TWENTY YEARS since fleeing the country in disgrace, Imelda Marcos — the glittering, partying, mesmerizing half of what has been called a conjugal dictatorship — still loves to go shopping. But alas, no longer at Tiffany’s. With dozens of pending court cases, her foreign trips have been severely curtailed. Park Avenue will have to wait, as Imelda now goes where the Pinoy hoi polloi congregate, roughing it up in all her finery (pouf hairdo, outsized jewelry, and of course the shoes, the fabulous shoes) in such down-market places as 168 Mall in Binondo and Market!Market! in Fort Bonifacio.
“One of my big joys of going to 168, Market! Market!, the sari-sari store, or the flea market is because it makes me happy to see people, it enriches me,” she says giddily, like a little girl. “I feel so good being so accepted by them and hugged by them and kissed by them. And everybody wants to have a picture. I’m so complimented…When I go shopping I’m not really shopping for things, I’m really shopping for love.”
Even today no one says it like Imelda. No one does it like Imelda. Whatever we may think of her, she is an original. No one like her had appeared on our stage before, and no one has upstaged her since. Although the signs of age and wear are there — she is, after all, 76 years old — she is still quotable, still fabulous, still so out of this world.
Until now, no one can propel us to the heights of hyper-reality as Imelda can. No one else can be so reviled as a symbol of extravagance and excess, while also remaining so appealing. For deep in the Pinoy soul is a sensibility as baroque as Imelda’s (just look at the jeepney), a flair for drama as flamboyant, and a craving for acceptance as desperate as hers.
This is why, even though we know all about her and she is more caricature than real, she remains an irresistible spectacle, a natural crowd drawer. She is still a star. Take it from her: “I try to be a star only because I want to be a light in the dark of the night, to give people hope and to give them the faith that if you can think it, you can make it, if you can dream it, it can be real. That’s my life.”
Indeed it is. One reason for Imelda’s enduring appeal is that she is Cinderella. We are suckers for rags-to-riches stories, for escapist fairy tales that help us deal with harsh reality. The orphan Imelda grew up in a garage and became the stunningly beautiful young woman who landed in Manila with only P5 in her wallet. Snubbed by the Manila elite, she bagged the country’s most eligible bachelor, rising to become, before the fall of the House of Marcos, the most powerful woman in the country and one of the richest in the world.
In her prime, she rubbed elbows with Mao Zedong, Andrei Gromyko, and Muammar Khaddafy. The Reagans were close friends, as were assorted monarchs, movie stars, and millionaires. She shopped, she partied, she built. Her edifice complex was as legendary as her buying sprees. She also dazzled. She organized beauty contests, film festivals, and cultural pageants. She may have kept us poor, but also vastly entertained. She knew, long before the likes of Joseph Estrada and Ramon Revilla ended up in high public office, that politics is as much about entertainment and illusion as it is about money and power.
In 2004, Transparency International gave the Marcoses the distinction of being the second most corrupt leaders in the world in the past 20 years, next only to the Soehartos of Indonesia. The Marcos personal fortune was estimated to be between $5 billion to $10 billion. Critics say the Marcos kleptocracy robbed Filipinos blind and kept them in the dark by muzzling the press and clamping down on dissenters.
Yet despite the ignominy of their fall, the Marcoses today are not pariahs. She may have lost her half-serious bids for the presidency in 1992 and 1998, but Imelda was elected Leyte representative in 1995. Her daughter Imee is on her third term in Congress and son Ferdinand Jr. or Bong-bong is Ilocos Norte governor.
They are also hardly paupers, even if they lost a $600-million account in a Swiss bank in a lawsuit in the United States, and the government has confiscated some of their properties, including buildings in New York. Imelda herself continues to live in style, ensconced in an Ayala Avenue penthouse packed with mementoes of her past life and overflowing with the opulence and tackiness she loves. She still parties, attends concerts, and turns heads when she walks regally, guiltlessly, into a hotel lobby.
Much more than fairy tale, the life and times of Imelda Marcos is as much a fable on the capriciousness of human destiny as it is the sad story of how Filipinos have failed so dismally to bring to justice those who had so wronged them.
OF COURSE Imelda doesn’t see it that way. She believes it is she who has been wronged. “Edsa,” she says, “was really the .ght against Marcos of the feudal lords, the oligarchs, the clerico-fascists, and the neocolonialists.” Washington, she says, was not pleased with Marcos, who reduced the tenure of its bases in the Philippines to 25 years. The rich wanted him out, too, because he implemented land reform and limited their privileges. “It was not the poor” who wanted Marcos out, insists Imelda, but more privileged Filipinos who were taken in by unfair media reports.
“They hired 16 top PR firms of the world f5rst to promote Cory and destroy the Marcoses,” she says. “They did a good job of it because the media is more powerful than the gun. The gun can kill you only up to your grave but the media can kill you beyond the grave unto in.nity.”
Yet for Imelda, eternally the positive thinker, Marcos’s fall was also his greatest triumph. “For me, the greatest moment of Marcos was Edsa,” she says. “This powerful man with all his power, he did not use that power to kill…The fault of Marcos was he loved his country so much.”
For sure there has been more than some editing of history here — as indeed in much of what Imelda remembers. Marcos didn’t kill only because the soldiers manning the tanks and the pilots flying the helicopter gunships over the military camps refused to fire at the Edsa crowd.
Despite her selective memory, the events of February 1986 and the painful period that followed remain deeply etched in Imelda’s mind. “My most vivid memories of those days and the days and the years after,” she says, “I never could imagine that our own government, even our allies, friends, and foes, could be so cruel and inhuman.”
“I asked Marcos,” she continues, delivering this practiced monologue with great feeling, even if the lines seem to have been snitched from a bad play. “I said, ‘Ferdinand you are a brilliant man, you are a man of vision and foresight, did you not foresee this?’ He said, ‘Imelda, man can only foresee so far and prepare so far. Beyond that is divine will and destiny. Never argue with destiny. Just be on top of it.’
“But then I said, ‘Ferdinand, we are facing the mightiest sword of justice of the most powerful country in the world. We were in Hawaii, in exile, what chance do we have? We were penniless, countryless. What chance do we have?’ He said, ‘Imelda, fear not. All our lives we’re committed to the side of the right. Like the sun will rise tomorrow, the truth will set us free. And if you are on the side of right, God is on the side of the right, and if God is on your side, who can be against you?
“‘But Ferdinand we have so many cases against us.’ And he said, “Fear not, Imelda, exaggeration is a form of falsification.’ ‘But Ferdinand,’ I said, ‘one case alone has 350,000 documents, 100 witnesses, and America spent $60 million against me.’ He said, ‘Fear not, Imelda. Truth is like a diamond. The more you chop it, the more brilliant it will become.’ How true, how true. Truth is like a diamond. The more you chop it, the more brilliant it will become.”
TWENTY YEARS after Edsa, Imelda is still the country’s foremost drama queen. Her voice breaks and tears well up in her eyes when she remembers her husband, whose corpse remains unburied in a mausoleum in his hometown of Batac, Ilocos Norte since his death in Honolulu in 1989. Imelda has refused to inter him until he is given a hero’s burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. So he lies in state still, waxed and preserved like one of the figures at Madame Tussaud’s.
“He is so visited,” gushes Imelda. “When he was alive, he was not as visited as now that he is dead. There are thousands there visiting him. And he is so nicely placed there, like sleeping only. In fact no less than a friend of his, (sugar baron Roberto) Benedicto, said to me, ‘Mrs. Marcos, you have so many projects, but this is the best of all.’”
Ferdinand Marcos’s passing saved him the indignity of undergoing trial in New York for mail fraud, fraudulent misappropriation of property, and obstruction of justice. Instead, the newly widowed Imelda had to face the bar of justice alone in March 1990. With an expensive and colorful American lawyer arguing her defense and the support of high-society friends like tobacco heiress Doris Duke, Imelda stood trial with as much histrionics as she could muster.
She was acquitted in July 1990, largely because there was no evidence linking her directly to the charges (there was evidence against Ferdinand, but he was dead and he took the brunt of the blame). The following year, a triumphant Imelda returned to the Philippines and in 1992 made an audacious try for the presidency. Only six years after their fall, the rehabilitation of the Marcoses was well underway.
They were not alone. The cases filed against Marcos cronies have either been dismissed or snowed under by years of half-hearted litigation. The governments that came after Marcos showed a lack of will and resolve to prosecute the ousted president and his associates; some of those tasked with chasing after ill-gotten wealth have themselves even been accused of corruption.
Over the years, most of the cronies who had followed the Marcoses in exile also returned to the Philippines. Some, like Benedicto and Davao banana magnate Antonio Floirendo, entered into compromise agreements with the Aquino government. Others like coconut and beer tycoon Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr. are still contesting their ownership of shares in companies. Cojuangco himself is back at the helm of the prized San Miguel Corp. despite pending lawsuits.
And as if to further demonstrate that history runs in circles, the $600 million from the Marcos account in a Swiss bank that had been turned over to the government in 2003 appears to have again been stolen. Last year, farmers’ groups accused the Arroyo government of using funds recovered from the Swiss account to bankroll the current president’s 2004 campaign.
In 1994, a Hawaii court did find Marcos responsible for the executions, disappearances, and torture during his regime, and awarded $2 billion in damages to surviving victims of such human-rights abuses. The victims later agreed to a $150-million settlement but the case remains tied up in litigation, this time with the Philippine government, which is asserting its primary right to the Marcos wealth. Meanwhile, despite the barrage of lawsuits, Imelda has not had a conviction affirmed by the Philippine Supreme Court.
There is therefore reason for her to feel vindicated and to think she can still do something grand for Filipinos, like opening a deuterium mine to solve all our energy problems or building a tunnel that will link the Pacific Ocean to the China Sea. She knows she still holds powerful sway not only on the imagination of Filipinos, but of others as well. Later this year, British DJ Fatboy Slim and Talking Heads singer David Byrne will open a new musical (yet another) on Imelda.
“I don’t know if (Filipinos) love me,” she says, “but they surely do not hate me.”
And her husband? “Marcos,” she says with certainty, “is now being more and more missed.” — Sheila S. Coronel