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Imelda is talking a bit too much garbage

Imelda is talking a bit too much garbage

Imelda Marcos has many passions: shoes, jewels, food, fashion and, of course, defending her husband’s legacy as dictator of the Philippines. But garbage?

“I see beauty in everything, even garbage," the former first lady said earlier this month. In many ways, Marcos personifies why many foreign correspondents are drawn to the Philippines. It’s an unpredictable, lively and often surreal place. That’s quite a feat in a region boasting quirky reporting locales from Mumbai to Shanghai and from Tokyo to Jakarta.

The wife of Ferdinand Marcos is popping up in the international media with alarming frequency these days. It’s not because her husband, who died in 1989, bears responsibility for the Philippines’ woes—it’s because the Marcoses are making a comeback. Part of the effort is arguing Ferdinand wasn’t so bad. Even if Imelda Marcos finds beauty in garbage, her nation’s 91 million people shouldn’t find any beauty in hers. The revisionist history she’s dishing out is complete and utter rubbish. And her return to the headlines says more about the country’s economy than investors may appreciate.

Earlier this month, she celebrated her 78th birthday at one of the former dictator’s mansions near Manila. What made the choice of venue so odd is that the building is among those confiscated by the government, which has been trying for years to recoup as much as $10 billion, the amount it says the Marcos family stole.

Stranger than fiction

The Marcoses’ return to public consciousness reflects bungled efforts to prosecute them on corruption charges. Twenty-one years after President Marcos was unseated in a coup, the government claims to have recovered only $1.7 billion (Rs6,970 crore) from the family and its associates. Reflecting the life-is-stranger-than-fiction dynamic that often courses through Manila, the Marcos family is escaping justice even though officials say they have vast amounts of evidence. Imelda Marcos once faced more than 900 civil and criminal cases. Now, she’s increasingly breathing easily.

With each passing year, there seems to be less urgency to make the Marcos family accountable, and that’s a shame.

Revisionist history

Instead, the Marcoses are back on the society pages and one senses little outrage in the Philippines. Late last year, the family launched “The Imelda Connection" of jewellery. Court victories have emboldened the family to step up its fight to regain some assets from the government—and to argue that President Marcos did more good than harm to the nation. Ask the average Filipino about all this, and many will roll their eyes. “The Marcos family is part of our history and part of our culture, but it doesn’t mean anything to me," says Jose Calapre, 29, an accountant at a Manila-based insurance company. “I just view them as celebrities."

The interest of Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne shows the extent to which Imelda Marcos is, for better or worse, a global icon. Earlier this year, he collaborated with Fatboy Slim on a musical production about her life titled “Here Lies Love"—the words she intends to have on her gravestone. Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in Hawaii almost two decades ago, yet all too much of the political and financial system he created between 1965 and 1986 remains to perpetuate poverty in Asia’s 14th-biggest economy. In the early 1960s, the Philippines was destined to be the Japan of Southeast Asia. Then Marcos drove the nation into the poverty that even today means more than 10% of the population must work overseas, often doing menial tasks, to support families at home. If Imelda Marcos really does find beauty in garbage, she should pop by one of Manila’s shanty towns where many Filipinos dig through reeking trash dumps in search of salvageable junk, and even food. Politicians claiming to work to help the nation’s poor rarely visit these places.

The Philippines has huge potential. It’s a thriving democracy, and Arroyo is making progress in stabilizing things. The economy grew 6.9% in the first quarter and Arroyo is pledging to increase tax receipts and balance the budget. The private sector is moving forward, too. Call centres and other back-office services are now among the biggest growth areas. Kelly Lim-Bate, head of research at J.P. Morgan Securities Philippines Inc., expects them to employ one million Filipinos directly and an additional two million indirectly in white-collar jobs by 2010.

Hijacked future

Yet, two decades after Marcos, Transparency International still puts the Philippines on a par with Rwanda and Honduras in its Corruption Perceptions Index. That explains why even as the Philippines grows faster, the benefits remain concentrated among the political elite. In Asia, “the capture of political, economic and legal institutions by an elite group which then bends the rules of the game for their own benefit is resulting in growing disparities within and among countries," says Ifzal Ali, chief economist at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. “Basically, the democratic process has been hijacked to serve the interests of a very few."

The nostalgic lens through which the Philippine media often view Imelda Marcos dovetails with a lack of political will to address and bury the past once and for all. The economy hasn’t yet had a cathartic break with the mismanagement and corruption of the past. It needs that to truly move forward.

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