Imelda’s Still Imelda, 20 Years Later

Sunday’s Japan Times carries an exclusive profile by David McNeill of Imelda Marcos, who seems to have changed very little since she and her husband were ousted from power twenty years ago.

By the time the brilliant ex-lawyer and his beauty-queen wife boarded a U.S. helicopter on Feb. 25, 1986, they had become synonymous with the corruption and cronyism that made the Philippines one of the poorest nations on the planet. To his eternal credit, Marcos ordered his army not to fire on Manila crowds before he left, but then he expected to be back within days. Instead, he was to die in Hawaii three years later, leaving Imelda to carry on the Marcos legacy.

Today, astonishingly, Imelda is back in Manila and again a force in Philippine politics. Many believe the beautiful young country girl who caught the eye of the ambitious Marcos and helped him win a million votes in 1965 was the real power behind the throne by the end of their reign, when Ferdinand was desperately ill. Her political survival “makes a mockery” of the 1986 revolution, according to one of her biographers.

Now living on the 34th-floor suite in one of Manila’s most exclusive apartment blocks, the former first lady seldom gives interviews because she is invariably skewered by incredulous journalists when she brandishes her innocence and new poverty. She was, after all, once one of the 10 richest women in the world….

When Ferdinand died in 1989, aged 72, Imelda had to fight U.S. federal grand jury charges alone: principally that the couple stole over $200 million from the Philippine treasury and spent it on a real-estate spree in New York. After enjoying the backing of five U.S. presidents, and the close friendship of Ronald and Nancy Reagan (with whom she shared an interest in astrology), the shock of America turning on her was profound.

“They did this to me when I was alone, widowed and orphaned,” she says, on the verge of tears. “Even the Bible says there are special places reserved in hell for those who persecute widows and orphans. And it was not individuals who did me in, it was governments and superpowers.”

Though acquitted, few expected Imelda to survive the humiliation of being ditched by the White House, lampooned in the media and chased across the world by prosecutors who accused the pair of plundering the Philippines of $ 10 billion or more. But showing the irrepressible energy and brazenness that made her a legendary force in Philippine politics, Imelda bounced back, returned to Manila in 1992 and won a senator’s seat in 1995 after a failed bid for the presidency.

Today, she is again the matriarch of a minor political dynasty. Her son, Ferdinand Jr., is governor of Ilocos Norte Province in the north of the country, where daughter Imee is a congresswoman. Her nephew, Alfred Romualdez, sits in the congressional seat she vacated, and her brother is mayor of Tacloban City. She has been acquitted several times on domestic charges of corruption and extortion and, of the 901 separate cases she claims were filed against her family, she is now down to the last three. Considering her regime was recently ranked as the second-most corrupt (after Suharto’s Indonesia) of the late-20th century, it is not a bad end to a life. “I am still standing up at 76, fighting superpowers.”…

It is not difficult at times like this to imagine the young, naive, fun-loving Visayas beauty dazzled by the ambitious senator Ferdinand Marcos and the jet-set life he promised; much harder to put this tearful, almost childish woman together with the picture painted of her in many biographies. Did she really offer her archrival Benigno Aquino $1 million to stay in U.S. exile, then order his 1983 assassination in broad daylight and in front of the world’s press when he returned? Would the money she and her husband embezzled really, as many say, pay off the Philippines foreign debt?

And the biggest mystery of all: why have the people who threw her out accepted her back?

“Some people look at the chaos now and think things were probably better then under Marcos,” says taxi driver Mike Avila. “He was strong and kept people in line. Things don’t seem to have improved much since they left.”

An interesting profile, despite the always irritating deus ex imagina taxi-driver quote at the end.

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