Twenty-nine years ago, at the height of the bloody Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, then–first lady Imelda Marcos was an honored guest at a piano concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington. During a break in the program, Walden Bello, a leader of the anti-Marcos activists in the United States, slipped down to the front of the auditorium with a handful of others and unfurled a banner reading Down With the Marcos Dictatorship. Walden pointed up at Imelda Marcos, sitting beside Van Cliburn, and shouted, “There is a fascist in the house!” The police were called. A chase around the orchestra seats ensued and, eventually, the police hauled Walden and the others off in handcuffs.
Fast-forward to July 23 of this year: Walden and Imelda, newly elected members of the Philippine Congress, met once more, this time in a plush Manila hotel for the inaugural gathering of the new majority coalition, of which they are both members. “She walked right over to the table where I was sitting,” Walden told us two days later in Manila. “The Kennedy Center incident flashed through my head, but I looked up and I saw an old woman [she is 81], and I thought, she is almost blind and doesn’t know who I am.” So he decided simply to shake her hand. Perhaps even stranger, the man convening the coalition meeting was the new Philippine president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, the son of the politician whose 1983 assassination was widely believed to have been sanctioned by Imelda’s husband, President Ferdinand Marcos. That killing unleashed the “People Power” revolution, which brought millions onto the streets, exiled the Marcoses to Hawaii and ushered Noynoy’s mother, Cory Aquino, to power in 1986.
Walden invited us to be his guests at Noynoy Aquino’s first presidential State of the Nation address, on July 26. We were driven down Commonwealth Avenue in Walden’s Congressional car to the Congress, where the speech would be delivered. Alongside us, thousands of protesters, many of them allies of Walden, carried colorful banners and effigies of President Aquino. Indeed, one of the protesting groups, the Freedom from Debt Coalition, boasted Walden as its president. In this country of militant activists, it was a significant statement of the “space” the new administration commands that no one burned an effigy of President Aquino. Moreover, the protests paused during the speech so that the activists could listen by radio. Similar to Americans’ reaction in the weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, most progressives in the Philippines want to give their new president a chance.
Walden has a slight build and looks younger than his 65 years. Four decades ago he and tens of thousands of bright young Filipinos at the best universities gave up dreams of conventional careers and joined poor farmers to create a vast network of organizations to fight what they called the “US-Marcos dictatorship” and its egregious human rights abuses. (We were active in a vibrant US support movement, Robin having first lived in the Philippines in 1977.) Many were communists, all were nationalists and thousands of them formed an armed peasant movement in the rural areas, the New People’s Army, which aimed to follow the example of Mao in China and take power by force.
Walden was in the United States for graduate studies, and after finishing a PhD at Princeton in 1975, he helped build the anti-Marcos movement from the United States as a scholar and activist. He also played a central role in the high-profile fight to remove from the Philippines two of the largest US overseas military bases, which had been key staging areas during the Vietnam War. In 1991 the Philippine Senate finally voted to remove the bases, but there is continuing controversy in the country over roughly 500 US troops in the southern Philippines who provide training to the Philippine military in the fight against armed groups with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. In the 1990s Walden became a leader of the broader anti–corporate globalization movement and helped spark protests around the world against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Throughout this period he was a frequent contributor to The Nation (a June 2, 2008, article, ” Manufacturing a Food Crisis ,” led to his 2009 book, The Food Wars).
During his anti-Marcos activist years, Walden became a member of the National Democratic Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines. In the late 1980s, disillusioned with the party because of its inflexibility and internal purges, he left it. Twelve years ago Walden and many others concluded that progressive change in their country would not come through armed struggle, and they joined several other political groups to form a legal party, Akbayan: Citizens’ Action Party, to contend for power in the electoral arena. They had been given an opening by President Cory Aquino in 1987, when her government designated a number of Congressional seats to be reserved for representatives of the “poor and marginalized” segments of society. Today when you vote in a Philippine election, you cast two votes for Congress: one for the representative of your geographical district and one from the list of smaller parties. Walden was elected to the previous Congress, and Akbayan received more than 1 million votes in the May 2010 elections. This gave the party two seats, including a second term for Walden.
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After the guards saluted our car and whisked us through the gates of Congress, we were led up to Walden’s office by a young staff member. On the way, we watched presidential security officers sweeping the building with bomb-sniffing German shepherds. Seven staff members were crowded into a front room, with Walden’s office in the back. The strong smell of fresh paint permeated the office.
Walden and his staff were busy in the weeks leading up to the State of the Nation address fighting two high-profile cases against the corruption that is so pervasive in Philippine politics. Both placed Walden on the front pages of the dailies. First, he introduced a Congressional resolution to impeach the country’s ombudsman. The charge: the ombudsman had failed to pursue several prominent cases of corruption against the former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (she was also elected to Congress in 2010, some say to acquire the immunity that goes with the office).
The second involved Arroyo’s son, Mikey, who had just been named a member of Congress representing the party of the security guards and tricycle drivers under the same party-list system that got Walden elected. Yet Mikey Arroyo is a wealthy former Congressman, not a representative of poor drivers. Walden and his party filed a motion with the Supreme Court requesting that Mikey Arroyo be denied his seat, since it clearly violated the law governing party-list candidates.
On the day of the State of the Nation address, Walden’s office was focused on positioning him as the point man in Congress for steering the Philippines on an alternative economic path, a shift from free-market fundamentalism to a much more domestic-oriented, government-led strategy based on land and income redistribution that would favor workers, farmers and small businesspeople, the backbone of this society. A staff member in her 20s pulled Walden over to her computer so he could edit a press release that called on President Aquino to “replace Arroyo-nomics with Reform Economics.”
The press release complete, we asked Walden what the biggest change in his life was in shifting from scholar-activist to member of Congress. “I had to adjust,” he said. “First, on the level of discourse. As a scholar-activist you are analytical. In Congress you need to be more populist. And in this country people respond to the liberal democratic language of fairness, and separation of powers, and serving the people. In addition, as an activist you call for large-scale change like the cancellation of all foreign debts. Here, in a Congress filled with traditional politicians, you won’t win that. So you can call for debt cancellation in privileged speeches on the floor of Congress, but to win legislatively you need to narrow the target and fight for things where popular outrage will push the members to act.”
Walden continued, “The other big shift is that as a party member of Akbayan I am taking my lead from the party, and coordinating closely with them and with the staff of the other Akbayan Congressperson and with my own staff. It works well, but there are a lot of meetings.” This was not alien terrain for Walden; it built on expertise he developed during his anti-Marcos activism while in exile. “My first real experience with Congressional work was in the United States, when we were trying to cut off aid to Marcos,” he said.
We asked Walden what his main accomplishments were during his past year in Congress. He talked about two. The first involved the aftermath of the infamous election-related massacre of fifty-seven people, including thirty-two journalists, by a well-entrenched clan in the southern Philippines in late 2009 (the Committee to Protect Journalists judged this to be the deadliest attack on journalists in the organization’s history). In its aftermath, President Arroyo declared sweeping martial law in the province where the massacre was carried out, Maguindanao, which Walden and others opposed as an illegal attempt to manipulate the crisis to solidify her rule. Walden and his allies were outspoken, and Arroyo backed down. Another key fight involved attempts by a member of Congress to revive a mothballed nuclear power plant built in the 1980s near an earthquake fault and several active volcanoes. Walden had been a US-based leader of the original fight to shut the plant down before it could start operations. Decades later, he used his technical and economic expertise to make the case successfully to keep it closed.
Moments before the presidential address, Walden’s staff reminded him that he needed to change into his barong tagalog, a translucent formal shirt woven of pineapple fiber and embroidered with elegant designs. He clearly would have preferred not to change, but he did as he was told.
The State of the Nation was a spectacle, in part because it doubles as the fashion event of the year. We sat in the gallery with about 1,000 other invited guests, including the diplomatic corps, two former presidents, the cabinet and members of the elite. Most of the men wore a barong tagalog; many of the women wore the floor-length terno dress with puffed-up sleeves made famous by Imelda years ago.
On the floor below us were roughly 250 members of Congress and twenty-one senators, with the conspicuous absence of former President Arroyo and Mikey. Arroyo had conveniently left the country the night before, claiming that she needed to be in Hong Kong at her husband’s side as he visited a cardiologist. The more likely reason was that President Aquino was about to lambaste her and her administration as having bankrupted the nation with extravagant spending.
Up on the dais beneath a huge Philippine flag sat the new Senate president, Juan Ponce Enrile, a key Marcos ally who had defected at the last minute to help Cory Aquino take power in 1986. Beside him sat the new House speaker, a popular consensus-builder who engineered the ruling coalition, which includes Walden, Imelda, several actresses and media personalities, and the world’s reigning welterweight boxing champion, Manny Pacquiao. We asked another member of Congress to try to explain this political potpourri. “This is the Philippines,” he said with a shrug. “You have the Bushes and Clintons. We have the Marcoses and Aquinos, with a lot more thrown in.” For the record, Ferdinand Marcos’s son, Bong-Bong, is a senator, and his daughter Imee is a provincial governor; both were on the floor.
Earlier, in his office, Walden had prepared us for Noynoy Aquino’s speech: “He will expose the corruption of the previous government, but he won’t critique the economic model which has made the Philippines unequal and poor.” As Walden predicted, President Aquino laid out a litany of charges of graft and corruption, some eliciting oohs and aahs from those around us, and then he offered a grocery list of proposals. But at a cocktail party after the speech, Walden elaborated on the omissions: “Nothing on land reform, nothing on climate, nothing on debt, nothing on reproductive health, nothing on labor and nothing on the economic model. He does not yet understand that government needs to be a strong, positive force in transforming the Philippine economy into one that guarantees the well-being of the people.”
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At the cocktail party, Walden introduced us to other members of Congress while gently lobbying them to join the resolution to impeach the ombudsman. We bumped into a prominent leader of President Aquino’s ruling Liberal Party, whom we had met a few years before, and he told us more about the July 23 ruling coalition meeting where Walden met Imelda: “At least thirty members of Congress checked in and asked for their payment.” “What payment?” we asked. “They simply expected that they would get an envelope with 200,000 pesos [about $4,000] for showing up. Of course, they got nothing from us. This is a new era.”
A beaming Filipino-American businessman from California introduced himself, boasting about his telecommunications company and the anti-terrorism work he has done for the past two Philippine administrations. He voiced his intent to work for the return of the US military bases. Thinking this would please Walden, the businessman laughed and said, “A lot of money coming your way, eh, Manong [respected elder]?” At that moment, we and Walden were jarred back to the reality that most members of Congress run to get rich from contracts with businessmen and pork-barrel projects.
After the party, we headed back to Walden’s office. Soon after we arrived, a short, fast-talking Filipino in an American suit rushed in to see Walden. We learned that he was a boyhood schoolmate who had gone on to work for the Marcoses. After spending five minutes with this man, Walden asked if he would bring us to meet Imelda. We were more than slightly shocked at the idea, but we went along. The friend asked how to introduce us, and we told him that we had worked on development issues in the Philippines since the late 1970s.
We walked into Imelda’s office and were told by her staff that she was meeting with a governor from the central Philippines. However, word traveled quickly to Imelda that there were two Americans in the outer office, and within seconds the governor was escorted out and we were in with the wife of the dictator we and Walden and millions of Filipinos had worked for decades to dethrone.
Imelda embraced our guide and greeted us with her infamous charm. Still regal in a deep purple terno with matching shoes (sturdy pumps, for the record), she looked younger than 81. “I just turned 18,” she flirted. She guided us to an elaborate spread of cheese, fruit and charcuterie and seated us beneath a portrait of her late husband. We asked her what it felt like to be back in power, and to have her son as a senator and a daughter as a governor. This was enough to launch her into a monologue filled with her version of history, philosophy, astrology and her lifelong campaign to spread “the truth, the good and the beautiful.”
Imelda is a master of memorized sound bites. For us, much of her comments revolved around how her many detractors have been proved wrong by history and how she is committed to building a new chapter of history. She told us about a 2009 issue of Newsweek that labeled her, along with Genghis Khan, one of the eleven greediest people of all time. “I told my friends, ‘I plead guilty as charged. I am greedy in the spread of truth, of the good and of beauty.'” She regaled us with tales of her meetings with world leaders such as Muammar el-Qaddafi, Kim Il-sung and Chairman Mao. She defended her husband’s tough measures: “Being president is not a popularity contest. If it were, Coca-Cola would be president.”
Some forty-five minutes later, we were informed that Walden was waiting for us down in the lobby of the Congress building, and we tried to say our goodbyes. Imelda towered over us as photos were taken, and she walked us to a three-dimensional portrait of her husband. “This was taken from me during the legal cases against our wealth,” she said with a flourish of melodrama, “but I got it back. It is made from pearls.” We again tried to make our exit, but, following us into the hall, she launched into her plans to bring renewable energy to the country. We began to wonder about the source of her seemingly boundless energy. Finally, with a bottle of “Imelda Marcos” wine in hand, we retreated to Walden’s car.
Still somewhat in shock as we rode in a downpour, we showed Walden the bottle of wine with a photo of a much younger Imelda on the label. “You better be careful,” he warned in jest. “It might be poison.”
A week later, Walden gave a speech on the floor of Congress in which he accused the administration of former President Arroyo of “orgiastic compensation, brazen manipulation of government agencies and funds for political purposes, and massive waste of the people’s money.” He invoked colorful imagery of pigs and crocodiles. Several of Arroyo’s Congressional allies immediately asked that Walden be brought before the House Ethics Committee; some called for his suspension from Congress. For better or worse, the brutal honesty and the theater that Walden brought to his work against the Marcos dictatorship has not flagged over the intervening decades regardless of the venue.
*Longtime observers of events in the Philippines, Robin Broad is a professor at American University while John Cavanagh has served as director of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, the leading progressive think-tank in the US.