maintain, even 40 years ago, when I started reporting on his politics as Southeast Asia office head for the New York Times. The nation was formed in 1946 after independence from the United States which liberated it from brutal Japanese rule during World War II.

This time around, at least, Bongbong and his crew seem to be taking a few pages straight from Donald Trump’s MAGA playbook. “It’s the rise of social media,” Manhit told me during our phone conversation from Manila. “In the Philippines the second source of information – after television, more than any newspaper, more than radio – is Facebook and YouTube,” she said.

“It’s one-sided propaganda,” Manhit added, and whenever the media tries to paint Bongbong’s comments as outlandish, his supporters simply label this “fake news.” Sound familiar?

That the venal and violent years of Bongbong’s parents’ reign were anything but happy times filled with prosperity, law and order is simply screamed as false.

A Marcos supporter holds photos of the late dictator Ferdinand and his wife Imelda, as Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. holds an election rally in February of this year.
Now, the next generation of the Marcos clan vaguely insists, as Bongbong said in an interview with CNN Philippines, on plans to achieve unity – “Prices and works. Works, works, works. Prices, prices, prices.”

Bongbong attempted to ensure that his family – who under parents Ferdinand and Imelda ruled for 21 brutal and corrupt years from 1965 to 1986 – now return to power by tying tightly to the still much admired Duterte, exploiting the president’s daughter Sarah as his running mate for the vice presidency.

And young Marcos did his best to rehabilitate his parents’ memory, describing his father as a “genius” in a Interview with CNN Philippines. This, despite the reality of martial law, imposed by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, when tens of thousands of people were arrested and detained and thousands of others tortured, forcibly disappeared and killed, according to Amnesty International.
Abroad, Marcos is seen as leaning towards China: his first visit after entering the race last fall was in his Embassy. China continues to flex its muscles in the nearby South China Sea. Public opinion, that theit means heavily towards the United States and Australia, it could act as a brake, and indeed in some of his latest remarks, Bongbong appears to have tempered his public comments.

Some critical questions remain. How much of this tilt away from China is for the show? Most importantly, the Biden administration would tolerate the same level of Marcos-style abuse or excess as a succession of American presidents during the two decades that his parents were in power and that lasted throughout the Vietnam War era. ?

This allowed the United States to maintain a major air base at Clark Field in the Philippines, where I covered the arrival of thousands of displaced people in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, and a naval facility in Subic Bay. American oversight of both structures ended after the end of Marcos’ rule.

Today, the United States has linked its Asian strategic priorities to Australia, with billions of dollars defense agreements. But an understanding Filipino government could be a very valuable asset in the region, as long as the costs are not too high for either America or the Filipino people.