An Asian President, who built his political career on his war record. A political strongman who pursued an aggressive programme of infrastructure development funded by foreign debt, making him popular in the short term until it triggered an inflationary crisis and social unrest.
His Government was known for corruption, with billions being stolen from the country as it faced a debt crunch and ordinary people were plunged into extreme poverty. As opposition grew, he declared a state of emergency.
Sound familiar? It almost reads like current news stories about Sri Lanka. But in fact, it is the story of Ferdinand Marcos, President of the Philippines until he and his family were forced to flee the country in military aircraft stuffed full of cash, jewels and gold bars. That was back in 1986. Three years later he died in a hospital in Hawaii after the US Government gave him and his family refuge.
Only after the Marcos regime’s downfall did Filipinos truly comprehend the magnitude of their plunder. The Marcos family had carried off one of the greatest Government thefts ever seen, stripping up to USD 13.5 billion from the country’s coffers to fund their lavish lifestyle.
The President and his cronies were found to have pillaged everything from foreign aid to World Bank loans. More than three decades after they were forced into exile most of this hidden wealth is still missing or the subject of court proceedings that have dragged on for years.
Imelda Marcos’s infamous shoe collection, estimated at almost 3,000 pairs, remains the most notorious symbol of the couple’s outrageous opulence. She loved luxury European brands like Christian Dior and Gucci but also had a standing order of 10 locally made shoes to be delivered every week.
Now, with their son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos newly elected as the Philippines President, any lingering hopes of recovering the family’s illegally acquired fortune appear increasingly slim.
“The family has convinced itself that they’re entitled to their ill-gotten wealth,” Ruben Carranza, the former head of a Special Government Commission set up to recover the funds, told Australia’s ABC network.
“He’s running to redeem the family name. But he’s also running to make sure that the family keeps their impunity in place.” Bongbong’s father claims to be “the most decorated war hero in the Philippines”, who had been awarded three US army medals from World War II. But while Marcos had served in the US Armed Forces in the Philippines, the country’s National Historical Commission later declared that his tales of heroism were “full of lies”.
Imelda Marcos came from a large Catholic family, studied education and worked at the Philippines Central Bank. In 1953, she entered the Miss Manila beauty pageant, but didn’t win.
On a single overseas trip in 1983, she apparently spent $9.5 million in 90 days, including $14,150 on bedsheets, $58,000 on sterling silver serving dishes and $611,000 on gems from Cartier. Ferdinand Marcos’s 21-year rule was notorious for corruption, extravagance and brutality. As he and his family lived in luxury on the state purse, the Philippines economy stagnated, the income gulf between rich and poor ballooned and thousands of political opponents were tortured or killed.
In 1986, with the country on the brink of full-scale violence, it was US President Ronald Reagan who urged Marcos to step down and leave the country, guaranteeing him asylum in the US if he agreed. No other country had been prepared to do so.
With a mob of angry protesters massed outside the Malacañang Palace, the Marcos family fled Manila.
Even in the chaos of being exiled, they managed to scoop up millions of dollars’ worth of valuables, including cash, jewels, gold and art. The estimated 300 crates loaded onto two US Air Force planes that carried Marcos family members and their cronies to Hawaii also included weapons, bank deposit certificates and the deeds for numerous overseas property holdings.
Officials in Washington at the time said that jewellery belonging to Imelda Marcos was stuffed into nappy boxes, along with $200,000 in gold bullion and nearly $1 million in Filipino currency.
Some of this loot was confiscated and later returned to Philippine authorities. But it would take Government lawyers decades to recover even a fraction of the Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth. Something voters seem to have forgotten.
By Michael Gregson