Another Imelda, another Marcos
She thought of herself as a star (“I go out into the barrios, I get dressed because I know my little people want to see a star,” she once said), so it must somehow warm the heart of Imelda Marcos that, even in her 89-year-old dotage, and 33 years after she was forced to flee her palace by the Pasig, the world is simply unable to forget her.
This week, Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was fined $15,000 for misusing government funds, as part of a plea bargain between her and the Israeli State Attorney after years of legal dispute. Netanyahu was accused of spending $100,000 on extravagant meals. For that, international media branded her as “Israel’s Imelda Marcos.”
Nearer home, Rosmah Mansor, the wife of beleaguered former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, was “Malaysia’s Imelda Marcos” for her profligate living, bankrolled by her husband. The ousted Razak is charged with, among others, stealing billions of dollars from a state investment fund and buying his wife a 22-carat pink diamond necklace (estimated at $27.3 million). When the couple’s residence was raided, the stash in their home eerily mirrored the cache of valuables recovered from the Marcoses after their downfall: boxes and boxes of art, bags, shoes, jewelry and, of course, money.
And in Africa, Zimbabwe had its own Imelda Marcos in Grace Mugabe, the first lady of former president Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in 2017 after 37 years in power. Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular for her lavish spending, earning her the nickname “Gucci Grace” and comparisons with the former Philippine first lady. Like Imelda, she was also noted for something else—cunning political machinations, which saw her accumulate tremendous power side by side with her dictator husband.
But all of them are still no match to the Philippines’ grande dame, for whom, in her prime, $100,000 would have been spare change. It bears noting that, after all these years, Imelda remains the benchmark and shorthand for ostentatious consumption—not only extravagance, of which many other people can be rightly accused, but vulgar, mind-boggling excess subsidized, in her and her global sisters’ case, by plunder of the public till.
That pillage, of course, was made possible only by the conjugal dictatorship she and her husband Ferdinand imposed on the Philippines, during which the country was bled dry to the tune of some $5 billion-$10 billion. An inkling of that epic thievery can be glimpsed from the forthcoming public auction of three jewelry collections of Imelda (“fit for royalty,” according to Christie’s) worth an estimated P704.8 million. The so-called Hawaii Collection, seized from the Marcoses when they arrived in Honolulu in 1986 for their exile, includes what Reuters said is a “rare 25-carat diamond in the shape of a barrel,” valued at $5 million.
The Supreme Court has long ruled that all the Marcos assets outside of their modest legitimate earnings as government officials during their tenure are considered ill-gotten wealth. The historical record on the Marcos plunder is also detailed and voluminous. So it’s baffling that President Duterte, despite having approved the planned auction of Imelda’s jewelry to allow the government to recover the people’s money, was also heard complaining earlier this week that, in the fight against unending corruption in government, his hands are supposedly tied by the present Constitution, and so “Maghanap uli kayo ng Marcos (Find another Marcos).”
The implication was that Marcos’ unhindered authoritarian hand allowed him to lick corruption. Which is a preposterous, baseless claim. As journalist Luis V. Teodoro reminded the nation in a tweet: “Marcos did not eradicate corruption, contrary to what Duterte implied. Marcos centralized it: he decided who can steal with impunity among his officials and cronies, but he made sure he got the lion’s share.”
To this day, the government is still recovering the loot, and Imelda’s gems are but a small part of what was robbed from the people. But it no longer surprises that Mr. Duterte can utter such a falsehood; it’s clear the President is invested in the agenda to restore, deify—and copy where he can—the ruinous Marcos brand of governance, even if that means repudiating facts, history, the truth.
But the world remembers—and the world’s other Imeldas are a reminder that the original one is yet unequalled, inimitable and still formidable: Already convicted, she remains free and unpunished and—a star, indeed—untouchable as ever.
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