Malice in wonderland: The Imelda Marcos story


The looking-glass world of Imelda Marcos comes under scrutiny in a documentary film.

Imelda Marcos by Paolo Picones

Photo by Paolo Picones

It is a testament to her residual power that Imelda Marcos was able to get a court order to prevent a damning film about her to be shown in the Philippines. What other widow of a reviled dictator could get her way in the country that she pillaged?

Consider the facts. She was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison in 1993.

The Philippine Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

The Marcos estate lost a class action lawsuit for human rights violations. A US Federal District Court awarded the plaintiffs $2 billion. The money has yet to be paid.

In 2003, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found Imelda Marcos guilty of funneling $659 million to private Swiss bank accounts and awarded the entire amount to the Philippine government.

Over 150 other court cases are currently pending.

And in an ironic perversion of justice, Imelda Marcos receives a monthly pension of $90 from the Philippine government as a widow of a war veteran.

Imelda insists she did not give her permission for a film about her rise from beauty queen to Philippine First Lady.

“We have to stick to the truth because truth is God,” she said. “Many things were lifted out of context and insertions there were quite, sometimes malicious.”

She said she co-operated with the film because she thought it was for a thesis. Reportedly director Ramona Diaz was given 15 minutes. This stretched to five hours of the former First Lady speaking non-stop and playing video after video of media coverage of the Marcoses.

"Imelda" was given good reviews abroad and won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in the US. Eventually Mrs Marcos allowed the showing of the film on condition that the director dropped the word “documentary” from the title. "Imelda" went on to become a smash Filipino hit, beating "Spider-Man 2" in theatres.

In the movie we are shown a mythology that Imelda has carefully cultivated. In the opening sequence she presents her world view in an engaging way. Still coquettish in her mid-70s, she leafs through a book she has written called "Circles of Life". The method in her madness breaks down later in the film when she illustrates with a marker pen her philosophy complete with apples, hearts and a Pac-Man. A Jesuit priest recounts how she presented the same to him non-stop for four hours. Bernice Ocampo, her niece, laments that Imelda’s downfall was brought about by flatterers, not true friends.

Imelda’s hubris knows no bounds. In her hometown of Tacloban, she has made a shrine to herself and Jesus Christ. The chapel on the first floor is lined with dioramas of her rise from being a little girl playing in the sand to becoming a heroine of her people helping the downtrodden. Upstairs visitors are shown her ornate bedroom which has walls completely covered in woven leather strips.

Her childhood friend Lettie Loksin is filmed saying that when she first met Imelda she thought she looked like the Virgin Mary — long-haired and beautiful. Another childhood friend recalls, “Imelda’s dresses were made of parachutes and bedsheets during the war. She did not mind as long as she had a new dress.”

We get Imelda’s spin on her own vanity when she boasts that as First Lady she took an hour to dress for kings and queens but she would take “double the time” if she was going to the provinces because the people needed “a standard, a star…especially in the dark of the night”.

In 1954, Imelda, met then-congressman Ferdinand Marcos in the cafeteria of the Philippine Congress and married him 11 days later. Ferdinand ran for president in 1964 and won by presenting himself and his wife as the John F Kennedys of Asia — young, fresh talent that was going to help the country advance. With the support of the US government, the Marcos’ hunger for power increased and in 1972, Ferdinand declared martial law.

This was, according to Imelda, for the good of the people. In the movie she describes the imposition of martial law in these words: “[The President] informed the family…. He called the little children together and he said the time has come [and] that what he had to offer for the survival of the country was more than life, it was honour…. because he was so democratically committed.” This is when most movie audiences laugh out loud.

Beauty vs Duty
Diaz lets Imelda do most of the talking in this film. As the powder compact-wielding maven tells us how she brought beauty to the Philippines, we get a cultural tour of Manila. Imelda, said to have an “edifice complex”, spent millions of dollars building structures for rich people in the capital city; in 1975 alone, she reportedly commissioned 14 luxury hotels, a multi-million-dollar Nutrition Center, a theatre, a convention centre, the Heart Center and the Lung Center, which did not benefit destitute Filipinos.

Everything Imelda did was, in her delusions — to benefit the common folk. “I had to be both star and slave,” she says in the movie, as Filipino journalists Pete Lacaba and Jo-Ann Maglipon report how they were imprisoned with “no trial, no charges, no nothing” and Jesuit priest Father James Reuter recounts the Marcos regime’s human rights violations.

An American journalist, the former ambassador to the Philippines, and the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs provide some American insight. They portray her as a superficial woman who lived it up while her people suffered. Dressed to the hilt, Imelda met US Presidents, danced with Henry Kissinger, went to Libya to talk to Muaamar Gaddafi and met the Pope.

The movie is at its best when comparing the diva’s recollections with others’ contradictory memories. “We have no human rights cases in the Philippines,” she insists, and Diaz cuts to witnesses who testify to the 70,000 political detainees over the years of the Marcos regime and to journalists who describe their own torture. “It is not expensive to be beautiful. It takes only a little effort,” says Imelda, and her couturier, Christian Espiritu, recalls seamstresses going blind from hand-embroidering thousands of her gowns day and night to meet her tight deadlines.

In his review of the movie, Ty Burton of the Boston Globe says: “And yet Imelda is oddly engaging in her rose-coloured perceptual prison. You understand why she still gets hugs and autograph requests on the streets of Manila, why there’s an Imelda Marcos shoe museum in the town of Marikena, and why [director Ramona] Diaz herself views her with something close to fondness.”

Imelda has become a deified mother-figure. When she returned to the Philippines after exile in Hawaii, she was received by people who kiss her hands for blessing and by a priest who proclaims the return of “Mummy Imelda”.

She enjoys the same veneration as did the wife of another dictator, Juan Peron of Argentina. Eva Peron, or Evita, had a huge impact on Argentine politics. She was worshipped by the working class, mocked by society ladies, and misunderstood by the military establishment. Her rise from being a humble villager in the backwaters of the interior, to a status as one of the most powerful figures in a male-dominated culture has some parallels in Imelda’s story.

Evita was born in the village of Los Toldos in 1919, one of five illegitimate children. At the age of 14, determined to be an actress, she ran off to Buenos Aries with a young singer.

As an aspiring 15-year-old actress, Evita faced almost insurmountable odds in landing jobs in the theatre. She led a miserable existence, often getting sick and never having much to eat. This changed when a rich manufacturer fell for her and provided her with her own radio show. Soon Evita’s voice became a regular feature on the airwaves of Radio El Mundo.
Like Imelda, she had boundless energy: she worked frenetically and made powerful friends. Her lack of talent and sophistication did not stop her from attracting some very important people to her cause. Among her admirers were the president of Argentina and the Minister of Communications, who controlled all the radio stations.

Evita met Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, the reputed power behind the new military government, at a fund-raising event for victims of the 1944 San Juan earthquake, in which thousands died. She wasted no time in catching the eye of the widowed colonel and later left the fundraiser on his arm.

Though exactly half Peron’s 48 years, Evita played a big part in her husband’s rise to power. When Peron became Minister of Labour and Welfare, Evita convinced him that his real power base should be the previously ignored masses of labourers living in the slums.

[There is great footage in "Imelda" showing Imelda standing shin-deep in mud planting rice in a show of solidarity with the rural poor who were until then ignored.]

The ministry instituted minimum wages, better living conditions, salary increases, and protection from employers. It was not long before Evita called the labourers to Peron’s aid. An army coup was on the brink of success when Evita called all her chips in. More than 200,000 labourers entered the capital city and demanded that Peron be their president. The colonel accepted the mandate of the Argentine people.

Evita cemented her ties with the workers by establishing the Social Aid Foundation. Through this charity, scores of hospitals and hundreds of schools were built, nurses trained, and money given to the poor. Although a cult was developing around her personality, she would always tell the people in her countless speeches that all the credit should go to her husband and that she would gladly sacrifice her life for him.

Wooing Europe

Perhaps Evita’s finest personal and political moment came with her long tour of Europe in 1947, during which she met with Franco, the dictator of Spain, Pope Pius XII, and the Italian and French foreign ministers. This was a trip designed to boost the image of her husband’s regime abroad. It included a brief visit to Switzerland where she may have opened at least one secret bank account to deposit funds she received from Nazis in exchange for Argentine passports and visas, according to historians.

She dazzled post-war Europe with her jewels and elegant gowns. Newspapers made much of her rags-to-riches story. She was even on the cover of Time magazine.

She was dying by 1952, a victim of uterine cancer, but she kept up her intense work schedule. Her death brought Argentina to a standstill. Her body was embalmed, and at her wake thousands paid their last respects.
In 1955, Evita’s corpse disappeared, stolen by the military after they had deposed Juan Peron. It was carried to Germany and then Italy, where it was interred for 16 years under another name. It was finally returned to her husband in Spain. When Juan Peron died in Argentina in 1974, Evita’s coffin was brought from Spain and lay in state next to her husband’s.

The fate of Ferdinand Marcos’s embalmed body is still uncertain. For now it lies in a glass coffin in Ilocos Norte, the place where he rose to power. Imelda wants a presidential burial, with all the trimmings — outraged public opinion has kept him above ground. Imelda hopes that she and her husband can eventually be buried side by side with her epitaph reading, “Here lies love”.
Even though efforts to have Evita canonised in Rome met with polite refusal, Evita still holds her near-saint status in Argentina. Her confessor, Father Benitez, said Evita loved her clothes and jewels too much to be a saint (although when she was ill, she said, "If I get well and can return to help the poor all I'll need is a skirt and blouse"). Her epitaph, made famous by the musical Evita, reads: "Don't cry for me Argentina, the truth is I never left you." It still rings true.

Related Stories:

Meet Asia's dynamic first ladies

Dependents of the state

Swimming in luxury

Bun Rany Hun Sen: Financier

Ho Ching: Investor

Potjaman Damapong Shinawatra: Geomancer

Selina Tsang: Pathfinder

Wu Shu-jen: Corruptor



First Published: 
January 2006


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.