IT COULDN’T have come at a better time—that is, the decision of a US Court of Appeals to cite the Marcoses for contempt for their contemptuous attitude toward an earlier judgment forbidding them from dissipating their assets. Imelda and Bongbong were found to have been trying to repatriate precious artworks, deemed part of the Marcos estate, and to have agreed with the previous Philippine administration to split their estate with it, with them retaining 25 percent of it tax-free.
The contempt judgment carries a hefty fine: $353.6 million. It will be added to the $2 billion a US district court awarded to the human rights victims in 1995 as compensation. “Human rights victims” sounds almost benign, referring as it does to the nearly 10,000 Filipinos who were tortured, “salvaged,” and made to disappear during martial law, who filed a class suit against the Marcoses shortly after 1986.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. It reminds us forcefully, and forcibly, of a couple of things.
At the very least, the scale of pillage the Marcoses wrought upon this land. The original class suit sought $10 billion in compensation from the Marcoses, already a gross undervaluation of the amount of loot they had amassed. The $2 billion that was actually awarded to the litigants is an astonishing amount, as is the $353.6 million. Our failure to appreciate the mind-boggling plunder this represents comes from the very mind-boggling-ness of the amounts. Their size gives them an air of unreality, an air of abstraction. In a thoroughly impoverished country like ours, where kids are seen lying on the pavement, sleeping the sleep not of the just but of the drugged, those amounts become almost ungraspable.
What helps to grasp it are things like the poster on malnutrition that came out during martial law. The poster showed a child in an utterly emaciated state, wasting away from lack of food, and a bauble-d Imelda representing the initiator of a nutrition program. The poster was meant to show how government cared for the poorest of the poor, but it had the unintended effect of showing instead why we had hungry kids. There, people said, pointing at the poster, was cause and effect: Imelda was the cause, the emaciated child was the effect. The poster disappeared from the city’s walls faster than you could say “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
But the question that arises from all this talk of millions or indeed billions of dollars is how the Marcoses managed to acquire all that. Ferdinand was just a small-time politician—or hood; he was accused of shooting Julio Nalundasan, his father’s political rival, with a sniper’s rifle while the guy was brushing his teeth—and Imelda a poor cousin of the Romualdezes when they began. To have created an estate—what gentile airs that connotes!—worth that much, it makes the phrase “stealing the country blind” sound like a euphemism. That is not their estate, that is ours. That is not their wealth, that is ours. They have no right to use it as they please. Hell, they have no right to it.
At the very most, it reminds us of the horrors of martial law, and prevents the kind of revisionist rewriting of history Juan Ponce Enrile has begun. Etta Rosales is right, the contempt judgment is worth far more than the money it entails. “The contempt ruling means that the US courts are taking seriously the disrespect shown by the Marcoses. More than the heavy fines, this is a big embarrassment to the family who has shown no remorse for the deeds they have done.”
My own hope is that it goes more than embarrassing them to stopping them from carrying out the kind of political laundering Enrile has. Of course Enrile has also been the beneficiary of exceptional luck, quite apart from an exceptional share of the spoils as custodian of martial law, being there at the camps when the people arose against the regime he helped build and defend, and being the Senate president when the impeachment of the first Filipino chief justice took place. The Marcoses have not enjoyed the same breaks. But you never know, stranger things have happened in this country. This should help to stop things from getting even stranger.
Indeed, I hope that the victims of torture and the kin of the “salvaged” and disappeared take it upon themselves to publicize the accounts that are contained in the class suit. I attended one of the collective dredging of memory in the course of that suit in the 1990s, and some of the recollections there were truly harrowing. No horror story beats the capacity of human beings to inflict pain and harm on other human beings.
Enrile has been challenging the leftists to show proof of his guilt and of their innocence, claiming to have the documents that prove the complete opposite. All the victims have to do is bring up their personal accounts in the class suit to the public gaze to disprove him. What Enrile’s documents are, only he can say. What the victims’ documents are have been scrutinized by the American courts, from Manuel Real’s Honolulu court, which ruled in their favor, to the higher courts that continued to rule in their favor after various appeals by the Marcoses. Those documents, not quite incidentally, often mention Enrile as the one who signed the victims’ ASSOs (arrest, seizure and search orders). He may not have directly ordered their torture or “salvaging,” or disappearance, but neither did Marcos. And Judge Real, as well as the other American judges, who heard the class suit found him guilty anyway by command responsibility, or by creating the conditions, policies, and premises that made them possible.
That is one horror story for Undas, too, Marcos, Enrile, and the others who never had to wear masks to horrify the country for so long.