Imelda’s Boy

25 January 1999

Inquirer January 25, 1999

Book Review / America’s Boy by James Hamilton Paterson

Being familiar with James Hamilton Paterson’s fiction (Ghosts of Manila and Griefwork) and non-fiction (Playing with Water), and liking his elegant British prose and insights on the Filipino psyche from many years of residence in these islands, I couldn’t wait to get a copy of his latest work, America’s Boy / The Marcoses and The Philippines, certain that he had something new to offer, or why would he bother.

To my great disappointment, the only thing new is that Paterson has revealed his true colors: loyalist and white, as in white trash, fiction posing as fact, as in whitewash, touching up the Marcos myths (he was no thief, he was rich to begin with; she isn’t mad, she’s an inspired subversive) and just in time, what a coincidence, for Imelda’s bombshell of an admission that they “owned practically everything” in her heyday and that she is poised to file a P500 billion lawsuit vs. bad Marcos cronies (greedy dummies) who refuse to surrender Marcos assets to the family.

The Filipino-history part is entertaining enough, in prose less elegant than sensational, quick and candid and ironic, bashing old and new ilustrados, bashing imperialist America, exposing Marcos and Imelda, with the juiciest inside stories, some of it old hat (Yamashita’s treasure), some of it new and intriguing (4000 tons of gold) if anonymous and dubious, but I give Paterson the benefit of the doubt (he must have done some research) because it’s all too interesting,indeed what if it’s all true.

But it’s not all true. The martial-law and EDSA parts are jolting, agitating, patently partial, barely researched. His earnest defense of the conjugal dictatorship and its excesses on grounds of cultural idiosyncrasies and American collusion raises my hackles, impossible to stay calm, to suspend disbelief, not when I know better, specially about the EDSA Revolution.

In defense of his view that Ferdinand Marcos was a heroic, if tragic, figure in the time of EDSA, Paterson cites the “extraordinary” moment on live television when Marcos denied Fabian Ver permission to bomb the rebel camp that was then surrounded by human barricades. “To many of those who knew and worked with him,” Paterson writes, “this is still regarded as Marcos’s finest hour. It was the moment when, no matter what orders he might have given in the past in the name of expediency, he refused to give the instinctive datu’s command that would have translated into wholesale slaughter.”

How romantic of Paterson, and how naïve, to fall for Marcos’s palabas. In fact, that extraordinary exchange was pure sarsuela, a (failed) ploy to scare the people away from EDSA, and, incidentally, a response to Pope John Paul II’s plea for a non-violent resolution of the conflict, and to the US Congress’s threat to cut off all economic and military aid to the Philippines should violence break out.

In fact, Marcos and Ver had long gone ballistic and given the kill-order but the Marines, led by General Artemio Tadiar (at EDSA/Ortigas on Day 2) and Colonel Braulio Balbas (in Camp Aguinaldo on Day 3), kept defying these orders. When Marcos had that exchange with Ver on nationwide TV, he was just being his wily old self, making the best of a bad situation by pretending to be the good guy (look, ma, no bloodshed), hoping to fool Washington D.C. and the Vatican, if not the Filipino people, a little while longer.

Paterson’s problem is, he swallows hook, line, and sinker the loyalist version of EDSA that blames the United States for Marcos’s fall. Marcos was America’s Boy, he says, only until Ninoy’s assassination, whereupon the Americans started to plot the dictator’s downfall and to make peace with the ilustrada widow Cory, setting off the chain of events that led to EDSA. He insists that the Americans planned the entire operation, all the way to the abduction of the Marcos gang and the flight to Hawaii. A story that has long been discredited.

Whatever the CIA was up to, the State Department was playing the situation by ear, being very careful how they dealt with Marcos because Ronald Reagan would brook no moves against his friend. In fact, the Americans were in no rush to replace Marcos until a more likely and desirable candidate other than an anti-bases housewife emerged. In fact, the Americans were as stunned as anyone by the display of People Power that forced Marcos out and moved Ramos and Enrile to give way to Cory (at what price, we should wonder). And in fact, the Americans did intervene, but only on Day 3 (the battle was practically won), and only to offer the Marcoses a way out of the Palace.

According to my research, Marcos could have made it to Paoay on his own whether on wheels or with wings: there were other escape routes available to him that Tuesday evening, Day 4. Carloads of security personnel bound for Clark Air Base were able to leave the Palace grounds undetected by the crowds outside; presidential choppers, pilots, and crews had been on stand-by since Monday morning, waiting to fly him anywhere he wished. Even rebel defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile had offered him safe passage out. But Marcos opted to trust the Americans instead, his fatal mistake.

JUSMAG General Teddy Allen had been ordered by US Ambassador Stephen Bosworth to take the Marcoses anywhere they wished. But Marcos informed Allen too late of the destination and Allen found out too late that the Ilocos airport had no lights for a night landing, thus the Marcos party was forced to spend the night in Clark. There, Marcos and Ver wasted no time working the phones, mustering support for an Ilocano army that would re-take Manila. Dismayed, his ministers tried to talk Marcos out of the scheme. Worse, one (possibly all) of them went farther and reported the matter to Enrile and Ramos who, in turn, relayed the news to, and impressed upon, Cory and Bosworth that Marcos should not be allowed to get to Paoay. “Nabigyan tiyak ng rallying point ang puwersang loyalista at pinag-agawán tiyak ang Maynila. Hindi kami makapayag na mangyari iyon habang pinapatatag pa namin ang puwersa ng gobyernong Aquino,” Ramos explained when I interviewed him in 1991.

Unfortunately for Marcos, People Power had by then wrought its magic, moving Reagan at last, as Enrile and RAM had been moved, to give way to and support Cory. At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Marcos party was awakened and told to prepare for the flight to Guam. That — helping Marcos escape from the Palace and removing him from the country — was the extent of the Americans’ part in the February revolt.

Ninoy Aquino’s part was infinitely larger, equally so the people’s part, but Paterson shrugs them and EDSA off: “Substituting an oligarch for an autocrat was no kind of revolution.”

Indeed. But that is a verdict on what happened AFTER the revolution, when the elite had taken it over, and that is no reason to ignore EDSA.

To ignore EDSA is to miss out, as Paterson misses out, on core dimensions of the Filipino psyche—the revolutionary impulse, for one—and on a major sector of Filipino society, the silent middle-class masses, who made EDSA happen and who can make it happen again, given a similarly (hopefully better) informed and motivated environment.

Unfortunately Paterson’s book is out to intrigue rather than inform, which does not help the cause any. Worse, he’s stuck on Imelda, and that’s the most boring part of all.

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