It is November 2018 and a Philippine court called the Sandiganbayan is about to rule on a historic case. The court specializes in public corruption, such as that committed by an employee of the government, or, indeed, a former head of state. The accused is Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines and widow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ran the country from 1965 to 1986.
With charges first pressed in 1991, the verdict represents the culmination of nearly three decades of painstaking litigation. But as the court prepares to pass sentence, the accused is nowhere to be seen. Her absence is perhaps predictable. After all, Imelda has been accused of plundering billions from the public purse. And, of course, she denies it vehemently.
But with or without the Sandiganbayan verdict, the public passed judgement on Imelda years ago. For example, in 1989 the Guinness World Record claimed that she and her husband were responsible for the largest ever theft from a government. And, in 2009 Newsweek called her “one of the greediest people of all time.”
Of course, the scale of Imelda’s greed is a matter of debate. But according to Philippine news site Rappler, she apparently once said, “We practically own everything in the Philippines. From electricity, telecommunications, airlines, banking, beer and tobacco, newspaper publishing, television stations, shipping, oil and mining, hotels and beach resorts, down to coconut milling, small farms, real estate and insurance.”
Meanwhile, in a curious rhetorical twist, Imelda claimed that her greed was motivated by charity. She told Newsweek in 2009, “I plead guilty. For me, greedy is giving. I was first lady for 20 years, you have to be greedy first to give to all. It is natural. The only things we keep in life are those we give away.”
Born Imelda Remedios Visitacion Romuáldez in July 1929, she was the first child of her mother Remedios and the sixth of her father Vicente. Although her family was relatively wealthy at the time of her birth, her dad’s law practice was ailing. And in 1938 the family moved from Manila to Tacloban, where the cost of living was lower. Then that same year, Imelda’s mother sadly died from pneumonia.
During her formative years, Imelda earned an undergraduate degree from St. Paul’s College – now called Divine Word University – and then resided in Manila. She briefly worked at a music store before her family pulled some strings to get her a job at the Intelligence Division of the Central Bank. She also enrolled at the College of Music and Fine Arts.
In 1953 Imelda took part in the Miss Manila beauty pageant. Several years earlier, at the age of 18, she had won first place in a regional contest, earning the crown titles of Miss Leyte and Rose of Talcoban. She went on to jointly win the title of Miss Manila with Norma Jimenez in 1953. However, Cristina Galang ultimately won the Miss Philippines award.
In April 1954 Imelda was visiting the Philippine Congress with her cousin Paz Romualdez. The house was debating President Ramon Magsaysay’s budget. And on the opposition side was a 36-year-old lawmaker and future President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. During a recess, he spotted her for the first time and decided to court her.
Their courtship – later dubbed the “Eleven-Day Whirlwind” – took place over Catholic Holy Week, which Imelda spent in Baguio at the mansion of a cousin. Ferdinand rented some local quarters and visited Imelda daily to bestow her with bouquets and presents. Finally, on Good Friday, April 16, she finally relented to his advances, later signing a marriage license.
The following day, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were married in secret by a judge friend. However, it was not until Easter Sunday that the eager groom dispatched a telegram to the bride’s father, requesting his blessing. Of course, he obliged. And on May 1, Imelda and Ferdinand were “officially” wed in the San Miguel Pro-Cathedral in Manila, where Imelda had once been christened.
Ten years later, Ferdinand charted a course for the presidency. His first step was to become the presidential candidate for the conservative Nacionalista Party, with Imelda acting as his campaign manager and lobbyist during the contest. Using her personal charm, she helped him win the majority support of party delegates. And in November 1964 Ferdinand became the official Nacionalista candidate for the 1965 election.
As well as winning over party delegates, Imelda also proved instrumental in securing Fernando Lopez as the Nacionalista vice-presidential candidate. Initially, Lopez declined the role, but then Imelda tugged his heartstrings, telling him how she and Ferdinand felt abandoned. When still Lopez refused to join them, she started to cry. And that was enough, apparently, to convince him to sign up.
With Ferdinand leading the Nacionalista pack, Imelda then turned her attentions to the biggest game in town: the presidential election. Naturally, she drew support from her hometown province of Leyte, as well as from Manila. Others she won over with her voice and beautified presence. Attired in traditional dress, she sang traditional Philippine folk songs on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, the wives of Nacionalista politicians convened in a group known as the “Blue Ladies.” And these women not only provided funds but helped to generate publicity for the Marcos campaign. They made personal visits to local businesses and went door-to-door in the slums. Furthermore, they would later serve as an entourage to Imelda.
Ferdinand won the race and became the tenth President of the Philippines in December 1965. Imelda, for whom the campaign had been a political awakening, became first lady. She subsequently described her transformation as “a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon.” Commentators later called her “the iron butterfly” in reference to the cruelty of the Marcos regime.
As first lady, Imelda fully indulged her extravagant tastes. She took overseas shopping trips and blew millions at a time. She amassed a wealth of fashionable items, jewelry and other luxury accessories. Some have argued that her role required her to look her best – as first lady, she was expected to adorn herself in finery. Others, meanwhile, have accused her of excessiveness.
Indeed, Imelda is the etymology of the adjective “imeldific” to describe a thing of tasteless or highblown extravagance. The former first lady defended herself in an interview with United International Press in 1995. She said, “I try to beautify the country – they call it extravagance, frivolity. They laugh at me and call me ‘Imeldific,’ meaning extravagant, frivolous and excessive.”
To some extent, Imelda did contribute to the “beautification” of the Philippines. Indeed, she spent millions on public landmarks such as the Paco Cemetery and Fort Santiago. And she also founded the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex, which she described as a “sanctuary of the Filipino soul.” The complex played host to state-sanctioned cultural productions and, notably, its final construction cost cost 50,000 percent more than first budgeted.
Imelda also acted as the president’s representative abroad – a role which naturally involved jet-setting, galas and soirees. Her diplomatic successes include an offer of $28 million in war damages from U.S. President Johnson and a further donation of $3.5 million towards her cultural complex. She also helped to establish diplomatic channels between Philippines and the Soviet Union. And she was the first woman to be admitted as a visitor to the Saudi Court.
But in September 1972 the Philippines entered a dark new phase of history. President Marcos imposed martial law, claiming the move was necessary to quell the “communist threat” of the new Communist Party of the Philippines (CCP) and the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM). At the same time, he touted the move as a method of social engineering, a way to remake and revitalize the Philippines. For her part, Imelda called it “martial law with a smile.”
In fact, martial law was simply a euphemism for political dictatorship. And for the next 14 years, the Marcos regime ran roughshod over human rights. According to Amnesty International, it was responsible for some 70,000 political imprisonments, 35,000 known incidents of torture, 77 disappearances and 3,257 extrajudicial killings.
Furthermore, without any oversight, the Marcos family was able to pilfer the public purse. How much they stole is not known for certain, but their personal fortune apparently swelled to $5-10 billion over their 21-year-rule. Author Jovito Salonga described their techniques in his 2000 book Presidential Plunder. These included taking over private and public industries, monopolizing industries, looting the treasury and laundering money through shell corporations.
But the Marcoses were not without enemies. One of them, Benigno Aquino, Jr. spoke out against the regime and was jailed in 1980. He suffered a heart attack in prison, which led him to request treatment in the United States. He got permission to leave, supposedly as a personal favor from Imelda. Then in August 1983 he returned to the Philippines and was promptly assassinated at Manila International Airport.
Three years later, Aquino’s widow Corazon ran in an apparently rigged presidential election, which Ferdinand won by allegedly committing electoral fraud. This led to a popular uprising known as the “people power” revolution, with civil unrest lasting for three days. Then, in February 1986, hours after their official inauguration in the Malacañang Palace, the Marcoses stood down.
Imelda, Ferdinand and their entourage fled for Hawaii for the next day, leaving behind a small fortune in Malacañang Palace. Among the former’s assets was a 175-piece private art collection with works by Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Monet and Marquet. Other items included 888 handbags, 508 gowns, 15 mink coats and around 3,000 pairs of shoes. Meanwhile, the exiled couple arrived in the U.S. with millions in cash, bonds and gold bars.
In August 1986 Vanity Fair interviewed Imelda at her new home in Makiki Heights, Honolulu. They described her property as “an $80,000 or $90,000 single-family dwelling on valuable beachfront property. There are neighbors close by on both sides, with no walls or fences between the houses… There are… more than forty people living here.”
Meanwhile, the former first lady took the election results badly. She said, “We won the election by a million and a half votes, but the world media makes Mrs. Aquino look like Joan of Arc. Even the people in her own province voted for my husband. She was the underdog because of Karma. She has abolished the constitution. What she is is a dictator.”
Meanwhile, the Marcos family dwelled in exile for three years. Then, on September 28, 1989, with his son Bongbong by his bedside, Ferdinand Marcos died from a combination of illnesses affecting his lungs, kidneys and heart. Two years later in 1991, President Corazon Aquino permitted Imelda and her family to return to the Philippines. And the former first lady wasted no time inserting herself into the political scene.
However, her 1992 presidential bid was a failure – she came in fifth place out of seven. She had more luck in 1995 when she was elected congresswoman of Leyte. Then, three years later she again entered the presidential race, only to finish in ninth place and withdraw. But in 2010, 2013 and 2016, she was voted to represent the second district of Ilocos Norte.
To some extent, the Philippines’ current president, Rodrigo Duterte has helped to revive Imelda’s political fortunes. He expressed admiration for the Marcos regime and suggested that the Marcoses helped him to shore up votes in the northern Philippines. And in 2016 he gave permission for Ferdinand’s remains to be interred in a Manila cemetery for heroes.
But Imelda’s return to the Philippines also meant that she could be prosecuted. In 2018 the Sandiganbayan finally reached a verdict regarding some of her alleged crimes during her eight-year tenure as governor of Manila – a post she took up while Ferdinand was president. State prosecutors claimed that Imelda had funneled $200 million into foundations based in Switzerland. In fact, Imelda apparently used several Swiss bank accounts, some under the alias of “Jane Ryan.”
In fact, the Sandiganbayan found Imelda Marcos guilty of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act on seven counts. The court handed down a maximum sentence of 77 years, barred the former first lady from holding public office and ordered her immediate arrest. Naturally, Imelda was not in court for the ruling – or for the photo opportunity.
Loretta Ann Rosales suffered torture at the hands of the Marcos regime in the 1970s and subsequently served as a human commissioner for the country, described the ruling as a triumph for victims. Speaking to the New York Times in November 2018, she praised the judges who “helped keep the candles lit through these dark nights and pursued the truth.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for President Duterte told the New York Times that the sentence illustrates the impartiality of the Philippines judiciary. He said, “While we note that there are still legal remedies available to Congresswoman Marcos, this latest development underscores that our country currently has a working and impartial justice system that favors no one.”
Indeed, the “legal remedies” available to Imelda mean she is unlikely to serve prison time. Pending the processing of her appeal, she continues to enjoy her liberty. And given the slow pace of justice in the Philippines, the court is unlikely to return a new verdict any time soon. As of June 2019, however, she no longer represents Ilocos Norte’s 2nd District in the House of Representatives.
In March 2019 President Duterte authorized the auction of Imelda’s precious jewelry – or, at least, the jewelry that was clawed back from her. To date, the government has recuperated approximately $658 million of the money plundered by the Marcoses. However, this represents only a small portion of the total wealth stolen from the Philippines.
Nonetheless, the Marcos family are far from done with politics. Imee Marcos, a daughter of Imelda and Ferdinand, ran for the Philippine Senate in 2019. Human rights organizations have asked her to apologize for the crimes of her father, but she has refused. Instead, she has told the country to “move on.” And her stance appears to have been effective – she won a seat in the senate.
Naturally, Imelda herself continues to enjoy a loyal public following. Some 2,000 fans attended her 90th birthday in July 2019, although the event will probably be remembered for the vomit-inducing illness it caused, rather than the former first lady. In fact, nearly 250 people had to be taken to hospital after eating a bad chicken stew provided for the celebrations.
Meanwhile, Imelda Marcos is unlikely to ever account for her crimes – or revise her self-image. Speaking to Vanity Fair in 1989, she was philosophical. She said, “Peace is a transcendent state. I was a soldier for beauty and love. I was completely selfless. They say about me that I was extravagant, but I gave.”