THE LONG VIEW
Marcos in retrospect (2)
Martial law was a time when, to borrow a phrase made popular today, many were prepared to give up some of their freedoms to move the country forward. Never mind that a conservative estimate is that 20,000 were rounded up when it was imposed on Sept. 23, 1972, but backdated to Sept. 21 for its symbolic value. Thousands would remain in jail for years. Thousands more would die in the hills, be psychologically and physically maimed in torture chambers.
It was a time whose officially theme song proclaimed a New Society — and boy, did everything change. The barrio, he decreed, would once again be known by its ancient name, the “barangay.” The government, including the courts, was reorganized. Private armies were disbanded. Rice and corn lands subjected to land reform, and the entire country proclaimed a land reform area.
Dissidents were locked up, the press carefully controlled, Congress padlocked, a curfew from 12 midnight to 4 a.m. imposed, and the streets cleared of crime. The old oligarchy was crushed; old dynasties deprived of power and privilege. “Miracle rice” was introduced. Infrastructure ranged from roads to bridges, to wells and electric grids — and cultural, tourist and governmental structures. A new Constitution was imposed, with the voting age lowered.
Lew Gleeck says this reform phase ended in 1975, with the firing of Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor. It gave way to the sixth phase: the dictator who set aside reform and increasingly concentrated powers in his own hands from 1975 to when Marcos combined in himself the offices of president and prime minister in 1978, and who then presided over massive corruption from 1979 to 1981. Marcos’ New Society became the New Republic, officially our fourth.
Gleeck says this inaugural ushered in the seventh, and final phase of Marcos’ political life: Marcos as the ailing dictator whose regime began to unravel from 1981; from 1983 until his fall in 1986, he finally lost touch with reality, was ousted and exiled.
Oddly enough, these are seven stages for a man whose lucky number was 7. Foreign observers such as Ian Baruma would say this, quoting a shrewd observer like Adrian Cristobal along the way: “what Marcos and the First Lady wanted more than anything else was to be king and queen. They wished to shape the kingdom in their own image; like the Sun King, Louis XIV, Marcos wanted to be able to say, ‘L’etat c’est moi.'” According to Adrian Cristobal, “Marcos sees the Philippines as a society of tribes… And he sees himself as the great tribal chief, the ‘datu’ of pre-Spanish times. He destroyed much of the old network of family and regional loyalties to become the one and only patron, the king of Maharlika.”
Gleeck argued, convincingly I think, that to understand Marcos — his strengths and weaknesses — requires understand the culture in which he operated, a culture he tried to master, but which ultimately mastered him.
This is how Gleeck described our political culture: “The Philippine political culture is… personalistic but violent, religious but superstitious, corrupt but tolerant, hierarchical but distributionist, solicitous of form but not of content, legalistic, but careless of equity, media-obsessed and nationalistically vociferous with respect to rights but negligent to obligations.”
Marcos also once said that Filipinos “will accept any kind of radical reform provided it is constitutional and legal.” Whatever he might do, he did under the cloak of legality and proper form. Never mind if the substance came to be eroded by ill health and cronyism; until late in his regime’s life, many were content to ask, “What is your alternative?” “Who will you replace him with?” to justify their continued support.
It was only when the economic gains came crashing down in 1982-84, that the public decided it was fed up with having no freedom and no more economic gains.
Gleeck wrote, bluntly, that Marcos’ strategy was “steal first, buy later.” He did it so well that people came to admire his daring. Nothing breeds success like more success. James Hamilton-Patterson quoted an unnamed associate of the President saying: “I sometimes think he became bored… he was very greedy. Yet it wasn’t ordinary greed… I think he became bored a year or two after martial law because he didn’¢t really have that much daily governing to do… I quite favor the idea that crony capitalism as they call it began … when some of those cronies began to work out cunning schemes with him he was seduced by the intellectual challenge of it… He really wanted to know what he could get away with. It’s a Filipino trait, this constant testing to see how far we can go. He loved all that.”
In the end, as Marcos’ health and grip on power weakened, he came to validate what is said to be the fundamental weakness of all strong man regimes: as the saying goes, nothing grows under the shade of a great tree. Marcos could not — would not — provide for a successor; and it was on the fundamental question of what should come after Marcos that his regime began to crumble, and fell.
Why do we look back at the lives of people like Ferdinand E. Marcos? As long as humanity is around, a fundamental question will always be, how is power gained, maintained and ultimately for what purpose is it wielded?
And that he himself, with his virtues (and he had many: love of country, love of learning, discipline, loyalty) and his defects (confusing form with substance, ignoring how the means power is acquired is as important as how you use it, tolerance of his supporters’ mistakes, and his using armed force to compensate for some political weaknesses) are as much about our society’s strengths and weaknesses, as they were about his own.