Selfie with Imelda vs Life in the Marcos Era: A Reaction to Ateneo’s Choice of Speakers
Many people have been reacting to Ateneo de Manila University inviting Ilocos Norte representative Imelda Marcos to its scholarship foundation’s event. The most notorious photo that many, including Ateneo alumni, were questioning was one showing Imelda Marcos doing the “V” for victory hand gesture with some students as seen below.
For those too young to understand, for the Ateneo, for others who may have forgotten, and for everyone else, here’s some information about how it was living in the Marcos era:
Learning the Lessons of the Marcos Era
I won’t ever forget that day. People were jam-packed in the streets in the small hours before dawn, dancing ecstatically and hugging each other, faces gleaming in triumphant glee. It was the same scene in Metro Manila, Cebu, and all over the archipelago. I had never seen anything as spontaneously jubilant as that in my young life; nor since. It was on that fateful 26th of February 1986 when Filipinos were at last rid of the Marcos conjugal dictatorship. The revolution was aptly called People Power, because it was a popular uprising that evicted Ferdinand Marcos and his ilk out of Malacañang Palace after 20 long years.
People rejoiced all until morning that day and the feeling of solidarity among freedom-loving Filipinos was palpable. After decades of suppression and despotism, civil rights were finally restored, and the way forward was opened up once more. Or so we naively thought.
The Philippines today is far from achieving its developmental goals, far from being a nation of prosperous, upwardly mobile citizens. One reason for this is our lack of historical insight, which could doom us to repeat past mistakes.
When Marcos and his wife Imelda were still in power, freedom of speech was a mere wish. Thousands of activists and reactionaries disappeared, and some surfaced… or rather, floated face down on the surface of some river. During the mid-’80s in Davao City, where I grew up, seeing the lifeless body of a victim of summary execution was not uncommon.
We poke fun at our president now, we even interrupt his speeches, but what do you think happened to those who spoke out against Marcos back then?
I remember my parents asking me to be cautious back in high school after I’d become rather inquisitive about Marcos-related issues. I was an aspiring student journalist, titillated by the power of the written word and inspired by the principle of press freedom. But alas! I soon realized that much of the press was all too cowed by fear. After all, a dictatorship wouldn’t be worth its salt without a trail of silenced journalists and assassinated rival politicians.
Politically-motivated arrests and executions were reported in the media, yes. Some were even given more airtime or column space than usual, such as the case of vocal Martial Law critic, Zamboanga City Mayor Cesar Climaco, who was gunned down in 1984. What felt odd though was the public was being apprised not of the merits of the case, but of the ubiquitous and controlling presence of the Marcos regime, almost like a warning.
The erstwhile republic was under Martial Law from 1972 to 1981. Marcos imposed autocratic rule and trashed the 1935 Charter in order to cling to power beyond his two terms. He wrote his own constitution and had it ratified by a rubber-stamp congress. All that with the blessings of the United States of America. You see, Marcos promised the U.S. he would keep communism from gaining ground in this country. It being the Cold War era, Washington was only too happy to indulge the banana republic tyrant (and even aided his escape to Hawaii in 1986, family and loot in tow).
The National Democratic Front, the ideological base of the much-maligned New People’s Army, sprung forth as a result of Marcos totalitarianism. Otherwise known as the Communist Party of the Philippines, the NDF was peopled by idealistic nationalists who had a repugnance for absolute rule and the oligarchy that Marcos and his cronies perpetrated. (I’m not trying to justify NPA rebels, who today are nothing but rabid bandits, not even a shadow of their more principled predecessors.) Intellectuals like Edgar Jopson, tortured and martyred by the military in 1982, were driven underground not because they were rebels as we define them today, but because they were patriots consumed by a passion to see this nation unshackled by a cruel dictatorship.
To date, 9,539 survivors and relatives of Marcos’ victims have won a class-action suit against the dictator; yet, not one of the Marcoses has actually been made to answer for their crimes. It seems that they are ensconced in a fortress of impunity.
Corruption flourished and was institutionalized under Marcos’ watchful gaze. Power players who were close to Malacañang seized control of businesses, land, natural resources, and carved geo-political niches for themselves. (How do you think political dynasties across the nation took root?) And in stark contrast, poverty descended upon an ever-growing chunk of the population during the Marcos era.
Marcos apologists delight in proclaiming that the Philippines was of a stronger economical and global stature during their Ilokano idol’s rule. What they fail to mention is their lack of historical fact-checking. When Marcos assumed the top post, he inherited a presidency over a country that was on the up and up. I would frequently hear from my grandfather that our economy back then was second only to Japan. My father would tell me that, in his college days, the peso’s exchange rate against the American dollar was around 4:1. I remember, too, that “Made in Taiwan” in my childhood days was synonymous to how we currently perceive CDR-King crapware. (Today, I entrust my life to Taiwanese products whenever I go scuba diving.) Marcos ruined the Philippines for us.
Thanks to massive plunder and cronyism (what we now call patriarchal politics), our economy and way of life plunged to depths previously unforeseen. While the Marcoses reportedly siphoned public funds to personal Swiss bank accounts and acquired properties for themselves overseas, basic services to less fortunate families were virtually abandoned. Specious food security programs such as Masagana 99 were introduced, which later wreaked havoc on the environment and did nothing to provide even the minimum nutritional requirements of the Filipino people. (Koreans in the ’70s were not taller than us; today, our national average height is not much better than in our grandfathers’ time.) The list goes on ad nauseum.
That social faux pas involving Imelda Marcos and the Ateneo Scholarship Foundation, which sparked the ire of a huge segment of Filipino social media in early July 2014, can be explained thus: she wasn’t merely wife to the despot; she was his conspiratorial right hand.
Imelda Marcos’ taste for excessive lavishness was legendary. In fact, it still is because it is being glorified and relived on social media by misguided groups that are more engrossed in nouveau-riche tackiness than are concerned with historical sensitivity. Are we to forget how Imelda went on million-dollar shopping sprees abroad? Are we to forget the atrocities she committed during her reign as the First Lady who buried workers alive in quick-dry cement? It seems that some in the media today find more allure in reporting on Imelda’s so-called “sophistication” and seem to care less about how the Marcoses nearly destroyed our dignity as a people.
Filipinos have been accused time and again of having such short institutional memories. That, I believe, is the fault of sinister forces out to rewrite the true narrative of our past. Factual events of the Marcos era, despite their being a significant period in our history, are not being taught in our primary or secondary schools. Filipino children today are not reading about the Martial Law days; nor about modern-day heroes who fought and died for freedom; nor about the reasons why People Power was such a big deal, that it was an honorable Filipino movement to oust a dictator and his squandering consort.
Shouldn’t we be troubled by our lack of historical erudition or insight? Shouldn’t we act to guarantee that present and future generations be made aware of our troubled past, and of the lessons we have yet to learn?