The Philippines: From Despot to Exile

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

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In September 1972 Marcos imposed martial law, citing the growing strength of the Communist New People's Army (N.P.A.) and the collapse of public order, some of which he may have orchestrated. In a meticulously executed crackdown, thousands of students, journalists, labor leaders and politicians were arrested. The government shut down the press and confiscated all firearms. Marcos then set the country on a forced march toward what he called the New Society.

One-man rule had its salutary effects. Inflation dropped, and government revenue increased. If Marcos had dismantled martial law by 1977, said his former Defense Chief Juan Ponce Enrile later, "he would have been enshrined as the best President the country ever had." Marcos, however, decided to hold on to absolute power and legitimized it as "constitutional authoritarianism."

With rising hubris, Marcos tailored Philippine politics to fit his needs even as the Treasury was slowly siphoned into his secret Swiss bank accounts. With the loyalty of a military that kept his enemies under control through detention, torture and murder, the President sat confidently in Malacanang, turning down all calls for democracy with pedantic arguments and withering hauteur. Marcos, said Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, "believes he is the only intelligent human being in the world."

The beginning of the end came in August 1983 with the assassination of Marcos' rival, Benigno Aquino. Marcos blamed the N.P.A., which had prospered during his dictatorship, but few Filipinos believed him. Public protests blossomed.

In November 1985, in a ploy to satisfy U.S. demands for the reinstatement of democracy, Marcos announced an election, confident he could still win. It was a stunning miscalculation. Marcos counted on the inability of the opposition to unite under a single candidate. Instead, his foes -- and the powerful Roman Catholic Church -- coalesced under Aquino's widow Corazon. The President's ) blatant attempts to steal the election stirred reform elements in the military and the public into the decade's first great exercise of People Power. With large elements of the military defecting, Marcos was effectively trapped within Malacanang, besieged by civilian mobs and air-force rocket attacks. Three days after the rebellion broke out, on Feb. 24, 1986, his family was evacuated by U.S. helicopters. Within 48 hours, Marcos was in Hawaii.

Six years before that ignominious flight, Marcos seemed to glimpse how his own downfall would come about. During a visit to Honolulu, he delivered a telling analysis of the decline of Presidents. "I do not care how brave a President is; I do not care how many medals he may wear," said he. "I do not care how well trained his guards may be. If he violates the will of the people, he shall be eliminated."

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