Ferdinand Marcos: Filipino Roulette
ONE OF THE BUILT-IN disadvantages of a dictatorship is that the moment conspiracy is institutionalized, others in the regime begin conspiring over the succession. The one-man rule of Ferdinand Marcos was no exception. Rival factions, cliques, and personality cults had been building from the beginning, and were clearly identifiable by 1972. But it was not until September 1975 that the struggle for power in Malacanang broke into the open with a confrontation between Imelda Marcos, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, and Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor.
A big amiable Teddy bear of a man, and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Alex Melchor was a technocrat who was completely sold on the idea that President Marcos was a reformer correcting long-standing abuses of power. Although there were many curious things going on, which would tend to arouse suspicion, there were a number of men in the government who were not fully aware of the degree of corruption, but who were prepared to accept that in politics there would always be some. Imelda’s extravagance was conspicuous, yet few people were aware of the extent of fiscal irregularity involved, and they were inclined to write her off as an eccentric. As for President Marcos, he gave every appearance of being what he claimed to be. Ferdinand, like any gifted leader, was deft at convincing people that he was sincere and that they should work for him. Only those who worked closely with him, or ran afoul of him, were aware of the darker side of his nature and were sensitized to some of the more sinister undercurrents of his administration. Many technocrats came on board with the conviction that they were going to help Marcos straighten out the mess. The process of their disenchantment could take months or years, depending on how observant they were, or how soon they became tangled in the conspiracies of their associates. At that point, many were entrapped by their own appetites, as in the case of the Cruz brothers, while others dropped out to resume private lives or to go abroad.
After three years of martial law, Alex Melchor saw disturbing signs that political factions within the regime were subverting the entire effort. He never thought to blame Marcos himself. He went to the president to complain. Ferdinand instructed him to draw up a list of the backsliders so they could be summarily fired.
Melchor went to every department head and gathered the names of the worst offenders, compiling a master list of 2,664 officials wrecking government operations through personal corruption. True to his word, Ferdinand began firing from the top of the list, only to be halted abruptly by the First Lady and Juan Ponce Enrile. Most of the backsliders were her personal appointments, the rest were Enrile’s. Imelda was so furious that she demanded entirely new concessions. Less than two months after he drew up the master list, Melchor lost his job.
Ferdinand pacified Imelda by appointing her governor of the new province of Metro-Manila. Imelda thought she needed to demonstrate her administrative talents in order to be taken seriously as a presidential contender. Too many people were deriding her frivolous lifestyle and shallow preoccupation with celebrities. As governor, she headed the consolidated administration of four cities, thirteen municipalities, and a combined population of five million — one tenth of the total population of the Philippines. People began referring to her as the “de facto vice president.” She started to drop in on cabinet meetings, and was abuzz with glamorous ideas for a new airport, reclaiming 12,000 acres in Manila Bay, setting up a nuclear power plant and a thermal power plant, and a recycling plant to turn Manila garbage into fertilizer. These were all things the Philippines could ill afford. Unwilling to tap into her own hidden assets, she flew off to see Robert McNamara, head of the World Bank.
Increased centralization of power in Ferdinand’s hands made it possible for Imelda to turn her mob of courtiers into a political base, so she could take over the presidency in the event of her husband’s sudden departure. She was emerging from her cocoon as an iron butterfly. In a top-secret paper drafted in December 1975, a CIA analyst reviewed her situation and concluded that
Mrs. Marcos is ambitious and ruthless … She has a thirst for wealth, power and public acclaim and her boundless ego makes her easy prey for flatterers. Although she has had little formal education, she is cunning … Her political organization is largely made up of media people … plus a scattering of politicians and a few military men. Most are sycophants seeking protection … Her political advancement has been handled largely by her brother, Benjamin Romualdez … Much of her power is based on her husband’s authority and on the belief among both foreigners and Filipinos that she is able to influence his decisions … The Marcos marriage is essentially a business and political partnership, but no one is sure just how close this working relationship is. At times, the two clearly compete with one another, at others, the President will give in to her unless he believes a vital interest is at stake …
Many Filipinos believe that Marcos has left a political will naming his wife his successor. She does not yet have the stature, however, to make a serious bid for the presidency … [She] is now trying to strengthen her political position at home.
Mrs. Marcos regards Defense Secretary Enrile … as the principal threat to her ambitions …
… Mrs. Marcos will have her work cut out for her … She has a short attention span and it is possible that she will not have the administrative follow-through to accomplish much …
In the event of President Marcos’ death, his wife would doubtless make a bid to replace him. In the political confusion, she might succeed; but if she is ever to rule as well as reign she will need the support of the military, and she is not well-regarded by senior officers.
… There is already a group of senior military officers who are reportedly engaged in contingency planning for a post-Marcos government that would exclude his wife.
Mrs. Marcos may not be aware of the group’s existence, but she realizes that many of her husband’s most loyal military supporters do not like her. She has been trying to develop a military following of her own by courting the officers and by working through their wives.
That December, Marcos did draw up a political will naming Imelda as his successor. The CIA did not know this at the time, but had heard rumors. The analyst commented that “She does not yet have the stature … to make a serious bid for the presidency.” But she was gradually strengthening her position.
From the early days of martial law, Juan Ponce Enrile was considered the most obvious successor. As there was a long-standing antagonism between them, an Imelda-Enrile alliance was out of the question. They did not like each other, and it soon hardened into mutual loathing. Imelda was far too erratic, irrational, hysterical, and vengeful to appeal to Enrile, who was intensely wary of her and kept his distance. Having tried and failed to lure him into her orbit in the late 1960s, Imelda never trusted Enrile thereafter, fearing him as a rival for the throne. Instead, she tried to undercut his credibility with Marcos, to cripple him as a competitor. By the mid-1970s, Imelda and Enrile were waging a cold war.
He was a cagey adversary.
Juan Ponce Enrile was born in northeastern Luzon, in the sleepy town of Gonzaga, Cagayan Province, on Valentine’s Day, 1924. Because he was illegitimate, he was baptized Juanito Furruganan by his mother, Petra Furruganan, a peasant woman. Like Ferdinand Marcos, his real father was a man of exceptional power and wealth. But Juanito was not acknowledged, and grew up impoverished and barefoot. He attended high school, where he was good at math and wanted to be a scientist. He earned extra money tutoring the daughter of one of the richest men in town. One day when he was seventeen, four bullies jumped him. He was stabbed three times, in the arm, stomach, and throat, and nearly died. When he recovered, he complained to the local authorities, but they told him to forget it or leave town. He set out for Manila to confront his father. Along the way, he worked for months here and there as a fisherman and road laborer, arriving in Manila at age nineteen.
His father was Alfonso Ponce Enrile, an Ilocano and one of Manila’s leading corporate lawyers, a partner in the law firm of DeWitt, Perkins & Enrile, which handled the affairs of General MacArthur and of leading firms such as Benguet Mines. Don Alfonso decided to recognize his son, and underwrote his education. Juanito Furruganan became Juan Ponce Enrile. He attended the Jesuit-run Ateneo, graduated at the top of his class in law at the University of the Philippines in 1953, and took a master’s in law at Harvard in 1955. Returning to Manila, he became a partner in his father’s law firm and matured into one of the cleverest corporate lawyers in the islands, with Dole Pineapple as one of his clients. He taught law at Far Eastern University from 1955 to 1962, and was recruited by Ferdinand in 1964 to handle his personal legal affairs — a tricky assignment but a profitable one.
After Ferdinand was elected president, he named Enrile to a series of posts including commissioner of customs, minister of justice, and finally minister of defense. Enrile’s influence was considerable. Often, he was given the job of working out on paper the legalities of questionable moves Ferdinand wanted to make. Better informed than most officials, he knew more than any other crony with the possible exception of Roberto Benedicto. Many considered Enrile to be the real architect of martial law. He was also the chief martial law administrator, bearing much of the responsibility for its fakery and excesses. He eventually admitted to having set up the attack on his own motorcade that was the final excuse for martial law. During Senator Aquino’s long imprisonment, it was Enrile who served as turnkey, personally approving any visitors to Aquino’s cell.
As Ferdinand’s legal counsel, Enrile benefited lavishly. He was a primary figure in the takeover of the coconut industry. His closest associate after the president was Eduardo Cojuangco. It is significant that Enrile was ranked after Marcos and Cojuangco as the third-richest man in the Philippines, well ahead of billionaires Andres Soriano of San Miguel and financier Enrique Zobel.
He lived in one of Manila’s most luxurious houses, had sprawling landholdings in the Cagayan Valley, and owned eight logging companies that provided raw material for his Pan Oriental and Eurasian match companies. He served on the National Security Council, on a number of corporate boards, and was chairman of the Philippine National Bank and other banks and exchanges. In reply to charges of corruption, Enrile once said, “If you can find my name on a single deed, you can have it.” Just to be safe, he added that he would have his detractors “eat the [false] documents.”
Enrile married a striking woman, Cristina Castaner, by whom he had two children, Jackie and Katrina. When the Enriles bought a home in California valued at $1.8 million, it was acquired in the name of “Renatsac,” the backward spelling of his wife’s maiden name. They also had a company called “Jaka” from a combination of the names of their children.
As a top official of the Marcos regime, Enrile was by nature abrasive, short-tempered, and ruthless, but this was sweetened by a beatific smile. He was both intelligent and charming. On his bookshelves he kept Toynbee, Clausewitz, Mein Kampf and Das Kapital prominently displayed, but he surrounded himself with a flying squad of machos once described as “a lobotomized brain-trust.” He displayed a genius for malapropisms — “Hurry up man and step on the brakes.”
Manila journalists claimed that Enrile had a large collection of the dried ears of dead Muslim rebels. But a lot of this was simply showmanship and flash. Those who knew him well said he was strictly a Latin lover, a political jellyfish who lacked the spine to stand up to Ferdinand, to Cojuangco, to Ver, and certainly to Imelda. He enjoyed conspiracy, but preferred to have it executed by others while he remained a spectator. For Ferdinand, that was an advantage: Enrile posed no serious danger to him.
In the event of Ferdinand’s death, the CIA concluded, Imelda would definitely make a bid for the throne. But there was already a group of senior military men plotting to exclude her from any post-Marcos government. The key figure was Lieutenant General Fidel Ramos, head of the paramilitary Constabulary and the Integrated National Police, and also vice chief-of-staff of the armed forces. Ramos was the son of Narciso Ramos, Ferdinand’s uncle, who had been executive officer of the Maharlika and later foreign minister at the time of the deal with Lyndon Johnson. There the similarities ended. Fidel Ramos was a graduate of West Point, who went on to earn a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois, then served in the Korean and Vietnam wars as a young officer. He chose to live a spartan life, was an ardent skydiver and weight lifter, and jogged every day at 5:00 A.M. In the ranks he was highly respected, particularly for his self-restraint. He lived modestly, within his meager army salary, and was sometimes said to be one of the few senior officers who were totally clean. Around him over the years gathered a hard core of younger officers who followed the same code.
Ramos was not normally aggressive, not a risk taker. He would be a tough adversary in a confrontation, but he lacked charisma and was not as forceful as he might be. Already his rigid ethics were causing him to lose out to secret police boss Ver in the contest for leadership of the armed forces.
Long-range strategies were developed by the CIA and the Pentagon to increase the visibility of Ramos, to build his reputation as an honest commander. Other strategies were developed to cultivate Enrile and to encourage him to take a stand. If events could be engineered so that Enrile acted in harness with Ramos, Ramos could provide the spine while Enrile provided the flash.
The succession issue was becoming a hot topic by the winter of 1975-76. In any scenario, the role of the military was key, so one burning question was whether General Ver or General Ramos would become the next chief-of-staff on the retirement of General Romeo Espino. The CIA was listening intently. It had sources within each camp. In March 1976, these sources began to buzz and the Manila Station filed a top-secret report on what they were saying. This report is raw intelligence from field officers; it is not the kind of predigested analysis that eventually makes its way up the pecking order to the National Security Council and the president. So it is an unusual example of actual CIA reporting, evaluating, and disseminating — a jewel in the rough. In Manila, it had been shown only to very senior officers of the U.S. Embassy and the CIA station. In Washington, its distribution was tightly restricted to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods involved. (I have deleted the identification of sources except in a general way.)
Undersecretary of Defense Carmelo Barbero told Brigadier General Tomas P. Diaz, the recently appointed deputy Chief Philippine Constabulary, that President Marcos will, in time, appoint Major General Fidel Ramos … to the Post of Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. Barbero said that Marcos decided against retiring the Chief of Staff, General Romeo Espino, now because of the rivalry that has developed between Ramos and National Security Advisor, Ver. Marcos, Barbero said, felt that this is not the propitious time to make this important change … On whether Ver or Ramos would make better chief of staff, Diaz replied: “Both generals are loyal to Marcos and, while they have had different kinds of experience in their military careers, they would both serve Marcos well in this position. The more important question is which has the highest number of the best caliber officers supporting him? This is the General who should be chosen.” … Diaz noted … that loyalty is a trait which is hard to evaluate … as Filipinos generally tend to shift their loyalty to whomever seems to have power at the moment. Nonetheless, he speculated that Ramos has the greater number of idealistic officers with him. But in a real power struggle these Ramos loyalists probably will not be in a position to help Ramos. [They were scattered throughout the archipelago.] The reverse would be true of Ver and his protégés. [Ver’s men were all strategically placed in key slots.] …
The succession issue became a matter of considerable public and private discussion after the Mayor of Makati, Nemesio Yabut, announced on 18 March that the Makati [City Council] had voted to call upon Marcos to pronounce his wife to be his duly appointed successor … Yabut is now invited to many of her functions. Yabut has also stated that he is afraid of Mrs. Marcos’ brother Benjamin.
… Enrile said it now appears that Marcos has assented to Mrs. Marcos’ wishes to have the president name her as his successor while he is still firmly in power. Under these circumstances, said Enrile, “We members of ‘the group’ (the Enrile group) must keep our heads down and our mouths shut. Unless we do, we will not survive.” …
Diaz interpreted Enrile’s cautionary remark to mean that Enrile will not be convening a meeting of the group for fear that Mrs. Marcos might learn of the meeting and suspect that they may be plotting against her and Marcos. Moreover, Diaz stated that he expects Enrile to make some overtures of friendship to Mrs. Marcos; and if this is what is necessary to protect oneself, then he could smile and do what is necessary to stay alive. However, Diaz said he expects a serious conflict of interest sooner or later between Marcos, on the one hand, and Mrs. Marcos and her brother on the other. When this happens, the Enrile group will definitely support Marcos. If Marcos dies before she does, and she makes her anticipated bid for the presidency, “Then as surely as night follows day, we will get rid of her, and when that day comes, General Ramos will be with us. He could not tolerate her running the country anymore than we could.” …
… two members of the Enrile group stated there would be serious problems in the PI if Mrs. Marcos attempted to, or assumed, power while Marcos is still alive. They believe that elements within the military would be hesitant to move against her because of their continuing loyalty to Marcos, although these same elements are uniformly anti-Mrs. Marcos. If, on the other hand, Marcos were to die, the problem would be simplified. The military would then be united in opposing the First Lady, and she would be ordered to leave the country immediately.
Imelda had made many enemies. At any time one group or another might decide to eliminate her, or to teach her a lesson. As the intelligence report quoted General Diaz: “He expects a serious conflict of interest sooner or later between Marcos, on the one hand, and Mrs. Marcos and her brother on the other.”
According to palace insiders, Ferdinand and Imelda’s quarrels were becoming so fierce that they exchanged blows. The chief propagandist of the regime, Primitivo Mijares, reported that while cruising around Manila Bay in June 1972 on the presidential yacht, the First Couple began to argue about Imelda’s ambitions. Words failing to make her point, Imelda scratched Ferdinand on the face and he retaliated by slugging her so hard that she fell to the deck.
In Beverly Hills, where Dovie Beams was still being visited by Marcos emissaries asking her to return her incriminating memorabilia, she said she was worried about what Imelda and Bong-Bong might do to her. One Marcos crony told her, “Don’t worry about Imelda. She will be taken care of.”
Five weeks later there was a horror show in Manila. On a temporary outdoor stage, the First Lady was beaming over winners of a municipal beautification contest. Out of the reception line stepped Carlito Dimahilig. Everyone else was in shirtsleeves but Dimahilig wore a dark suit. From one sleeve, he pulled a 12-inch bolo knife and lunged at Imelda. She raised her arms in defense, twisted, and fell to the stage with blood pouring from deep gashes in her arms and hands. Curiously, Ver’s security men were all some distance away. Jose Aspiras, then a congressman, saved Imelda’s life by grappling with the assailant as he turned to strike again. Only then did Ver’s man bound through the crowd and shoot Dimahilig in the back of the head. As the assassin fell, Ver’s man leaned over him and silenced Dimahilig forever with another pistol shot in the face.
Imelda told an interviewer afterward that she noticed Dimahilig as he came onto the stage because of his suit. “I saw he was trying to pull something from his sleeve, and I thought, ‘Oh, he is going to do something wrong to somebody.’ Then he looked at me — a very fierce, deranged look, a crazy, mad look, and I thought, ‘It is me!’”
Dimahilig turned his head to look away as if for a signal, then lunged. “I had no help,” Imelda said. “Everyone froze. I began weaving back away from him, shielding my body with my crossed arms … My arms and hands were slashed. And I was hit here [she touched her breast] so hard that I fell backwards across a table. The front of my dress was slashed open. My bra, which was white, was filled with blood … I kicked at him, pushing back with my feet. I could hear shots. My aides were grappling with him, and still he lunged at me. I saw a bullet hole in his cheek. No blood. Just the hole. Then my aides stopped him.” Imelda’s hands and arms required seventy-five stitches.
The mysterious assassination attempt (if that is what it was) has never been explained. In the years since, it has been conjectured that the attack was intended to frighten the First Lady, not to kill her. Ver’s security men claimed that they were not nearby because they were trying to stay out of camera range. As Primitivo Mijares wrote four years later, “Marcos will no longer surprise anybody, if he does away with Imelda — perhaps, in the dead of night.”