Marcos, Imelda (1929—)

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Marcos, Imelda (1929—)

Philippine politician and first lady from 1965 through 1986 who ruled with her husband and amassed a fortune through corruption and the skimming of public funds . Born Imelda Romualdez on July 2, 1929, in Tacloban, Leyte Province, the Philippines; first of six children of Vicente Orestes Romualdez and Remedios Trinidad Romualdez; married Ferdinand Edralin Marcos (b. 1917, president of the Philippines, 1965–1986), on May 1, 1954 (died, September 28, 1989); children: Marie Imelda ("Imee") Marcos; Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.; Maria Victoria Irene Marcos.

Became first lady of the Philippines (December 30, 1965); legalized as head of state in event of death or illness by Presidential Decree 731 (June 7, 1975); was virtual ruler of the Philippines (after 1979) because of her husband's failing health; played the U.S. against the USSR to gain increasing aid; her conspicuous consumption in the 1980s became legendary; with husband, tried to fight off the Aquinos and their followers (1983–86); forced into exile (1986); returned to Philippines (1991).

Although her name is associated with the thousands of shoes found in her wardrobe, Imelda Marcos was much more than a fashion plate. During her husband's 20 years in office as president of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos was at the center of power, exercising dictatorial powers on her own authority.

Mrs. Marcos is ambitious and ruthless. Born a poor cousin of landed aristocracy, she has a thirst for wealth, power, and public acclaim.

—CIA report, 1975

Imelda Romualdez was born on July 2, 1929, in Tacloban, Leyte Province, the Philippines, the oldest of six children born to Vicente Orestes Romualdez and Remedios Trinidad Romualdez . Her father's family was a major political force in both provincial and national politics—one uncle had been a Supreme Court justice while another was elected mayor of Manila. Vicente Romualdez lagged behind other family members in personal accomplishments, with a rather lackluster record as a lawyer and law school professor. Indeed, he was probably best known for other forms of productivity—there were five children from his first marriage, and six from the second. Imelda's childhood was insecure. Her parents' marriage was filled with countless quarrels, separations, and reconciliations. In 1937, when Imelda was only eight, her mother died.

The Romualdez family was not well off, and Imelda grew up in genteel poverty. She was ashamed to invite the nuns from her Benedictine school into the house. Known as "Meldy," the attractive teenager was a good student and quite popular with her classmates. She loved to dance the rumba, watch Ingrid Bergman movies, and go to parties. In high school, she was crowned the "Rose of Tolosa." A talented singer, she often performed at weddings. Even at this stage of her life, Marcos possessed considerable political skills and ambition, demonstrated when she was elected student-body president. At home, she had long been exposed to political gossip and arguments because her father often entertained politicians from Manila.

Too confined by the small-town atmosphere of Tolosa, Imelda Romualdez moved to Manila in 1952, living with Daniel Romualdez, a cousin who was an influential politician. Family connections gave the young Imelda access to the highest strata of the city's political and business elites, although her earliest jobs were modest ones. She sang and played for potential purchasers of pianos in a music store and then worked as a clerk in the Central Bank. Among Imelda's more serious suitors was a dashing bachelor three years her junior. Scion of a wealthy and powerful family, he would meet Marcos at the music store at the end of the day, then take her to Luneta Park to watch breathtaking tropical sunsets over Manila Bay. The young man was Benigno Aquino, Jr., whose wealthy father served as both a Cabinet minister and senator. Some of their friends expected them to get married, but he broke off the relationship. The reason he gave in later years was that, at 5′6", Imelda was too tall.

Imelda soon met an ambitious older man in Manila's social swirl who took a liking to her. Ferdinand Marcos had been born on September 11, 1917, in Sarrat, Ilocos Norte, where his wealthy landowning family was deeply involved in politics, virtually controlling Ilocos Norte. The oldest of four children, Ferdinand was raised in a family atmosphere where his father, a strict disciplinarian, preached a doctrine of stoic self-reliance and a determination to win at all costs. From his mother, Ferdinand learned a respect for books and learning. As a youth, he became physically tough and excelled at shooting, tracking wild animals, and jungle survival skills. In 1939, he was tried for the 1935 murder of one of his father's political rivals. Arguing his own case as a newly minted lawyer, in 1940 Ferdinand won an acquittal. During the Japanese occupation of World War II, he claimed to be a leader of the resistance movement. Obviously impressed, Imelda accepted Ferdinand's engagement ring 11 days after they met and their marriage took place on May 1, 1954. Theirs was no doubt a love match, but the union also represented a synergistic fusion of two powerful political families, one dominating Ilocos Norte and the other Leyte.

A successful criminal defense lawyer and congressman when he married Imelda Romualdez in 1954, Ferdinand Marcos aimed much higher. When he first ran for Congress in 1949 on the Liberal Party ticket, he promised the district he represented there would be "an Ilocano President in twenty years." After three terms in the House of Representatives, he ran for Senate in 1959, winning his seat with the largest

plurality ever obtained in a Philippine election. In the meantime, Imelda devoted herself to being a good political wife. Marie Imelda ("Imee") Marcos , the first of three children arrived. She would be followed by Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., and Maria Victoria Irene Marcos . From the outset, Imelda was highly ambitious for her husband. She often accompanied him on campaign trips where the couple dazzled voters by singing duets on the platform.

From 1954 to 1961, Ferdinand Marcos served as vice-chair of the Liberal Party. President Diosdado Macapagal agreed that he would retire after the first term to make way for the younger man. When he subsequently refused to do this, Ferdinand quit the Liberal camp and joined the Nationalist Party. Determined to win the Nationalist nomination for her husband, Imelda jumped into the fray, frequently entertaining badly needed allies in expensive nightclubs as well as on a barge in Manila harbor. In addition to charming conversation, 1,500 convention delegates often found envelopes generously stuffed with pesos next to their dinner plates. Several years later, Imelda proudly told William Bundy, American assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs, how she and her husband outmaneuvered their political rivals: "You've got to control the site; 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 up [Ferdinand]: 'It's going to be Marcos.'" No detail escaped her eye, she told Bundy. She won over all the hotel's telephone operators at the political convention, ensuring that her husband's opposition never received their phone calls.

Imelda Marcos continued to lobby once her husband secured the Nationalist nomination for the presidency. Ferdinand, who needed a strong vice-presidential running mate, picked Fernando Lopez, a man of influence, status and wealth. However, Lopez and his powerful family did not want him to be number two, and they would not budge. Then Imelda met with Lopez in his suite at the Manila Hotel. It is said that she dropped on one knee, cried, and pleaded with him. He accepted the vice-presidential spot on the ticket.

When the campaign began, Imelda was a tireless adviser. Some political commentators argued she was worth at least a million votes to the Marcos-Lopez ticket. Imelda Marcos focused on women, whose votes might very well tip the election either way. She recruited thousands of women for the campaign, persuading large numbers from the social elite, debutantes and matrons, to drive cars, organize receptions, and answer telephones on her husband's behalf. Their "uniforms" were blue dresses, so that in later years when Imelda went on shopping sprees in New York, Rome, or Tokyo as first lady, her retinue was known as the Blue Ladies.

Imelda Marcos' energetic campaigning paid off, and her husband's ticket amassed a plurality of 650,000 votes out of 8 million cast. It was an expensive campaign, with each candidate spending more than $8 million in a land where 60% of the population lived in poverty. An agrarian revolutionary movement known as the Huks (Hukbalahap) had come close to seizing power in the early 1950s, but it was crushed with massive U.S. assistance because of the strategic importance of two military bases in the Philippines: Clark Field and Subic Bay. The Philippines were considered crucial during the Cold War, and many in Washington felt festering domestic problems and poverty must be subordinated to geopolitical priorities. The Philippine oligarchy took advantage of this situation by labeling all attempts at change as "Communist inspired." This was a pattern the Marcoses could never break.

Ferdinand Marcos was inaugurated president of the Philippines on December 30, 1965. Although he spoke of social reform, the reality was dramatically different. He made attempts to curb crime, corruption and smuggling, but little had been accomplished. He sent troops to Vietnam, reversing earlier criticism of the conflict. Meanwhile, social inequalities got worse and a rural revolutionary movement, the New People's Army, began to grow while the middle class was more and more disgusted with corruption and economic injustice. Despite the fact that little was accomplished, the Marcoses were determined to have a second term. The 1969 election was marked by a great deal of corruption and vote buying, costing the Marcoses a staggering $50 million. In 1969, Ferdinand became the first (and only) Philippine president to secure a second term. Constitutionally, this would be his last term, since presidents were limited to two terms of office.

Life was changing in the Philippines. The nation's wealth continued to be in the hands of less than 5% of the population. Radicalized young men and women in the universities were particularly alienated, but growing sectors of the middle class now regarded the Marcos administration as part of the problem rather than a solution to national malaise. In January 1970, serious riots broke out after the State of the Nation address. The first couple was jeered by a mob of 20,000 and pelted with rocks, bottles, and a papier-mâché crocodile. In August 1971, a grenade attack on an opposition political rally left ten dead. President Marcos blamed Communists for the atrocity, used the attack to proclaim a state of emergency, and suspended the right of habeas corpus.

The November 1971 election was a strong rebuke of the Marcos administration. Of the eight contested Senate seats, six were won by the opposition Liberals—a stunning loss of face for Ferdinand and Imelda. Up to that time, Ferdinand had believed that he could choose his successor—either Imelda Marcos or his defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile. But the rapidly changing popular mood had radically altered the equation. The nationwide discontent crystallized around the candidacy of Benigno Aquino, Jr., leader of the Liberal Party and erstwhile suitor of Imelda Marcos. Born in 1932 to a wealthy landowning family, he was a journalist in the Korean War while still in his teens. At 22, he became the youngest mayor of his hometown and, at 28, was elected the youngest governor of Tarlac Province. Few were surprised when at age 34 he became the youngest senator in the history of the Philippines. Benigno described himself as "a radical rich guy" while managing his father-in-law's 18,000-acre sugar estate because he gave away plots of inherited land to field and factory workers. In the presidential elections scheduled for 1973, Benigno was regarded as the likely successor to the now increasingly unpopular Marcos regime. Without documentation of any kind, Ferdinand accused Benigno Aquino of aiding the Communists with weapons, asserting that he had been linked to revolutionary elements since 1965. Aquino vehemently denied the accusations and challenged the regime to file specific charges and try him in a court of law.

Ferdinand suspended the Constitution and declared martial law on September 23, 1972. He also imprisoned Benigno Aquino and thousands of opposition members. The pretext for the declaration was an "assassination attempt" against Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile—an attack which later was revealed to have been faked. Until this time Imelda Marcos had played the traditional role of first lady, hanging in the background. Now she emerged as "co-president," eventually becoming the virtual dictator of the Philippines. Her role was widely recognized, and in December 1972 she narrowly survived an assassination attempt when a man armed with a foot-long bolo knife lunged at her. The injuries to her right arm and hand required 75 stitches. Imelda immediately received a telephone call from President Richard M. Nixon, who dispatched a noted Stanford hand surgeon to Manila. The Marcoses had long been on the best possible terms with Nixon, secretly funneling contributions of more than $1 million to both his 1968 and 1972 campaigns.

With the establishment of dictatorship, Imelda Marcos became increasingly visible. Soon after the attempt on her life, she was in the United States wearing a gold necklace as a sling for her injured arm. She was a prominent guest at the January 1973 inauguration of Nixon. From this point forward, she began to pursue her own foreign policy. Although she wooed the United States, Imelda Marcos frequently courted other countries as well. The first woman to receive an official state welcome in Saudi Arabia, she also visited Nepal and Papua-New Guinea. Imelda was as warmly received by the military dictator of Bolivia as she was by the Marxist revolutionary Fidel Castro. As friendly with the left as with the right, she visited the People's Republic of China in September 1974. Royally received by her Marxist hosts, she spoke graciously of Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing , describing her as "soft-spoken, very feminine" and "open-minded." Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1975.

Imelda Marcos had learned the rules of an intriguing political game in which small countries like the Philippines pitted the U.S. against the U.S.S.R. Her object was to enhance her own status while pressuring the United States to increase its foreign aid. Her trips were also used to mute criticism of human rights abuses by the Marcos dictatorship. Although Communists and leftists were ruthlessly suppressed in her country, this did not stop Imelda Marcos from praising the Soviet Union for bringing "fullness to the lives of man" in the fall of 1977. American money inevitably followed after such pronouncements to keep this important ally happy.

Imelda Marcos' position in the regime was legalized on June 7, 1975, by Presidential Decree 731, which stipulated that, in the event of Ferdinand's death or incapacity, executive power would be exercised by a commission chaired by "Mrs. Imelda R. Marcos." Next, Metro Manila was created by merging the commercial metropolis of Manila with what had been until then the official national capital, Quezon City. In November 1975, Ferdinand named Imelda governor of Metro Manila, kicking out the mayor who had been democratically elected in 1971. This coup gave her control of over 6 million people, thousands of jobs, and hundreds of millions of dollars, many of which went into Imelda's pocket. In December 1975, Cosmopolitan magazine declared Imelda Marcos one of the richest women in the world, possibly even "the richest woman in the world, bar none. " This was certainly an extraordinary accomplishment in view of the fact that her husband's salary was only $5,700 a year. A 1975 Top Secret report from the CIA characterized her as "The Steel Butterfly," going on to describe her in these terms: "Mrs. Marcos is ambitious and ruthless. Born a poor cousin of landed aristocracy, she has a thirst for wealth, power and public acclaim. … Although she has little formal education, she is cunning." Imelda put the "squeeze" on corporations and wealthy individuals for "donations" to her private coffers. In 1978, her husband appointed her head of a new, ill-defined government agency called the Ministry of Human Settlements which provided further situations for skimming large amounts of public funds. Imelda Marcos also became chair or director of the National Electrification Commission, the National Food Authority, the National Housing Corporation, the National Home Mortgage Corporation, National Pollution Control Commission, and Rural Waterworks Development Corporation. Over the years, she had access to many hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid money. The Marcos marriage was described in the same CIA report as being essentially a business and political partnership. In this arrangement, Ferdinand was head of government while she was head of state. It was, in effect, a conjugal dictatorship.

In 1979, CIA station chief Herbert Natzke asserted that the Marcoses had accumulated at least $1 billion through various corrupt actions. Some of this money was spent on events like the Marcoses' silver wedding anniversary in 1979 when the couple renewed their wedding vows, with Cardinal Jaime Sin officiating, before a group of royalty specially flown in from Europe. Imelda wore a white veil while she fondled a two-foot long rosary, each bead a diamond, that some estimated to have cost at least $1 million. Music for the occasion was provided by the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and there was dancing until dawn. The opulent event was not shown on television, nor was it even reported in the state-controlled press. By now, even the Marcoses suspected that their conspicuous consumption might not meet with the approval of the average Philippine worker whose annual income was perhaps $500 a year. The transfer of billions of dollars from business to conspicuous consumption was a very heavy burden for a small country.

The Marcoses continued to profit enormously from Ferdinand's presidency, and Imelda's shopping sprees became legendary. On one day alone during a 1977 visit to New York, she spent $193,320 on antiques. A week later, she and her entourage stormed several of the most elegant jewelry stores. In one day, she spent a total of $2,181,000; her purchases included a Bulgari platinum and emerald bracelet costing $1,150,000. On another New York shopping spree, from May to July 1983, she spent almost $4.5 million. The more Imelda spent, the more the Marcos regime was criticized. Now, there were tough questions by human-rights activists who wanted to know why political leaders like Benigno Aquino had been imprisoned. The climate had changed at the White House also, and she felt snubbed when she was unable to secure even a brief meeting with President Jimmy Carter. "I have been to Peking. I have been to Moscow. I have been to Libya," she said. "Nobody ever treated me so rudely." When she returned to the Philippines, Ferdinand announced a suspension of negotiations about the military bases. Anti-American stories appeared in the controlled press, and vehement anti-base rallies were held by the government-sponsored youth organization Kabataang Barangay. The Marcoses made no secret of their involvement in these demonstrations. Daughter Imee Marcos was often seen chanting "Yankee, go home!" with the crowds.

Despite the increasingly corrupt and repressive nature of the Marcos dictatorship, successive U.S. administrations supported it. Fear of losing military bases deemed vital to American military security in the Pacific was an important factor. With the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, many observers were anxiously waiting for the Philippines to be next. The Carter administration distanced itself somewhat from the Marcoses, but there was no significant pressure to change. The Reagan presidency was, in contrast, friendly to the point of intimacy. One of the more dramatic signs of support from the new administration in Washington came from Vice President George Bush, who attended the Marcos inauguration in July 1981 and toasted the Philippine dictator by proclaiming, "We love your adherence to democratic processes, and we will not leave you in isolation." Ronald and Nancy Reagan had known the Marcoses since the 1960s, and the two women had developed a strong friendship. Reagan's viscerally anti-Communist perspective on world affairs made it possible for him to ignore any flaws in the strong-willed couple who dominated the political and economic life of the strategic Pacific island chain.

The state visit of the Marcoses to Washington in September 1982 was a triumphal tour. The entire visit, which cost the Philippine government between $5 and $20 million, was orchestrated down to the last detail by Imelda's brother Benjamin ("Kokoy") Romualdez, who had been appointed ambassador to the United States three months before. Cultivated by Manila public relations executives and treated to numerous luncheons at exclusive restaurants, the Washington press corps proved to be, with few exceptions, remarkably friendly and uncritical. The Marcos party arrived, along with several hundred hangers-on, in two 747s. There were few protesters and nearly 1,000 Filipinos were on hand to cheer Ferdinand and Imelda. Lured by Kokoy Romualdez with promises of free food, lodging and entertainment, the crowd waved miniature flags and wore T-shirts proclaiming "I am a Filipino." New York Times reporter Lynn Rosellini noted with amazement that the arrival, which "easily could have been scripted by Cecil B. De Mille" was without any doubt "one of the most carefully orchestrated events of its kind Washington has ever seen." The show was meant to convince an increasingly disillusioned Philippine public that Washington truly loved the Marcoses. The Reagan administration, always fine-tuned to the world of television and show business, scheduled the White House opening ceremony for 10:00 am Washington time, which allowed live transmission via satellite for prime time viewing at 10:00 pm in Manila. The staged welcome included crowds of Filipinos on the mall carrying banners inscribed "Long Live Marcos and Reagan." The 21-gun salute, and the fife and drum corps in colonial uniforms playing "Yankee Doodle," added color to the event as Nancy Reagan kissed her friend Imelda Marcos on the cheek. The festivities that filled the next few days were breath-taking. The entourage, probably the largest contingent ever to arrive in Washington for a state visit, sponsored some of the most opulent events within memory in the American capital. A reception hosted by the Marcoses at the Corcoran Art Gallery brought out 2,000 of Washington's elite. Diverted by a groaning buffet and folk dancers flown in from the Philippines, they paid court to Imelda, the "first lady of extravaganza." When her husband arrived late for this stellar event, Imelda grabbed a microphone and sang "Feelings."

Imelda Marcos had directly exercised political power since December 1975 when her husband fired Alejandro Melchor, his executive secretary, and gave her the job. According to a classified report of the Defense Intelligence Agency, she functioned as head of the Philippine government increasingly after 1979. Her power was vastly enhanced in early August 1983 when her husband had a kidney transplant. Ferdinand suffered from the operation as well as from lupus erythematosus, a chronic disorder of the immune system. Imelda became the de facto ruler of the country, and crisis followed. On August 21, 1983, Benigno Aquino, Jr., the most determined and popular of the Marcos dynasty's foes, returned to the Philippines from exile in the United States. He was assassinated immediately after stepping off his plane. Although the government accused others of the act, it was well known that Imelda had warned Benigno not to return home if he valued his life. It was also known that General Luther Custodio, head of airport security on the day of the assassination, was "owned" by Imelda Marcos "lock, stock and barrel."

The next three years were tumultuous. Imelda Marcos wielded ever greater power, but opposition continued to grow. Largely fraudulent elections in 1984 only served to further anger the anti-Marcos forces, who now began to crystallize around Benigno's widow, Corazon Aquino . In late 1985, the Marcos regime, finally feeling significant pressure from the United States, called for a "snap election" to take place in February 1986. Corazon Aquino agreed to run for president after 1.2 million people petitioned her to do so. The election, held on February 7, 1986, was marked by fraud and bloodshed, and the Marcos regime almost managed to rig the vote successfully. But the end of the Marcos dictatorship became inevitable when two of the leading generals defected on February 22. The Catholic Church also withdrew support from the Marcoses and millions of ordinary Filipinos took to the streets in a display of "people power" to voice their outrage at the regime. Defiant to the last, Imelda and Ferdinand tried to ignore the inevitable collapse of their power by going through a bizarre "inauguration" at noon on February 25, a few hours after Corazon Aquino and her followers had held their own makeshift ceremony.

Intense pressure from Washington now forced the Marcoses to leave the nation they had looted for two decades. They left Malacanang Palace at 9:05 pm that same day and several hours later were flown out of Manila on a U.S. Air Force plane. Accompanied by an 86-member entourage, Imelda and Ferdinand brought along 22 boxes of currency and an astonishing 278 crates of jewelry, artworks, gold and real-estate deeds. After arriving at the island of Guam for a quick stopover, Imelda spent $12,000 at the U.S. military commissary. From their permanent place of exile in Hawaii, the Marcoses quickly began to denounce the new Aquino government, keeping in touch with pro-Marcos activists in the United States and the Philippines. In view of Ferdinand's declining health, most of these political maneuvers must be ascribed to a remarkably unrepentant Imelda.

Back in the Philippines, the full extent of the Marcos depredations of the public treasury began to be documented. When Malacanang Palace was opened, the public gawked at Imelda's boudoir with its two queen-sized beds on an elevated platform and a grand piano. Besides her solid-gold washbasin, there were 2,700 pairs of size-eight shoes, five shelves of Gucci handbags, and 105 clothes racks designed to carry 80 outfits each. The first couple's bedroom intercoms were marked "King's Room" and "Queen's Room."

The remarkable career of Imelda Marcos did not end in exile. She did not fade away when her husband died in Hawaii on September 28,1989. She continued to lobby President Corazon Aquino to allow her husband's body returned to the Philippines for burial. Soon she faced charges in the United States of embezzlement and bank fraud totaling $268 million. Arriving at the U.S. federal building, she confidently held her head high, appearing distinctly glamorous in her sheer, low-cut turquoise terno, the Philippine national costume. She pled not guilty. In 1989, she was found guilty by a U.S. federal jury of liability in a 1981 murder of two anti-Marcos exiles in Seattle. She and her late husband were declared guilty of conspiracy in the murders, and the estate was ordered to pay $15 million to the survivors of the victims. In July 1990, Marcos was acquitted by a New York jury of charges of racketeering, fraud, and obstruction of justice.

After having lived in exile for nearly six years, Imelda Marcos returned to the Philippines on November 4, 1991, defiantly prepared to face criminal charges of graft and tax fraud. Despite the well-documented evils of the Marcos regime, she retained sufficient political talent to tap into old memories, stir up new discontents, and create a significant mass following. Since President Aquino had already announced her decision not to run for reelection, Imelda announced her own candidacy for the highest office in the land. In the election, held on May 11, 1992, she achieved a respectable fourth place, out of the seven candidates who ran, with 10.3% of the popular vote. In November 1996, she was elected to Congress, representing her home province of Leyte. By any criterion a remarkable human being, Imelda Marcos left a permanent mark on her nation's history. One can only speculate how different that history might have been had her energy, intelligence, and charm been harnessed to selfless goals.


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Marcos, Imelda (1929—)

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