Can Imelda Erase History Again?

The unobtrusive shoe museum in the suburbs of Manila has on its second floor a showcase of the shoes Imelda Marcos wore when she was the Philippines’ First Lady, traipsing around the globe. There is nothing that says what her shoes stood for.

The wife of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos has been a caricature of a powerful woman driven to extravagance and excesses – she had more than 1,000 pairs that she had to leave behind when the people drove the family out of the country more than 30 years ago. She was said in exile to have brought with her crates of cash and jewelry.

She has for the most part been able to get away with it. Now at 89, her classic beauty erased by the puffiness of age, it looks as if she may yet again avoid arrest from an anti-graft court’s decision last week charging her with seven counts of graft related to private organizations created in Switzerland to the tune of 200 million US dollars when she was a government official from 1968 to 1986 – long before the people-power revolt.

As has been the case with so many of the Philippines’ blemished leaders, when the law threatened, she has claimed to be too ill to face justice. She is said to be suffering from at least seven health conditions and must "refrain from stressful conditions" that will put her at risk of "heart and brain attack and recurrence of seizure," according to local media.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo spent most of former President Benigno S. Aquino’s time in office in a neck brace, claiming she was too ill to deal with the multiple charges filed against her of looting the country during her nine years in power. She threw away the neck brace after Rodrigo Duterte came to power.

Joseph Estrada spent seven years at his hacienda under house arrest, too ill to go to jail on charges of having stolen the equivalent of US$80 million during his presidency. On receiving clemency, he emerged to run for office, as did Arroyo – both successfully.

For Imelda, there have been previous court cases where she was acquitted. This one could stick if the Supreme Court eventually upholds the graft court’s ruling, but few are holding their breath. She is free on appeal in the Philippines that can mean forever. But some pundits say she will never face arrest simply because she’s Imelda, a woman known to have bought perfume not by the ounce but the gallon.

It will take a lot of head-scratching to explain why the Philippine justice system has failed (so far) to lock behind bars a family known across the world to have plundered the country it ruled to the tune of US$5 billion according to credible estimates – most of it remaining unrecovered – why people continue to vote the Marcos children into political office, or why the dark years of history could be manipulated.

Imelda can still draw a crowd – there is that surreal awe which at the same time provokes repulsion that has struck the Filipino psyche. Even though she is no longer the first lady, she has kept her habit of dispensing cash anywhere she might happen to be, as she once did to airport employees who ran to her for a few hundred-peso bills without stopping for a second to even guess where that money might have come from.

Despite what happened in 1986, when a people’s revolt prompted by an army mutiny saw the end of the dictatorship and ousted the family and cronies into exile, they have been allowed to return and they have again and again sought power in every way conceivable and possible. The rudest shock out of this is seeing a nation largely forget the past, or that it saw the family maneuverings as part of the wider script of Philippine political drama.

Ferdinand Junior, the namesake of the father and the only son, nearly won the seat of the vice presidency two years ago, a title that would have been one small step away to the top. He is favored by President Rodrigo Duterte, another self-styled strongman, to replace him through possible undemocratic machinations.

The eldest daughter Imee is running for the Senate race next year, with surveys showing she could garner a slot. Imelda is seeking to replace her as governor of Ilocos Norte although the court said she is barred from seeing office. One can never be to certain of how this will pan out. When the court released its verdict, she was photographed at a party with Duterte’s daughter Sara, who is mayor of Davao city after taking her father’s place. That alone shows she could find her way around power.

The fascination surrounding Imelda had a formula of rags-to-riches tale, this tall, stunning provincial lass who married the then-young ambitious senator who would be putative dictator. Their marriage was intertwined to a fable of grandeur and perfection that intoxicated the public. Marcos invented himself an image as a war hero and a statesman through ghostwritten books by intellectuals. Imelda hid her poor background and later built an ostentatious museum in her hometown showing her side of the family as royalty.

Why did Marcos give so much power to his wife, putting her almost at par with him? Biographers often cite one incident that shattered the image of the perfect couple living in the presidential palace: it was when an American B-movie actress by the name of Dovie Beams dropped a bombshell about her affair with Marcos, thereby changing the equation in the marital relationship.

Imelda had supposedly leveraged her husband’s cheating for concessions, political and economic demands that were growing and “clearing the ground for the consolidation of the ‘conjugal dictatorship,’” according to a recent study by Professor Caroline Hau of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, on Imelda’s rise to becoming the ‘Steel Butterfly.’

The scandal, supplemented with audiotapes of bedroom intimacy, played into the specter of the growing student activism and mass movement two years before Marcos declared martial law. The turning point for Imelda however, the study revealed, was not the scandal, but martial law itself.

There was a difference between being the wife of an elected official in an era of a free press that could criticize the president’s policies and another of being the wife of a dictator unconstrained by checks and balances, commanding an army, and putting enemies in prison.

From then on, “there would be no institutional mechanism to hold her decisions and actions to public accountability, and there would be no one, not even an increasingly debilitated Ferdinand, to stop her from doing what she wanted. The Dovie Beams scandal did not create the ‘monster’ that we now call Imelda. The political system in its colonial, Commonwealth, postwar, and martial-law articulations did.”

Ferdinand Marcos, who died while in exile in Hawaii in 1989, left behind a family still consumed by the power he had amassed, allowing his dynasty to navigate through the present by playing to their rules regardless of what history, much less the courts, had to say.