Opinion: Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection was a glimpse into a spooky reign

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Even though most Filipinos alive today don’t remember what those days were like – half the country’s population was under 8 when Marcos’ parents were ousted – I certainly do. Those were days of wine and roses and an almost unprecedented kleptocracy – much of Imelda’s infamous 3,000 shoe collection is now said to be in a Manila museum.

The Marcos family’s stories of extravagance and corruption are legendary, and as a former local journalist, I get my fair share. In October 1976, the IMF/World Bank held its annual meeting in Manila. To prepare, the Marcoses engineered an unprecedented building boom – 14 new world-class hotels in just as many months. At a groundbreaking ceremony for the 700-room Plaza Hotel, 2,000 guests were treated to tables groaning under hors d’oeuvres.

Friends and relatives of the family owned these hotels, most built with government capital that did not match the priorities of the most desperately poor Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Philippines had received a World Bank grant to rebuild parts of the nearby Tondo slum in Manila, one of the worst in Asia. Those funds were gone – and Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense and then head of the World Bank was coming to town.

Imelda, governor of Metro Manila, simply ordered the slum to be demolished and paved over, with 60 families moved to vacant land 20 miles from the capital, where they had been dumped in a large field.

I discovered the malicious scheme. McNamara was furious, Imelda never forgave me. The day my story was published, I was sent to cover a coup in Thailand, while thousands of Filipino families remained in limbo – some in other parts of Tondo, some very far in the outskirts of Manila. Today, Tondo remains one of the poorest slums in Asia. And young Marcos has said little during his campaign, suggesting he will do a lot to change that, just one of many toxic consequences of his parents’ rule.

Through it all, Bongbong had a pampered and golden upbringing. Imelda, now 92, still supports her son’s ambitions without hesitation, albeit quietly lately. Dindo Manhit, CEO of the Stratbase ADR Institute, a leading political think tank in the Philippines, told me that Imelda had “disappeared from public view.”

Many people still believe that the Marcos family cared about ordinary people. Bongbong plays on it, loud. And some experts believe Imelda sees Bongbong ending the continued search for the vast funds they had stolen and the prison sentence that may still await her.

How is another Marcos even possible in this democracy that Filipinos have struggled to maintain even 40 years ago when I started reporting on his policies as Asia Bureau Chief Southeast for the New York Times. The nation was formed in 1946 after independence from the United States which freed it from brutal Japanese rule during World War II.

This time, at least, Bongbong and his team seem to be pulling a few pages straight from Donald Trump’s MAGA playbook. “It’s the rise of social media,” Manhit told me during our phone conversation from Manila. “In the Philippines, the second source of information – after television, more than any broadsheet, more than radio – is Facebook and YouTube,” he said.

“It’s one-sided propaganda,” Manhit added, and whenever a news outlet tries to label Bongbong’s comments as weird, his followers simply label it “fake news.” Sound familiar?

That the venal and violent years of the reign of Bongbong’s parents were anything but peaceful times filled with prosperity and law and order is simply shouted as false.

A Marcos supporter holds photos of the late dictator Ferdinand and his wife Imelda, as Ferdinand
Now the next generation of the Marcos clan are loosely talking, as Bongbong said in an interview with CNN Philippines, about plans to achieve unity – “prizes and jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. prices, prices, prices”.

Bongbong tried to ensure that his family – which, under parents Ferdinand and Imelda, ruled for 21 brutal and corrupt years from 1965 to 1986 – now returns to power by linking itself closely with the still much admired Duterte, by exploiting his daughter Sarah as vice-presidential running mate.

And young Marcos has done his best to rehabilitate his parents’ memory, describing his father as a “genius” in a CNN Philippines interview. This, despite the reality of martial law, imposed by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, when tens of thousands of people were arrested and detained, and thousands more tortured, forcibly disappeared and killed, according to Amnesty International.
Abroad, Marcos is seen as leaning towards China – his first visit after entering the race last fall was to his embassy. China continues to flex its muscles in the nearby South China Sea. Public opinion, which leans heavily toward the United States and Australia, could act as a drag, and indeed in some of his later remarks, Bongbong appears to have tempered his public comments.

Some critical questions remain. How much of this tilt away from China is for show? More importantly, would the Biden administration tolerate the same level of Marcos-type abuse or excess that a succession of U.S. presidents did during the two decades his parents were in power and which extended to Vietnam War era?

This allowed the United States to maintain a major air base at Clark Field in the Philippines, where I covered the arrival of thousands of evacuees in the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975, and a naval facility at Subic Bay. American oversight of both facilities ended after the end of Marcos’ reign.

Today, the United States has pegged its Asian strategic priorities to Australia, with billions of dollars worth of defense deals. But a benevolent Philippine government could be a most valuable asset in the region, provided the costs are not too high for either America or the Filipino people.
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