Imelda Marcos – a study in a power grab, corruption and ill-gotten wealth during the Marcos Era – Part I

Imelda Romualdez Marcos with former President Ferdinand Marcos and family during the 1965 inauguration- Photo Credit: Malacañang Palace

Imelda Romualdez Marcos is a Filipina politician and convicted criminal. She married Marcos in 1954 and became the First Lady of the Philippines when Ferdinand Marcos became President of the Philippines in 1965 until they were deposed in 1986. While in power for21 years, Imelda and her husband stole billions from the Filipino people, and that the amount they stole could have paid off the entirety of the Philippine foreign debt. By 2018, the Philippine government had recovered about $3.6 billion of this ill-gotten wealth through compromise deals or sequestration cases.

Upon becoming First Lady, Imelda often asked members of the Blue Ladies to accompany her on her trips out of the country. Imelda’s Blue Ladies, specifically Maria Luisa, a daughter of the wealthy Madrigal family and Daniel Vazquez’s wife, contributed to Imelda’s fashion spending. In 1968, Maria Luisa accompanied Imelda on an overseas trip, during which Imelda and her daughter, Imee, spent $3.3 million. It was also at this time that Vazquez and Maria Luisa opened a Citibank account. In November 1968, the couple added Fernanda Vazquez as a joint holder of the bank account. An allegation that Imelda and Fernanda Vazquez are one and the same is validated by the notations for the bank account that had Imelda Marcos’s handwriting.

Since President Marcos hardly left the Malacañang Palace, he increasingly sent his wife on official visits to other countries as a de facto vice president.

In 1971, Imelda attended Iran’s 2,500-year celebration of the founding of the Persian Empire. According to palace insiders, this trip provided her with a social introduction to some of the world’s wealthiest people.

On May 19, 1972, the Constitutional Convention delegate for Leyte’s first district, Eduardo Quintero, accused Imelda and thirteen others of bribing some convention members to vote against provisions that would have prevented Marcos from retaining power beyond the two four-year terms allowed him by the previous constitution.

In the stress following the accusations and media circus, Imelda claimed to have suffered a miscarriage. Later, this was revealed to be a hoax to avoid Quintero’s charges. According to Katherine Ellison, an American author, who won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting with two colleagues for their work reporting on corruption in the Philippines, this was “an eloquent example of the lengths to which Imelda would go to support Ferdinand and her ambition.

With martial law (1972-1981), Imelda developed into more than just a ceremonial First Lady. People called her a steel butterfly, both in awe and disdain. Later on, during martial law, she was no longer the darling of the masses. Less than three months after martial law had been declared, an assailant tried to stab her with a bolo knife at a public event on Dec. 7, 1972. The First Lady sustained cuts to her arms but survived the attempt. The assailant, Carlito Dimahilig, was shot to death by the police. The motive appeared to have been her role in her husband’s presidency, but human rights dissidents believed the government staged it.

During this time, she orchestrated public events using national funds to bolster her and her husband’s image. Imelda secured the Miss Universe 1974 pageant in Manila in July 1974, which required the construction of the Folk Arts Theater in less than three months. She allegedly spent PHP 40 million (USD 5.5 million) to renovate all public and private infrastructures throughout Manila and the other cities where Miss Universe pageant participants were to go on tours.

When the Marcoses went to the United States in September 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered Imelda the Philippine war damage claims totaling US$28 million. President Johnson agreed to have US$3.5 million be used as funds for the Cultural Center, one of Imelda’s projects.

Imelda ordered the construction of many grandiose architectural projects, using public funds and “in impossibly short order” – a propaganda practice, which eventually became known as her “edifice complex.” Imelda’s building projects were often of the Brutalist architectural style characterized by fortress-like, massive shapes intended to create an impression of grandiosity.

In 1966, Ferdinand Marcos issued Executive Order No. 60, establishing the Cultural Center of the Philippines and appointing its board of directors. The board elected Imelda as their chairperson, giving her the legal mandate to negotiate and manage funds for the center.

The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Complex is considered the premier symbol of Imelda’s “edifice complex.” Architect Leandro Locsin designed it and built it on reclaimed land along Roxas Boulevard in Manila and covered an area of about 21 hectares. Ninety thousand pesos were granted by the Philippine-American Culture Foundation for its construction and were aided with funds from the Cultural Development Fund and the Special Fund for Education. However, it amounted to PHP 50 million upon completion—a 50 000% increase from the original budget. Although notably, prices of the construction materials such as cement, steel, and tiles increased by 30–40 percent within this time frame, the escalation in the increase of the expenditures is highly questionable.

For the inauguration of the CCP, a gala opening of the Golden Salakot, a pageant-drama of a story about the prehistory of the Philippines, occurred on September 8, 1969. U.S. President Richard Nixon was invited, but instead, California Governor (and future President) Ronald Reagan, along with his wife, flew to the country on Air Force One for the event. There were accounts that the First Lady attempted to bring other celebrities by getting them tickets to ride Air Force One, but President Nixon denied her this luxury. Reports also mentioned that this trip by then-Governor Reagan and his wife led to the closeness of the Reagans and Marcoses.

Another construction project linked with Imelda during her husband’s first term as President is the San Juanico Bridge, which connects the island of Samar to Imelda’s home province, Leyte. Although it wasn’t initiated by Imelda herself, it was promoted by the administration as Ferdinand Marcos’s gift to his wife. It was funded with foreign loans of US$22 million (about ₱140 million) from Japan’s Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency (OTCA), the predecessor of today’s Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Upon its completion on July 2, 1973, Imelda’s birthday, economists and public works engineers quickly tagged it as a white elephant that was “constructed several decades too soon” because its average daily traffic (ADT) was too low to justify the cost of its construction.

As Marcos’s health declined, it involved her being put in increasingly powerful positions. In his Presidential Decree 731, on June 7, 1975, Ferdinand Marcos made Imelda head of the commission that would exercise power in the event of his death or incapacitation. Also, in 1975, Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree 824, establishing the Metro Manila Commission (MMC), which would serve as the central government of Metro Manila, and named Imelda to head it, making her Governor of the newly created Metro Manila District., a merger of four cities – including the country’s two largest, Manila and Quezon City – and seven towns from that point until the Marcoses were deposed in 1986.

In 1976, Ferdinand Marcos appointed Imelda to the position of Minister of Human Settlements, a mega-agency with practically unlimited resources, endowing her with even more power as a dispenser of pork. With Imelda leading the charge and despite other pressing and chronic needs, such as low-cost housing, the government built luxury hotels in an effort to promote tourism; added to the Cultural Center complex a gigantic 10,000 seat Folk Arts Theater to stage the 1974 Miss Universe beauty pageant; and constructed the Philippine Heart Center, in a country where malnutrition, rather than heart disease, is the most pressing health concern. But it was in the hasty construction of the Film Palace – again, on the Cultural Center grounds – and the resulting deaths, which scandalized the public already accustomed to the First Lady’s mania for big, unnecessary projects.

The Film Palace was to be the primary venue for what Imelda had hoped would be in 1982 an international film festival, one that would compete with Cannes and Tokyo. Construction proceeded twenty-four hours, seven days a week, to make it in time for the festival opening. As a result, a top floor collapsed when its cement foundation gave way, having not thoroughly dried. Though the government has never said how many workers died, many accounts put the number at 169. The government tried to hush up the accident, but the tragedy was too large to escape unnoticed. It cast a pall over the festival proceedings as rumors spread that the dead workers’ restless spirits haunted the building. Exorcism rites were thus performed to appease them.

Like Ferdinand, Imelda was consumed by the pathological desire to remake herself, which means reinventing her past to conform to a grander self-image. No telling of more extravaganza monument testifies to this obsession than the Santo Nino (Holy Infant) shrine in the city in which she grew up, Tacloban-the very same capital where, in 1944, General Douglas MacArthur first announced to Filipinos that he had, as promised, returned. Built at a reputed $23 million in 1980, the enormous two-story affair – part antebellum Southern mansion and part Spanish grandee’s home with Moorish arches – sits on a lot once occupied by a somewhat more modest building that was young Imelda’s residence. The statue of the Holy Infant Jesus is ensconced in a ground floor chapel, flanked incongruously by guest bedrooms, each with a different motif. On the grand stairway leading to the second floor is a huge portrait of a gossamer-like Imelda, rising from the misty waters, an unmistakable reference to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Upstairs are huge master bedrooms, with a reception hall complete with two thrones at one end.

On the occasion of Pope John Paul’s 1981 six-day visit to the Philippines, the only predominantly Roman Catholic nation in Asia, Imelda ordered that fences be erected and whitewashed to hide the innumerable festering slums of Manila the Pope would otherwise see. She had also planned the construction of an extravagant basilica, at a reported $100 million cost, with a 48-foot statue of the Holy Infant. The plan was abandoned after drawing heavy criticism even from the conservative Catholic hierarchy. The First Lady had wanted the pontiff to stay at the Coconut Palace, a massive residence situated on the grounds of the Cultural Center, which had gold-plated bathroom fixtures and was built largely with materials derived from the coconut tree. John Paul turned down the invitation, opting to stay at the Papal Nuncio’s official residence.

She also served as the regime’s roving ambassador, moving effortlessly from Eqypt and Bolivia to China and Cuba. Imelda traveled with a large entourage, consisting mainly of women who came to be known as the Blue Ladies, usually the wives of influential men in military, economic, and political circles, and who themselves became influential and wealthy. She acquired a reputation for world-class shopping, for which the term “Imeldific” was coined. Tiffany, Saks Fifth Avenue, and other tony establishments not just in New York City but in other capitals like Paris and Rome loved her, for she thought nothing of dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on one visit. Her extravagant taste included choice real estate as well. Throughout the 1980s, Imelda Marcos snapped up choice Manhattan properties. These were the US$51 million Crown Building at the corner of 57th and Fifth; 40 Wall Street, which would later be renamed the Trump building; the US$60 million Herald Shopping Center; and the building at 200 Madison Avenue. She declined to buy the Empire State Building because she felt it was “too ostentatious.” Her choice of residence while visiting Manhattan was a suite at the Waldorf Astoria.


A History of the Philippines by Luis H. Francia

In Our Image by Stanley Karnow



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