Diary of a Dictator

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The Marcos Years: Sex, Spies, Lies and Delusions

Previously published on Rappler.com, April 15, 2013

The Marcos Diary: At the Heart of a Dictator

It was nearly 25 years ago that I got my first look at the diary of Ferdinand Marcos. I was an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times when about 3,000 pages of diary and other presidential papers were delivered to me in installments – on street corners, at a restaurant, in the lobby of an office building – all very cloak-and-dagger.

The documents were a journalist’s gold mine. I found bribery receipts and coded accounting reports recording official corruption. There were poems and love notes to First Lady Imelda and the Marcos children interspersed among Ferdinand’s plans for repression and dictatorship.

FM DIARY 03Ap71The diary itself contained the president’s private musings about power and his messianic calling to “save the Philippines” from an exaggerated threat of communist insurgency. Here, too, was compelling evidence of Marcos plots against political rivals, the press, and anyone who dared to criticize his administration.

But what caught me most by surprise were the lies – blatant, bald-faced, and occasionally comical. It turns out that while Ferdinand Marcos was lying to the world and to the Philippine people, he was also lying to his own diary.

As a writer trying to assess the news value and historic significance of the president’s journal I had to ask myself: what can be learned from a diary riddled with falsehoods and self-serving fictions?

Time has helped clarify the answer. Today I can see that his lies actually reveal a greater truth: Marcos was a dictator at heart long before he was a dictator at gunpoint.

In 1970, after the Manila Times criticized harsh police actions against anti-Marcos demonstrators, the president grumbled in his diary that the newspaper’s editorials amounted to support for “revolution and the communist cause.” He summoned a group of prominent business leaders to Malacañang.

“I asked (them) to withdraw advertisements from the Manila Times,” he wrote in his diary. “They agreed to do so.”

At a palace reception barely a month later, Manila Times publisher Chino Roces confronted Marcos about pressuring advertisers to drop their accounts. The president denied it.

“I had nothing whatsoever to do in suggesting the cut of advertisement,” the president wrote that night – only 36 pages after writing the opposite.

The president’s romantic affair with American actress Dovie Beams turned to public scandal that same year, prompting a torrent of denials to his diary and to Imelda. “I am being blackmailed,” Marcos wrote in his diary, calling it “a diabolical plot” that he blamed variously on his political rivals and the CIA.FM DIARY 10Nov1970SMclip

After Dovie appeared before the Manila press corps to play taped recordings of her lovemaking session with the president, Marcos still insisted in his diary that the claims were “patently false.” And to punish the United States, he told a bewildered American ambassador that Washington’s military bases agreement with the Philippines would have to be renegotiated.

When an elderly delegate to the 1972 constitutional convention made a dramatic public display of returning unspent bribe money that he said came from Imelda and other Marcos loyalists, the president raged publicly and privately. It was, he wrote in his diary, a “dastardly act to malign my family” by what he called “a tool of the opposition.”

A few days later, federal police raided the delegate’s home and claimed to find US$60,000 stashed in a bedside drawer. He and his family said police planted the cash, a suspicion shared, according to a poll, by 80 percent of the public. Still, the ailing 72-year-old was arrested.

Marcos told his diary that the bedside loot was a “lucky discovery” and that the old man’s arrest was “poetic justice.”

But years later, documents tucked in with Marcos diary pages would prove otherwise. The papers contained accounting records of a massive bribery scheme, referred to around the palace simply as the “envelope campaign.” The records helped Marcos keep track of his payoffs to some 200 convention delegates – even as he was urging prosecution of the one delegate who refused to be bought.

More than a year before he would declare martial law, Marcos tested the limits of his presidential authority in a case that came before the Philippine Supreme Court late in 1971. Amid widely disputed claims of a communist insurgency threat, Marcos wanted the court to sanction his power to declare a national emergency and suspend the constitution.

The stakes were high. Marcos feared that a closely divided panel could leave the matter muddled and undermine his authority, especially with military leaders. So, in truly Machiavellian fashion, he enlisted one of the 11 justices as a spy.

Fred Ruiz Castro, the president’s double agent on the high court, provided inside information for nearly three months. In late-night visits to the palace, recorded by Marcos in his diary, the judge shared updates on the shifting legal positions of fellow jurists and offered advice on strategies to win over the skeptics. He even conducted a mock hearing one night to prepare Marcos’s solicitor general for an appearance the next day before the full court.

When the controversial – but unanimous – ruling was finally issued, Marcos celebrated in his diary: “This is a red letter day.”

He went on to take personal credit. “The justification before the Supreme Court was prepared by me,” he wrote. He made no mention of his secret agent or the extraordinarily improper lobbying offensive that had assured unanimity.

Despite such lies – of commission and omission – I regard the Marcos diary as historic treasure. It says so much, not only about the dictator that always lurked in Ferdinand Marcos, but also about the vulnerability of democracy wherever fiction trumps the truth.


Imelda Marcos: Why Don’t You Love Me?



Updated August 19, 2015 

Imelda Marcos, the musical, found a home on the New York stage where Here Lies Love made two separate sold-out runs at the Public Theater.  Her story, set to a disco beat by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, also found enthusiastic audiences in Australia and London. No surprise. The former First Lady of the Philippines remains an endless source of fascination to this reporter.

I first met Imelda in Hawaii when we briefly stood together over the glass-covered coffin of her dead husband.

She was tall and elegant in black. The body beside her was waxy and pale, but it was also surprisingly small – barely recognizable as the corrupt and bigger-than-life dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Together, they reigned over the Philippines for nearly 20 years. They always made an odd couple.

She was the barefoot beauty from the provinces with royalty fantasies. She would become famous for her shoe collection and profligate spending on fine art including works by Van Gogh, expensive jewelry including a 37-carat diamond, and Manhattan real estate including the iconic Crown Building on Fifth Avenue.

He was the populist champion of Philippine democracy with a messianic complex. He would resort to bribery and vote fraud to retain power, use red-baiting and trumped-up charges to imprison his more popular political rivals, and would finally impose martial law – shutting down democracy for 13 years of dictatorial rule.

During the 1970s and 80s, Ferdinand and Imelda were partners in deceit and despotism. One Philippine biographer called the couple’s reign “a conjugal dictatorship.” They were both blamed for the never-solved assassination of leading Marcos critic and world-renowned human rights advocate Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, Jr.

But that night in the hills of Honolulu, inches from her husband’s lifeless body, it was a time for more selective memories.

“My life was a beautiful fairy tale,” Imelda sniffled into her handkerchief. She had one hand resting on the glass cover shielding Ferdinand’s remains.

“I am sorry for your loss,” I said, searching for a meaningful question that fit the unusual circumstances for this meeting of newsman and news-maker.

The moment didn’t seem right to ask about a federal fraud and racketeering indictment pending against the couple in New York…or, about the $5 billion-plus they had looted from the Philippine treasury…or, about so many other alleged crimes against her own people. At that moment, the investigative reporter in me was too uncomfortable to push the matter.

“This must be a difficult time for you,” I finally added. She smiled silently through tearful eyes and the “interview” was over.

A year later, a federal jury of tough-minded New Yorkers also pulled their collective punch. Despite volumes of evidence documenting massive Marcos corruption, Imelda was acquitted on all felony counts. Jurors said they would have convicted Ferdinand had he lived to face trial.

“We couldn’t hold the wife responsible for the sins of her husband,” said one juror.

Today, even the Philippine nation is having a difficult time holding Imelda responsible for those painful “fairy tale” years of Marcos rule. There is talk of dropping efforts to recover the looted billions. Imelda has been acquitted of numerous graft charges (though some remain active). She ran for president unsuccessfully but has won election twice to congress. She currently serves as the congressional representative from Ilocos Norte, Ferdinand’s home province.

Two children of the couple also hold elected office. Eldest daughter Imee Marcos is the governor of Ilocos Norte and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (known as Bongbong), is a senator widely touted as a future presidential candidate.  If he runs, it sets up a historic plot twist suitable for Shakespeare or a soap opera — a second generation Marcos-Aquino power struggle.

Still on opposite sides politically are Ferdinand Jr. and President Benigno Aquino, III, a son and namesake of the assassinated Marcos rival. The president’s mother and widow of Ninoy, Cory Aquino, was swept into the presidency in 1986 by the popular uprising that ousted Ferdinand Sr. and Imelda. Now, Marcos loyalists can dream again of a return to the presidential palace — maybe as early as 2016 when Aquino must step down.

Could the son of Ferdinand and Imelda succeed the son of Cory and the martyred Ninoy? Clearly, no dream is too far-fetched for anyone who still regards the Marcos years with fairy tale whimsy.

The last time I encountered Imelda was during her long-running trial in a Manhattan federal court. She was usually in the company of Stetson-wearing Wyoming defense attorney Gerry Spence.

It was much easier to ask difficult questions in the halls of a courthouse than over a coffin. Nonetheless, she deflected most of my inquiries with smiles or nods to her legal team – or with non-answers.

“Why don’t you like me?” she responded more than once.

It is very nearly the same question that the stage version of Imelda asks during performances of Here Lies Love. In a scene contemplating the end of her reign as First Lady, puzzled by the public outcry over years of Marcos tyranny, the Imelda character insists — as did the real Imelda — that whatever she did was always for the good of her people.

The hauntingly delusional moment emerges on stage with the song: “Why Don’t You Love Me?” It captures the dictator’s wife just as I remember her. Like her stage double, the real Imelda never understood the outrage of her oppressed people, either.


Noriega: Lived by Bribe; Burned by Bribe


UPDATED: December 11, 2011 @ 8:44 p.m.

Former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega is home tonight after nearly 22 years in U.S. and French custody. But his view hasn’t changed much. Immediately upon landing in Panama City he was whisked off to another cell — this one at El Renacer prison — to start serving a term of up to 60 years for corruption and murder conspiracy convictions. The 77-year-old Noriega had petitioned French authorities to extradite him, saying he wanted to go home “to prove my innocence.”

If Noriega is allowed to reopen his case, one prominent Panamanian defense attorney he is unlikely to hire is Tulane-trained former ambassador Ricardo Bilonick. In many ways, Bilonick might seem a perfect choice. The two men were once friends and business associates. They both profited from drug trafficking. Bilonick did his own brief stint in a U.S. federal prison during the 1990s on trafficking charges. And today, back practicing law in Panama, Bilonick has represented other accused trafficking clients.

But what no doubt has soured their relationship was Bilonick’s 1992 testimony against Noriega in a Miami federal court — testimony that may have saved the U.S. Justice Department’s faltering drug case against the dictator. As highlighted in our August 12 post, that was testimony bought and paid for by the godfathers of Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel.

Previously unpublished details of the long-secret transaction are described in the book: At the Devil’s Table — the Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.

Excerpts from August 12 post with highlights from the book:

Remember, this was a criminal case that followed the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989. Noriega was seized and charged with drug violations — but the prosecution was no slam-dunk. New details from a cartel insider confirm that Colombian drug lords secretly helped unwitting Justice Department officials bolster their case.

Months before the politically sensitive trial opened in Miami, cartel bosses in Cali arranged for (Bilonick) to surrender and cooperate with the Americans, a stunning break at the time for the government case. But what U.S. officials didn’t know until years later was that their star witness only came forward after the drug cartel promised him $1.25 million.

It all started as an act of brotherly concern. Jose “Chepe” Santacruz Londono, one of the four Cali cartel godfathers, was desperate to help his recently imprisoned brother Lucho Santacruz Echeverri. Lucho faced a 23-year prison term after a trafficking conviction in Florida, and brother Chepe wanted to find a way to reduce that sentence.

Bilonick’s business interests took a hit when Noriega fell. He was broke and on the run. His defunct air cargo company had moved tons of Colombian cocaine through Panama and paid millions of dollars in protection money to the dictator. It was  obvious that U.S. authorities wanted Noriega more than they wanted Bilonick. But if the Panamanian attorney/businessman was going to testify against Noriega, he could help Chepe and his brother even as Bilonick helped himself.

A Cali cartel emissary advised Bilonick to surrender through a lawyer for the Colombian. That emissary, a cartel chief of security named Jorge Salcedo, said the gentlemen of Cali would be very grateful. Bilonick asked for $2 million. They eventually settled on $1.25 million, delivered in installments.

Salcedo first delivered a black leather briefcase stuffed with U.S. currency totaling $250,000. It was the cartel’s down payment. But the key to the deal was a $1 million in certificates of deposit that would not mature for several months. In the meantime, they were placed in a safe deposit box at the Banco Vizcaya where access required two keys – one held by Bilonick’s wife, the other by the cartel’s Salcedo. The certificates would remain locked in the vault unless or until the Cali bosses were satisfied with Bilonick’s performance on the witness stand.

Months later, Noriega was convicted. Lucho’s prison sentence was trimmed by nine years. Bilonick received a reduced sentence for cooperating. And Salcedo returned to Panama with his key. The now-matured million-dollar certificates of deposit were handed over to Bilonick’s wife.

Salcedo later turned against the Cali cartel and entered the U.S. witness protection program. Disclosure of his role in the Noriega case prompted a motion to reverse Noriega’s conviction. It was rejected. At the time, Bilonick called bribe allegations “idiotic.” He declined to be interviewed about Salcedo’s account. Bilonick has resumed a legal career in Panama. According to numerous published reports, his clients include an accused drug lord from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.