(Editor’s Note: The following is just an excerpt of what the author wrote about former first Lady Imelda Marcos.)
The official customs list drawn up when they arrived into exile in Hawaii reads like pure fantasy:
? 22 Crates of Cash valued at $717 million dollars
? 300 crates of assorted jewellery Value undetermined.
? $4 million dollars worth of unset precious gems contained in Pampers
? $7.7 million dollars worth of jewellery, including a gold crown encrusted
with diamonds, three tiaras, 65 Seiko and Cartier watches
? A box, measuring 12 feet by 4 feet, crammed full of real pearls.
? A 3 foot solid gold statue covered in diamonds and other precious stones.
? $200,000 dollars in gold bullion and nearly $1 million dollars in Philippine
? Discovered among their luggage too were deposit slips worth $124 million
dollars for banks in the US, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.
A week ahead of their departure 2,000 tons of gold, worth $22 billion dollars, had been dispatched to Australia but, on a tip off, was intercepted by the vigilant Australian Customs. Weekly shuttle flights, transporting crates containing money, period furniture, antiques and Old Master paintings were reported to have flown to Hong Kong during the six months prior to their downfall in February 1986. A further $250 million dollars worth of jewellery was also confiscated from a friend of Imelda’s who was
The famous Blue Diamond caught smuggling them out of the country for
bought by Imelda Marcos her.
And this was probably just the beginning. Over two decades later the Philippines government is still trying to locate all the Marcos assets. Imelda has not helped them. She has claimed the Fifth Amendment. She has obfuscated. She has bribed. And she has lied. She told the Philippine commission charged with retrieving the stolen funds:
“If you know how rich you are, you aren’t rich. I have no idea how rich I am!”
Following a request from the Philippine government, the Swiss government, for the first time ever in its history of secret banking, froze all assets they suspected of belonging to any member of the Marcos family. In the past five years the Swiss government revealed the existence of yet another Marcos account, holding almost $20 billion! And so it seems quite possible that one day we might actually find out just how rich the Marcoses were.
After my arrival in the Philippines, just three years into her husband’s first presidential term, I became fascinated by Imelda Marcos and proceeded to write about her often, mainly in very unflattering terms. My best friend Betsy Romualdez, a writer and poet, happened to be Imelda’s niece and so I was fortunate to have access to many inside stories about the First Lady, more so than most Filipino journalists at the time.
I was still living in Manila in 1974 when Imelda was hosting the 23rd Miss Universe contest. On the night of the main event the beauties and the foreign Press were lined up for hours in the lobby of Imelda’s brand new Cultural Centre building waiting for the First Lady to show up. Eventually her limousine swept up the driveway and Imelda regally stepped out. As she passed down the line of girls, a bit like royalty, she stopped occasionally to shake hands with them and share a few words.
When she reached Miss South Africa she asked, “What does your father do?” The nervous young woman replied, “Daddy? Oh, he’s in the mining business!” “That’s a coincidence ! “ Imelda immediately retorted, sweeping her arms around the magnificent lobby of her new Cultural Centre, “I’m in the mining business too! That’s mine, that’s mine and that’s mine. In fact everything you see here is mine!”
This may have been Imelda’s cynical attempt at a joke, and a handful of journalists among our group giggled politely, but it had a portentous ring. For less than 15 years later, Imelda, her husband and their cronies, would own an estimated 85% of the nation’s wealth, commerce, land, produce, dollar and gold reserves. By their departure in 1986, the country would be left reeling, bankrupt and riddled by foreign debt from which it is still recovering today.
Although Marcos had taught Imelda how to play dirty politics, her drive and ambition were entirely her own. As she succeeded in winning votes for him so he rewarded her with jewellery. She, in turn, would tell journalists and friends that these jewels were Romualdez family heirlooms she had inherited along with a palatial home, priceless antiques, paintings and a silver collection.
In the early days, during the 1965 presidential campaign, Marcos was able not only to switch from being the leader of the Liberal Party to being the leader of the Nacionalista Party but also to clinch the election. But political pundits and colleagues agreed it was Imelda who influenced the result. Marcos was a brilliant tactician, they said, but it was Imelda’s charm, persuasion and sweet singing voice that ultimately won him the presidency.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say,” a political aide told me, “that Imelda used plane, motorboat, banca and literally crawled on her hands and knees to reach each delegate who had a vote. She then swayed them with her voice, her tears and her beauty.”
For his part, Marcos wined and dined his supporters at the opulent Manila Hotel, filled their pockets with 100 peso bills and took them to expensive nightclubs. Following their inauguration, Imelda sent US presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, some personal advice on how to win an election:
“You’ve got to control the site of the convention,” she wrote, “you’ve got to have your people everywhere. We had the bellhops. We had the waiters. We had the elevator boys. We had the desk clerks. We had everybody talking about Marcos. But the most important thing was that we had all the telephone operators so the other side never received their telephone calls!”
The presidential election of 1963 had been the costliest, dirtiest and most vicious campaign in the country’s history, “a yearlong propaganda orgy” as the American Embassy in Manila discreetly described it. But the foreign press were already referring to the Philippines as the “new Camelot” and to the beautiful, young First Lady as the “Asian Jackie Kennedy.” And a few months after the election the Marcoses paid the customary state visit to America. Imelda took the States by storm. “A photographer’s delight” the newspapers called her as she sang a Filipino love song to a bemused President Johnson at a gala dinner. Washington was mesmerized. Politicians and press alike were seduced by her beauty and her charm.
The newspapers quoted her on her return to Manila saying:
“The Metropolitan Opera House — it was fabulous — those chandeliers, those paintings…My God, the Rockefellers, the DuPont’s, the Fords, the Magnins, the Lindsays, the painter Marc Chagall — you know he wanted to paint me. And the jewels the women were wearing… strands and strands of diamonds around their necks!….Wow, in America when they’re rich, they’re really rich!”