Like most Filipinos, I very rarely rage against people and what they say or do. But watching Sen. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. on a television interview last week—chastising the poor leadership and mismanagement of the country over the last three decades, and then having the gall to compare that unfavorably to the "golden age" of Philippine government, read, the Marcos years; of claiming that under his father's leadership, the country was self-sufficient and even exporting rice to other countries while it imports millions of tons today; how his father had launched and sustained infrastructure development, specifically citing how Marcos Sr. started the LRT and today we can't even get the fourth line started; how we had energy sufficiency with the lowest power costs in the region when his father was in charge; and how the Philippines had the highest standards in education in all of Asia and how it has gone down ever since. Everything led up to his main point "what do I have to apologize for?"— this made me sick to my stomach. As I'm sure it did a lot of Filipinos old enough to have gone through the "golden" Marcos years of 1970 to 1985.
As with other Filipinos, and as did President Benigno Aquino III did this morning at the EDSA People Power Day rally, we are repulsed by this blatant attempt to rewrite recent history. But in telling off the younger Marcos, I noticed a tendency to highlight the atrocities and rights abuses of the Marcos years:
The crudely-hatched assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Sr. in 1983 as he arrived in Manila, breaking a mutually-agreed-upon self-exile;
His seeming readiness to deploy the whole might of the armed forces on the civilian population massing around the EDSA-Ortigas-Santolan area in 1986;
The willingness to maim and kill opposition leaders as in Plaza Miranda, and stage mock NPA ambushes to justify a military regime;
The detention, incarceration, torture, disappearances or killings of irritating journalists, leftists, opposition critics, even mere curfew violators and people close to opposition figures;
The all-powerful police state and the violent and oftentimes deadly suppression of marches and protests.
Those were all true. But—and I make what I think is an important point—all those atrocities only tangentially touched the lives of the everyday Filipino in the 70s and first half 80s. Of course, there are tens of thousands of Marcos "victims"—we all knew a sibling, kin, officemate or friend who got detained, incarcerated, tortured, who headed for the NPA hills, or even killed in some protest march or other. But most Filipinos went along with their work and lives and did the best they could under a dictatorial society.
But what we often forget to mention, President Aquino included, is that during the Marcos years, the country was oppressed economically and under the burden of corruption, nepotism, kleptocracy, crony capitalism, profligate white-elephant spending, and weakening of our public institutions, we became Asia's basket case—and that touched every Filipino's life. May I remind Senator Marcos that:
1. The country did not import rice in any significant amount until 1996, well after the Cory Aquino administration and halfway already into the Ramos government. Just to complete the picture from NFA, from 1995 to 2005, we imported on average a million tons, then from 2006 onwards, the average moved up to 1.75 million tons. Sen. Marcos could have implemented "real" agrarian reform that would have created much larger plots of ricelands for distribution instead of pushing small peasant farmers to poverty and cash tenancy. He could have provided more effective infra and financial support for our farmers, millers and dealers. Still, importation was going to be inevitable, for the reasons above plus the fact that Vietnam and Thailand began to maximize the yields from the world's largest rice delta that is the Mekong which both countries shared. So, to contradict Sen. Marcos, rice importation did not suddenly happen after President Marcos left in 1986. But he could certainly have done more to prevent the country's decline in rice production by 30 percent from 1972 to 1980.
2. The 70s to '85 may have been the "golden" years but it was the golden age of crony capitalism. Conglomerates were stolen outright from captains of industry if they were associated with the opposition. At the time, Marcos focused on Eugenio Lopez as enemy no. 1, and proceeded to dismantle the Lopez conglomerate one company at a time, starting with Meralco. There was also ABS-CBN, PLDT, PAL, Fortune Tobacco, and others. Cronies—and these included Romualdez, Cojuangco, Benedicto, Tan, Floirendo, Campos, Disini, Silverio, et. al.—were given full monopolies on our vital sugar, coconut and banana industries, including the right to tax the coconut and sugar farmers based on production, resulting in poorer farmers and windfalls for both frontmen and the Marcoses. GOCCs, such as the National Shipyard, were suddenly "privatized," again under the leadership of cronies. Cronies set up companies having very limited capital or management expertise and overnight, these companies, through sweetheart deals, loans that never got repaid, by being sole bidders on projects, without oversight from SEC, BIR, Central Bank, COA, DENR, DAR, etc., became the country's largest. And with all these ill-gotten funds in hand, the same cronies started to buy into the largest Philippine corporations such as San Miguel, the biggest money-laundering scheme the country had ever seen.
3. What golden age of infrastructure could the younger Marcos be talking about? By 1980, Thailand and Malaysia had ten times more kilometers of highways, expressways, flyovers, bridges, and dams built in five years than Marcos did in 15. Thailand had magnificent expressways built to get tourists to Pattaya and Phuket; we couldn't even build cement roads to bring tourists all the way to the nearest Batangas beaches, let alone Baguio. All we could show was SLEX.
4. Perhaps, Sen. Marcos should be reminded that when his father took office, our external debt was $350 million. By the time his family left, we were $30 billion in debt, making us one of the most indebted countries in Asia. Sure, there was the LRT, the SLEX, the Cultural Center, the International Convention Center, and the Heart Center. But that was one percent of one percent of one percent of new loans. The largest percentage went into behest loans by the Marcos family and the cronies that went unpaid, and largely unrecovered by the Philippine Commission on Good Government, or PCGG. A lot of it also went into white-elephant and poorly-advised projects—San Juanico Bridge, Folk 3 Arts Theater, Film Center, the ill-fated Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, University of Life, Palace in the Sky, etc. By 1982, we couldn't meet our International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank debt obligations and we had to embarrassingly beg for IMF reprieve. The Philippine peso became a global pariah and you couldn't find a foreign airport currency exchange that would exchange your pesos. From 1986 till now, the country has been regularly repaying our foreign debt, with debt servicing making up 45 percent of our budget during our first 10 years after Marcos. That was half our annual multi-trillion peso budget not going to education, health, defense, infrastructure, housing or social services.
5. In 1970, at the start of Marcos's glorious run, the Philippine exchange rate to the US dollar was 4:1. Then after the leftists' cry against corruption resulting in the First Quarter Storm, it nudged to 6:1. Then Marcos had Aquino assassinated and by 1985, the peso stumbled to 20:1. Of course it wasn't helped by a weak Cory government which saw it slide to 28:1 by the time Cory made way for Fidel V. Ramos. The 28:1 made way for 38:1 during the FVR years, aided and abetted by the Asian financial crisis which saw several Asian economies get sick. And the six Estrada-Arroyo years saw another major decline, from 38:1 to 55:1. So let's not let Sen. Marcos get away with the lie that the economy went in decline only after his father left—the peso lost three-fourths of its value from the time his father took office until he left.
6. Other financial facts to put the spotlight on the "healthy economy" during the Marcos years—from 1970 to the early 80s, monthly income fell by 20 percent. Worse, unemployment rate ballooned from 6 percent to 28 percent, resulting in the single largest mass exodus of talent, over a single decade, the country had ever seen or will see again. Workers having a difficult time making ends meet or finding work migrated to the US, Canada, Australia or looked for long-term contract work in the Middle East and East Asia. Suddenly, enrolment for physical therapy, nursing, merchant marine, and IT jumped up since these were the skills most in demand outside the country.
So no, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., it was not a golden age that your father presided over. While neighbors Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and even Vietnam, albeit only recently, have all moved more or less forward since the 60s, we as a country were pulled several steps back in those 15 years that you so lovingly put a halo around. As Marlon Brando put it quite well in "On the Waterfront": "We could have been a contender." But today, we're on the fringes, still struggling, largely thanks to your father and his legacy.
I've written this editorial-essay more for myself than anyone else. I'm over 60 years old. Five years from now, I might start forgetting. And I might wind up believing the lies and half-truths you're foisting on the young, the ignorant and the forgetful.
Jaime "Bing" del Rosario is a retired executive at Accenture Philippines and at Andersen Consulting Philippines. He and his wife, Elise, run One Small Step Forward Foundation Inc. focusing on providing after-school academic programs and infrastructure support for the Quezon City public elementary school system.