The Marcos half-century (Manila Times Walking History Column)

by xiaochua

By Michael Charleston “Xiao” Chua

February 27, 2021 and March 6, 2021

Part 1:

I WAS recently reading The Kennedy Half Century, where Larry J. Sabato not only provided fresh details about President John F. Kennedy’s life and death but also convincingly demonstrated how subsequent White House occupants were influenced by his decisions and rhetoric. It was not a general statement that Kennedy was the end-all and be-all of history, nor discrediting the fact that the people are the true makers of history; but just like how some historians call 1974-2008 as The Reagan Era, it was just a recognition that a personality in history looms large and had impacted many aspects of that era.

And so, I was thinking who could be the personality that loomed large in the past 50 years in the political, economic and cultural life of the nation. I only have one man in mind and that is Ferdinand E. Marcos.

In a forum titled “Ferdinand Marcos” organized by Sociedad de Historia on Oct. 14, 2016, at the height of the issue of the Marcos burial, I had a candid discussion with The Manila Times columnist Van Ybiernas. Despite having seemingly different points of view, we had one conclusion, which he worded beautifully: “Ferdinand Marcos is the continuously running train that everyone wanted to ride on.”

I guess he deemed it so. Of all the presidents of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was the most conscious of history, having been a history buff himself. Sixteen years before he was elected president in 1965, he asked his constituents in Ilocos Norte, “Elect me a congressman now, and I pledge you an Ilocano president in 20 years.” Having been elected at a relatively young age of 48 at a time when many neighboring countries had strongmen at the helm, he vowed in his inaugural address, “This nation can be great again” (not exactly “I will make this nation great again,” which others recalled although that was implied). He did not want to be just another inconsequential president.

Much has been written about those 20 years of his rule so we will not dwell on that. But let us examine how Marcos affected the past 50 years. By prolonging his rule, he affected deeply our institutions for better and for worse that even People Power failed to erase. The administration sure made great strides in infrastructure, network of roads and electrification that were desperately needed by a young nation. Many of the train lines being built and will be built in the metro were already planned by them. Their example of technocratic planning, getting the best minds to work for them, is still an indicator of good governance. Their support for projects on history, heritage and identity building is commendable in comparison to others having none. The Metropolitan Manila Commission headed by Imelda Marcos had a more efficient system than the present Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.

But lawyer Chel Diokno reminded us that with the proclamation of martial law, judges were asked to submit courtesy resignations that were just kept until one makes an unfavorable decision, in which case the resignation would be accepted. This made the justices beholden to the administration. No doubt, many people in the justice system are honorable, but we sure all admit that the “padrino” system is still in place. Cronyism, a term coined during the Marcos regime, a term for favored business friends, continued — problems that, in all fairness to the Marcoses, were already there, but which the regime institutionalized by the mere fact of its longevity. Add the long-term effects to the nation of their foreign debt, and the plunder by their family and cronies that was unaccounted for despite legal attempts to do so, which emboldened all the others to do the same.

Despite seeing the value of the spirit of EDSA People Power Revolution, I have to admit that without Marcos to oust there would have been no EDSA. And just like veterans passionately reminding people how they fought the war against the Japanese, some personalities made being part of People Power or being part of the struggle against the dictatorship a badge and used it for political advantage. Thus, the spirit of EDSA, instead of being a historical event, became open to desecration by their opponents. Even the Marcos family cannot escape it. Bongbong Marcos wanted to run on his own merits with “Hindi ako ang aking nakaraan, ako ang ating bukas,” but he had to eventually embrace and defend his father’s achievements because everywhere he went, he was hounded by the ghost of the atrocities of the Marcos regime.

The excesses of the regime wiped out the young idealists of an era who should have been our leaders today. Many of those that remained were either corrupted or traumatized. One feels sorry that they must relive their trauma again for fear that history is being revised and gets trolled in the process. Theirs is an unending suffering.

To be concluded next week, March 6

Part 2:

LAST week, I posited the argument that the past 50 years or so is what you can call “the Marcos half-century,” since Ferdinand Marcos loomed large in the political, economic and cultural life of our nation, a shadow we thought we had escaped but is a ghost that continues to haunt us.

Ninoy Aquino would have been the other consequential leader of the half-century. I remember the great journalist Teodoro Benigno once said Marcos and Ninoy were “the two leaders who knew the Filipino heart and the Filipino soul very, very well.” But before Ninoy could carve his own niche, he became the sacrificial martyr of the Marcos regime in 1983. His funeral, bigger than that of the Father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, turned him into a national hero by public acclamation.

His brave act inspired many, including the middle class, to fight for the restoration of democracy, which eventually led to the peaceful EDSA revolt of 1986. For me, the real People Power Revolution was the long and bloody struggle in which the EDSA revolt was only the climax. As comrades in the Left always say, it was no picnic. But even so, the peaceful four-day revolt where we showed the world on satellite TV our “pakikipagkapwa-tao” inspired others to peacefully change their own country the same way as shown to the many references to People Power during that time.

People Power would have been the perfect ending for our history books (as the Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People volumes did in 1998 and more recently Vibal’s Unraveling the Past). It restored the democratic institutions and spaces, the free press, the decentralization of the government to the local government units or LGUs, the rise of volunteerism and civil society, interfaith dialogue and the development of the internet in the country. I would have loved to end my version of history that way but unfortunately, the story of our nation must continue with the controversies and coups that rocked the administration of Ninoy’s widow, Cory Aquino. People knew she had shortcomings, but they also felt she tried her best as president and remained popular, even as she peacefully transferred power to Fidel V. Ramos after the first post- EDSA presidential election.

General Ramos was a decorated military hero who, although an implementer of martial law, decided to break away from Marcos during the People Power uprising and became an EDSA hero. He ran with the blessing of the People Power President and under a party he called “Lakas Tao” (People Power). And because he was a plurality president, he wanted to make all people happy and built coalitions even with foes. He allowed the return of Marcos’ remains to the country in 1993.

Being conscious of history like his second cousin, Marcos, Ramos led the nation in celebrating the Philippine Centennial in 1998. It would have been another perfect bookend, his steady leadership made us a tiger “cub” economy (interrupted only by the 1997 Asian financial crisis). In the inauguration of Joseph Ejercito Estrada as the next president, you would see Imee Marcos and Butz Aquino sitting together in peace. Yet before this, he said he wanted bygones to be bygones and announced that he would allow the burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, but this was met with opposition and foiled.

When it seemed that Ramos wanted charter change to extend his term, or when Estrada inspired an ad boycott by his movie producer friends to weaken the Inquirer, or when finally, juentengate exploded, Cory Aquino, Cardinal Sin and the People Power civil society rose up. People Power 2, or EDSA Dos, happened and ousted Estrada in 2001, but his supporters answered with EDSA Tres just three months after. The decisive President Gloria Arroyo promised in her second inaugural in 2004 that she would be a president of both the Filipinos of EDSA Dos and EDSA Tres, but allegations of corruption and election fraud led to Cory breaking away from her and calling for her resignation. Cory’s death in 2009 recalled People Power and pitted her memory against Arroyo which led to her son Noynoy rising to the presidency under the mantle of People Power heroes. But the pent-up frustrations of post-EDSA problems led to many people invoking the ghost of Marcos and the infrastructures he built and the supposedly ideal peace and order situation during his regime. Which led to Marcos being once again the center of passionate conversations. The yearning for strongman rule gave way to the rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency. Marcos is once again in the center of the passions of the Filipino people. Has the People Power era ended?

Angela Stuart Santiago once wrote in beautiful Tagalog, “Sa kahulihan, ang kuwento ng EDSA ay sukdulang yugto ng tagisan nina Marcos at Ninoy na hindi naawat, bagkos ay pinag-ibayo, ng rehimeng militar.” And so is the story of the nation until today.