The Marcoses and the United States

When Ferdinand Marcos Sr. placed the country under martial law in September 1972, the United States government said nothing critical of the blatant cancellation of democracy in their former colony. Marcos Sr. continued to be regarded, throughout martial law, as a trusted friend and ally of the US in this part of the world.

Among other things, the Filipino dictator quickly showed his appreciation for America’s tacit approval of his authoritarian move by assuring American businessmen, who owned lands in the Philippines under the terms of the Laurel-Langley Agreement, that there would be no outright confiscation of their properties after the lapse of the agreement in 1974. (In August 1972, the Supreme Court issued two rulings declaring that American ownership of private agricultural land not only did not extend beyond 1974, but that land acquired between 1946 and 1974 was, in fact, illegal.)

“In this heady atmosphere,” writes the American scholar Stephen Shalom in his meticulously documented book “The United States and the Philippines: A Study of Neocolonialism” (1981), “foreign firms, including American firms, dramatically increased their investments in the Philippines. Foreign banks extended new loans to the Philippine government and helped roll over old debts.”

When Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s namesake and now the Philippines’ new president, arrived in New York last week to address the United Nations General Assembly, he made sure that the highlight of his visit would be a meeting with US President Joe Biden. The message he came to deliver was the same one his father had given to America throughout his stay in office—we are your friend.

It has been 36 years since the embattled and ailing autocrat, facing a peaceful civilian-military uprising in the nation’s capital, turned to his old friend, then President Ronald Reagan, for advice on whether something could be worked out with Cory Aquino. For reasons of his own, Reagan chose not to speak to him directly. Instead, he asked his close friend, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, to call Marcos Sr. Here was Laxalt’s account of that call: “Then he (Marcos Sr.) asked me the gut question ‘Senator, what should I do?’ I wasn’t bound by diplomatic niceties. I said, ‘Cut and cut cleanly. The time has come.’”

Things happened very fast after that call. The US offered to fly the president and his family out of the presidential palace to where they could feel safe. They were first ferried by choppers sent by the US Embassy to Clark Air Base in Pampanga, which was then still under American control. Then, from Clark, a huge US cargo plane flew them out of the country, landing first in Guam, and then in Honolulu, Hawaii, where they lived in exile. Marcos Sr. died there in 1989.

The Marcoses felt that US authorities had treated them shabbily from the moment they set foot in Hawaii. The crates, boxes, suitcases, and assorted bags they brought with them were carefully documented and confiscated by US Customs upon their arrival. Their movements were restricted and monitored—all, it seemed, at the behest of the new government at home.

Their travails did not end with the patriarch’s death. One after the other, cases that had been filed in various US courts against Ferdinand Marcos Sr. required Imelda Marcos to appear before federal jury investigations. Where once she was lionized and feted by American officialdom and celebrities, Imelda found herself caricatured by US media as the living symbol of the profligate half of a brutal and corrupt dictatorship.

Those who expected Marcos Jr. during his six-day visit to the US to express even a small hint of bitterness over those exile years, or to adopt the same anti-US rhetoric that his predecessor routinely spewed, probably misunderstand the whole purpose of the Marcos bid for political redemption. Yes, it is to protect the family’s wealth and privileges. But it is also—and this is perhaps particularly true for the more stoically-inclined Bongbong Marcos—to reclaim for the Marcos name the image of the responsible statesman.

That name has been so overlain by images of unbridled corruption that it has become synonymous everywhere with grand larceny and shameless high-living. That none of the Marcoses ever had to spend even a day in jail has been a blot on our justice system. That our government would allow the former dictator to be buried in a cemetery meant for the nation’s heroes has cast a dark shadow on our sensibility as a nation. But when Marcos Jr. was elected president in May this year, the rest of the world thought we Filipinos had completely lost our minds as a people.

Therefore, what better occasion was there to demonstrate that the Marcos name at least deserved a second look than for the son of the much-maligned dictator to project himself, in the presence of the world’s leaders, as the responsible representative of a worthy nation? Whatever resentment he might have harbored against America when, as exiles, they felt more like prisoners than guests, completely vanished as President Marcos Jr. reiterated the traditional Filipino politician’s abiding faith in America.

“We are your partners, we are your allies, we are your friends. And in like fashion, we have always considered the United States our partner, our ally, and our friend,” Marcos Jr. effusively told President Joe Biden. Visibly pleased by his Filipino visitor’s earnest manifestation of loyalty, Biden could only say: “That’s beautiful.”