Marcos Dies in Bitter Exile in Honolulu at 72 : Deposed Philippine Ruler Had Kidney, Heart, Lung Ailments
Ferdinand E. Marcos, the crafty, controversial and ruthless former Philippine ruler, died of kidney, lung and heart ailments Thursday in Honolulu, where he had been in bitter and defiant exile for more than 3 1/2 years after fleeing a popular uprising and nearly a year after his indictment on racketeering charges in this country. He was 72.
He had been hospitalized for nearly 10 months with a multitude of ailments, and the fighting spirit that had enabled him to survive years of scorn and degradation seemed to carry over into his last physical struggle. For many weeks he had lingered near death before losing his final battle.
Doctors, who had attached a pacemaker Wednesday, said lung and kidney failure and a widespread infection contributed to the cardiac arrest that was listed as the cause of death. The life-support equipment that had sustained Marcos reportedly was not disconnected until after he was pronounced dead.
Marcos died at 3:40 a.m. PDT. Shortly afterward, his son, Ferdinand Jr., emerged from his father’s room at St. Francis Medical Center and announced that the senior Marcos had been taken to “a higher place.”
“Perhaps friends and detractors alike (now) will look beyond the man to see what he stood for--his vision, his compassion and his total love of country,” the son said.
Roger Peyuan, a spokesman for Marcos’ wife, Imelda, quoted her as telling friends, “Father’s not here anymore--he’s gone.”
Peyuan added that Ferdinand Jr. had arrived from California just in time to see his father alive one last time. As Imelda Marcos, her sister and Ferdinand Jr. watched, Marcos was given cardiopulmonary resuscitation but failed to respond, Peyuan said. The three remained with him and recited a rosary.
Brilliant, vain and outrageously extravagant, Marcos transformed a chaotic, American-style democracy into a virtual dictatorship and cult of personality in a controversial public career that began and ended with two of the most sensational killings in Philippine history.
Rose During American Rule
Marcos rose to prominence in the prewar days of American colonial rule when, as a young law student, he represented himself and won an appeal of his conviction on murder charges in the shooting death of his father’s chief political rival.
But as an aging and ailing national ruler, Marcos was unable to dispel a widespread suspicion that his government was behind the killing of Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the president’s own political nemesis.
That 1983 assassination revitalized an opposition movement long stifled by infighting and Marcos’ increasingly heavy-handed tactics. In another ironic twist, the uproar triggered by Aquino’s death eventually thrust his widow, Corazon, into the seat of power in the strategic Southeast Asian archipelago.
She remains there today, struggling to revive an economy ravaged by the mismanagement and theft of Marcos’ cronies. At the same time, she is trying to put down both right-wing coup attempts often linked to Marcos loyalists and a Communist insurgency that grew in reaction to the excesses of his rule.
Legacy of Indulgence
Underscoring his fall from grace and power, Marcos left a legacy far different from the forceful, dynamic Asian visionary he claimed to be. Instead, he probably will best be remembered as an exile stained by federal charges that he looted the Philippine treasury to buy pricey New York real estate and mocked by jokes about the thousands of shoes and brassieres left behind in the Manila boudoir of his wife.
The U.S. indictments last October accused the Marcoses and eight of their friends of pilfering hundreds of millions of dollars from their country, but critics have long maintained that the couple’s ill-gotten jackpot actually totaled billions of dollars and was stashed in Swiss bank accounts and other investments abroad.
A judge ruled that Marcos was too ill to stand trial.
In Washington, the Bush Administration said the President was “saddened” to hear of the death of Marcos, but announced nonetheless that it would block any attempt to return Marcos’ body to the Philippines for burial.
FAA Issues Rule
“The Federal Aviation Administration is issuing a rule which prevents the operation of any aircraft or the initiation of any flight carrying the remains of Mr. Marcos from the United States to the Philippines,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “And the rule applies to all aircraft which might depart from the United States.”
He said the ban was imposed to honor the wishes of the Aquino government, which declared that a Marcos funeral or burial in that country would not be conducive to “the tranquillity of the state and the order of society.”
The White House response to Marcos’ death clearly reflected the Administration’s uneasiness with its role as host to the dictator in exile. Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater released the official statement of condolences rather than Bush himself. And neither Bush, who as vice president once praised Marcos during a Philippine visit, nor Vice President Dan Quayle was expected to attend his funeral.
The five-sentence statement itself was conspicuously terse. “The President and Mrs. Bush were saddened to hear of the death of former President Marcos. They offer their condolences to Mrs. Marcos and the members of her family.
“For over 20 years, Mr. Marcos was the leader of the Philippines, a nation that has been and remains a staunch friend and ally of the United States,” it said. “Mr. Marcos agreed to leave the Philippines at a critical juncture in his nation’s history. His departure permitted the peaceful transition to popular, democratic rule under President Aquino.”
Mark Weinberg, spokesman for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, read a one-line statement from the former President on Marcos’ death.
“Nancy and I are deeply saddened and extend our sympathy and prayers to his family.”
Asked if the Reagans plan to attend the funeral, Weinberg said, “No. They have no plans to attend the funeral.”
Marcos was his country’s most celebrated World War II hero--although critics questioned the authenticity of some of his claimed exploits--as well as its flashiest postwar lawyer, its longest-serving leader and, for many years, arguably its most admired individual.
But that reservoir of good will had long since vanished at his death, frittered away amid widespread charges of corruption, waste, military abuses, nepotism and economic decay and election fraud.
A Wave of Nationalism
The growth in anti-Marcos sentiment that mushroomed after the Benigno Aquino assassination also ushered in a wave of nationalism that focused on ridding the nation of excessive American influence, which Marcos represented to many. Even once-moderate opposition figures increasingly began to question the value to the Philippines of strategic U.S. military facilities, including Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.
Marcos granted great power and influence to his eccentric and ostentatious wife, with whom he shared what critics snidely referred to as a “conjugal dictatorship.” Together, they did not just dominate the Philippine political and social scene, they smothered it.
The two built huge mansions and memorials to themselves, affixed their names to numerous parks, roads and public buildings, turned the established broadcast and print media into little more than personal publicity organs and installed friends and family in a wide range of influential public and private positions.
In a nation that had never produced more than a one-term president since it was granted independence from the United States in 1946, Marcos served as a leader for more than two decades, from 1965 until his exile in February, 1986. In a 1984 interview, he explained that he felt the presidency was “God-given.”
Supporters said widespread popularity was the secret to his longevity. But opponents charged that he not only rigged his reelections but also declared martial law and rewrote the constitution when the national charter required an end to his rule after eight years.
Only a few years before his death, Marcos said he wanted most to be remembered as a “political, social and economic reformer who saved the country from anarchy.” But his final years in office were marked by growing civil unrest amid the most trying political and economic crises in Philippine history.
Around the world, Marcos was best known as the showy strongman who stripped his nation of American-style democratic traditions and whose later years were blackened by the scandal involving Benigno Aquino’s death.
Indeed, whatever successes the Marcoses could claim always seemed to be overshadowed in the headlines by their excesses.
For years, the fortunes and tragedies of the Marcos family were the most talked-about soap opera in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Marcos brought significant changes to the country’s political and administrative landscape--not all of them for the better.
His iron rule, his penchant for squandering scarce government resources on friends and family, his increasing reliance on military strength to prop up his regime and his reluctance until late in his career to establish a clear-cut succession for the presidency left a legacy of fiscal and political confusion. That, in turn, helped generate more support for the budding Communist insurgency movement.
Marcos’ most serious failings may have been in his handling of the economy. When he assumed the presidency, the Philippines was considered the richest nation in Southeast Asia and one of the wealthiest in the Orient. Today, it is one of the poorest non-Communist countries in the booming Far East, with a neglected agricultural base, little industry and the region’s worst debt problems, despite efforts by Aquino to turn the tide.
The controversial end to Marcos’ presidency stood in stark contrast to the initial phase, which began in 1965 when he defeated incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal in national elections.
In his early years he was viewed as a reformer, eliminating thousands of government jobs and cracking down on corrupt officials who had been collaborating with criminals and smugglers. He is widely credited with initiating sorely needed improvements in highway, sewer and other long-neglected projects.
Under Marcos-initiated reforms, many peasants got their first chance to own land, taking control of the small patches they had farmed for wealthy absentee landlords who owned immense tracts.
As he consolidated his power, Marcos broke up the economic and political stranglehold that a handful of established families had managed to maintain over industry and government. But instead of significantly broadening the base of wealth and political participation in the country, Marcos simply replaced the old oligarchs with new ones loyal to him.
To some extent, Marcos’ behavior in showering favors on those close to him was in payment for utang na loob, the debt of gratitude Filipinos often feel they owe for loyalty and friendship. But tragically for Marcos, it was those close to him who created his most serious and embarrassing problems.
Imelda Marcos became a symbol of waste and extravagance as she jet-setted around the world on shopping sprees and lavished public money on controversial building projects. Marcos promoted his cousin and boyhood pal, Fabian C. Ver, to the post of armed forces chief of staff over more qualified officers, one of them Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, who trained at West Point.
Ver’s loyal control of the scandal-ridden military propped up Marcos’ rule, but the general’s devotion helped trigger the series of crises that ultimately brought about Marcos’ downfall.
Ver was widely suspected of engineering Benigno Aquino’s assassination, and a majority of the panel that formally investigated the killing implicated him in the plot. He denied the charge and was later judged not guilty by a tribunal consisting of Marcos appointees.
But the acquittal touched off another spasm of anti-government protests that combined with growing pressure for reform from the Reagan Administration and led Marcos to call an early presidential election to reaffirm the legitimacy of his grip on power. Many Filipinos and outside observers thought Corazon Aquino won the contest, but Marcos had himself declared the victor in a move that brought opposition passions to the boiling point.
Favored His Cronies
Marcos’ associates also helped ravage the nation’s economy. By favoring a few trusted friends with the bulk of government contracts and investments, Marcos hoped to imitate Japan’s formula for economic growth by promoting a small knot of entrepreneurs whose success, in turn, would lead to industrial maturity. But again, he was ill-served as his cronies shipped their profits into safe havens overseas rather than pour them into risky expansion projects at home.
“It was a cultural misreading of the Philippines,” said Bernardo Villegas, a respected Philippine economist. “His economic samurais became robber barons instead.”
Ferdinand Edralin Marcos was born Sept. 11, 1917, at Sarrat in the northeastern province of Ilocos Norte. His father, Mariano, belonged to a small, breakaway Christian sect, but Marcos followed his mother into the Roman Catholic Church, the religion of 85% of his countrymen.
Mariano Marcos had been a congressman in the native assembly of what was then an American territory. But in 1935, as the younger Marcos was studying law on a scholarship at the University of the Philippines, his father was defeated in a National Assembly election.
Shot While Brushing Teeth
Three days after the voting, the new assemblyman-elect was brushing his teeth in front of a bathroom window when he was shot and killed by a .22-caliber bullet. Ferdinand Marcos was the only known crack shot in the area and, four years later, he was convicted of the killing. But the decision was overturned by the Philippines’ highest court after an appeal that Marcos argued himself.
The brilliance he displayed in the courtroom turned him into a national hero, and his talent for debate cast him as one of the champions that Filipinos hoped would free them from the American dominance they had endured since the islands were seized after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The war record Marcos said he had amassed greatly enhanced his political fortunes. He was said to have survived the infamous “death march” from Bataan to Capas, the horrors of Camp O’Donnell, where American and Filipino prisoners died at the rate of 300 a day, and, later, eight days of Japanese torture in Manila.
After escaping the Japanese, Marcos fled to the northern Cordillera Mountains and became prominent in the Filipino resistance, which had 180,000 members. Supporters said he helped coordinate rival bands of guerrillas that passed military intelligence to the command of Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur before the general returned to the islands with his forces in 1944.
Marcos’ war exploits were legend to many Filipinos in the north. “When we were kids during the war, we honestly believed Marcos was impervious to gunfire and could disappear in a puff of smoke,” recalled Jose Laureta, an influential Manila lawyer. “He was looked upon as a national hero.”
But after MacArthur’s troops retook the Philippines, American investigators found many of Marcos’ claims to be exaggerated and rejected recommendations that he be granted high U.S. military honors. The results of those inquiries, which also indicated that Marcos might have traded black-market goods with the Japanese, remained buried in the Pentagon’s archives until the final days of his last election campaign. Their release proved a major embarrassment to Marcos, who defiantly defended his military record.
After the war, Marcos quickly became one of the newly independent nation’s most successful corporate lawyers, and he parlayed his wartime fame, suspect even then, into the start of a budding political career.
In 1949, he was first elected on the Liberal Party ticket as a congressmen in the American-style lower house. He was reelected twice, then won a Senate seat in 1959 and became president of the chamber in 1963. He championed land reform, trade unions and civil liberties, but broke with his fellow Liberals when they failed to name him as their presidential candidate for the 1965 election.
Beat Incumbent Macapagal
Marcos joined the opposition Nacionalistas, won their nomination and then successfully took on incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal in a vicious mudslinging contest in which the two candidates called each other murderers and thieves and spent more than $8 million each.
As a young congressman, Marcos was considered one of the nation’s most eligible and sought-after bachelors until 1954, when he met former beauty queen Imelda Romualdez. They were married after a whirlwind romance of 11 days and, for a wedding present, Marcos gave his young bride an 11-carat diamond ring--one carat for each day of their courtship. The couple had three children, including Ferdinand Jr., called “Bong Bong,” and adopted another.
Together, their chemistry captured the imagination of their countrymen, who thrilled in the fast-paced life style of the Marcoses, the Kennedys of the Philippines.
Marcos was reelected in 1969, the first president to win a second term, but his second four years grew increasingly rocky: Opponents charged that he drained government coffers to finance his reelection, the peso was devalued for the first time, a crime wave shook the country, a Communist insurgency was bubbling and student activists became increasingly combative.
In what proved to be the pivotal event of his political career, Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, saying he needed draconian powers to combat insurgents as well as growing chaos in the streets. Thousands of political opponents were thrown in jail, chief among them Benigno Aquino, who had been the odds-on favorite to succeed Marcos as president.
Newspapers and broadcast stations critical of Marcos were temporarily shut and then handed over to friends or relatives of the first family. Local officials were fired and replaced with Marcos loyalists.
At the same time, the constitution was changed to allow Marcos to continue in office indefinitely and to eliminate the checks and balances inherent in the pre-martial law system of government. Marcos not only was granted the power to make law by executive fiat but also to order arrests and detention without trial. He called his new form of government “constitutional authoritarianism.”
For a time, martial law was welcomed by many Filipinos, who liked the order it brought to the often-chaotic country. But it also ushered in a new climate of fear and paranoia among a people known for their fun-loving and casual manner. In 1974, for example, a prominent public relations executive was jailed for two months for joking in a banquet speech about Imelda Marcos’ own presidential ambitions.
Many Filipinos thought Marcos was grooming his wife to succeed him. She was handed a seat in Parliament and named governor of metropolitan Manila. At the same time, she ran the Human Settlements Ministry, a catch-all welfare, housing and development agency that commanded the largest share of the national budget. She also served on a special committee that for years was empowered to run the country if Marcos died.
During the martial-law period, Marcos tripled the size of the military and handed control of the armed forces to Ver and an “Ilocano Mafia” of generals, many of whom quickly became rich.
But foot soldiers were poorly equipped and paid, and many sold their weapons to the insurgents they were fighting or turned to crime to support themselves in the field. Reports of military abuses against civilians ballooned.
Marcos’ authoritarianism also served to radicalize many Roman Catholic priests and nuns who became active in anti-government activities. Manila’s outspoken archbishop, Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, became a persistent critic of Marcos and had frequent run-ins with the president.
Marcos finally lifted martial law in January, 1981, just before a visit to the country by Pope John Paul II, but many Filipinos saw little difference because the president retained his extraordinary powers.
Although Marcos’ relations with the Carter Administration were chilly after the Philippines was accused of human rights violations, the Reagan Administration at first embraced him warmly. Then-Vice President George Bush visited Manila in 1981 and praised Marcos’ “adherence to democratic principles and processes,” a statement that rankled government critics. The next year Marcos was welcomed by President Reagan during an official visit to the United States in which Marcos brought along almost his entire Cabinet and a huge press corps.
Marcos’ bubble burst on Aug. 21, 1983, when Aquino was assassinated as he returned from self-exile in the United States. Few Filipinos believed the official explanation that a Communist assassin killed the popular opposition leader, and the country was rocked by a growing wave of anti-government protests. Meanwhile, new investment dried up and wealthy Filipinos rushed to invest their savings overseas. The economy collapsed.
The civil unrest and fiscal problems forced Marcos to grudgingly grant concessions, chief among them the formation of a more orderly succession mechanism and the eventual reinstitution of the office of vice president.
Although he was feisty and pugnacious by nature, his attempts to staunch the erosion of his authority were hampered by illness. A man of few physical excesses, Marcos neither drank nor smoked and reveled in his macho image as a fitness buff. Well into his 60s, the 5-foot, 6-inch leader golfed and water-skied regularly and sported the physique of a much younger man.
But in his last years in office he suffered serious kidney problems aggravated by a degenerative disease that attacked his body’s immune system. Aides fabricated elaborate cover stories to mask his illnesses, and government publicists often distributed old pictures and videotapes of Marcos at work to counter rumors that he was bedridden.
Several times illness forced him to spend weeks in isolation in the specially sterilized surroundings of the presidential palace to protect his increasingly frail body from contaminants it had trouble fighting off.
But it was his political ills, not his physical ones, that finally were the end of the Marcos government’s era. Clearly surprised by the depth of support for Corazon Aquino, Marcos’ supporters apparently rigged the vote counting in the February, 1986, election to give him a slim victory.
Aquino Would Not Give Up
Aquino refused to give up, however, and launched a civil disobedience campaign designed to bring Marcos down. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration, embarrassed by Marcos’ brazen electoral conduct and under pressure from Congress, denounced the fraud and sent increasingly strong signals that it believed Aquino had won.
That emboldened Marcos’ opponents and led Ramos, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and other stalwarts of the ruling hierarchy to defect. Blustery and ever-defiant, Marcos clung desperately to power in his ornate palace, promising never to leave office and threatening bloody reprisals. But even Reagan, long reluctant to undercut Marcos, called on him to quit. The end had arrived.
As his military support rapidly and visibly evaporated, Marcos staged an emotional, tightly guarded swearing-in ceremony on Feb. 25, 1986, for what he asserted was his new, justly won term in office.
But hours later, a U.S. transport airlifted Marcos, most of his family and many supporters to Hawaii, where the fallen leader rented an exclusive villa near Honolulu and issued frequent proclamations vowing to return to Manila.
His opponents, who had complained for years of the couple’s wastefulness, were astonished at the extent of that extravagance when they opened the presidential palace and got their first glimpse into the Marcoses’ private living quarters, filled with antiques, rare artworks and furnishings, and closets filled with clothes and thousands of pairs of shoes. The kidney dialysis machine Marcos always denied having also was found.
In Hawaii, Marcos kept up regular telephone contact with supporters in the Philippines and often was heard on anti-Aquino radio stations in the country. Both officials in the United States and the Philippines feared that Marcos would try to destabilize the Aquino government, and he is believed to have been behind at least some of several foiled coup attempts against the new leader.
As his exile dragged on, Marcos granted interviews in which he admitted growing depression over his fortunes. Eventually he stopped asserting that he was the true Philippine leader and even publicly acknowledged the legitimacy of Aquino’s rule.
But Aquino, fearing repercussions if Marcos returned and still resentful over his suspected role in Benigno Aquino’s death, repeatedly barred Marcos from returning home--even to attend the funeral of his 95-year-old mother, Josefa, who died in May, 1988.
Then last October, a federal grand jury in New York issued a 79-page indictment against both Marcoses and several associates, including Saudi Arabian financier Adnan Khashoggi, who was extradited to the United States earlier this year. The indictment charged that the Marcoses, when still in power, diverted Philippine government funds to buy millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. real estate, including some of the most fashionable office towers in Manhattan.
The Marcoses, charged one FBI official, had turned the “Philippine treasury into their personal treasure.”
Marcos maintained his innocence to the end and said, further, that he was too ill to endure the 5,000-mile flight from Hawaii to New York to face arraignment on the charges. But a court-appointed physician examined him and said that, although he was not in the best of health, the former Philippine ruler appeared to be faking most of his aches and pains and was well enough to make the trip.
Still, Marcos resisted, and the court agreed to separate his case from the others. Underscoring how low his credibility had sunk, some Philippine officials accused him of lying again when he entered the hospital for what proved to be the last time.
Secter, now based in Chicago, was a Times correspondent in Southeast Asia from 1982 to 1985.
MARCOS: A CHRONOLOGY
1949: Elected to Philippine House of Representatives.
1954: Married Imelda Romualdez.
1959: Elected to the Senate.
1965: Elected Philippine president.
1969: Won second term as president in elections tainted by fraud.
1972: Signed martial law decree, abolished Congress, shut down news media and jailed thousands of politicians, journalists, students and other critics.
1973: Held national referendum to approve his stay in office indefinitely.
1981: Lifted martial law but retained power to make laws by decree and jail people indefinitely without charges. Later in year, reelected for six years in ballot boycotted by political opponents.
1983: Benigno S. Aquino Jr., a Marcos foe, was assassinated at Manila airport as he returned from exile. The killing prompted world protest and an explosion of popular outrage at home.
1986: Feb. 15. The National Assembly declared Marcos the winner of Feb. 7 presidential election over Aquino’s widow, Corazon. The opposition charged widespread fraud.
Feb. 22. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, joined by about 250 soldiers, announced they were breaking with Marcos to declare Aquino the election winner.
Feb. 25. Marcos took the oath of office and fled Manila. Mobs stormed Malacanang Palace.
Feb. 26. Marcoses left for exile in Hawaii.
1988: Marcoses were indicted by federal grand jury in New York on racketeering charges related to alleged corruption in Philippines.
1989: Jan 15. Marcos entered hospital with heart, kidney and respiratory ailments.
May 18. Marcos suffered kidney, cardiac and pulmonary failure.
Sept. 28. Marcos died at age 72 of cardiac arrest.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.