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How we kept faith with Edsa in US

February 26, 2011 02:55:00
Heherson T. Alvarez
Philippine Daily Inquirer

IN EARLY December of 1980, I received a call at my home in New York City. It was Imelda Marcos on the line.

Imelda, tentative and polite, invited me to a meeting. She spoke in the familiar tones of an old friend even though we had barely exchanged greetings in Manila in the pre-martial law days.

A few days earlier, Imelda had met with Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr.

At the time, the antidictatorship Movement for a Free Philippines—initially organized by Raul Manglapus, Raul Daza, Charlie Avila, Steve Psinakis, Ernie Ordoñez, Manoling Marovilla, Primo Mendoza and myself—had started to organize activities with Ninoy Aquino.

Ninoy was then swiftly recovering from a triple-bypass heart operation. After seven years of solitary imprisonment, Ninoy’s mental vigor, humor and patriotic zeal had become even more contagious.

The Iron Butterfly

I was greeted by Imelda’s military aide, Col. Jose Ma. Carlos Zumel, who ushered me into the McArthur Suite of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The stately suite was awash with fresh flowers in brilliant colors. A pianist in a black tuxedo stopped playing the grand piano in a corner of the enormous suite.

Imelda appeared, tall and coiffed and regal. In spite of my political aversion, I found her enchanting. She looked chic in a powder-blue dress, accented by a glittering brooch.

For four hours and a half, she went on a charm offensive, trumpeting the achievements of martial law and the New Society. She was a super sales lady, enchanting, reasoning, cajoling, impressing. I could see why Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and even the great Mao Tse Tung were enchanted with her.

She told me that our opposition and lobbying in the US Congress against US military and economic aid to the Philippines “would only help the communists and the Moros.”

I said “the opposition to the dictatorship are democrats and nationalists.” Imelda just looked at me, still smiling.

After four cups of strong coffee and four and a half hours of the Imelda offensive, she offered to “fly you back to Manila in my plane” so I could appreciate the success of the regime.

A Philippine Airlines DC10, a 286-seater plane, was assigned to Imelda. PAL had become like a shuttle service for her frequent trips.

“If you are allergic to me, you can stay at the back and I stay in front, or you can sit in front and I stay at the back,” she said.

I replied: “Restore the writ of habeas corpus. Call for free elections and we will go home to celebrate Philippine democracy.”

I could understand Imelda’s anxiety. Domestic and foreign opposition to Marcos was intensifying, the protests had become heightened.


The Philippines was in a slow-motion tailspin. The country’s economic and political weaknesses were becoming evident. Undercutting the power of the old elite, Marcos and his allies gobbled up enterprises of political opponents, reallocated licenses to a favored few, and grossly mismanaged state corporations.

In southern Philippines, 50,000 combatants of the Moro National Liberation Front locked in guerilla warfare more than half of the Armed Forces. Military forces were spread out in various regions where the communist New People’s Army, consisting of some 20,000 guerillas, raided towns and cities, as Marcos stepped up his campaign against dissidents. Human rights violations had become widespread.

Task Force Detainees has documented 5,531 cases of torture, 2,537 cases of summary execution (including my own brother, Marsman, who was tortured, his jaws and skull broken), 783 cases of disappearances, and 92,607 arrests during martial law.

In the wake of these events, more Filipinos stirred from apathy and doubt. Public outrage grew with the cold-blooded killing of Ninoy on Aug. 23, 1983 at the Manila International Airport.

I organized the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM) to galvanize and consolidate the expanding protest movement, focusing on Ninoy’s martyrdom, which unified the various opposition groups abroad working against the Marcos dictatorship.

The Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor acknowledged that “NAM is the biggest and the best organized opposition movement in the United States.”

Cutting US aid is key

By then, NAM had made significant progress in the human rights campaign with the US Congress. One stunning outcome was that the US military aid package to the Marcos regime had been substantially cut because of the lobby against the dictatorship.

We realized that the regime was being sustained by US military aid. We knew that if the US Congress would cut military aid to the Philippines, if they stopped supporting Marcos, he would collapse.

Hidden wealth

The NAM exposed the fabulous wealth invested in New York real estate by the Marcoses. We documented the acquisition of the Lindenmere beachfront estate, the fabulous Crown Building of the Shah of Iran, four apartments in the exclusive Olympic Tower on 5th Avenue, and sprawling homes in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and in Princeton Pike.

I phoned former Sen. Salvador “Doy” Laurel to inform Cory Aquino and the opposition about our findings. Doy arranged for Orly Mercado and a cameraman to fly to the US. We hired a helicopter, with Filipino-American model Dee Marquez, to film the fabulous Marcos properties.

With the photos and documents, we met with US legislators—Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. John Kerry, Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Steve Solarz. Kennedy requested the US General Accounting Office to investigate the economic and military assistance programs to the Philippines, unearthing $92.5 million of aid funds unaccounted for, dubious disbursements of $227 million, and a padded $1.45-million disaster relief fund.

San Jose Mercury News

When we had accumulated enough documents to show that Marcos indeed had amassed millions of dollars, we shared this information with the San Jose Mercury News, a prominent publication in California, the state where the Filipinos are most numerous. That newspaper ran a series of articles that eventually won for it the Pulitzer Prize.

Peter Carey, the editor, wrote me: “I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for your encouragement, excellent information and persistent digging.”

The results of that discovery enraged millions of Filipinos and seriously undercut further US support for Marcos. The exposé, which was also shared with US TV networks, generated strong public outrage in the United States against Marcos. US legislators began to denounce Marcos.

Wintry Edsa

The opposition overseas boosted the Edsa Revolution. The NAM was as much a part and parcel of the overall Edsa spirit that overthrew the hated regime.

On a wintry morning of Feb. 24, 1986, NAM held a parallel Edsa in Washington, D.C. where Filipinos from various states, and as far as Canada, converged in a special rally at the White House and in front of the US Congress. The Washington Post observed that it was the largest demonstration of an overseas opposition at the Lafayette Square in front of the White House.

Withdrawal of recognition from the Marcos dictatorship was demanded from President Reagan, with our US senator supporters— Kennedy, Kerry, Lugar and Solarz— among the mammoth crowd of freedom-loving Filipinos.

Powerful testament

The promise that flourished at Edsa a quarter of century ago remains yet to be fully redeemed. That it endures in our spirit despite our painful frailties as a community, however, is a powerful testament to the persistence of the Filipino’s faith in himself and to our resiliency as a people.

(The author went into exile for 13 years in the US after eluding arrest and a shoot-to-kill order from Marcos. After the Edsa Revolution, he served in the Cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino. He was also a two-term senator.)

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