Editors’ note: As Filipinos recall the 48th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, there has been a spate of controversial articles by prominent Philippine writers to defend Marcos’ legacy. Among these is the Philippines’ National Artist for Literature for 2001, F.Sionil Jose’s recent post. Another was a twit by a priest-cum-philosopher who shall not be named. Salud has rebutted both of them. Here is his piece on Jose.

Quite Frankie, without context, it’s all a lie

Ferdinand E. Marcos. The 10th President of the Republic of the Philippines.

To some, he was a monument, however stone-cold. A genius, they claim, against which neither sickle nor hammer nor the sharpest pens can assail. To others, he was an economic maharishi, the sort who can magically pull the money-rabbit out of the hat without injuring the poor rabbit.

Marcos’ body was kept in a refrigerated coffin until President Duterte allowed its burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in 2016, 27 years after his death.

There are those who assert that Ferdinand and his wife Imelda built the country’s version of the Camelot of legend — the King Arthur and Queen Guinevere of the ‘70s — bold, beautiful, and blessed as paragons of leadership.

And there are those who believe that Marcos was the shaman of diplomacy, the country’s sage and healer both of land and people, able to save the masses, and possessed of the charisma needed to befriend superpowers, namely China, Russia and the United States. He was likewise hailed as parens patriae of a nation hardly able to protect itself, much less stand on its own two feet.

He was said to have been rich prior to taking office, implying that corruption was pretty much below his leadership standards. Articulate as the best poets of note, he can whip up anything — from a speech to a revolution — in no time. And Marcos did, as people claim, by launching his “New Society,” a revolutionary social order constructed on his dogmata of discipline, which was by all standards militaristic.

These narratives form the “Golden Age” of Marcos dictatorship. But are these claims even near to being true? Do they square with context and the historical, scholarly and eyewitness accounts behind them?

I was informed recently by a young colleague that a National Artist has heaped praises on Marcos. In a social media post titled “The Good that Marcos Did,” National Artist F. Sionil José remarked in roughly 400 words what sounded like a homage to the erstwhile tyrant.

As in times past, José makes no effort to reveal or explain the context behind what he claims to be facts. He drops information the way other people drop famous names, expecting these, at face value, to be taken as gospel truth, if not a bragging right. Who would dare argue against José as he was right there in the thick of it, right?

While José did not shun in naming the atrocities which marked the Marcos dictatorship, and asking the questions “What happened to all that brilliance? What changed him? Why did he fail?” Jose still managed to pull some praise out of this dark hole in our history, asserting that some good had come out of the dictatorship.

In the post, F. Sionil José forwarded several claims. For starters, he said:

“Forty-eight years ago this month, Marcos declared martial law. I was at the airport on my way to Burma to attend a UNESCO conference but was not allowed to leave. For the next four years I could not travel abroad. This was just one of the hardships I had to endure during those martial law years. I should not complain too much; I wasn’t tortured and jailed. What I went through cannot compare with the tragedies that befell so many Filipinos, the thousands who were dispossessed. In truth however, many of us welcomed Martial Law and looked at Marcos and his wife as paragons.”

He also said, “Marcos assumed power at a time when the Philippines was on the take off stage and was the richest country in the [sic] Southeast Asia. When elected President in 1965 he was already very rich and could have had a comfortable future with his family.”

First, Jose said that since he did not suffer as an outright victim of martial law atrocities, there’s no real need for him to “complain”. I find that rather odd for a man who formed an organization, the Philippine Center of International PEN, to stand against Marcos.

Martin Luther himself said, “No one is free until we are all free,” which was tantamount to saying that the suffering of one is the suffering of all. It is thus imperative to the cause of freedom that even the present generation, 48 years after the brutal fact, must continue raising their objections against martial law atrocities regardless of not being there to see and experience it. The goal of raising objections to martial law is simple: to avoid repeating that dark portion of our collective memory.

On the matter of José’s claim that the Filipino people welcomed martial law, and Marcos and Imelda as “paragons,” there ought to be some context to both these statements.

In the minds of many Filipinos back then, the idea of forming a “New Society” shaped by authoritarian discipline was anything but incompatible to what was happening all around them — numerous protest rallies and an active “people’s revolution” sparked by the New People’s Army.

Thank God we have the benefit of hindsight, but for Filipinos in the mid-1960s and 1970s, that was hardly the case. All they had were the claims of Marcos that he would build a society based on a “sacred and noble mission” (Marcos first State of the Nation Address, 1966), backed up by some of the country’s celebrity writers and ‘scholars’.

One of them, Florentino Dauz, in his book From Marcos to Marcuse: Essays of a Decade, wrote with such paean for Marcos: “But since what preceded the Notes was a product of more love and dedication, written as it were amidst the songs of terror and actual siege [emphasis, mine], the first book can lay claim to greater insights and grandeur”

The author then builds a case, with the predictable embellishment of a true Marcos propagandist, against the sociopolitical upheavals of the time as justification to espouse the New Society. The author never cared to explain, outside of the commonplace ad hominem, why such upheavals were taking place. No wonder most Filipinos took the claims of Marcos without attempting to dig deeper into the realities which shaped the era.

And what is that reality? The growth of a “social dualism” that plunged the nation into poverty and slow economic growth even before Marcos came to power. Based on a study by Thomas C. Nowak, The Philippines before Martial Law: A Study in Politics and Administration, published by Indiana University of Pennsylvania and submitted to the Eighth World Congress in Sociology held in Toronto, Canada in 1974:

“To help maintain dominance by a small conservative elite over major institutions and protect foreign investors, Philippine regimes sustained barriers against new interests that threatened the status quo. Such barriers help channel the fruits of growth to a few entrenched interests and perpetuated a circle of economic and social dualism keeping the poorest groups poor.”

Thus, there is strong reason to doubt the claim that the Philippines was a rich country prior to Marcos holding office as President. At the time, wealth reached only a favored few: Marcos and his cronies. Forget the masses. Thus, by 1965, the protests swiftly marched its way to reaching fever pitch, disrupting a long-safeguarded status quo which was malevolently anti-poor.

To recall, Marcos himself admitted in his first State of the Nation Address in 1966 that the country was financially in dire straits:

“I was met with disbelief when, during my inaugural address on December 30 last, I stated that we were in a state of crisis. It is my task today to recount the unhappy details of such a crisis. Our government has been spending more than it has been earning. The daily income of government is P4 million while its daily expenditures are P6 million. This means a daily deficit of P2 million. As of December 31, 1965, the cash position of the government was minus P228 million.

“During the preceding six months from July to December 1965, the total net borrowings amounted to P300 million. This was utilized to finance the excess of expenditures over income. As of December 31, 1965, the total budgetary loans of the government aggregated P1,018.1 million.”

Prior to Marcos sitting in office, the Philippines was already on the road to being slaves to billions worth of loans.

José’s claim that Marcos was rich prior to assuming office in 1965 was a classic Marcos assertion, suggesting that corruption was nowhere near his style of leadership. In fact, US President Ronald Reagan, a close friend of Marcos, made the same assertion.

There is one problem: former Sen. Jovito Salonga, who sat in 1986 as chairman of the commission investigating the dictator’s finances, carried with him copies of the would-be dictator’s tax returns in 1966 during an interview with The New York Times.

In its report titled “Records rebut Reagan’s comment on how Marcos made his money, Filipino says,” published 15 March 1986, would-be Pulitzer Prize-winning author David K. Shipler wrote:

“Mr. Reagan declared last week, ‘The information that I have always had was that while his [Marcos] salary was extremely modest as President of his country, and obviously could not have ever made him wealthy, the information I’ve always had was that he was a millionaire before he took office, and so that there probably is some wealth that is his legitimately by way of investments over all these 20 years.’’’

In rebuttal, Salonga said, “Mr. Marcos’s 1960 tax return listed a gross income of 33,917 pesos, equivalent at that time to about $17,000. His net income was put at 9,975 pesos ($5,000), and he paid a total tax of 178.52 pesos ($90.00). In 1966, the first year of his presidency, Mr. Marcos declared his assets as 120,000 pesos, then equivalent to $30,000, Mr. Salonga said. The tax return he filed in 1966 showed a gross income of 266,000 pesos ($66,500), a net income of 250,000 pesos ($62,500) and a tax paid of 70,171 pesos ($17,500), according to Mr. Salonga’s figures.”

Salonga expounded on his figures as follows: “Mr. Marcos’s first year as President, the Philippine leader put his assets at approximately $30,000; Philippine investigators believe he is worth more than $5 billion today.”

According to a Rappler report, “Official data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) shows the Philippine peso was already valued at P3.91 per dollar when Marcos came into power in 1965. By the time he was ousted in 1986, one dollar was equivalent to P20.46 — depreciating by 423.46%.”

As for José’s claim that Marcos’ most important achievement was in the area of Agrarian Reform where “he abolished tenancy in the corn and rice areas, replaced it with leasehold. No President was able to do this, not even the foremost champion of agrarian reform, Ramon Magsaysay,” history was clear that it was a dud.

Unknown to many, Marcos’ Agrarian Reform Law — this alleged Herculean legislation crafted in the ‘name’ and ‘honor’ of poor farmers — was penned only on stationery paper.


A copy of the so-called Tenant’s Emancipation Act, hand-written by Ferdinand Marcos. *Used with permission from historian Xiao Chua.

As one esteemed historian had told me just minutes before writing this piece, “That being handwritten on paper, it already played on the understanding that he cares for farmers all because he was the one who personally wrote it. This is the chief flaw of one-man rule: every act was played up, even if such laws suffer amendment after amendment.”

Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD, professor of Asian Studies at UP Diliman and editor of Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia, wrote an article on Marcos’ Agrarian Reform program for the Inquirer.Net on Sept. 2, 2015:

“From the start, the program was hobbled by built-in infirmities. Presidential Decree (PD) 27, grandiosely titled the ‘Tenants’ Emancipation Act,’ was confined only to rice and corn areas with a landowner retention limit of seven hectares. These two limitations effectively exempted from coverage 55 percent of tenants, 88 percent of landowners and 44 percent of rice and corn lands. Within the whole Philippine agricultural context, the program would have left untouched 95 percent of the rural labor force, 69 percent of all tenanted farmland and 92 percent of total farmland. Arsenio Balisacan argues that ‘the exclusion of plantations and farms planted to export crops which, in 1971, comprised nearly 40 percent of all agricultural croplands, meant that the program’s scope missed the larger source of land inequality.’”

Prof. Tadem added, “After 14 years, martial law land reform could only show niggardly results. By Jan. 31, 1986, or three weeks before a popular revolt overthrew Marcos Sr., only 2.27 percent of land titles had been distributed to targeted beneficiaries — a mere 2.2 percent of the target. When measured against the total landless rural labor force, this “accomplishment” comprised a pitiful 0.17 percent.

“The impact of Marcos’ failed ‘cornerstone program’ was disastrous [emphasis, mine]. The tenancy rate in rice and corn farms worsened from the 1971 figure of 33.1 percent in number of farms and 25.8 percent in area to the 1980 estimate of 36 percent of number of farms and 27.1 percent of farm area. For all croplands, tenancy grew from 29 percent in 1971 to 33.4 percent in 1980. From 1976 to 1984, the real incomes of rice farmers fell by 53 percent. Real farm wages declined by 26 percent from 1972 to 1984. By 1982, a rice crisis of production shortfalls was in full swing.”

Marcos as ‘genius’ makes little sense to me when seen in the light of the intellectuals who took the cudgels for him and wrote most of what he claimed to be his. If anything, Marcos was a genius in the true tradition of those without morals. Something along the lines of serial killers.

He was an astute, cold-hearted thinker with Machiavelli, to say nothing of Charles Manson, hounding his every thought. Genius in the work of manipulation would’ve been an accurate description.

Allow me to answer José’s questions “What happened to all that brilliance? What changed him? Why did he fail?”

Marcos made the attempt to couch his ruthlessness using the Camelot of legend. The New Society was all for show — the grand infrastructure (paid for by taxpayers), the magniloquent speeches, the leadership poise, the entitlement to power.

But in truth, Marcos was nothing more than a tyrant and a thief, a virtuoso at manipulation who was out to rule as dictator for life. His own propagandist, Primitivo Mijares, who was murdered together with his son for turning his back on Marcos and writing the book The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, had this to say about his former boss:

“I began to realize that Marcos imposed martial law, not to save the country from a Communist rebellion and to reform society, but to hold on to the presidency for life — and as a dictator.” These were the words of a former Marcos confidante.

This political fetish to declare one’s self as dictator for life was the product of a pre-Marcos political tradition in the Philippines, so-called “Bossism”.

In an undergraduate thesis penned by Nicole Cuunjieng Aboitiz of the University of Cambridge, “Ferdinand Marcos: ‘Apotheosis’ of the Philippine Historical Political Tradition,” she expounds interestingly on the “Bossism” theory in relation to Marcos of John Sidel, professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics:

“[T]hat local bosses employ effective social control by placing themselves and their family members in critical state posts to ensure that resources are allocated according to their own rules”.

She quotes Benedict Anderson, political scientist and historian, who introduced Marcos as a “historical inevitability”:

“[I]t was only a matter of time before someone would break the rules and try to set himself up as Supreme Cacique for Life… From one point of view, Don Ferdinand can be seen as the Master Cacique or Master Warlord, in that he pushed the destructive logic of the old order to its natural conclusion”.

It is clear from these studies that Marcos was no anomaly of the Philippine political tradition of “bossism”. It was the expected product of feudalism. He did not change from a good Marcos to a bad one. Instead, Marcos lived out the political tradition from the start and, after ascending to power, took the tradition further by declaring himself dictator for life.

While it can easily be argued that National Artist F. Sionil José has reached the ripe old age of 95, thus may be suffering from a form of “dementia,” as others angrily claim, or that social media shouldn’t be the platform for statements empty of context, still careful consideration should be exercised when posting assertions that carry the name of a National Artist.

Our country is suffering enough as it is from historical revisionism and outright lies under the Duterte administration without a National Artist muddling the truth about our past.

In the end of his post, Jose wrote: “Historians in the future may find other reasons and make judgment on the man. Such judgment is superfluous. It is us who survived and witnessed that tyranny who should be the ultimate judges.”

Experience doesn’t trump reality. Young historians, albeit inexperienced in the atrocities of martial law, must pass judgment based on where the facts may take them. If experience alone gives anyone the right to pass judgment on literature, history and the like, then what the hell do we need history, journalistic analysis and literary criticism for?

To follow his logic, recognition and the reading of José’s own works, within the next 50 to 100 years, should end with the last reader who had met him at Solidaridad.

It pains me to say that that, more than anything, is a crying shame for whatever legacy he had worked so hard to achieve during all those years of writing.

As such, with due respect to an old, lost friend, I throw back the questions: “What happened to all that brilliance, Frankie? What changed you? Why did you fail the good fight?”

(This article first appeared on Medium)

Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction. He is a columnist for LiCASNews Philippines and a contributor for Philippine Canadian News.Com