Dusting Off a Dictator

Times Staff Writer

He doesn’t look like he could cause much trouble anymore, flat on his back in an airtight glass box, toes up, eyes waxed shut. Dead.

But almost 16 years after dying in exile and infamy, deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos -- or at least his reputation -- is being resurrected in the Philippines. And it’s causing a commotion.

Filipinos are no longer sure how to remember the man they drove from power in a massive but peaceful street revolution in 1986, turning him into an international byword for dictatorship and corruption.

These days, watching their tired cast of politicians fiddle while poverty deepens and Asia’s economy takes off without them, many exasperated Filipinos look at the Marcos era as happier times, the good old days before their hard-won democracy turned into what they now call “democrazy.”


Was Marcos really a tyrant? they ask. Or just another Asian strongman imposing order on a country desperate for stability? A crook who stole from his own people and stuffed billions into Swiss bank accounts? Or a politician no different from the rest, in a country where everyone knows corruption is the oxygen of politics?

They can’t even agree on how to bury him.

The ex-president has never had a funeral. Though he died in 1989, a standoff over where his final resting place should be divides Filipinos, exposing the cleft between those who feel a rosy nostalgia for the Marcos era, and those with unhealed wounds from his rule.

The late president’s body rests in the purgatory of a private mausoleum in Ilocos Norte, the rural northern province that was -- and remains -- the Marcos family’s political power base. He lies under soft lighting, wearing some of his soldier’s medals.


A few mementoes are hidden away inside his glass casket: his favorite black plastic made-in-America comb, cotton pajamas with a motif of red hearts (an anniversary gift from his perhaps more-famous wife, Imelda, herself an international byword for conspicuous consumption), and a tin in which he once kept coins to parse out to his children.

The corpse is seen daily by a trickle of loyalists, schoolchildren and the curious, who come to peer at the local boy who became an accomplished lawyer and war hero before going to Manila and making it big in politics.

Marcos ruled -- and defined the Philippines to the world -- for 21 years. Twice elected president, he turned to martial law in 1972, when communists and other opponents were jailed and tortured.

He was chased from office by street protests in the 1986 “People Power” revolution, and he and his family were “picked up and dumped in Hawaii,” as Imelda puts it, by a Washington that cut him loose.


“Yes sir, that’s him,” says Master Sgt. Catalino Bactot, who served in Marcos’ private security detail for 17 years and now makes sure no one gets fingerprints on the glass covering his old boss. Bactot is asked about rumors that the figure on display is just a reproduction. He shakes his head vigorously.

“It is coated with seven layers of wax,” he explains.

Real or not, the corpse with its combed-back hair and pancake complexion has lain here since 1993, when then-President Fidel V. Ramos stifled his qualms and, bending to indefatigable lobbying from Imelda, allowed her to bring her husband home from Hawaii, where he died at 72.

Imelda Marcos is not just a lady who lunches -- though she does that, too, meeting regularly with her social circle at Manila’s finer restaurants and hotels. Despite the ignominious fall from power, she refuses to retreat into seclusion. She ran for president herself, twice, and though she failed, she was elected to Congress in 1995.


“The poor people love me,” she said one recent evening in the art- and photograph-cluttered living room of her 34th-floor Manila apartment, explaining her enduring appeal. “The poor are looking for a star in the night.”

But mostly she carries the torch for her dead husband. She wants the Marcos name cleared, rendered as innocent and appealing as the black-and-white framed photograph of a heroic, square-jawed young Ferdinand that sits on her living room table.

Not unexpectedly, Imelda has one more wish.

She will not allow Marcos to be buried in Ilocos Norte, no matter how hard her three children plead with her to give their father a Christian funeral and be done with it.


Now 76, she is holding out for what she sees as her husband’s rightful entombment in Manila’s Libingan Ng Mga Bayani, the Cemetery of Heroes, where presidents are traditionally buried and where Marcos picked himself a plot when he was president -- the best spot in the cemetery, just a few steps from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The hole has already been dug. All that is needed for a state burial is the permission of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the sitting president.

“Marcos deserves it,” Imelda says with customary defiance. She cites his record: the roads and hospitals built; the diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union and communist China, which she claims “knocked down the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain at the height of the Cold War”; the deals struck with foreign governments to allow thousands of Filipinos to work abroad and send home the foreign currency that is now a pillar of the economy.

Above all, she says, there was “Marcos’ greatest achievement:” choosing exile over further bloodshed, and refusing to allow loyal elements of the armed forces to use their guns against the civilians massing against him in the streets.


But what might otherwise be dismissed as a political widow’s relentless attempt to polish history has found some surprising traction with the public.

A nationwide poll last month rated Marcos the best of the last five Philippine presidents. He ranked not only far ahead of Arroyo, who is battling allegations of corruption and electoral fraud, but even topped Corazon Aquino, who led the revolution that toppled his dictatorship.

For Imelda, sitting ramrod-straight on her sofa, paintings by Picasso and Gauguin framing her like epaulets, the poll is an auspicious sign: Forces may be aligning at last to give her husband a burial with honors.

“Was Marcos the greatest president? No doubt about it,” she says. “He was a mother to the nation; he could not destroy his country and his children. He sacrificed himself.


“Eventually,” she is sure, “they will see it that way.”

Her fist-clenching frustration is that “they” -- the other 87 million or so Filipinos -- don’t yet all agree.

“No, no, too much killing, too much stealing, too many people disappeared,” says Catholic Archbishop Oscar Cruz, who thinks Marcos doesn’t belong in the Cemetery of Heroes. “That is not a hero.”

The idea of burying Marcos at Libingan was suggested once before. In 1998, then-President-elect Joseph Estrada, an old family friend, gave the go-ahead, arguing it would provide closure on the Marcos years.


He was pummeled for it. Wounds were too raw. The outcry forced Estrada to withdraw the offer, and he has since blamed the country’s floundering economy and dismal politics on the “bad karma” that comes with leaving Marcos unburied.

But politics is fluid; alliances shift. Facing impeachment and desperately seeking allies, Arroyo had a private dinner with Imelda last month and, when news got out, the president told reporters she wanted to “have a healing of the wounds” caused by the anti-Marcos revolution.

The Manila media pack swiftly concluded that Arroyo was preparing to give Marcos the presidential burial, and church and civic leaders pounced on her.

“Every time there is a political crisis in this country, people say maybe we should go back to dictatorship -- they are looking for quick fixes,” says Monica Feria, 51, who was jailed twice under Marcos and now edits a lifestyle magazine in Manila. “People have forgotten what it was like to have no free press, to have people killed in detention. Torture was standard operating procedure.


“It bothers me when people say nothing has changed.”

But reaching out to the Marcos family is tempting for Arroyo, who is desperate to weaken the coalition of forces gnawing at her presidency.

Many old Marcos associates are back in positions of influence in politics and business. Among the prominent Arroyo critics accusing her of corruption and electoral fraud are Marcos’ son, Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr., 47, the second-term governor of Ilocos Norte, and daughter, Imee Marcos, 49, an articulate congresswoman who has become a champion of the arts and is enough of a celebrity to appear on the cover of Philippine magazines.

The Marcos family and their allies now find themselves part of an anti-Arroyo coalition that includes the same church leaders and civil rights groups that helped bring down the elder Marcos.


“Yes, the Marcoses are on the side of the progressives,” says Satur Ocampo, a leading Arroyo critic, acknowledging the irony. “We find ourselves in a tactical alliance with the remnants of the junta ousted by popular power. But we are accommodating them, not forgetting what Marcos did.

“Look, Imee is quite an adept politician,” he continues. “We are not attributing the sins of the father to her. But people expect them to realize the degree of suffering under her father. And Imelda and the children have not owned up to any responsibility.”

Nonetheless, this region of farmers, fishermen and soldiers is solid Marcos turf. There’s even a Marcos cult that can point to biblical passages they say prove the ex-president was a messenger from God.

A onetime presidential residence is open to the public, everything of value sold off by the Aquino government, its bookshelves empty but for a few political books written by Marcos (“Today’s Revolution: Democracy”).


An Imelda-funded museum will open here in September. The walls are already papered with floor-to-ceiling photographs of Marcos shaking hands with long-forgotten dignitaries.

But for Imelda, only her husband’s burial at Libingan will completely rescue the Marcos name. Her apartment is her command center. Surrounded by dazzling pieces of fine art salvaged from her old collection (a Miro, a Warhol) and a piano covered with rows of framed photos from better days, she fights old battles and revisits old victories.

Remote control in hand, she fast-forwards through video of her days as first lady of the Philippines, meeting foreign leaders: China’s Mao Tse-tung, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and Saddam Hussein. “I was a symbol of my country,” she says. “Like a Miss Philippines.”

“I never had a mission that failed,” she continues, as the images of her foreign trips and meetings with some of the 20th century’s greatest rogues blur by. “They always dismissed me as BBD” -- she pauses to see whether a visitor understands the code -- “beautiful but dumb,” she exhales, clearing up the mystery. “But these leaders always opened up to me. Mao took my hand in his ... “


“Ooh,” she squeals, her face contorted in sadness. “If only Bush had sent me to Baghdad, we could have avoided this whole terrible war.” She looks as though she is about to cry.

Every few minutes, she summons an assistant to bring her another box of documents from her court cases, flourishing stacks of paper to proclaim her innocence. Rudy Giuliani, then New York’s district attorney, brought racketeering charges against her. Acquitted. Hundreds of corruption charges were filed against her in the Philippines, and there were convictions. None have stood up under appeal. A few cases still remain.

Imelda dismisses it all as so much envy. The Marcos money, she says, comes from gold certificates, painstakingly -- and legally -- acquired by her husband over the years. When gold jumped from $35 an ounce to the $800 range in the 1970s, Marcos simply borrowed against it and invested the windfall wisely.

“They opened my closet and all they found were shoes,” she says of the investigators who hunted for the allegedly stolen billions. “They opened another closet, and all they found were more shoes.” She nods her head. Case closed.


Imelda has no shortage of shoes -- a shoe rack covers the wall of one room. Admirers send them to her, she says with a shrug. What she misses is the fine art. The government continues to auction off the bulk of the Marcos collection.

“Cory auctioned off my paintings by Italian masters, my silverware collection,” she says of the Aquino government’s moves to recover what it said were national assets stolen by Marcos. She looks incredulous. “And we were the thieves?

To Imelda, this is unfinished business. There is wealth to recover. History to rewrite.

“You know, when we were leaving with [the Americans], I confronted him. I said, ‘Ferdinand, what happened to us?’ ” she recalls. “And he said to me, ‘Never argue with destiny.’


“But it has been 20 years now,” she says. “Eventually, the truth will prevail.”