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A “new” era begins

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President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is sworn in as the 17th president of the Philippines on June 30, 2022. In his speech, Marcos vowed to bring unity to the nation. Photo by Rey Baniquet/ Presidential Photo

Editor's note: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took his oath of office as the 17th president of the Philippines on June 30, 2022. While his supporters rejoice, many others fear the brutal history of his father’s administration will be sanitized and possibly repeated. Jon Malek continues his look into the Marcos legacy and its impact on the nation’s political dynasties in the conclusion of his two-part series.

Marcos: The Legacy, Part 2

by Jon G. Malek

In my last column, I ended with the idea that the election of “Bongbong” Marcos was the result of the failed EDSA revolution. EDSA, as I wrote, failed to follow through on its potential by restoring the old political oligarchy after removing Marcos, Sr. This oligarchy had ties to the Spanish colonial period as hacienda owners, the wealthy families with land who were able to prosper under Spanish and American colonialism. Despite the admiration that Benigno and Cory Aquino have garnered as defenders of Philippine democracy, they were part of that old guard, the entrenched political elite, which Marcos, Sr., had vowed to overthrow. In reference to the failure of EDSA, I mentioned Frantz Fanon, who wrote extensively on revolution in the colonial world in the Wretched of the Earth, first published in French in 1961 (and English in 1963).

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Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. is sworn by Chief Justice Ramon Aquino in the Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang Palace. The inauguration on February 25, 1986, marked the start of the 4th term (and final term) of Ferdinand Marcos as president This resulted in the peaceful 1986 EDSA Revolution, which caused Marcos going into exile in Hawaii and Corazon Aquino becoming the 11th president of the Philippines on the same day. The young Bongbong Marcos, Jr. is 2nd from right. Photo from the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
National Historical Commission Marker in the People Power Monument. Will the President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. continue the tradition to observe February 25th each year as the EDSA People Power Revolution Anniversary, a special non-working day in the Philippines?

Fanon opens his first chapter, “On Violence,” with the claim that decolonization, a form of revolution, “is always a violent event.” A revolution, further, is the “substitution” of one form of governance for another, but “The substitution is unconditional, absolutely, total, and seamless … proof of success lies in a social fabric that has been changed inside out. This change is extraordinarily important because it is desired, clambered for, and demanded.” (Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p.1).

The violence inherent in revolution is true literally, such as armed revolutions or civil war, as well as figuratively, as in the destruction of colonial political institutions, laws, etc. The violence, both literal and symbolic, comes from a deep consciousness of the people – that is, it is not controlled by a political or economic elite, but rather driven by the mass population of the repressed. Indeed, in many cases it is in the interests of the elite to preserve the existing structures that gave them their power. Looking back at the Philippines in the 1880s and 1890s, we can see this juxtaposition. Many of the ilustrado who came from wealthy land-owning families tended towards reformation of the administrative system through inclusion in political affairs, while the more radical Katipunan, driven by the Philippine peasantry, opted for armed resistance and revolution. In the end, for a revolution to succeed, not only must the old masters themselves be thrown out, but the houses they built destroyed. That is, the institutions that gave them their power – political, judicial, economic, and social – must be destroyed, and entirely new ones created by the liberated people.

Focusing on the EDSA revolution, this did not happen. Marcos, Sr., and his cronies were removed from power, but the same systems they occupied were merely taken over by the old oligarchy, in a sense bringing about a restoration, not revolution. People’s power was certainly present, and change was “desired, clambered for, and demanded” by those who marched on EDSA. But, it has been argued, the political opponents of Marcos, Sr., who also happened to belong to the old oligarchy, seized that revolutionary power and diverted it from true fulfillment. While Cory Aquino was popular, her election saw the restoration of the pre-Marcos political system. The potential to redistribute power and wealth, such as new political leaders and land reforms, was thus absorbed into the status quo of post-EDSA Philippines.

This post-EDSA context is important in understanding the path of Bongbong Marcos to Malacañang Palace. It doesn’t explain the whole story, of course, but today there is a palpable sense of frustration in the Philippines. The country is wracked by social, economic, and political problems, and promises to fix them carry significant political weight. Just as Rodrigo Duterte came to power with promises to make the country safer, Marcos, Jr., has made promises to build up the Philippines’ infrastructure, create more jobs, and lower the cost of living. Bongbong has also embraced the memory of his father, something that supporters have attempted to rehabilitate and even rewrite.

The elephant in the room for many Marcos, Sr., sympathizers are the rampant human rights abuses that took place during Martial Law. If these abuses are addressed (often, they are ignored or even denied, despite the documented evidence), it is often argued that they were necessary to pacify the crime in the Philippines and that, besides, Marcos brought about a “Golden Age” for the country. This line of argument is quite distressing for any democratic society, which is naturally based upon the rule of law, and in which freedom of expression and political protest are supposed to be enshrined and protected. A democratically elected government is there to secure and protect the interests of the people, not the government itself.

Martial Law was declared in response to the threat being presented by the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which had increased their activity during the presidency of Marcos before 1972. Yet, the majority of those who were illegally kidnapped without charge, who were tortured, and those who simply “disappeared,” were not members of the NPA. Those who were targeted criticized Marcos on several fronts, including students, journalists, and community leaders. And even if those targeted were guilty, or properly suspected guilty of crimes, there were appropriate legal avenues to follow. Indeed, many scholars of the period disagree with the claim that the Philippine Constitution did not provide Marcos with the necessary legal tools and that Martial Law was necessary.

The claim about the economic boom brought about by Marcos, Sr., has been disproven but still often made. The details are complicated, and it is necessary to peel back multiple layers to see what was really happening with the Philippine economy; at first glance, economic signs seem to suggest a general growth. However, whatever growth there was went into the hands of an already entrenched economic elite, including those allies of Marcos, whose support he needed to prop up his regime. According to Luis H. Francia, the end of the 1970s saw a 20 per cent decline in average monthly wages, a 30 per cent drop in agricultural production, and a 40 per cent decline in commerce. While 50 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line, prices for essential commodities tripled. There is no coincidence that the Filipino diaspora began in earnest during the 1970s and 1980s during Martial Law. Many of those who founded Filipino communities abroad – including in Winnipeg – left the Philippines because of the declining economic and political situation. Of note, too, is that Arsenio Balisacan, the incoming secretary of the National Economic and Development Authority under Bongbong Marcos, argued against the myth of the Marcos Golden Age in the book Philippine Economy: Development, Policies, and Challenges, which he co-authored.

I dwell on these points for a reason, and it is the originating question: How could a democratic nation, with a history of political and democratic revolution, elect the son of a dictator with such a record? It is easy to say that supporters of the Marcos family are uninformed or misguided, but this dismissiveness misses the point, one which I think is important. Many of the more lucid supporters of Bongbong Marcos are, quite frankly, frustrated, and angry at the state of the Philippines in terms of crime, political corruption, and economic prospects. Misguided or not, there is a belief that Marcos, Jr., is the answer to these problems. Therein lies the split. Certain segments of the Philippine electorate see the solution in the long term through social programs that address the root of the problems. In terms of the so-called drug war, the solution would be to target issues such as mental health or poor social and economic prospects. Then there are those who want more direct and observable methods, such as arresting (or murdering) drug pushers, those who sell drugs on the streets. This approach tends to target the surface manifestations of the root problems faced in Philippine society.

As a historian, it is my duty to state that there is a great degree of revisionism ongoing in the Philippines, and the forces of this revisionism are not relying on the values of evidence and the veracity of sources. This is most recently evidenced by the deplorable treatment of historian Ambeth Ocampo for defending the study of history as being much more than mere gossip. This historical revisionism and selective social memory are topics for another column, but it is important to recognize that there is an underlying sense of dissent towards the status quo of Philippine politics. In the last decade, political dialogue has become toxic, full of vitriol and ad hominem attacks, but devoid of meaningful political discussion. This is not only true of the Philippines, but of many political societies, and it holds back the potential of democracy. Both sides need to understand the other especially where they disagree. Both sides need to embrace, too, the search for truth and the role of evidence in that search.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.