Assessing the Marcos Legacy


THE death of Ferdinand Marcos yesterday, more than three years after his political demise, will not erase the deep imprint he made during two decades of rule in the Philippines. Elected twice as president with great promise, Marcos extended his rule by declaring martial law in 1972, a move widely supported for a few years.

But then he tried to usurp the country's political system, military, and economy for himself, only to have all of them work to defeat him by February 1986, as his health was failing.

The Marcos legacy, woven deep into Filipino society, will likely last generations. Last July, for instance, a Manila university held debates on four topics: divorce, homosexuality, drugs, and Marcos.

``Much that marred his regime lives on,'' states Teodoro Locsin Jr., speechwriter for Corazon Aquino, Marcos's successor.

His authoritarian rule helped to bolster two insurgencies, Muslim and communist.

He politicized a once dutiful armed forces that subsequently became corrupt and abusive. As foreign debt topped $26 billion, average income for Filipinos was set back by a decade. Promised land reform stalled. Forests were rapidly depleted by Marcos-linked loggers. The education system was badly neglected.

Official corruption became severely embedded as Marcos centralized patronage.

Blatant opulence by his wife, Imelda, help to undermine his political legitimacy. A turning point in Marcos's image of visionary reformer came in 1977, say ex-supporters, when he began to give out gold watches with his image on the watch face.

As his reputation grew as an insincere reformer, he began to rely for support on his claim to being the only answer to a growing communist insurgency, even though many of his actions fueled the insurgency.

Charges that he and his ``capitalist cronies'' took billions of dollars from the country have not been totally proven, while attempts to recover millions in known Marcos assets overseas have had little success.

[The Associated Press notes that Marcos died without facing trial on US criminal charges stemming from his alleged plundering of the Philippine treasury during his two decades in power.

[A federal grand jury in New York indicted Marcos, his wife, and eight others on criminal racketeering charges in October. In April, the judge in the case separated Marcos from the other defendants, saying he was too ill to stand trial.

[In an interview with the AP in November, Marcos denied the allegations that he and Imelda had drained the Philippines of billions of dollars, and said he did not expect to live through a trial.

[``I'll take my destiny, whatever that may be, but I'm going to fight for my dignity and honor,'' he said.

[Marcos, a staunch US ally during his presidency, said he felt betrayed by the American justice system but held no hard feelings for presidents Reagan or Bush. In 1981, as vice president, Bush traveled to Manila and hailed Marcos as a trusted friend of the United States.

[Associates close to Marcos said he had hoped for a presidential pardon.]

Perhaps the most beneficial effect from the Marcos era is a lingering public will for reform and a commitment not to repeat his misdeeds.

He is also given credit for improving roads, bridges, electricity, and other infrastructure during the early years of martial law.

A clever and ambitious politician who knew better than most how to manipulate the shaky democracy in the Philippines, Marcos destroyed the country's two-party system.

In its place, he relied for power on local kingpins who were granted the right to control select markets, says Carl Lande, a University of Kansas professor.

Marcos was more like a sultan than a dictator, says Yale University researcher Mark Thompson. ``His personal rule was a mix of fear and reward to collaborators,'' he says. ``Marcos shared spoils with the military, but concentrated most in his own hands. Much of the military became his private army.''

Benigno Aquino, his strongest political rival, was put in jail for eight years during martial law, and then was released to go to the United States for medical treatment.

When ``Ninoy'' Aquino returned to Manila on Aug. 21, 1983, he was assassinated as he stepped off the plane. Marcos was widely perceived to be behind the killing.

The creation of a political martyr triggered a fast drop in Marcos's legitimacy among Filipinos and within the Reagan administration. Corazon Aquino, the widow of his slain rival, slowly rallied popular support. Forced to hold an election for president in February 1986, Marcos found Mrs. Aquino to be his sole contender. He rigged the voting to appear to win, only to engender public outrage.

On Feb. 22, 1986, his attempt to stop planning of an Army coup lead to passive withdrawal of military support, led by a reformist faction.

Four days later, fearing for his life as a ``people's power'' revolt spread, Marcos fled the Philippines in a US aircraft. Mobs stormed the presidential palace, and Aquino took power.

In his home of exile in Honolulu, Marcos faced US lawsuits and was barred by Aquino from returning home.

His attempts to support military revolt or street rallies back in the Philippines failed, despite a small but hard-core following.

Once touted by the US as a shining example of reformist democratic leader in Asia, Marcos died in disgrace, having left a torn nation struggling for economic and political recovery.

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