The post-martial law years replaced its brutal and criminal history with stories of glamorous parties and decadent lifestyles. But was there really anything to celebrate about?
Former President Ferdinand Marcos died in exile a day before I turned one, but the effects of his two-decade-long regime still haunt the country today. I grew up with a detached kind of ambivalence towards the Marcoses. I never truly heard about the horror stories of that time, safely cocooned from most of the aftermath of martial law. The little I knew of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos was about their ostentatious spending and extravagant lifestyle, my mouth falling agape in awe and terror when I heard all of the stories, thinking of it all as more like delayed gossip than actual history. Other Filipinos have not been as lucky as me.
Prior to Marcos’ son, Bongbong, running for the vice presidency, most of what was being said about the Marcoses had to do with their wealth — the obscene amount of money they allegedly stole. Thirty years later and people look back on the Malacañang parties former First Lady Imelda Marcos habitually threw in the ‘70s, the outrageous shopping sprees abroad, as though it were simply a peek into lifestyles of the rich and the famous, instead of manifestations of national theft. “Imeldific” was a word we actually allowed to be used to refer to beastly displays of opulence.
But can we stop cooing over the thousands of Imelda’s shoes when the entire country is practically on its deathbed, working to pay off billions of dollars in debt? Or the lavish parties they had with socialites, in swingin’ Manila, while activists kept disappearing with no warning and return? Why aren’t we mad at these photographs, this proof of indecorous luxury, while the rest of the country has been suffering for it? Why aren’t we angry that they don’t feel sorry about it at all?
A lot of people are in an uproar over the audacity of Bongbong to actually run for the vice president spot, but this family’s staunchest supporters have been up in arms in defense. And, honestly, this isn’t an anti-Bongbong appeal; I don’t care if you hate yourself enough as a Filipino to reinstate a Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. into high office. This is more about turning one’s perspective just a little bit sideways to truly examine at what cost all the glitz and glamour of the Marcos family came. By talking about all of this spending flippantly, with an air of detachment, we’re excising it from the context of our national history. We keep talking about the wealth they have, either in awe or disbelief, without talking about how they actually came into that wealth.
And maybe, at this point, it’s still conjecture, because there hasn’t been proper investigation or a solid criminal indictment, because we haven’t even demanded that. But the fact remains that during Marcos’ time in office — glowing as it may have been during his first term — the Philippines’ national debt grew from $2 billion to $30 billion. All of the parties, the trips abroad, countless pairs of shoes and art and higher education — everything millions of Filipinos can’t have today — these things came from something, and we, as a nation, have to start asking where it all came from.
Many decades after this particularly harrowing period in Philippine history, not a lot has changed in the grand scheme of things. And maybe this is why we have chosen to remember a more golden time, conveniently forgetting what happened after that. I’m aware that it’s not just the Marcoses that are accused of plunder. People in positions of power get away with it every day. It’s not particularly helpful to point fingers at other people who may also be criminals, instead of holding them all accountable.
My point, simply, is that we ought to want more for our country and for ourselves. We owe it to ourselves to start asking questions and demanding the truth, as ugly as the truth may sometimes be. We have to do this because we deserve better than sepia-tinted photographs of the golden kind of life that we can’t even remember ourselves.