The morning edition of The New York Times that appeared on February 26, 1986 was filled with gripping news of the fall of President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Late the previous night, after hours of tense uncertainty – Marcos had reportedly begged and pleaded to be allowed to stay on – four US Air Force helicopters ignominiously plucked the dictator, his family, and an entourage of 60 people from Malacañang Palace and whisked them out of the country.
The report recounted the humiliation: “The people no longer wanted him and he settled for escaping in the darkness.” The newspaper published an accompanying photograph that showed euphoric crowds thronging the presidential palace celebrating his departure.
Similar stories were carried by a host of other newspapers on the same day. The Washington Post told of Marcos’ deluded and desperate long-distance telephone conversation with Senator Paul Laxalt, who advised him to “cut and cut cleanly,” and printed photographs that vividly captured the scenes on the ground: thousands of people massing at the Palace and throwing stones, and a painted portrait of Imelda, which had just been taken from the Palace, being hacked and set on fire by an angry and gleeful avenging mob.
But while people were rioting on the streets, the family had the last laugh. They had slipped off with the loot. Customs officials inventoried the cargo carried by the planes that went with the Marcoses to exile in Hawaii. The family had managed to pack 300 crates filled with millions upon millions of dollars worth of precious jewelry “from gold to diamonds to emeralds to rubies to pearls” and enough Rolex watches to “stock a department store,” priceless antique religious objects, and bundles and bundles of cash. Those planes were like fabulous treasure ships.
In the months that followed, investigators picked through what the family had hastily left behind, and pored over the thousands of pages of documents that were found scattered around the Palace – steno-pads with lists of expenses, bank deposit slips, shop bills and receipts, stock certificates and lists of shares that revealed the extent of the Marcoses’ thievery and avarice.
In 1987 Belinda A. Aquino, former faculty member of the University of the Philippines’ College of Public Administration, published the damning evidence in her book Politics of Plunder: the Philippines under Marcos. Her “sampling” of the findings thus far, included multimillion Swiss bank accounts, deposits to US and Cayman Islands banks and other offshore accounts, networks of dummy corporations, purchases made by Imelda Marcos of jewelry and paintings, including a Michelangelo, and details of prime real estate holdings in New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Madrid, Rome, London, Switzerland and Austria.
The Presidential Commission on Good Government under Senator Jovito Salonga compiled an extraordinary list of sequestered assets that had been arranged by Marcos’ major cronies. Many familiar names are there, among them several Romualdezes, Imelda’s kin, the tycoon Lucio Tan, Eduardo Cojuangco, and a member of the Tantoco family, owners of the high-end Rustan’s department store chain. The San Jose Mercury News, a California newspaper, published details of the US real estate holdings of Marcos and his top cronies, including Juan Ponce Enrile, Roberto S. Benedicto and Antonio O. Floirendo. The exposè won the newspaper a Pulitzer in 1986.
Although stripped of power, disgraced, derided and vilified, the Marcoses had become blindingly, unbelievably rich by pillaging the country. The same is true of their closest relatives and cronies who aided and abetted them and got their share. In 1986 this fact was indisputable. The entire country knew it. The world knew it.
The exoneration of the Marcoses and their cronies required the alchemy of time, untold wealth, the protective, fraternal embrace of an oligarchical society, and a nation still stuck in the quicksand of poverty and inequality. So the twist to this famous story is that nobody seems to be sure of anything anymore.
Imelda Marcos and her children have staged a startling comeback. BongBong Marcos was able to wage a massive multimillion peso campaign for the vice presidency and continues to contest his defeat, as well as generously show his thanks to his political supporters. In a few weeks from now, his late father, the once reviled dictator, will be buried in the national cemetery reserved for heroes. The President we’ve just elected exhorts us to believe that the burial is an act of healing and unity.
The biggest reward however, lies in the future. In a couple of months, the dictator’s grandson, Ferdinand Alexander ‘Sandro’ Marcos, will start his graduate studies at the London School of Economics. The tuition fees will be almost a million pesos, and a minimum of half a million pesos living allowance in London. He might live in leafy Bloomsbury where rents for a modest one-bedroom flat can be P120,000 a month. Much more likely, he will live in one of the family’s own London houses, perhaps in Kensington, where apartments are priced at hundreds of millions of pesos.
Like his father, young Sandro, the newest and brightest star of the Marcos dynasty, will not be blamed for crimes committed by the elders. He, probably most of all, could not care less about what happened in the past, nor where the money that is being lavished on him has come from. He’s been raised to believe in his own entitlements.
Given that the Marcos family reportedly has $10 billion of loot still stashed away, these sorts of expenses – a patriarch’s elaborate funeral, an elite college education in one of the most expensive cities in the world, are just small change for the Marcoses.
For this family, there is simply no time quite like the present.