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What good did Marcos do?

/ 05:15 AM September 29, 2020

Some of the questions raised in last week’s historical revisionism conference — in different variations and at different times — may be classified as questions about “the other side.” What was Ferdinand Marcos like (to quote a young nursing student), “minus the greediness, and minus the cruelty”? How should we treat those of our grandparents’ generation, who lived in the Marcos era and remember it positively? “Was martial law really bad because it abused human rights or it was just the people who were at fault because they lack discipline?” another participant asked. What, in other words, were the good things that Ferdinand Marcos did in office?

Much of the BalikKaSaysayAn conference, hosted by the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila and the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, was spent on confirming and countering the historical denialism project of the Marcos family and its allies. The 10 sessions over five days had a total running time of almost 16 hours, all of it recorded. And the conference drew considerable interest, with the help of Tanggol Kasaysayan, Bulatlat, and the Guidon: over 3,400 registrations, over 2,200 in actual attendance, over 1,300 staying for the entirety of the sessions they registered for.

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But the questions about the side of Marcos were raised at almost all the sessions. I do not necessarily think that they are representative of today’s generation of students; perhaps it would be more accurate to say (based on my experience speaking in different parts of the country) that they represent a regional attitude. This is not to slight the questions or their importance; this generation, from all regions, is particularly vulnerable to the Marcos rehabilitation project on Facebook and YouTube. But I do want to add the context I see.

What good did Marcos do? To me, that question is akin to asking: What good did the Japanese Imperial Army do, when it invaded and occupied the Philippines during World War II?

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It is a category error to treat the Marcos years like any other presidential term. He disrupted history itself, set himself apart from other presidents by planning a military takeover of government and installing himself as dictator. It is a fine irony that the man who acted as though he were larger than history must now find refuge and rehabilitation in a revised, reduced version of it.

His own presidential diaries provide the evidence: Marcos began planning a complete takeover of the government after his reelection in December 1969. He could no longer run for a third term, and he had convinced himself that he must stay in power. Before the communist insurgency became a significant threat, before “discipline” became a buzzword and then a convenient excuse, before he waged war on “oligarchs” on behalf of his cronies, he was already planning to kill Philippine democracy. Is the question to ask, What good did this murderer do? Or should we ask: Why did he murder democracy, and how did he get away with it?

Even the court victory the Marcoses may be proudest of, the acquittal of Imelda Marcos on racketeering and fraud charges in New York in 1990, which effectively led to the end of the family’s exile, confirmed the dictator’s outsized corruption. Essentially, Imelda was acquitted because while the trial established that Marcos himself was corrupt, the jurors did not connect the corruption to Imelda.

The New York Times’ report the day after: “For Mrs. Marcos, who has been parodied and reviled for her ostentatious life style, the trial confirmed her reputation as a ‘world-class shopper,’ in the words of her own defense team. But clearly the jurors never grasped why the case had been brought to an American courtroom and certainly they did not see her as a thief. The crimes may have been committed by Mr. Marcos, many of them said, but through five days of deliberation, they did not believe that any of the evidence struck at Mrs. Marcos.”

It’s possible Imelda’s dramatic appearances in the courtroom during the three-month-long trial—copious crying, the occasional health emergency, the uniform use of the widow’s mourning clothes—led the jurors to think she was incapable of hurting a fly, much less conspiring to commit graft and fraud. She had performed as her counsel Gerry Spence had described her: “a small, fragile widow.” (He, and they, did not know, or care, that in the Philippines she had been known as “the iron butterfly.”)

But the trial established, through Imelda’s own lawyers’ arguments, that “Mrs. Marcos’s lavish buying was part of the culture, including her infamous collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. Her lawyers even explained the testimony about kickbacks and ‘commissions’ that went to President Marcos as a natural component of the Philippine system.” As the Times noted, the thousands of pages of evidence included “bank checks and private letters and cryptic notebooks filled with scribbled dollar ledgers. Their very appearance suggested a shadowy Government run by scheming leaders.” And this from a court case that the Marcoses won!

If Marcos had not fallen ill, he would not have been “severed from the indictment,” as a court document phrased it. By dying, he escaped a guilty verdict, but his death was yet another gift for Imelda, too. Is the question to ask: What good did this most corrupt man do? Or should we ask instead: Who helped him steal all our money, and where’s the rest of it?

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Asian Center for Journalism, BalikKaSaysayAn, Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda Marcos, John Nery, Marcos martial law, Newsstand
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