In the land of Marcos and Bongbong

The far north, Marcos people say, is the solid north, the land of unflinching supporters of the President. Much of it is tough and remote -- Taiwan is closer than Manila. And its main inhabitants, the Ilocanos, have a reputation for hard work and energy.

President Ferdinand Marcos was born here, in Ilocos Norte, and many of his advisers come from the area. These include Gen. Fabian Ver, his townmate, relative, and alter ego, currently on trial for the murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. The President's son Ferdinand R. Marcos, known as Bongbong, is the province governor; and the President's elder daughter Imee is a member of the National Assembly.

Most of the time Bongbong is in Manila, and the affairs of the province are handled by his vice-governor, Roque Ablan, a longtime Marcos operative who bears a certain resemblance to the late Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago. In the vice-governor's office in Laoag, the provincial capital, there is constant movement -- letters being delivered, shouted instructions, phone calls. It is, Mr. Ablan says, ``like a market.''

In the wild 1960s, Ablan reputedly commanded one of the largest private armies in the Philippines -- at least a couple of hundred well-armed men. He sounds rather hurt when asked about this.

``Look, I am a lawyer,'' he explains. ``I gave a lot of free legal aid, especially to soldiers and policemen. They were very grateful, and they'd call on me -- sometimes in uniform -- or go on trips with me. They liked me. So sometimes I would arrive in Manila with 50 men, and people would get the wrong idea. They were just friends.''

Ablan keeps in close touch with the Marcos family. On Jan. 20, he says, he went to the presidential palace for General Ver's birthday party. (Ver still lives in the compound of the palace).

The north is as solid as ever, Ablan says with some passion. Marcos will definitely run for reelection in 1987. But what he really seems to mean is that the political organization is solid. When the President goes, the organization will probably be open for bids. After Marcos, Ablan says, ``The party machine might change name, but it will still be in power.''

The mayor of Laoag, Rodolfo Farinas, is a Marcos loyalist, but a generation younger than Ablan. His father went to school with General Ver, and he is said to be close to Bongbong. Photographs of the mayor with President Marcos and General Ver sit on the mayor's desk. Even his penholder bears the crest of the National Intelligence and Security Authority, the intelligence organization headed by Ver.

The mayor's office is elegant and quiet. Petitioners wait outside. Mr. Farinas's analysis is similar to Ablan's, but more blunt. ``The north is solid as long as Marcos is around, after that it will crack.''

A family member might be able to hold it together, the mayor says. ``But even then he'd have a hard time.''

The Ilocos Norte political organization, Farinas says, is ``the President's personal machine: No one comes here without the President's approval, not even Enrile or Cojuangco.'' Juan Ponce Enrile, the defense minister, and Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., who controls the coconut industry, are two of the most powerful figures in the ruling party.

There are already hints of future splits. Asked how often Bongbong comes to the province, Ablan replies, ``Don't ask me. I often don't see him when he comes.''

But when Imee Marcos comes, he says, he usually travels with her. Associates of both Ablan and Bongbong agree that relations between the governor and the vice-governor -- who had aspired to both the governorship and the assembly seat -- are not always good. But, says someone close to Bongbong, the governor is not a long-term threat to Ablan. ``Bongbong doesn't have politics in his blood like his father; he's just following orders.''

Imee, the person adds, has turned into a ``real professional.'' When the assemblywoman comes to the province, she stays not in Laoag, but in the family home town of Sarrat, about 4 miles away.

Sarrat is picturesque and well maintained -- a tourist town without tourists. The loudest sound in the early morning is that of women by the river's edge, beating clothes clean with a wooden paddle.

The families of President Marcos and General Ver have been prominent in the town since records began in 1770. In 1774 Don Feliciano Pasion de Edralin (Edralin is the surname of Marcos's mother) was the town head. He was followed by Don Agustin de la Cruz de Ver. So it went for the next two centuries.

Today Marcos Avenue runs parallel to Ver Street, where General Ver's mother lives in some splendor. Opposite the Ver residence is the old church, the site of the wedding of Marcos's younger daughter, Irene, in 1983.

The church, like much of the town, was restored for the wedding. It was badly damaged by an earthquake two months later, on Aug. 17 -- four days before the assassination of Mr. Aquino -- and still looks as if it was hit by a bomb. Massive shreds of plaster hang over a gaping hole above the altar, and light streams through another big hole in the roof at the far end of the nave.

``We are just waiting for the funds to start repair work,'' the parish priest, Father Sarao, says disconsolately. The first family wants to do the job, he says.

How much will repairs cost? he is asked. ``The church's estimate is 2 to 3 million [pesos, or $114,000],'' the priest says, ``but the government says 10 million'' or $570,000. Sarrat was hit by another earthquake almost exactly a year later. The two quakes, people in Laoag and Sarrat say, were a sign.

The most detailed explanation of ``the sign'' came from Mr. Espejo, a pensioner who hailed me outside the Sarrat Post Office to ask me if I knew ``Eddie Johnson from New York City.'' Mr. Espejo said he is a cousin of the Ver family.

``People say there are two possible reasons for the earthquakes,'' Espejo said. ``One is that the President was born here. The other is because of a descendant of that man over there.'' He pointed toward a statue of Jos'e Ver, who in 1899 led the people of the town to fight the Americans.

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