February 28, 2011
Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines
I saw Imelda Marcos last night, she is the first of three widows in this story. I was sitting outside Club Havana Restaurant at the Greenbelt Mall in Makati when she strolled by with her entourage occasionally stopping for autographs and photos. I’m not sure where Imelda had been that night. Perhaps she had dined there at one of the many restaurants in Greenbelt or maybe she had been shopping for shoes. She still had her trademark up-sweep hairdo and was wearing a long black dress decorated with jewels and embroidery. I must say for an 81-year-old woman, she looked marvelous.
Allegedly, she and her late husband, Ferdinand, ripped off the country for hundreds of billions. The commission on Good Government estimated the theft to be in the US$5-US$10 billion range. To this day, she still insists that Ferdinand was a financial genius who made all that money speculating in the gold market. Actually, if you talk to many older Filipinos, they will tell you Marcos was a very good administrator the first 10 years of his 20 year reign. It was the last 10 years when he developed serious kidney problems that the corruption accelerated. Indeed, during his first 10 years, the Philippines was one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia. Many say that as Marcos became weaker, Imelda became stronger.
In addition to plundering the national treasury for years, I heard persistent rumors that she and Marcos’s chief of staff, General Ver, plotted the assassination of Ferdinand’s political rival, Begnigo Aquino. For a number of years after his death, there was a statue of Benigno Aquino descending the airplane stairway where he was shot on arrival at the airport. It was a rather macabre statue. I’m not sure it’s still there. I managed to get a photo of it. A lot of mystery still surrounds that killing which led eventually to Marcos’s downfall. Who said your karma catches up with you? The Filipinos are a very forgiving people. Imelda is still going strong.
Seeing Imelda revived a lot of old memories for me. Her appearance came almost 25 years to the day from my first arrival in the Philippines. On February 25, 1986, President Marcos and Imelda flew out of Clark Air Base to his exile home in Hawaii. He died at a house on the beach in Honolulu 3 years later. I arrived at the Manila International Airport just 10 days after his departure for the first of my many visits.. The cab driver who drove me to the hotel claimed to be part of the great human barricade that blocked EDSA Boulevard thereby preventing the tanks from moving against the demonstrators. He proudly showed me where he had parked his cab sideways in the boulevard just down the road from Camp Crame. He said he had stood with the nuns who had stared down the tanks.
After Marcos was deposed in 1986, the euphoria in the country was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Nearly everyone was wearing yellow and was making the “L” sign with their index finger and thumb. The sign stood for the second word of PDP-Laban, the People’s Power movement that had ousted Marcos. The wearing of the yellow color signified that people should never forget all of the political opponents that Marcos had jailed. Indeed, the dissidents were now set free and many of them went on to become cabinet members and other high-level positions and start their own cycle of plundering. Generally in the Philippines, when there is a change of government in Manila, inevitably one band of grafters replaces another. The corruption resumes. This chronic corruption combined with a series of natural disasters has made the Philippines one of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia. In the last election, the voters were so fed up with the graft year after year that they elected tough guy Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao to clean it up. We’ll see how successful he is. The jury is still out on that.
On that same initial trip, I got an even closer look at Philippine politics. It was on a flight to Cebu that I met a personable fortyish woman named Paz Regalado. She is the second widow in our story. Mrs. Regalado was on her way back to her home in Cagayan de Oro on the north end of the island of Mindanao. She had just been in Manila discussing a position in the new government. Her late husband had been the law partner of Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, former mayor of Cagayan de Oro. Pimentel had been one of the dissidents that Marcos jailed several times and he was now a national hero. As a reward, he was about to be appointed Minister Of Local Government, a very powerful position. Marcos had centralized power in Manila. All mayors and governors were appointed out of Manila instead of being elected locally. Nene Pimentel had an important position in the new government and he wanted Paz Regalado to be his chief administrative officer. I could tell she was both elated and anxious about it. Her anxiety was understandable. She was the widow of a small town lawyer and had been busy raising their daughter. Although she was a graduate nurse, she hadn’t worked in several years. Pimentel knew her and trusted her which apparently was more important to him than competence.
In that first meeting with Paz Regalado on that Cebu Pacific flight, I mentioned to her that I would be coming back to the Philippines on my summer vacation to do some traveling and possibly consulting. I said it was an exciting time to be in the Philippines with a dictator leaving and a new president coming in. We exchanged contact information and she said she would enjoy taking me sightseeing. When I contacted her in June, she told me she had taken the job at the Ministry of Local Government. She asked where I was staying and I told her I had arranged to stay with my friend Ken in a mansion he was renting in the upscale suburb of Greenhills. Ken was an American who had an import business that he ran out of his home. He had a staff of about 15 Filipinos that either worked in the office, served as his driver or maintained the mansion. Equipped with a pool and all the other amenities, it was a comfortable place to spend the summer.
During my stay in Manila, Paz would come by the house, pick me up with her car and driver and take me to see the various sites around Manila. We saw the old Spanish Fort and the US military cemetery at Ford Bonifacio. We even went to the presidential palace where they still had 2500 pairs of Imelda Marcos shoes on display. Sometimes I wondered when Paz had time to do her job. It seemed to me that a chief administrative officer would have a lot to do. When I asked about it, she just laughed. She told me that our driver usually drove for the minister. However, Nene Pimentel insisted on using his own car, driver and security. I assumed he didn’t trust people from Manila. I learned later that he had a very dangerous job at a very dangerous time. It was his job to fire and replace all the corrupt governors and mayors in the country. In Asian countries, when you “break someone’s rice bowl” retribution usually follows. I can see why he paid special attention to security. He only lasted a year in that job and moved on to higher office. He was elected a senator and became President of the Senate. His successor, however, wasn’t so careful or so lucky. Shortly after taking over from Pimentel, Jaime Ferrer and his driver were shot and killed on the streets of Manila. I never had a chance to check, but it may have been the same driver who took us sightseeing.
A couple of weeks after I arrived, Paz Regalado told me that the third widow in our story, the newly installed president, Cory Aquino and Paz’s boss, Minister Pimentel were going to her hometown of Cagayan de Oro on July 6 and 7, 1986 to make a major speech thanking the people for their support. Paz had to go a few days early to make some of the
arrangements and she wanted to know if I was interested in going with her. I said I was interested and agreed. We flew Philippine Airlines from Manila to the airport at Cagayan de Oro. As we descended the stairs from the plane, a group of dignitaries including the mayor were there to meet us. The mayor welcomed me and put a garland around my neck made of shells and capiz It was stamped with the seal of the city. I started to fully appreciate what an important job Paz really had. I was booked into the Executive Hotel in the center. Paz went on to her home in the suburbs.When we arrived at the stadium on the day of the speech. I was shocked to see the size of the crowd. It was estimated that at least 10,000 people were there that day. Many were still wearing the yellow celebrating the People’s Power victory. Yellow balloons were everywhere. Military paratroopers para-sailed into the stadium. The Media were all in place. I had a seat a few rows back from the speaker’s stand. As I surveyed the crowd, I thought, what an opportunity for a president show a vision, to set a course for the future, to start changing the country for the better. I was set to hear the soaring rhetoric of a Kennedy or Reagan speech. I thought this may be an historic, pivotal moment for the Philippines.
The first a couple of local dignitaries spoke in the local Visayan dialect. Then, Nene Pimentel, the local and national hero, spoke in a mishmash of Visayan and Tagalog, the main dialect of the country. I could understand very little of what he said but I could tell he was extremely popular with the crowd. Next came the moment we were all waiting for. Newly elected Pres. Cory Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino, took the stand. Basically, for 30 minutes in clear English, she listed why Ferdinand Marcos was a scoundrel and a rogue and lower than pond scum. She reeled off a seemingly endless litany of his misdeeds. I didn’t hear a single positive, future-oriented comment. What was her vision for the country? What was the mission of her administration? Where do we go from here? I thought to myself, this country is still in trouble. As it turned out, I was right. Cory Aquino proved to be an honest, kind, but naïve person who would gather her cabinet around a long conference table and explain to them all the things she would like to see done. They would say, yes ma’am, and smile and then go out and line their pockets the same way politicians always had. During her term, the corruption continued unabated.
One good example is the problem my friend Ken began having shortly after Aquino took office. He had been importing fruit in containers by air from New Zealand. The newly appointed manager of customs at the airport informed him that the bribe would be doubled in order to get a container through customs. If he refused to pay it, his containers would be pushed off to the side and left in the tropical heat to rot. Later, the same manager teamed up with another importer to import apples from New Zealand. From then on Ken was not allowed to bring in apples at all. The customs manager and his partner cornered the market on all apples coming into the Philippines by air. Ken told me that when the man was first appointed by President Aquino, he drove a small Toyota. One month later, he traded up to a Mercedes.
Some of Aquino’s successors have made attempts at curbing the corruption. It usually comes back stronger than ever. The sad thing is that over the years the corruption has caused the economy to fall behind other countries in Southeast Asia. Much of the money that should have gone into roads, bridges, airports, clean water and sewers has been pocketed by many (not all) politicians. Although the economy is showing some signs of growth recently, 2.2 million overseas workers still need to go abroad each year to make a decent living that they can’t make in the Philippines.
The latest president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his predecessors, has vowed to clean up the corruption. What is different about him is that he’s taken strong action against the country’s drug dealers which has allegedly included several thousand nonjudicial executions. Criticized for his heavy hand, it remains to be seen how effective he will be with political corruption. I hope he succeeds. I love the Philippines. I truly wish them well.