Visiting Ferdinand Marcos

by B.J. Stolbov


Ferdinand Marcos died in 1989, except in Batac.  Here, in this small town, in his home province of Ilocos Norte in the Philippines, the memory (and more) of former President Ferdinand Marcos is preserved.  His house is preserved, just as he left it.  Next door to it, now, is the Ferdinand Marcos Museum, where his portraits, photographs, press clippings, clothes, shoes, furniture, and other memorabilia are preserved.  And down a hallway, behind a locked door, opened only by a uniformed guard, in a starkly painted black room, coldly refrigerated, with a single spotlight shining down on a glass coffin, most creepily, is preserved ― Ferdinand Marcos.

Ferdinand Marcos, the son of a local politician, was born on September 11, 1917.  From early on, he was a brilliant student, public speaker, handsome, charismatic, controversial, and larger than life.  He scored a near perfect grade in his Law Board Examinations while in prison on charges of assassinating one of his father’s political rivals.  He argued his own case before the Supreme Court and had himself acquitted, on a technicality.  He was, by his own accounts, the leader of a guerilla group that fought the Japanese in World War II, maybe.  (More on that later.)

Always a man in a hurry, he met, courted, and married, in eleven days, Imelda Romualdez, a tall beauty, 13 years younger than he, from a powerful political family.  A successful lawyer, rich from his law practice and other unknown sources, Marcos was the youngest elected Representative in 1949, the youngest elected Senator in 1959, and the youngest elected President in 1965, and, in 1969, became the first President to be re-elected.

In 1972, after a staged assassination attempt on one of his Cabinet members, he declared Martial Law, suspended the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, assembly, political parties, and future elections.  He ruled with an iron, but open, hand.  Millions, possibly billions, of pesos passed through Marcos, his family, and his supporters. 

Although fabulously wealthy from graft and corruption, Ferdinand Marcos did not live extravagantly.  He dressed modestly.  He ate simply.  The money was just his means for getting more power and more control.  His weakness was women.  In exchange for women on the side, Imelda could spend as much as she wanted.  Imelda’s extravagance was part of his downfall.

In 1983, his political rival, Benigno Aquino, Jr. returned from exile and was promptly and very publically assassinated as he stepped off the plane.  Probably carried out by his supporters in the military, Marcos probably had nothing to do with it.  When informed, he threw up and cried.  Marcos, an old savvy politician, must have known that this was the beginning of the end.  In 1986, after a staged rigged election and an uprising called the “People Power Revolution,” and after the Reagan Administration finally pulled the plug on him, Marcos resigned from power.  He got on a plane expecting to go back home to Ilocos Norte, but instead was sent to Hawaii.  He was replaced as President by Benigno Aquino, Jr.’s widow, Corazon.  In declining physical and mental health, Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in 1989.

This begins the saga of Marcos’ dead body.  The Corazon Aquino Administration would not allow his body back in the Philippines.  Then, in 1993, the new President Fidel Ramos, a former General under Marcos, allowed the body to return to the Philippines.  The Marcos family and their supporters wanted him to be buried in the National Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila, even though his World War II heroics are disputed and probably fraudulent.  President Ramos refused.  And now approval for his burial there must come from the current President, Benigno Aquino III, the son of the assassinated Benigno Aquino, Jr. and the late President Corazon Aquino.  Where Ferdinand Marcos is to be finally buried remains a major dispute. 

When I came to Batac, I must admit that because of my own strange curiosity, I wanted to see Ferdinand Marcos for myself.  I came to visit Marcos because I wanted somehow to try to understand him.  What was it that drove a brilliant, handsome, immensely popular and respected person to become a corrupt, ruthless, dangerous, power-hungry tyrant?  I looked down at him and wondered what was it?  When I looked at him, he seemed so small and, frankly, waxy.  He was 72 years old, in very poor health and possibly demented, when he died.  Yet, this body, or whatever this was, had no gray hairs, no wrinkles, and, so it seemed, no worries or doubts.

I don’t understand tyrants.  Why spend your life trying to take over, expand, control, and defend an empire?  Remember that Alexander the Great cried because he had no more worlds to conquer.  Genghis Khan died an old, exhausted warlord.  Napoleon died in cold, lonely exile on a tiny island.  Hitler died from his own bullet to his head.  Old tyrants are thrown out, imprisoned, or killed, only to be replaced by new up-and-coming tyrants.  Why?  Don’t any of them know that the moment you get everything, you either want more or, more inevitably, you begin to lose it all?  As the Taoists say, “The full always empties.”

Ferdinand Marcos can, at least, someday, somewhere, rest in peace, knowing that the Marcos family dynasty will go on.  Former First Lady Imelda Marcos (yes, she of the thousands of shoes) is the 83-year-old Congresswoman from Ilocos Norte (and the richest woman in Congress).  Their daughter Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos is the Governor of Ilocos Norte.  Their son, Ferdinand “Bong-Bong” Marcos, Jr., is a Senator with a very public interest in being the President.  Although it is widely known that “Bong-Bong” did not inherit his father’s intelligence, he did inherit his father’s ambitions.

Wherever he is, Ferdinand Marcos can rest assured that, although tyrants come and go, his family will go on and on.

B.J. Stolbov is a novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, and travel writer.  He is the author of the novel “Last Fall” (Doubleday) and the book of poetry “Walks” (Foot Print Press).  He is a teacher of T’ai Chi and Chi Gong.  Currently, he is teaching high school English to Ilocano-speaking students in the Philippines. 
photo via Wikimedia Commons
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