Even if now Filipinos alive today don’t remember what those days were like – half of the country’s population was under 8 years old when the Marcos parents were ousted – I certainly do. They were days of wine and roses and an all but unprecedented kleptocracy – many of Imelda’s infamous collection of 3,000 shoes, reportedly now sit in a Manila museum.
Stories of the Marcos family extravagance and corruption are legendary, and as a former reporter in the region I have my fair share. In October 1976, the IMF / World Bank held its annual meeting in Manila. To prepare, the Marcos’s engineered an all but unprecedented building boom – 14 new international-class hotels in barely as many months. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 700-room Plaza Hotel, 2,000 guests were treated to tables groaning under hors d’oeuvres.
Friends and relatives of the family were in on ownership of these hotels, now built with government capital that was not going to the priorities of the Philippines’ now desperately impoverished.
Meanwhile the Philippines had been awarded a World Bank grant to rebuild parts of Manila’s nearby Tondo slum, one of the worst in Asia. These funds had disappeared – and Robert McNamara, former US Defense Secretary and then-head of the World Bank was coming to town.
Imelda, governor of metro Manila, simply ordered the slum demolished and paved over, with 60 families carted to some vacant land 20 miles outside the capital, where they’d been dumped in a large field.
Through it all, Bongbong had a pampered and gilded upbringing. Imelda – now 92 – still supports her son’s ambitions unswervingly, though lately quietly. Dindo Manhit, CEO of the Stratbase ADR Institute, a leading political think tank in the Philippines, told me that Imelda has “disappeared from the public.”
How is another Marcos even possible in this democracy that the Philippines has struggled to maintain, even back 40 years ago when I first began reporting on its politics as the South East Asia bureau chief for the New York Times. The nation was formed in 1946 after independence from the United States which had freed it from brutal Japanese rule during the Second World War.
This time, at least, Bongbong and his crew seem to be taking some pages straight out of Donald Trump’s MAGA playbook. “It’s the rise of social media,” Manhit told me during our telephone conversation from Manila. “In the Philippines, the second source of information – after television, more than any broadsheet newspaper, more than radio – is Facebook and YouTube,” they said.
“It’s one-way propaganda,” Manhit added, and whenever any media tries to paint Bongbong’s comments as outlandish, his supporters simply label this “fake news.” Sound familiar?
That the venal and violent years of Bongbong’s parents reign were anything but halcyon times filled with prosperity and the law and order is simply shouted down as false.
Bongbong has attempted to ensure that his family – which under parents Ferdinand and Imelda held sway for 21 brutal and corrupt years from 1965 through 1986 – will now return to power by tying himself closely to the still much-admired Duterte, tapping the president’s daughter Sarah as his vice presidential running mate.
Some critical questions remain. How much of this tilt away from China is for the show? But above all, would the Biden administration tolerate the same level of Marcos-like abuses or excesses as a succession of American presidents did during the two decades his parents were in power and that stretched through the Vietnam War era?
This allowed the US to maintain a major air base at Clark Field in the Philippines, where I covered the arrival of thousands of evacuees in the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975, and a naval facility at Subic Bay. American oversight of both facilities ended after the end of Marcos rule.