The Son of Ferdinand Marcos May Be Hours From Returning the Family to Power

The Son of Ferdinand Marcos May Be Hours From Returning the Family to Power

The Son of Ferdinand Marcos May Be Hours From Returning the Family to Power

As Bongbong Marcos has worked to launder his father’s reputation, his campaign has been helped—and haunted—by an unlikely source: the legacy of US intervention.

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When Filipinos thronged Manila’s streets in February 1986 calling for an end to Ferdinand Marcos’s despotic regime, Guia and Hugo Yonzon joined the hundreds of thousands of protesters marching down the main highway girding the city. For the Yonzons, as for many who joined the protest that toppled Marcos and came to be known as the “People Power Revolution,” the cause was personal. Both artists in their 30s, the Yonzons had been anti-Marcos activists since college. They contributed to information-sharing networks that were forced underground after Marcos declared martial law in 1972, and had friends among the tens of thousands who were killed, tortured, or disappeared by his administration.

So in 2016, when Marcos’s only son, Ferdinand Jr. (popularly known as “Bongbong”), ran for vice president of the Philippines, Hugo was shocked to learn that Guia supported him. Years after the revolution forced the Marcoses into exile, Bongbong had returned to the Philippines in 1991. He became a congressman, senator, and provincial governor before his vice presidential bid, running on nostalgic platforms that portrayed his father’s presidency as a golden age.

Guia, meanwhile, had grown disillusioned after Marcos’s liberal successors failed to stamp out government corruption. Her cynicism was stoked by online articles and videos that began circulating in the mid-2010s, depicting Marcos as a well-intentioned but misunderstood leader. One narrative especially stuck with Guia: the idea that the 1986 protest that ousted Marcos—the one she and Hugo joined—had been orchestrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

“I felt like I had been manipulated,” Guia, now 70, said in a recent interview. “And maybe, in a way, that is why in 2016 I voted for Bongbong.”

Although Bongbong lost that race, Guia’s support for him and Rodrigo Duterte, who won the presidency, strained the tight-knit Yonzon family. Their daughter sided with Guia, while their sons agreed with Hugo. Political topics became off-limits at family gatherings.

Tensions rose further after Bongbong announced his presidential candidacy in October 2021. Like many Philippine families, the Yonzons were riven by dueling versions of reality. One remembered Marcos as a brutal dictator who presided over a kleptocratic regime defined by intimidation, torture, and killing. The other, informed by largely baseless online content, portrayed him as a benevolent leader who had been unfairly maligned and deposed by foreign powers. The gap between these views had already begun to widen under Duterte—whom many Filipinos accuse of having a Marcos-like disregard for human rights and others embrace as a “tough on crime” leader—but it yawned into a chasm during Bongbong’s seven-month campaign. As the nation goes to the polls on May 9, the election is as much a battle between those versions of history as it is a race between Bongbong, who leads by a wide margin in the polls, and his rivals.

The stakes are enormously high. Should Bongbong win, he has vowed to continue Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, albeit with more focus on preventing drug use, and to refuse to “recognize” or cooperate with an ongoing International Criminal Court investigation into the killings that have already occurred. In an echo of his father’s rhetoric, he has also said he would prioritize fighting anti-government rebels, advocating more funding for a public task force that has become infamous for tagging dissidents as Communist insurgents.

The social media campaign to whitewash Marcos Sr.’s reputation has blurred the parallels between such stances by the son and his father’s authoritarian record. But the truth is that the effort to launder the Marcos name started well before this election. In addition to Bongbong’s own efforts to vindicate his father, both his sister and his mother, Imelda, were elected to Congress on similar platforms. Even when Marcos Sr. was in power, he was famous for blatantly lying about everything from his own military record to the human rights situation in his country. But he wasn’t the only one back then with an interest in suppressing the truth about his regime. He had help from another power, one whose role continues to haunt the current election: the United States.

Guia’s theory that the CIA planned Marcos’s overthrow is not far-fetched, although historians say President Ronald Reagan’s friendship with Marcos makes that scenario unlikely. After relinquishing colonial control over the archipelago in 1946, the United States continued steering Philippine politics for decades, with the CIA helping to elect multiple Philippine presidents to ensure their support for the continued presence of US military bases. In 1953, the agency ran the campaign of the Philippines’ seventh president, Ramon Magsaysay, financing his candidacy from its own budget as well as hefty donations from US corporations. And once Marcos was elected, in 1965, US officials rapidly pivoted to courting Marcos’s support for the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, treating him as an honored ally in ways that would also enhance the public’s esteem and burnish his image in the press.

The US military and financial support that helped prop up the Marcos regime is well substantiated. Throughout the years after Marcos was elected, the United States gave him at least $24 million to send Philippine troops to Vietnam, via checks that let him “conceal the receipt of these payments from the Philippine public,” according to a US General Accounting Office report in 1970. Retaining its military bases remained the United States’ top priority even after the Vietnam War. Months before the People Power Revolution ousted Marcos, a Pentagon report on the Philippines fretted that mounting opposition might allow Communist insurgents to assume power, pushing US bases out for good. “The way to tackle it, of course, is to give Marcos all possible help to defeat the guerrillas,” said the report.

While supporting Marcos materially, the US government also ran a de facto public relations campaign that presented him as a respectable head of state. Presidential administrations from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan went out of their way to suppress criticism about Marcos and lavishly praise his leadership, according to journalist Raymond Bonner, whose 1988 book Waltzing with a Dictator investigated the symbiotic relationship between Marcos and the United States. When US-based defectors from the Philippine government sought to highlight the human rights violations occurring under Marcos’s martial law regime or expose his lies about his own military record, they were denied positions in government-funded institutions and brushed off by major news outlets.

In 1982, Reagan invited the Marcoses on an official state visit to the United States, where they were feted royally. Their White House dinner was a who’s who of celebrities and business magnates, including Andy Warhol and the then-chairman of Standard Oil. In his welcoming remarks, Reagan praised Marcos for his “dedication to improving the standard of living of your people” and saluted him as “a respected voice for reason and moderation in international forums.”

The United States bestowed power and prestige on Marcos despite knowing that he was far from moderate or dedicated to the welfare of his people. The first major revelations of his abuses under martial law came in a 1976 Amnesty International report that found torture was a “widespread” experience among the more than 50,000 people imprisoned by the Marcos administration after martial law was declared in 1972. Political prisoners reported being subjected to beatings, rape, mutilation, and forced sleeplessness. Yet the United States continued sending Marcos aid and mostly ignoring his authoritarianism—even under the administration of famed human rights champion President Jimmy Carter. A 1977 cable from the US embassy in Manila to the State Department deplored “the Philippine record on torture and related governmental violations,” but also commended Marcos’s many speeches about civil rights.

Indeed, the United States was so keen to keep buffering Marcos’s image that it was even willing to look the other way when Marcos targeted its own citizens on its own soil. In June 1981, two Filipino-American labor organizers, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, were shot dead by thugs in their union hall in Seattle. One month earlier, Domingo and Viernes had convinced the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union to adopt a resolution objecting to Marcos’s rule and sending a team to investigate Philippine labor conditions and human rights.

The resolution was partly inspired by a trip Viernes had taken to the Philippines in March and April of 1981, during which he witnessed widespread deprivation and gave anti-Marcos labor leaders thousands of dollars from the Union of Democratic Filipinos, a US-based group that promoted civil rights in the United States and national liberation in the Philippines. Marcos apparently perceived Domingo and Viernes as agents of economic disruption—and he struck back. In the middle of the afternoon on June 1, 1981, Domingo and Viernes were gunned down by hitmen who had been paid and armed by Marcos allies. After an eight-year case brought by the victims’ friends and families, an American jury found Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos liable for the murders.

As with the plight of Philippine political prisoners, the US government was likely more aware of Marcos’s role in Viernes’s and Domingo’s deaths than it acknowledged. Even after Viernes’s and Domingo’s murders, US officials welcomed military representatives that Marcos sent to the United States to target dissidents. A 1982 Defense Intelligence Agency circular lauded newly arrived Philippine defense attachés as “the most impressive Manila has dispatched to the US in years,” while also noting that they would “undoubtedly report on, and possibly operate against, anti-Marcos Philippine activists in the United States.”

In the end, US officials urged Marcos to heed his citizens and step down from power in 1986—but they also flew him and his family out of the country in US helicopters. Even after Marcos had officially stepped down, the US secretary of state gushed to Marcos in a private cable that he had “demonstrated a courage and restraint that prove beyond doubt…the depth of your love of your country and your sense of honor.” In the Philippines, meanwhile, victims of the regime immediately set about bringing a class-action lawsuit against Marcos in the United States.

Although their government never publicly condemned the Marcoses for their murders, Viernes’s and Domingo’s names are engraved in the wall of a Manila museum honoring martyrs and heroes of the Marcos regime. Susan Macabuag, the museum’s director, says its exhibits on extrajudicial detentions, torture, and deaths under Marcos are a bulwark against the deluge of disinformation washing away the history of the Marcos regime.

This historical “distortionism,” as Macabuag terms it, even penetrated her family. In November, Macabuag was having dinner with family when her 10-year-old grandnephew said he would vote for Bongbong if he could in May’s presidential election. His enthusiasm sprang from Tiktok videos that portrayed the Marcos era as a time of peace and prosperity. Macabuag urged the boy to search for videos about topics such as “martial law” and shared some of the horrors she herself had witnessed. He quickly lost his love for the Marcoses.

The fact that online videos could draw her own kin to Bongbong’s side alarmed Macabuag. If Bongbong wins, she fears he will try to undo the presidential decree that authorized her museum a few months after Marcos’s overthrow. And she doubts that the US government will censure him for doing so—even though Bongbong still faces a contempt judgment of more than $350 million that a federal court in Hawaii awarded relatives of Marcos’s victims in 1995, naming Bongbong and his mother as the liable parties. “If he wins, he’s going to use this as proof to the United States that the Philippine people still believe in him,” Macabuag said.

And yet, despite the misinformation campaign, despite Bongbong’s likely victory, not everyone believes in him. In March 2022, Guia Yonzon switched her support from Bongbong to his chief rival, the current vice president, Leni Robredo. Although polls give her little chance of winning, Robredo has amassed a formidable base around her promise to make the Philippine government more honest. Her campaign volunteers have the fervor of Bernie Sanders supporters in the United States, and have spent much of April canvassing door-to-door to mobilize voters. Guia’s conversion occurred at a Robredo rally that her husband brought her to in March, where the harmonious attitude of the rally-goers reignited some of the optimism she felt during the People Power Revolution.

Although she has some concerns about how well Robredo will withstand US efforts to manipulate her, Guia now thinks Robredo is the Philippines’ best chance to clean up corruption. She continues to believe the CIA played a role in the People Power Revolution, but she is proud that she joined the 1986 protests. “It felt like we were all doing something good for the country,” she said.

Whether the collective memory of the Philippines is as resilient as Guia’s remains to be seen. Either way, the outcome carries enormous implications for the country’s future.

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