The Marcos years: Not gold, but dust
The Cambridge online dictionary defines kleptocracy as “a state of unrestrained political corruption, literally meaning rule by thieves.”
The world is replete with cases of kleptocracy as defined by Cambridge. In the Philippines, one case cited by historians is the more than 20-year reign of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family.
Some say it started when Marcos was elected president in 1965. Others say it was when he declared martial law 49 years ago in 1972.
Whichever was the reckoning point, martial law did happen and brought lasting lessons, one of them that law of physics — for every action, there is an equal reaction.
In the case of Marcos’ reign of abuse and plunder, the reaction took more than 20 years to come, but come it did. In 1986, the dictator and his family were driven into exile to Hawaii. Reports documented crates and crates of valuables, including hundreds of millions of pesos worth of pieces of jewelry, that the family hauled along with them.
Nearly half a century later, however, social media would provide a platform for the Marcos family to try to rewrite history — their version of the years they ruled the nation and the catastrophic imprint that period left on an entire people.
Thousands were killed, disappeared, tortured, imprisoned without charge when they became threats to the family’s reign. Meanwhile, those who helped hold the gilded posts that kept the family in power for more than 20 years were rewarded.
They’re still around today — the Marcos family, the victims of abuse, and some of those who got rewarded. The family is unsurprisingly back in mainstream politics and is aiming for its highest prize — reclaiming the seat of power.
But what of the millions who broke their silence only in 1986, what of the millions who barely survived utter poverty while the most powerful family at the time broke records in terms of plunder and thievery?
Some are gifted with the gall to hail martial law as the Philippines’ “golden years,” or to declare the dead dictator as an idol in leadership.
So let’s take a look at the economy and people’s living conditions during those times.
A summary of a country study now on file at the US Library of Congress said the Philippines “found itself in an economic crisis in early 1970 in large part as the consequence of the profligate spending of government funds by President Marcos in his reelection bid.”
In 1970, said the study, the Marcos administration failed to meet payments on $2.3 billion in foreign debt and negotiated a $27.5 million standby credit deal with the International Monetary Fund, which required renegotiating Philippine external debt and devaluing the Philippine peso.
In 1983, real gross national product, or the amount of goods and services in a given year, fell by more than 11 percent, and GNP per capita fell 17 percent.
Multiple reports said the poverty rate in 1971, the year before martial law was declared, had reached 52 percent, or more than a majority of Filipinos.
According to a report by NewsLab, inflation, or the rate of increase in the prices of goods, during the Marcos years, were: 8.4 percent from 1965 to 1971; 16.5 percent in 1973; 34.2 percent in 1974; 6.8 percent in 1975; 9.2 percent in 1976; 9.9 percent in 1977; 7.3 percent in 1978; 12.6 percent in 1980; 12.4 percent in 1981; 10.4 percent in 1982; 10 percent in 1983; 50.3 percent in 1984; 24 percent in 1985.
Per an Ibon report, meanwhile, unemployment was in the double digits for much of the 1981-1985 period—11 percent on average and a peak of 12.6 percent in 1985.
By the end of the Marcos years, at least six in 10 Filipinos were poor, said the Martial Law Museum in its website.
Farmers’ wages had also fallen in value by at least 36 percent by the time the Marcos dictatorship collapsed, while wages of skilled and unskilled workers fell in value by 21 to 35 percent.
Contrast those figures with numbers detailing how much was stolen from the nation during the Marcos years.
In 2017, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, formed when the late Corazon Aquino became president after the 1986 People Power Revolution, said it had recovered at least P171 billion in wealth stolen from the nation’s coffers by the Marcoses.
US reports said that in 1985, then US Ambassador to the Philippines Stephen Bosworth told the US Congress that the Marcoses had stolen an estimated total of $10 billion.
On Sept. 10, 2017, 11 days before the nation recalled the 45th anniversary of martial law, President Duterte spoke in Batac, the Marcoses’ bailiwick in Ilocos Norte. “Hogwash,” he said, in reference to documented reports about abuses under the Marcos dictatorship. Around a year earlier, Mr. Duterte had allowed the burial of the dictator’s remains in Libingan ng Mga Bayani, a graveyard for soldiers and heroes who gave up their lives in service to the nation.
As social media runs rampant today with tales about the brilliance of Marcos, one is reminded of how other tyrants fell in circumstances that matched the brutality and cruelty with which they ruled their subjects.
The Romanov family believed they could rule Russia forever, until people too brutalized and abused gained power and had the entire family shot and killed.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci tried to escape to Spain in the waning days of World War II, but they were stopped by partisans, taken captive, and executed.
Or, take the case of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena: They tried to escape an angry mob during the collapse of their abusive rule but were eventually captured, tried, sentenced to death for genocide and corruption, and executed shortly after.
That the Marcoses were spared a similar fate doesn’t change the outcome of their more than 20-year rule — collapse. But that they’re back and have settled their sights on regaining power speaks of failure — of memory and rage — on our part.
Tyrannies, according to Mahatma Gandhi, always end: “There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.”
No amount of revisionism or lies can change that.
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Tony Bergonia is a former Inquirer desk editor and reporter.
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