The Philippines: From Despot to Exile

From Despot to Exile In death as in life, Ferdinand Marcos stirs his homeland

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Fallen dictators age badly, even in Hawaii. Toward the end, Ferdinand Marcos, once overlord of the Philippines, had become a joke. He mumbled that he was living on charity, but visitors to his rented $2.5 million residence $ outside Honolulu saw the dozen servants, the 30 bodyguards and the chauffeured limousine. His wife Imelda was a regular at posh local shops and every now and then gave in to the temptation to show off her finery -- except for new shoes.

His eyes disappearing into puffy cheeks, a cervical collar ever at his neck, Marcos insisted he was too sick to travel to New York City for arraignment on charges of racketeering and real estate fraud. Still, he argued he was up to a trip to the Philippines, ready to win back his kingdom in MacArthurian style. Hawaii, Marcos proclaimed, was only his Elba. Everyone else knew it was St. Helena.

His last attempts at manipulation were unwitting acts in a black comedy. When his mother died in Manila, Marcos refused to give permission for her burial, using her corpse to prod the government of Corazon Aquino into allowing him to return to mourn. He was turned down. In December 1988 a physician testing the deposed President's fitness to travel to New York said Marcos faked pains. A week later, when Marcos was hospitalized with congestive heart failure, many scoffed. As if to spite his critics, Marcos became truly ill and died last week at 72. Imelda once said she might refuse to bury him unless Manila allowed her to bring the corpse home. But though Aquino had flags lowered to half-staff, she reiterated that Marcos, even in death, would remain an exile for an unspecified time. As Philippine forces girded for protests by Marcos loyalists, Washington banned planes from flying his remains to the islands.

At the zenith of his power, in 1981, Marcos said his country was caught between "a world that was dead and a world that was too feeble to be born." The vision that he alone could lead it to prosperity and greatness proved painfully illusory. He died his country's greatest villain.

Marcos could easily have been a hero. When he was first elected President of the Philippines, in November 1965, he had history within his grasp. His uncommon combination of political shrewdness and ironfisted determination gave a strong measure of national identity to the fractious Southeast Asian archipelago. Encountering minimal opposition when he took on dictatorial powers in 1972, Marcos thoroughly reordered Philippine economic and political life, impressing both his people and his key ally, the U.S., with his irreplaceability in one of the most strategic corridors of the world.

Deliberately patterning their life-style on John Kennedy's Camelot, Marcos and his wife enthralled most Filipinos when he initially took office. He also set about fulfilling his campaign promises of reforms in industry and education. But by his second term, in January 1970, the tide had begun to turn against the brilliant young President. Protesting the country's economic inequities, militant anti-American students pelted the Marcoses with rocks and bottles, forcing the couple to bolt themselves inside Malacanang Palace for their own security.

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