Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Philippines, Marcos & Combating a Legacy

Where the Marcos family is concerned, even good news is bad for 95 million Filipinos and their economy

What else can one say about Andres Bautista’s depressing news conference in Manila? The man charged with recovering the billions in state wealth looted by ex-president Ferdinand Marcos said his team had recovered the last $29 million sitting in Swiss bank accounts, bringing the final haul to $683 million. If one includes other booty — jewels, property, art — Filipino investigators have clawed back some $4 billion over the years.

Still, even conservative estimates put the Marcos treasure at somewhere north of $10 billion. Face it: the Marcos clan is just too skilled at hiding its loot from Bautista’s finance men.

Bautista, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, seems to be channeling “The Monuments Men” — George Clooney’s film about the search for the Third Reich’s treasure trove of priceless works. Investigators are going after the Rembrandts, Van Goghs and Raphaels bought with the Marcos’s money — an estimated 150 masterpieces. Bautista also hopes to shame the surviving members of the Marcos family, including 84-year-old Imelda, the former dictator’s wife. He’s planning to put her extravagant jewelry collection on display. “We want it to be a statement against the excesses in the past,” Bautista says.

Those excesses still hold the nation back. Ferdinand Marcos has been dead for a quarter-century, but the corruption and cronyism he wrought lives on. Some of the Philippines’s largest conglomerates are controlled by Marcos associates, whom investigators believe have helped the family hide its billions. Imelda — best known for her gargantuan shoe collection — has also wrapped her tentacles around the government to thwart the wealth chasers. In 2010, her celebrity and nostalgia for a time when the Philippines was known more for charm than poverty helped Imelda win a congressional seat. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., her son, is a senator, while daughter Imee Marcos is governor of Ilocos Norte, a northern province where the Marcos name is still well regarded. Marcos Inc. can spend lavishly on the best defense lawyers to stymie sleuths and has the votes in the government to back it up.

Bringing the Marcos family to justice should be a much bigger priority for President Benigno Aquino. Now that he’s put the nation’s finances on firmer footing, Aquino should get Marcos Inc. out of power. The economy hasn’t yet had a cathartic break with the mismanagement and corruption of the past. It needs that to truly move forward.

Family history may explain Aquino’s caution. In 1983, his opposition-leader father was trying to unseat Marcos when he was assassinated. In 1986, his mother, Corazon, led the people-power protests that toppled Marcos, then became president. Aquino risks getting bogged down in what might be seen as a personal vendetta. But Aquino should be even more concerned about how Imelda is trying to sway public opinion. On Jan. 22, she visited detained ex-president Gloria Arroyo and bashed the Aquino government for “cruel” and “unjust” treatment of great stateswomen. Of course, she neglected to mention that Aquino’s predecessor faces charges of plunder and electoral sabotage.

While Aquino has done cleaning up Manila, more than a quarter of Filipinos still live on less than $1.25 a day. And while the Philippines has improved greatly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 178 nations — to 94th place from 134th in 2010 — it’s still behind India and Colombia. This legacy explains why its spoils remain concentrated among the elite.

Nearly three decades after Marcos fled to Hawaii, vested interests continue to hijack the democratic process in the Philippines. If Aquino crushes Marcos Inc., his six years in office will place him in the pantheon of great world leaders. There’s something poetic about the prospect of a man whose parents devoted everything to ending the Marcos scourge finishing the job. It would be, just like the paintings Aquino’s Monuments Men are going after, priceless.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist

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