November 2022

An extract from To Tell the Truth: My Life as a Foreign Correspondent 

(Rowman & Littlefield, November 15, 2022) by Lewis M. Simons

People Power' was supposed to irreversibly change the Philippines but Filipinos forgot and the Marcoses are back

It’s been nearly six months since Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr swept to a stunning — and to me regrettable — victory as president of the Philippines.

Not enough time has passed for him to have stamped his mark on his country’s erratic history or to forecast its future. But the simple fact that a huge majority of Filipinos voted him into the same office that his kleptocratic and tyrannical father held for two decades is sufficient cause for sorrow.

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana. The nearly 32 million Filipinos who cast their ballots for the son wholly forgot the past.

Like father, like son?

I haven’t forgotten. I knew the father.

I first met Ferdinand E Marcos at his teak-paneled office in the Spanish colonial Malacañang Palace in 1970. He’d been in power for five years and was on his way to amassing a record of 3,257 known, politically linked murders. 

Most of those victims were tortured and mutilated before their bodies were dumped in public to sow fear, a tactic known as "salvaging." Some were subjected to cannibalism.

Marcos was athletically built but short – and sensitive about it – and styled his hair in a lofty, early Frank Sinatra pompadour. I realized as we spoke that he was looking down at me. Then I noticed that his desk and leather chair were perched on an elevated platform.

The senior Marcoses wanted people to look up to them, so they sat up high. Photo: US National Archives

Marcos was the undisputed master of a madhouse. In Manila, the national capital and home to eight million souls, traffic stewed in choking fumes, dragging 15-minute car trips into hours. 

Motorized tricycles called tuk-tuks sputtered and darted like angry hornets, mocking any notion of road lanes. The most popular form of public transport was the jeepney, a stretched and gussied-up version of the US military vehicle Filipinos had taken to their hearts during World War II.

Scrawny children and their scrawnier parents dodged precariously around the vehicles, pleading for a few centavos or flogging newspapers, hard candies by the piece and cigarettes by the stick. 

Families slept on broken sidewalks, hundreds in easy view of the US embassy and the ritzy Manila Hotel on Manila Bay with its technicolor sunsets. Boys and girls as young as nine sold their bodies to Japanese and Arab tourists in the Ermita entertainment district and to American sailors in the Subic Bay naval base town of Olongapo.

Over the years, each time I returned, I saw the same unfinished buildings, rusted rebar rods clawing like arthritic fingers from raw concrete walls. Manila was a city of thwarted dreams. Appalling poverty had always been the curse of other Asian cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, Dacca, Karachi and Jakarta. 

Historically, the Philippines had escaped the worst. Life-sustaining food could be plucked off a tree or snatched from the sea.

After the war, the Philippines was considered Southeast Asia’s best bet for success. Now, Filipino economists were comparing their nation with Asia’s most destitute. They put the blame squarely on the first couple, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

Marcos had appointed the glamorous Imelda governor of the capital, a position rife with illicit money-making opportunities. Focused on image, instead of confronting Manila’s wretched reality, she cooked up a grandiose but ultimately hollow public-relations showcase that she entitled the “City of Man.” 

The huge expenditure drained already exhausted essential services, such as potable water and electricity, for Manila’s poor. The pretentious City of Man mutated into the pitiable Sick Man of Asia.

Still, most Filipinos accepted corruption as a natural entitlement of the powerful. Why hold public office if not to benefit yourself and your family first? Then, on August 21, 1983, Marcos’s most threatening political challenger, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was assassinated as he returned home from self-exile in the United States. 

The public immediately linked the murder to the first couple.

People Power

It was the last straw. Ninoy’s murder spun the Philippines into a typhoon of turmoil. 

Over the coming months and for the next three years, thousands, then hundreds of thousands and, ultimately, millions of infuriated Filipinos of all social classes swamped the streets, demanding Marcos’s removal. Their boisterous but, overall, remarkably peaceful demonstrations became known as People Power.

It succeeded in the Philippines and sparked replicas elsewhere. People Power-style rebellions swept through repressed societies around the globe. Outcomes varied in places as far-flung as Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall, Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union, South Korea, Indonesia and the Arab world.

I was by then reporting for the San Jose Mercury News, one of 32 newspapers around the United States owned by the Knight-Ridder chain. Throughout the three years between Ninoy’s assassination and Marcos’s forced departure, I shuttled between my base in Tokyo and Manila. 

I spent days marching with throngs of Filipinos dressed in yellow, the battle color of Ninoy’s widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino. She had taken up her martyred husband’s challenge, eventually defeating Marcos for the presidency and forcing him to flee to Hawaii.

Former Philippine president Corazon Aquino (L), talks with her son, then-senator Benigno Aquino (R) during a memorial service at Manila Memorial Park marking the 24th anniversary of the assassination of her husband former opposition leader senator Benigno Aquino. Photo: AFP / Jes Aznar

Most mornings, I could be found at coffee klatches with members of Manila’s notorious chattering classes. Filipinos love nothing more than exchanging chismis, Tagalog for “gossip,” and one topic was common currency. 

Everyone seemed to have a story they wanted to share about a piece of prime real estate or a stash of gold or a numbered Swiss account belonging to the Marcoses or someone in their innermost circle – “cronies,” as they were known.

During one breakfast session at the Mandarin Hotel, a banker asked me if I knew how much Imelda had paid for the Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan. Often I had walked past that splendid Art Deco skyscraper, topped with a gold pyramid, on Fifth Avenue. It was one of the most expensive commercial buildings in the US. I had no idea who owned it.

'How much did she pay?'

The banker’s verbatim question was simply, “How much did she pay?” Just that. I understood there was only one she in the Philippines, just as there was one he. But my new acquaintance could see from my blank expression that I didn’t know what he was talking about. That surprised him.

“Surely you know that she owns the Crown Building.”

When I admitted I didn’t, he fixed me with a yun o—raising eyebrows and wrinkling forehead in a classic Filipino gesture, vaguely akin to Indian head-wobbling.

Everyone,” he said, knew the first lady bought the classic structure. She had it magnificently refurbished, paying particular attention to disassembling and reassembling the gleaming, black-marble lobby and re-gilding the 23-karat crown.

The Crown Building. Rendering: Aman New York

A few days later, I went to see the Reverend James Donelon, a friend of many years, and, over coffee, told him what I’d heard.

“Oh, sure,” he said nonchalantly. Then he mentioned that Imelda also owned Lindenmere, a multimillion-dollar estate on Long Island. Father Jim was in a position to know. A brilliant, Oxford-educated American Jesuit, he’d lived and worked in the Philippines for decades. 

He founded the Asian Institute of Management, which trained many of the nation’s leading business executives, and was president of the prestigious Ateneo de Manila University. And he was Imelda’s confessor.

I didn’t ask, and Jim didn’t offer, whether he was breaking the inviolable sacramental seal by telling me about the Long Island estate. I assume not, but that was between Jim and his God.

As I made my rounds of Manila’s gossip mongers, I grew increasingly impressed by the broad range of people who had similar information and were happy to share it. They included multimillionaire landowners and owners of little sari-sari stores; taxi drivers; and university professors, waitresses and students. And, of course, politicians. They ticked off properties and investments in New York, California, Texas, Washington, DC, Washington state, Canada, Australia, Latin America and Europe.

How could this be? I wondered. How could so many know so much? Then the penny dropped. They didn’t. No one actually knew anything. It was all chismis. Gossip. Rumor. No one had seriously investigated. I wanted to try. I wrote a lengthy memo to Jonathan Krim, the foreign editor of the Mercury News, in San Jose. 

The highlight was a list of every piece of real estate I’d heard that the Marcoses and their cronies owned outside the Philippines. Many were in the Merc’s backyard, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dollar salting

I went into considerable detail about “dollar salting,” the practice by rich and well-connected Filipinos of siphoning money out of the country and hiding it abroad. Filipinos were banned by law from transferring hard currency, even if it was earned in legal business dealings. Stealing from the national treasury was, of course, a major crime. Both were done with alarming frequency.

Moving the money was simple. In one case, a woman bound for Hong Kong was arrested at the Manila airport in 1981 with $1 million neatly packed in two suitcases. She’d made 33 similar trips over the previous eighteen months. Slightly more sophisticated were wire transmissions funneled through shadowy money lenders in Manila’s Chinatown.

Over $10 billion had been sucked out of the country in recent years, according to Bernardo Villegas, one of the Philippines’ leading economists. His colleague, Jesus Estanislao, put the figure at $30 billion. Coincidentally, perhaps, the nation’s foreign debt then was nearly $30 billion. 

I proposed to Krim that I take a serious look at the dollar salting, with a focus on the California properties.

Imelda Marcos addresses the crowd during her 90th Birthday Celebration on July 1, 2019, in Open Air Auditorium, Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, Philippines. Photo: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via AFP

Two San Jose-based reporters, Pete Carey and Katherine Ellison, and I worked for a year investigating the holdings of Ferdinand, Imelda and their cronies. We learned that, among numerous other purchases, Imelda paid $51 million for the Crown Building and another $15 million on upgrades, including 1,363 ounces of twenty-three-karat gold leaf. Title was assigned to a Netherlands Antilles shell.

She spent another $46 million to tear down and rebuild a ten-story, glass-encased shopping mall in Manhattan’s Herald Square. She named it Herald Center. It quickly deteriorated into a white elephant. Yet another of her landmark Manhattan properties was 40 Wall Street. None other than Donald Trump subsequently bought it and named it after himself.

It's curious how people like the Trumps and Marcoses so often wind up in bed together. Or, in this case, in the same bed at different times. Trump’s elder son, Don Jr, is deeply engaged in denigrating his father’s numerous critics and denying their allegations. Ferdinand Jr has similarly been occupied for years. 

Should both eventually prove successful in erasing the truth, I would not be surprised. And that is all the reason I need for worrying.

The author of a new memoir, To Tell the Truth: My Life as a Foreign Correspondent, to be released November 15, Lewis M. Simons served in the US Marine Corps before beginning his career as a foreign correspondent in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. He saw the war through to the end, covering the fall of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Since then, Simons has reported on war, civil unrest, politics and economics from throughout Southeast Asia; India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh; Iraq and Iran; China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea, as well as the former Soviet Union. Simons is a former president of the FCCJ. He and two colleagues in 1986 won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for exposing the billions that the Marcos family looted from the Philippines. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism named the series one of 50 Great Stories of the Century. This article includes excerpts from his new book and is Copyright 2022, Lewis M. Simons.