New Definition of Mining: "It’s All Mine!"
By Murray Horton
You’ve got to hand it to Imelda Marcos – she puts on a damned good show. Her hubris knows no bounds. Emboldened by her October 1998 acquittal on the graft charges that had kept a lengthy prison term hanging over her head since the early 90s (she never served a day behind bars), and by the 1998 election that brought a pro–Marcos President to power, in the person of Joseph Estrada, she has decided to go for broke. Specifically, to publicly admit to fabulous wealth, after years of denying it, and to flaunt it. The only small obstacle in her path, according to her, is that this treasure trove is not actually in her possession, but that of hitherto trusted accomplices, the infamous Marcos cronies. They’ve got it, but only for safekeeping, according to Imelda, and she’ll move Heaven and Earth to get it back.
In late 1998, Imelda contacted the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) and offered to tell all. Her choice of media outlet was interesting in itself – PDI was founded in the latter years of the Marcos martial law regime to oppose the dictatorship. However, no self respecting newspaper was going to pass up an exclusive of this magnitude. Imelda invited PDI reporters to her luxury homes and gave them free access to a mountain of documentation. In December 1998, the PDI started running what was scheduled to be a nine part series of articles by Christine Herrera, every one of them to be front page leads.
And what a story she had to tell. Part 1 had the eyecatching headline: "Imelda to file P500–B suit vs Marcos cronies; ‘We own practically everything’" (5/12/98). She wasn’t kidding: "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". She claimed Marcos ownership of huge conglomerates such as the San Miguel Corporation, and vital pillars of infrastructure, such as the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT). It is her contention that Ferdinand Marcos entrusted his holdings in all these blue chip companies (at least 150 of them) to his cronies, who proceeded to not return them, and to profit mightily from them. "They were paid well, supported and allowed to live the lives of the rich and famous and look what we’ve got? A betrayal. They were tapped by Ferdinand, supposedly to guard his interests in those companies. But look what happened, they wanted everything" (PDI, 9/12/98; "Imelda: We made Tan, Cojuangcos"; Part 5).
The 500 billion pesos (divide by 20 for $NZ or by 25 for $AUS) is described as a conservative estimate; Marcos lawyers say that it might go as high as a trillion pesos. If such a case or cases actually comes to pass, it will undeniably be the biggest litigation in Philippine history. The P500 billion is in addition to the P22 billion ($US580+million) of Marcos wealth found in Swiss banks, and being held in trust for human rights victims of the Marcos dictatorship. Interesting when you consider that the 1965–84 tax returns for Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos declared a total combined income of P6,756,301.
Imelda’s first target is PLDT, specifically to attempt to block the P30 billion deal passing control of the company to the Suharto–linked First Pacific Co. She contends that a 1967 deal establishes the Marcoses as the real owners of PLDT, not the leading crony family, the Cojuangcos. She is targeting the Philippines’ leading capitalists, such as billionaire Lucio Tan (Fortune Tobacco, Allied Banking, Asia Brewery, and Philippine Airlines. He is also a very close friend and ally of President Estrada). "That Lucio Tan, he’s nothing, just somebody who used to buy used bottles" (ibid). Her logic is impeccable – the Government, via the Presidential Commission for Good Government (PCGG) has tried since the mid 1980s to prove that these companies are Marcos owned and controlled. It has been stymied at every step by failure to prove ownership. So now Imelda openly admits ownership, and wants control back. But unlike the PCGG, she asserts that ownership came from legal, not illegal, Marcos wealth and that her motive for going public is to clear her late husband of the accusation of being a thief. Indeed, Imelda claims that Marcos used his vast fortune to personally finance the development of the Philippines – but presents zero evidence to support this incredible claim.
"We will take back everything that the trustees [cronies] held on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos, including those that they sold and surrendered to the Government… Whoever bought any of the Marcos companies or assets will have to face us in court" (PDI, 6/12/98; "Imelda vs cronies; ‘I’ve deeds of trust, stock certificates’"; Part 2). "Lucio Tan bought PAL using money from Fortune Tobacco and Allied Bank, both of which are majority owned by the Marcoses" (ibid).
One company she is determined to regain is Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), claiming that Marcos had bought it off the Lopez family in 1973 (the Aquino government returned it to the Lopezes). The Lopezes provided a chilling account of how the new rich Marcoses had supplanted the old rich. The family patriarch, Eugenio Lopez Sr., had indeed signed over Meralco in 1973 to the Marcoses. Why? Because, under the martial law dictatorship, Lopez’s son, Eugenio Jr. was being held by the military. The Marcoses offered to release him in exchange for control of the Lopez fortune – they then welshed on the deal and didn’t release the son (he escaped to the US, after five years behind bars). The "sale" price was bogus – the Marcoses paid no more than a P10,000 deposit. Their motive for this hostage taking and blackmail was not because they particularly coveted Meralco, but because they wanted to destroy the influence of the Lopezes who, via their paper, the Manila Chronicle, had attacked the graft and corruption of the Marcos regime.
In part 3 of the "Imelda vs cronies" series (PDI, 7/12/98; "Marcos targeted multinational firms") Imelda tried to portray Marcos as some sort of a patriotic capitalist, claiming that when he declared martial law in 1972 he knew that parity rights in major American transnational corporations would expire in 1974 (under the Laurel–Langley Treaty). That meant that the TNCs would have to surrender up to 60% of their holdings in Filipino companies, so here was a good chance to secure Filipino ownership [meaning by Marcos]. Having secured the companies, Marcos then assigned hand picked cronies to head them: "I won’t be president of any company because I’m already the president of the country" (ibid). Jose Yao Campos got 49 companies; Lucio Tan, Roberto Benedicto and Danding Cojuangco 12 each. These cronies each regularly paid Marcos hundreds of millions of pesos into his secret bank accounts, in return for privileges and concessions (Ferdinand used the name ‘William Saunders’ for his hidden accounts and assets; Imelda was ‘Jane Ryan’).
So where did this fabulous but allegedly legal Marcos wealth come from? That’s where the "Imelda vs cronies" series gets really interesting, not to mention entering the realm of fantasy. Part 4 (PDI, 8/12/98) had the astonishing headline: "‘Marcos had gold hoard of 4,000 tons’". According to Imelda, Marcos was the world’s shrewdest gold trader, accumulating his first 1,000 tons whilst a guerilla fighting the Japanese in WWII (the legendary Yamashita Treasure) and amassing 4,000 tons by the 1970s (as against the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ [BSP] mere 650 ton gold reserve). She reckons that he bought gold at $US 17 per ounce and sold it at $US 32. Things really took off in the 1970s, when the price of gold hit nearly $US 800 per ounce.
Not surprisingly, this claim met with derision, both in the Philippines and abroad. Experts pointed out that 4,000 tons represents South Africa’s gold output over ten years, and the Philippines’ in 100 years. Gabriel Singson, BSP governor, said: "We will just become the laughingstock of the world" (PDI, 10/12/98; "Gold experts aghast at Imelda claim"), when asked if the Government intended to try verifying Imelda’s claim. Even her own daughter found it all too much to take. Representative Imee Marcos said: "We love her dearly, but sometimes she goes wild and crazy and it’s very exciting to watch" (ibid). Public opinion on the whole business was most succinctly summed up by Rep. Joker Arroyo: "There is no more honor among thieves. They’re now all dirty, quarrelling thieves and I hope they kill themselves fighting over the loot" (PDI, 8/12/98; "Senate asked to probe impact of Imelda claims").
Christine Herrera’s nine part series in the PDI got no further than Part 5. After that, Imelda pleaded with the paper to stop publication, citing fears about the safety of her family. "My fax machine is throwing up death threats. We had to change the number. People are scared. It’s like Pinatubo. My children are getting death threats. Imee is crying. Irene is crying. Bongbong does not like what has been happening. They told me, ‘Mommy, we just want peace’" (PDI, 10/12/98; "Imelda fears for life, begs to stop series"). The Inquirer acceded to her request and prematurely ended the series. The story was gone, but very far from forgotten.
The cronies themselves (several of whom have already been given legal immunity by previous governments, because of cooperating in the hunt for Marcos assets) were definitely not going to roll over and play dead. "See you in court", was the Cojuangcos’ reply to Imelda’s plans to sue them over the sale of their PLDT stake.
The extraordinary revelations (backed by extensive documentation and universally deemed credible, except for Imelda’s golden fairytale about how Marcos got his fortune) focused attention right back onto the unedifying spectacle of cronyism, which is as prevalent under Estrada as it was under Marcos. Same cronies too, with Lucio Tan and Danding Cojuangco to the forefront.
The thousands of Marcos–era human rights victims who have successfully sued the Marcos estate in US courts also had a keen interest in Imelda’s admissions of a vast fortune. SELDA, the organisation of ex–detainees, called on the Estrada administration to conduct a thorough investigation of the Marcos family, covering all their crimes against the people. Marie Hilao Enriquez, secretary general, said: "Now that Imelda Marcos has revealed their not–so–hidden wealth, the Government has enough basis for an investigation covering not only the plunder which the Marcos family committed but also to include the murders, abductions, and torture they ordered.
"We should not let the opportunity pass, there is an element of truth to the delusion–filled statements of Imelda Marcos. In fact, when Imelda talks like a crazy woman, she is just being herself. And these are the rare moments when she tells the truth. We just have to sift through her statements and arrive at a goldmine, literally and figuratively. When the Hawaii Federal District Court ordered the Marcos family to indemnify the victims of human rights violations, Imelda claimed that she was poor. And now that she has an attack of her Imeldific disease, she claims that they own almost all strategic corporations in the Philippines. Everybody knows this but the Marcos family had denied it in the past. To start with, she can be investigated for illegal trading of gold. Second, they can be investigated on the source of the ill–gotten wealth thereby strengthening the graft charges against them. And equally if not more important, they should be held criminally liable for the murders, abductions, and torture that they ordered against the 10,000 victims of the Marcos fascist dictatorship" (press release, 9/12/98; "SELDA calls for thorough investigation of Marcos family"). Romeo Capulong, SELDA’s lawyer, said that those 10,000 victims will claim P150 billion of Imelda’s purported P500 billion fortune.
The Senate summonsed Imelda to appear before one of its committees. Her lawyers asked for her to be granted legal immunity. PDI was editorially outraged (12/12/98; "Pillage"): "Why on Earth should anyone give immunity to Imelda Marcos? …Lest we forget, the dictatorship was a conjugal one …Imelda was part of the terror, Imelda was part of the theft. You absolve Imelda of wrongdoing, which is what immunity means, and you might as well close the books on martial law and tell your kids it never happened…" She didn’t get immunity and had to appear before the Senate committee in December 1998, something which would have been unimaginable in her days of absolute power. She put on a typically bravura performance, invoking her right to remain silent more than 50 times. She also said that she had merely had a "conversation" with PDI’s Christine Herrera, not an interview for publication. Herrera herself appeared before the committee to set the record straight. After having been contacted by Imelda, the PDI’s editor–in–chief had personally led the paper’s entire business staff in scouring the Marcos records and documents that had voluntarily been made available to the paper.
In December 1998, the Supreme Court, headed by new Chief Justice, Hilario Davide, dealt the Marcoses a hefty blow by voiding the deal between the Marcoses and the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) to split the Marcos estate 75% (for the State) and 25% for the Marcoses. The Court went further and overturned a proposed 1993 deal which would have granted the Marcoses immunity from criminal and civil suits. The judgement said: "This effectively ensconced the Marcoses beyond the reach of the law and sets a dangerous precedent for public accountability. It is a virtual warrant for public officials to amass public funds illegally, since there is an open option to compromise their liability in exchange for only a portion of their ill–gotten wealth" (PDI, 10/12/98; "No compromise: High court zaps 75–25 Marcos deal").
However, Imelda is not too worried about a few legal setbacks. She feels that the tide is turning in her favour. As one of her lawyers said: "Why would we compromise with either the Government or the victims if we can get the entire assets and properties back through winning legal battles?" (New Zealand Herald, 18/1/99; "Estrada close to deal over Marcos billions"). Imelda is counting on her friend, President Estrada, to cancel out any minor inconveniences like adverse court decisions. Thirteen years of PCGG hunting for Marcos assets has only come up with peanuts – about $US2 million in stocks, real estate, cash in Swiss accounts and jewellery. Estrada is keen to do a deal, to get the Government’s hands on some of that fabulous booty, regardless of any Supreme Court decision.