Duterte’s announcement that the Marcoses would return part of their stolen wealth came as a surprise I completely unexpected. Duterte and the Marcoses were friends and because of a long and close friendship I thought he would not touch the issue of their hidden wealth during his term. We must support him for this daring act.
As a supporter of Duterte, I put it at the back of my mind and never stopped hoping that he would one day take up the issue that was consistent with his reform program.
So too with many supporters who thought it inconsistent with his program of reform as Belinda Aquino wrote in her book The Politics of Plunder. Neither will he let the Lopezes free for loans which were written off by the Aquino administration. That, too, will be looked at.
The search for the Marcos wealth and what they are willing to return would be incomplete without mentioning the effort of National Security Adviser General Jose Almonte and banker Michael de Guzman to get at the Marcos money in Swiss banks through a power of attorney secured by de Guzman’s connections with the Ver family. You’ll have to read Almonte’s recount of Operation Big Bird to know what kind of money we are talking about in Swiss banks. Almonte said $5 billion were identified and would have been with the Philippine government had not PCGG Chairman Jovito Salonga intervened. The Marcos money in the banks immediately changed the identification of the accounts and is now lost in Switzerland’s banking maze.
I was the Aquino government’s spokesperson in the trial and had a front seat witness to the, at times, bizarre proceedings. Although facts, laws and evidence were brought in in abundance, it was primarily a political drama.
When critics ask why she had escaped answering for the crimes committed during the Marcos dictatorship, she has a ready answer – “I was acquitted.” And that, she proudly adds, was in America, where justice cannot be bought. The suggestion is that having been acquitted by an American court wipes away her guilt for the crimes in the Philippines.
There were many factors that decided her acquittal but the most important was the venue. Reporters were surprised that Judge Keenan kept saying, “Why is this being tried in New York instead of Manila?”
The legal term for the charges against Imelda in New York was called RICO, short for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It was directed against her acts of racketeering and the transfer of money from the Philippines to the US and how it was moved from state to state. The prosecution worked hard and presented a thorough a case of some 360,000 documents and dozens of witnesses, some of whom were even flown in from Manila. The prosecution’s task was two-fold. It had to prove that the money was the fruit of corruption in the Philippines before it could go to the issue of RICO in the US.
Read my book The Verdict for the details of Imelda’s wanton spending. It might have taken me nearly 50 years to put it together but it was well worth the wait.
When Cosmopolitan magazine referred to Imelda as “the richest woman in the world” it was because of the power she had as the conjugal partner of the Marcos dictatorship, she had the money and resources of an entire country with close to a 100 million people most of whom were poor.
“The trouble with Americans, they think they are the only ones who can be rich. That’s really what makes them very angry with me. Why? Is it so wrong for someone like me coming from a third world country to enjoy the things they enjoy?”
If the Lopezes thought they had impressed her with their wealth, she would surprise them with what money and power can really buy when her turn came.
Her models for living in the style of the rich and famous were no longer the Lopezes or the Ayalas. When she visited the capitals of the world, she hobnobbed only with the rich – the really rich – like the Rockefellers, the Duponts, or heads of state and world bankers whom she so admired. (Or at least tried to hobnob with the elite. Gore Vidal mentions in his book The Lost Empire she was a known gatecrasher in international events to meet the high and the mighty.)
The receipts point to luxury items from jewelry to master paintings and prime real estate or houses and buildings that she would shop each time she went abroad. You can understand if she bought jewelry once in a while, a condominium in Manhattan (Donald Trump Tower by the way) or a Canaletto master painting. But the amount and urgency of her shopping in those days were different, more symptomatic of something ailing her.
I don’t really know how far Duterte would go to get at the Marcos hidden wealth or how much the Marcoses would be willing to turn over to the Philippine government. The task is formidable. But it has to be done. It will set the example that no matter how much you steal from government you will not get away with it. It is less about money than its impunity.
First stop would be the American prosecution in Imelda’s New York trial. Have they returned the documents turned over to them? The same audit will have to be made on exactly how much was spent in Imelda’s shopping and travels to know what kind of amounts we are talking about.
What happens now to the next generation? Will they continue the work of their forebears?
It was my eldest daughter, Veronica who proposed to Al Jazeera where she worked after CNN and BBC. The documentary linked our family story and the culture of impunity in the Philippines. It was a way through which she hoped to understand her own life.
The documentary was entitled Imelda and Me and I have included it in this epilogue because it answers Imelda’s question during the interview “Will this continue from generation to generation?” The answer is yes.
Duterte has started it and like his war against drugs will take more than one term. Life is a grim, never-ending cycle of struggle, victory and then back to struggle. But we are grateful he has begun it.