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Imelda expected to succeed Marcos

Former First Lady Imelda Marcos File photo

(First of three parts)

MANILA, Philippines - Just minutes after returning from his three-year exile, former senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was assassinated at the Manila airport on Aug. 21, 1983. During his long career as reformist politician, Aquino had attracted the wrath of authoritarian president Ferdinand Marcos and spent eight years in prison the unsubstantiated charge of subversion. His death, for which Marcos was blamed, ignited the people power revolution, which eventually led to Marcos’ downfall three years later. Adopting Aquino as their martyr and symbol, the Filipino people united behind his wife, Corazon Aquino, in the 1986 elections which Mrs. Aquino won, but where Marcos also claimed victory. On Feb. 25, 1986, rival presidential inaugurations were held, but as Aquino supporters overran Manila and its television station, Marcos was forced to flee.

The Marcos family was transported by US Air Force C-130 planes to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii where Marcos arrived on Feb. 26. It was reported that when Marcos fled, US Customs agents discovered 24 suitcases of gold bricks and diamond jewelry hidden in diaper bags. Moreover, certificates for gold bullion valued in the billions of dollars were allegedly among the personal properties he, his family, his cronies and business partners surreptitiously took with them when the US provided them safe passage to Hawaii. When the presidential mansion was seized, it was famously discovered that Imelda Marcos had over 2,700 pairs of shoes in her closet. After various attempts to move to another country failed, the Marcoses remained in Hawaii until his death in 1989. Imelda was eventually pardoned by Corazon Aquino in 1991 and was elected to Congress from Leyte province in 1995 and won election in 2010 to replace her son, Ferdinand Jr.

In the following interview with Thomas Dunnigan beginning January 1994, Robert Rich Jr., who was serving as the deputy chief of mission in the Manila embassy, recalls the aftermath of the assassination, the extraction of the Marcos family and carrying out his main objective — dealing with the dictator and his wife so that the Reagan White House didn’t have to.

Imelda and the ‘Blue Ladies’

RICH:  When I arrived in Manila there was a certain surreal quality to the environment. Politics and economics really weren’t discussed by Filipinos. Every night we were out at Philippine social events… It was terribly discouraging, because these events were filled with ladies dripping with jewels, talking of nothing but fashions, jewelry, money and shopping trips to the United States.

One of our friends was a “Blue Lady.” The “Blue Ladies” were an institution of which I don’t think there has been anything comparable since perhaps Elizabethan days… They were the ladies on whom Imelda Marcos called at the slightest whim. They got their term from an earlier campaign when the campaign color had been blue, and they were evermore known as Blue Ladies. These ladies were the matrons of wealthy families who were beneficiaries of Marcos favoritism. Some of them we probably would call cronies.

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Because their husbands’ wealth, prestige and power were essentially dependent upon the Marcoses, they could not in the slightest way turn aside the whims of the First Lady, or “FL” as Imelda was known in those circles. It was a bizarre situation. Imelda Marcos was a woman who slept very little. Two or three hours a night is all she ever seemed to sleep. If she were bored, she would call one of her blue ladies to come play cards or ping pong with her, etc. It was literally that type of institution. I have seen a prominent Filipino hostess giving a dinner at which I was a guest receive a phone call from the palace and then make her regrets to her guests and leave the dinner table to go off to the palace, probably for no more important reason than to amuse the first lady.

I describe that because it gives something of a picture of the atmosphere of the regime by these latter years of Marcos’ power. Marcos himself had retained certain astuteness as a politician. He was very much the lawyer and very much the able politician still. But FL was something else indeed. I don’t think that I have ever known any other person whom I would truly describe as amoral — not immoral, but amoral — simply without the instincts that most of us have that there is a right and a wrong. And yet she required constant adulation and attention.

I have vivid memories of sitting in opulent banquets at the palace and thinking: there are millions of people in the world who would give their own teeth to be here and would talk about the evening all their lives, yet I just wish I could be home with a good book!

‘Imelda clearly intended to be Ferdinand’s successor’

The atmosphere in Manila changed very, very dramatically with the Aquino assassination… It has not yet been proven really who was behind this. Marcos, himself, was very ill at the time…

I tend to believe Marcos when he said to the ambassador and myself not too long thereafter, “How could you believe that I did this, because it is the worst possible thing that could have happened to me politically?”

I believe this because he was smart enough politically to realize that. You don’t create that kind of a crisis, because it will engulf you. But Imelda was not so smart politically, and that is why, without firm evidence, I have always felt that she was a key part of the cabal…

Imelda clearly intended to be Ferdinand’s successor. For some years theirs had been a political marriage of convenience. If it had been a love match it hadn’t been for years before I got there. Each of the Marcoses had their separate love interests. But Imelda clearly saw herself as the next head of the Philippines, a successor to her husband. I think she felt that with Aquino coming back and her husband apparently on his deathbed, this rival had to be eliminated. And I don’t think she really would have had any moral qualms about it at all. It was clearly a question of power.

After the assassination, the charades that had been going on were swept aside… The modernizing sector of the business community was what really turned things around in that period… The business conglomerates of the crony capitalists in the Philippines were largely a wreck, which resulted not in economic industrialization but in a vast milking of the resources of the nation.

The best estimates that we were able to put together in the latter Marcos period were that for almost 20 years, 10 percent of the GNP had been siphoned off into non-productive activities, much of it abroad. Now that 10 percent probably made the difference between the Philippines being as economically successful as Taiwan, Hong Kong or South Korea and just rocking and stumbling along as they did. They started out with more advantages than the others. They had the English language, good business ties with the United States, in the early period preferential trading arrangements with the United States, reasonably good infrastructure, a literate population and a hardworking people…

The post-assassination period led finally to another election… It was clear that Mrs. Aquino had won, but Marcos claimed victory anyway and had a falsified election reporting scheme set up. We had a very intensive embassy observation going on throughout the country. There were also two official foreign observing teams: a presidential observing team from the United States and also an international team fielded with the help of the National Democratic Institute. It was clear who had won, but it wasn’t clear what the outcome would be since the incumbent was still claiming victory…

To be continued

Chris Sibilla is the Acting President of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

Part II - Extracting the Marcoses
Part III - A not so simple housewife

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