Burying a Dictator

With global attention on the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, there’s been little notice of the burial in Manila’s Heroes Cemetery of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who died in 1989. He was finally interred there recently thanks to wildly intemperate current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, who behaves as an aspiring authoritarian and apparently admires Marcos, despite or because of his repressive martial law and massive theft from state coffers.

After years of USA alliance, Marcos was effectively dropped by the Reagan Administration, which realized 20 years was more than enough for the grasping strongman, who had become a political and philosophical hindrance to the Reagan democracy agenda.  Although rightly credited for helping to facilitate the liberation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union’s fall, the Reagan years also resulted in the eventual collapse of many rightist dictatorships, especially in Latin America.  

Incoming Reaganites had faulted the Carter Administration for undermining rightist regimes through human rights advocacy while facilitating the empowerment of more repressive anti-American dictatorships, as in Nicaragua and Iran. UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a political scientist, had distinguished between rightist authoritarians and leftist totalitarians, with the former being preferable. But ironically rightist dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina and Chile fell during the Reagan years or shortly afterwards, as did South Africa’s apartheid regime, and South Korea’s military dictatorship. Taiwan also democratized. El Salvador, despite a leftist insurgency, transitioned to democracy under Christian Democrat and Reagan ally Jose Napoleon Duarte.

Ferdinand Marcos and his infamously ambitious wife Imelda had visited the Reagan White House and regarded the Reagans as friends. Vice President George Bush had disingenuously hailed Marcos’ commitment to democracy while attending his 1981 reelection inauguration. American presidents since LBJ had appreciated Marcos as a relatively stable ally especially after Indochina, where Marcos had provided Filipino troops to serve alongside America, fell to communism.  Marcos could not ignore counsel from Senator Paul Laxalt, a Reagan confidant, to call a snap election in 1986 to burnish his legitimacy. Marcos claimed reelection victory, amid widespread allegations of fraud, which fueled massive People Power marches against him and for his electoral opponent Corazon Aquino, whose statesman husband had been imprisoned by Marcos and later mysteriously murdered when returning from USA exile.

Manila’s Cardinal Archbishop Jaime Sin gave crucial support for Aquino during the protests, as did eventually Defense Minister Fidel Ramos, later himself president.  By phone Senator Laxalt, who continued to play his assigned role, urged Marcos to quit.  Marcos appealed directly to Reagan in late night phone calls, with Imelda calling Nancy Reagan, to no avail. USA support was gone, and the Marcoses fled to Hawaii. Imelda, among other emblems of excess, left behind thousands of her shoes, a tiny fraction of the corruption probably entailing hundreds of millions of dollars if not more.  At their Manila palace, Imelda had across decades sumptuously entertained USA celebrities, and gossip alleged her hospitality extended to her bedroom, with actor George Hamilton among others. Conservative commentator William Buckley later observed he had been a Marcos guest but, he sardonically rued, had never been invited into her embrace.

The Marcoses of course lived lavishly in Hawaii, and after he died in 1989, she was often mawkishly photographed with his waxen corpse, which was mummified for her continued company and display. Imelda professed great Catholic devotion, and I once met an American priest who had been a chaplain to her.  Her faith didn’t seem to constrain her greed or her ambition. She aspired for a return to political power, which included his burial with honor in Manila.  Supposedly he had promised a return of some stolen wealth if allowed burial with his mother in the provinces, but Imelda, now an elderly Filipino congresswoman, always wanted him at Heroes Cemetery, akin to America’s Arlington National Cemetery, dedicated to veterans and leaders.  

Much of Marcos’ much vaunted WWII record of fighting the invading Japanese was later revealed to be fraudulent, his claims to a multitude of decorations, including the USA Medal of Honor, were demonstrably false. He may in fact have gained early release from Japanese captivity because his family collaborated. Current President Duterte, disagreeing with most of his predecessors, claimed Marcos as a former president was entitled to burial at Heroes Cemetery.  Protests and litigation continued until the end, when the Philippines military participated in a November 18 private burial at the cemetery.

Duterte is a flamboyant populist who celebrates the extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and who is also, unlike most Filipino elites, outspokenly anti American. Marcos’ shuddering of the legislature, muzzling of the press, and arrest of thousands of political opponents, likely inspires his quiet admiration, although Dutarte claims to disapprove Marcos’ years of martial law. Likely he recalls and resents the American role in Marcos’ collapse. The official interment of the dictator and brazen thief does not bode well for Filipino democracy.

Marcos was swept aside 30 years ago in the early part of a global resurgence for democracy, championed by a reinvigorated United States. Democracy has advanced mightily since then, but currently faces hostile international currents, and has no global champion like President Reagan. Poseurs like Marcos were once seen as passé. But their global hour may yet return.

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