Dealing with dictatorships, Filipino style
We know the shades, and they certainly are not grey: forced disappearances, torture, political detention, extrajudicial killing. For the last, we even coined a euphemism: salvaging. Even today, Filipinos who use the word “salvage” do so still in not-so-neutral terms. After 20 years with Ferdinand Marcos, we have developed a culture of coping with dictatorships. Where we fall flat is in holding dictators accountable even after they have been driven out of power.
A friend in Argentina tagged me last March 24 to photos of an annual gathering at the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires. Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo is a group of Argentine mothers whose infants were forcibly taken away from them during the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1983).
The theft of the babies took place while their mothers were held in captivity at Videla’s many illegal detention centers. Videla said in defense, during his trial, that the mothers were “female guerrillas” who resorted to pregnancy in the belief they will not be tortured and executed.
Yet even while the regime still held sway over Argentina in 1977, the mothers marched on Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, in
defiance of the state’s attempts to silence all opposition. They were hailed as the initial responders to the regime’s human rights violations.
“Together, the women created a dynamic and unexpected force, and pushed for information on the whereabouts of their children. They highlighted for the world the human rights violations occurring, and raised awareness on local and global scales.” Even today, the mothers continue to hold silent weekly protests, keeping in mind a lesson from a dark era that left hundreds, even thousands, of broken families.
In 1985, Videla was tried in what is now known as the Trial of the Juntas for large-scale human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. Videla’s regime is said to have disappeared an estimated 13,000 to 30,000 political dissenters in secret concentration camps. Videla also sheltered Nazi fugitives. What is it about dictators that attract them to Adolf Hitler?
Videla was convicted and was sentenced to life imprisonment and was incarcerated for five years. But political leaders seem to enjoy a common “lucky streak”: Like in an old boys’ club, they save each other’s skin. Carlos Menem, the president of Argentina in 1990, pardoned Videla “to heal the wounds.” How many times have we heard it said that we must forgive the Marcoses?
But the mothers pressed on. In 1998, a judge found Videla guilty of kidnapping infants. Although he was already under house arrest, they renewed their effort to show the illegality of Videla’s rule, which soon became widespread. The Argentine government eventually declared him an illegal president and restored his conviction for human rights abuses.
Finally in 2012, Videla was convicted of stealing an estimated 400 babies from their mothers and sentenced to 50 years of imprisonment. The babies, born in prison, were given to military families for illegal adoption, and their identities hidden. The mothers were subsequently disappeared. In 2014, 113 of these adoptees were given back their true identities.
In 2013, Videla died at the Marcos Paz prison. Take note—the Argentine military ruled that “he was not eligible for a military funeral.”
In our case, we sent into exile Ferdinand Marcos and his family (thanks to the United States), with Imelda reportedly crooning all the way to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. We created the Presidential Commission on Good Government to go after stolen wealth. But we did not put on trial the ones who stole, nor did we lock them up in jail.
Some shudder at the thought of the return of another Marcos to Malacañang. The fault is collective—collective failure of governance and collective failure of a tougher public activism against the Marcoses. There was failure at systemic reform. We institutionalized corruption by inflating the egos of politicians and allowing political dynasties to flourish unhampered.
It is not unlikely that the Philippines could plunge into another dictatorial regime in the future.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.