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In the Philippines, the Marcos family is a blueprint for authoritarianism

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The relationship between the U.S. and China has always been complicated, so having friends in the region probably helps. Earlier this month, President Biden met with Philippines President Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr., and earlier this year, the U.S. was granted access to more military bases in the Philippines. Marcos hopes to repair relations with the White House after years of tension with former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte. But this isn't the first time a Marcos has sought to work closely with the U.S. NPR's history podcast Throughline recently told a story of Bongbong's father, Ferdinand E. Marcos, a democratically elected leader turned dictator. Here's reporter Cristina Kim.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: When Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda first started campaigning for the 1965 presidential election, they captivated the Filipino electorate.

SHEILA CORONEL: He and Imelda were quite a glamorous couple. They were likened to John and Jackie Kennedy. They liked to promote themselves as the Philippine Camelot.

KIM: That's Sheila Coronel, a professor and director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

CORONEL: They were a good-looking couple, and they sort of represented the new Philippines.

KIM: Together, they crafted a careful image of themselves as the strong man and the beauty, capable and charming, stern but loving.

CORONEL: If you look especially at the foreign coverage at that time, they were seen as, like, these new leaders who were coming forward to lead this country and bring about, you know, the promise of Philippine progress and democracy.

KIM: And it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERDINAND MARCOS: I solemnly swear that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill the duties of president of the Philippines.

CORONEL: When he was inaugurated president in 1965, Marcos said, this nation can be great again. They came at a time when people wanted to believe that the Philippines was a rising star of the Asian region and that it had a bright future ahead of it and that democracies were going to lead them to that future.

KIM: In the beginning, Ferdinand Marcos seemed to deliver on his campaign promises. With money from the U.S., he built roads and schools and help the country produce enough rice to feed itself. And he strengthened the relationship with the U.S., which was caught up in the Vietnam War and needed the Philippines' nearby military bases. Things were going well, but then...

CORONEL: Things started stirring up in Marcos' second term.

KIM: After his reelection in 1969, Marcos' Camelot quickly devolved into chaos.

CORONEL: There were protests for land reform.

KIM: Oil prices were up.

CORONEL: There were protest for student rights.

KIM: And a growing communist movement promised to shake up the corrupt elite rule that had never really gone away.

CORONEL: And there was a political system that was unable to contain all of this moving tectonic plates in society.

KIM: And in September 1972, after months of protests and unrest in the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos finally made his move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCOS: My countrymen, as of the 21st of this month, I signed proclamation No. 1081, placing the entire Philippines under martial law.

CORONEL: Marcos' goal was to stay in power. The only way he could stay in power was to declare martial law and make himself dictator.

KIM: Overnight, streets that had been filled with the sounds of protest turned silent. To legitimize their power and rule, the Marcoses controlled everything people saw.

CORONEL: Anything that showed Marcos weak or sick was censored. Anything about the family wealth was censored, and the critical news was censored. Anything that showed Imelda's double chin, for example, even photographs were censored.

KIM: His regime jailed and silenced political opponents. And all the while, Marcos continued to curate his image as a great hero - the past, the present and the future of the Philippines.

CORONEL: He saw himself as the culmination of the long struggle to build an independent and proud country. And so he commissioned historians to write history books that said his new society was the inevitable end of this striving for national greatness.

KIM: But the shiny veneer surrounding the Marcos family began to crack in the late 1980s, and in 1986 it exploded into what is now known as the People Power Revolution. Everyday people gathered in protest, surrounding the gates of the presidential palace.

CORONEL: And I remember - I don't know if I'm imagining it, but I remember hearing the whir of helicopters. Those were the helicopters that were taking the Marcos family out of the presidential palace.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BLADES)

KIM: The Marcoses were airlifted by U.S. security forces to Hawaii, ending Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos' 21-year reign as the leaders of the Philippines. In the aftermath, the Marcoses were accused of stealing billions of dollars from state coffers as well as thousands of human rights abuses. So when Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in 1989, it seemed like his legacy as dictator was set in stone. But in 2022, after years of reframing his father's rule as a golden age and his father as a national hero, Ferdinand's son, Bongbong Marcos, became the president of the Philippines. The Marcoses were back.

CORONEL: You know, people just have fuzzy memories of the Marcoses. The Philippines didn't do a good job of revising textbooks to show the next generation what really happened during the Marcos era.

KIM: And Sheila says this isn't a story that's unique to the Philippines.

CORONEL: History is being written everywhere. Vladimir Putin is revising history to show that Ukraine has always been part of Russia. Narendra Modi is recasting Indian history as - primarily as Hindu history. So the use of history, even here in the United States to justify autocracy, the suppression of dissent, to mythologize certain rulers and to demonize certain political, religious or ethnic groups is prevalent around the world, and the Marcoses are part of what's an emerging and very dangerous global trend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: That was Sheila Coronel speaking with Throughline reporter Cristina Kim. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christina Kim