In 1960, Richard Attenborough went to the new Hebrides, now known as Vanuatu. This was one of those beautiful Pacific islands whose peace had been shattered during World War II when they were turned into busy air bases for the Allies. The sight of cargo planes unloading the riches of the West—from Spam to tents tractors—impressed the natives of Tanna island who enjoyed the bounty of GI goods. Then, when the war ended, the Americans left and suddenly the cargo was gone. The islanders turned the experience into the basis of a political and religious movement, which has come to be known as a Cargo Cult.
The Cargo Cult members Attenborough interviewed built red crosses, had a mystical radio that had no wires but which transmitted mysterious signals to a lady in a trance, its members carried bamboo rifles, and painted “USA” in red on their chests. They threw away their money, and cleared landing strips in the forests, expecting a savior named John Frumm to come back and bring cargo in a plane to make them all happy and rich. There have been new variations on this mythology. When Prince Philip visited in 1974, there arose a Prince Philip Cult, for example.
The scientist Richard Dawkins, after viewing Attenborough’s program, says Cargo Cults can be said to operate on the Science Fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, which is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the face of such magic, Dawkins said Cargo Cults prove four things:
1. Cults can spring up with amazing speed;
2. The origination process quickly covers up its tracks, meaning the explainable disappears into the unexplainable belief;
3. Similar cults can spring up independently, which suggests the tendency of people to want to believe;
4. Cargo cults have similarities not just to each other, but to older religions, which undergo their own kind of evolution for the religions that survive.
Fast forward to 2017 and a kind of Cargo Cult of our own, which grabbed our attention when, over the weekend, thousands appeared in UP Los Baños, seemingly out of nowhere. These people had paid thirty pesos each to ensure a monthly income of ten thousand pesos for four months, representing their share of the Marcos gold. This was promised by an organization calling itself One Social Family Credit Cooperative, which sold a pamphlet copyrighted 2016 by something called Bullion Buyers Limited, or BBL.
BBL is said to have been founded in 2011 by Emmanuel Destura and Felicisima Cantos. Destura claimed his father, a former Bicol mayor, had been entrusted by Ferdinand Marcos with gold in Switzerland. Charged with estafa, they went into hiding in 2013, only for Destura to reemerge in UPLB last weekend, speaking for One Social Family which was using the materials of the now-banned BBL.
We know all this because luckily for the public, Joel Ariate Jr., a university researcher at UP’s Third World Studies Center, has been on the trail of this group ever since his mother encountered one of its recruitment drives in Bicol in December, last year. It’s your standard networking, or pyramiding, scheme. You pay two thousand to recruit, in turn, other members who pay thirty pesos each, who then get that forty thousand pesos in four months promise. But as a leader, your two thousand pesos gets you a promise of one million pesos, to be followed thirty days later by one million dollars. Yes, dollars.
But here’s the rub, according to Ariate. The Marcos booklet singing the praises of the late dictator dates back only to 2016, and if you’ve been following the news, a month ago what hogged the headlines was the spectacular announcement that the Marcoses were willing to deal with the government to return gold the President claimed the Marcoses said they had hidden to protect it for future generations of Filipinos.
Cause and effect. Gold glitters in the news starting in August, and pyramiding gains a new lease on life in September—armed with a brochure as propaganda for the rehabilitation of the Marcoses. The pamphlet issued in 2016 originated in 2004 and part of its contents made it into Solicitor-General Jose Calida’s submission to the Supreme Court defending the burial of the late dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had to disassociate his clan from the scammers in UPLB, but the propaganda had been spread. Manna from Marcos had proven itself a powerful motivator of faith and greed.
Imelda Marcos of deuterium fame had known this all along. Gold as the foundation of their fortune was a tale told by Marcos even before martial law. It continues to be the bedrock of their claims to a legitimate fortune. There are two flavors to this story. The first is that the young Ferdinand as a humble lawyer started trading in gold.
The second, more exciting one, was chronicled by Sterling Seagrave who wrote “The Marcos Dynasty” among many other books. It’s a kind of Dan Brown conspiracy theory except it claimed to be non-fiction.
In Reader’s Digest condensed form, it’s basically this: General Tomoyuki Yamashita and friends hid the confiscated treasure of the Imperial Japanese Army all over the Philippines, because it could no longer be brought back to Japan. Ferdinand and friends found it, others like a man named Rogelio Roxas claimed Marcos took it from those who found it, and that’s how he got rich.
In Hawaiian exile, Marcos dazzled old friends with visions of gold deposit certificates, and used it as bait to try to get people to help him swing a deal to come back home.
So, Doy Laurel said Marcos was willing to give half back to come back; tycoon Enrique Zobel said the same thing, too, and said Marcos had shown him piles of gold certificates.
But, as Buddy Gomez, former executive assistant of Zobel who was in Hawaii at the time as our consul-general, recently recounted, Marcos was trying to get a 250-million-peso loan from Zobel, who declined. But he was nice enough to pass on Marcos’ message.
Today, the number tossed around is that the Marcos gold amounts to 7 thousand tons of gold. A financial analyst I recently talked to observed that amounts to close to fifteen trillion pesos or a year’s worth of GDP. Working backwards, in 1965-86 average values for gold, back then it would have been worth 74 billion dollars or twice the Philippines’ GDP in 1986. You cannot stockpile more than the entire country is worth. Nor keep it hidden since it’s almost twice what the US government keeps under guard in Fort Knox.
But without even touching the kooky topic of gold, enough has been researched to suggest a far more logical source for the Marcos billions. He made his fortune the old-fashioned way, he skimmed it.
As a congressman and then a senator, Marcos mastered the prime sources of graft in those days in the 40s, 50s, and 60s: import and dollar licenses, when the economy was heavily regulated by the government, and Chinese immigration quotas.
As The Guardian summarized, and we’ve mentioned this before, from his second term onwards, he went from skimming to plundering. It’s just that the numbers, by any measure, are staggering and the corporate raiding that took place was so intricate it fulfills Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law. Put it another way, any sufficiently advanced system of plunder is indistinguishable from magically manufacturing gold bars.