Let’s make a deal
On January 1, 1970, two days into his second term as president, Ferdinand E. Marcos made a huge announcement. He wrote about it in his diary. Unlike most diaries, his was never meant to be secret. Rather, it would be his version of events for future publication.
So what was his big announcement? He said that he was giving all his worldly goods, meaning his wealth, to the Filipino people. He also mentioned that much of his wealth came from the Yamashita treasure. He described what he was doing as a noble act. He had no more political ambitions, he said. Instead, the Marcos Foundation would give generously to education, science, and all those kumbaya things.
On January 3, he praised himself some more, noting with satisfaction it had made the news the world over. But, he wrote, doing the accounting for all his worldly possessions was more difficult than he thought. And he mentioned that no one was fit to succeed him as president.
On January 5, he wrote that he was having a lot of difficulties with the Marcos Foundation because an inventory was required and it turned out there was that thing called legitimes for the children –this was lawyer-speak for the share the law guarantees to one’s children. And then Marcos mentioned a big oopsie in his grand plan: “there are some assets that may not have been included in any statements of assets and liabilities,” he wrote, adding that, “They have to trace them, account for them and pay the necessary taxes if any.” That’s the big oopsie.
On January 8, he mentioned the Foundation for the last time, saying that the Manila Chronicle had started to attack him and his foundation. At the end of that month, on January 31, 1970, Marcos released a statement to the Philippines Free Press, stating that he had decided on the trustees for the Foundation: Juan Ponce Enrile, Geronimo Velasco, Cesar Virata, Cesar Zalamea, and Onofre D. Corpuz, and that incorporation papers had been filed in the SEC.
Now let me pause our story to analyze Marcos’ style. On one hand, a big announcement: a total donation by means of a Foundation. On the other hand, putting forward a clever basis for the announcement. There is no way a politician would have honestly earned that much money so you need an amazing story to explain it: Yamashita’s treasure.
On one hand, a claim to unselfishness: I have no more political plans, this is why can be so noble. On the other hand, laying down the basis for your future intent: no one is capable of succeeding me as president, however unselfish I am. Why, maybe, one day, I might have to stay longer. For the country. Even if I gave away everything.
To this day of course, Marcos loyalists believe this version down to the Yamashita treasure, but at the time until now, others were skeptical of the whole tale. The Free Press on its own observed the problems Marcos had himself identified in his diary: a man can give away his possessions but not that portion to which one’s wife and children are entitled. The magazine also pointed out people found the Foundation hard to believe. In the end, a plaque was placed on the wall of the Goldenberg Mansion, stating the donation. But that was about it as far as the Marcos Foundation was concerned.
But the real work, according to oppositionist Charlie Avila, was just beginning to take place, involving the Grand Duchy of Lichtenstein. Marcos, according to The Guardian, had stashed away his loot the old-fashioned way, at the start. He basically kept it under the mattress or in boxes like any small-time provincial crook. Then he started getting more sophisticated once he became president. He first started stashing money abroad in March, 20 1968, when Marcos, under the name William Saunders, and Imelda, under the name Jane Ryan, deposited nearly a million dollars in four accounts in Credit Suisse.
Avila listed how the Marcoses then moved their stash to Lichtenstein which had iron-clad secrecy laws, where foundations could be established. On February 13, the Ryan and Saunders accounts were close and a foundation with the jejemonic name of Xandy –with an X—was set up; on August 26, the Trinidad foundation was set up in Lichtenstein. The next year, 1971, on June 21, the Azio Foundation was set up. Then on September 24, the Rosalys Foundation; by October it had a bank account in the Swiss Bank Corporation. In December, the Charis Foundation was set up. The list goes on and on.
Then martial law on September 23 –not 21, mind you—happened in 1972. It suddenly all made sense, at that point. Of course you could give everything to the Filipino people in 1970. As president for life by 1972, you now owned the Filipino people. The national treasury was your piggybank, the laws could be decreed to benefit yourself. You had the Marcos Foundation for decoration but as we just saw, the real action was taking place in banks and with property brokers abroad. The world was your presidential oyster. Cracking open that oyster has taken over a generation.
And the story of how that oyster got fat and contained multiple pearls has been unfolding over thirty years, in New York, in Zurich, in Lichtenstein, in Hawaii and throughout the Philippines. It’s a story too complex to get into here, but you’re probably familiar with parts of it. Cronies tasked with hiding Marcos’ share of the loot, either taking the loot for themselves or giving up parts of it to the government so they can keep the rest, or both. Stories of jewels, of paintings, properties, shares of stock. A PCGG that has some successes and some spectacular failures. And throughout, the Marcos insisting on innocence even though by law, their loot is not theory, but fact: compensation for human rights victims during martial law and our highly flawed land reform program are both funded from Marcos ill-gotten wealth.
Which brings us to last week. The president blurted out that the Marcoses were keen on a settlement of their cases and were willing to return some gold and some money. According to him, the Marcoses had kept the gold, not because they stole it, but to keep it safe for future generations of Filipinos. To use an image popularized by Jessica Zafra, at that point millions of eyebrows were raised so high, they shot into orbit. Governor Imee Marcos was asked about it, and she replied, with untypical understatement, that they didn’t know anything about that sort of thing and better talk to our lawyers, thank you very much.
The President may have been indiscreet, but the Marcoses might be hoping that the third time’s the charm. That’s because this wasn’t the first time a president tried to push for a settlement with the Marcoses.
President Estrada, a Marcos loyalist, in his time proposed abolishing the PCGG. He wanted a settlement. It’s likely he was even willing to bury Marcos in the Libingan. But he ran out of time. President Arroyo proposed settlements too, during her time, but she lacked the popularity to settle matters with the Marcoses and major institutions back then still had the spine to keep her in check. Today, the situation is different. The Senate is meek and mild; the Supreme Court is far less intimidating than it used to be. The PCGG lacks backing from the top. The Ombudsman has been threatened. And, in case you’ve been living under a rock all this time, there is the possibility that a Marcos restoration will take place, courtesy of the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, which happens to be the Supreme Court.
So your eyebrows may be in orbit, and some of you might ask, how can the Marcoses settle when it would be tantamount to an admission of guilt? Think of it another way. A settlement would allow that most precious political thing: a clean slate. Thirty years erased, just in time to plan for the next thirty.