At Ground level | US gained by saving the Marcoses in 1986

The irony cannot be ignored. Today’s 37th observance of the Filipino people’s historic peaceful uprising – which led to the ouster of the 14-year US-backed dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. – happens with his namesake-son sitting as president in Malacañang.

And the day’s historic significance has been papered over with Marcos Jr.’s declaration moving the celebration from today to yesterday (Feb. 24) for the “benefits of a longer weekend pursuant to the principle of holiday economics.”

This year, though, it would be worth revisiting the US military’s role in saving Marcos and his family, together with what stolen wealth they could physically take with them aboard giant helicopters – just as the triumphant mass of people rushed pell-mell into the palace.

Flown to Hawaii, Marcos Sr. died there not long after. In 1991 Imelda and her three children were allowed to return to the Philippines. They lost no time in rebuilding their political bases and plotting their return to the pinnacle of power.

Now with Marcos Jr.’s exuberant facilitation, the US is accelerating and strengthening its military presence in the country, probably to recoup their dominant standing during the first Marcos era.

Last Wednesday, The New York Times gave front-page prominence to this development, with the headline “Philippines pivots back to US as China looms.” It said Marcos Jr. “has adopted the most muscular foreign policy approach that the Philippines has taken in close to a decade… seeking out alliances, restoring his country’s defense ties with the (US) and prioritizing his country’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.”

By drawing the two strategic allies closer, the NYT pointed out, Marcos Jr. is “making the Philippines the linchpin of the Biden administration’s strategy to counter China with stronger military presence in the region.”

Noting Marcos Jr’s agreeing to grant the US four additional Philippine military bases as sites for establishing their military facilities (allowed by the 2014 US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA), it highlighted Subic Bay as the “crown jewel” among the many naval sites in the country that would “welcome American soldiers in the coming months.”

“Subic Bay is one of the most strategic deepwater ports in Asia, with direct access to the South China Sea as well as the Bashi Channel, a waterway separating Taiwan and the Philippines,” the NYT noted. For decades, it had been home to the “largest American military base outside the (US)” until 1991, when the Philippine Senate voted to end the stay of US bases in the country. Converted into a free port, it has a 300-hectare shipyard, originally owned by the South Korean shipbuilding firm Hanjin but acquired in 2020 by the US-based Cerberus Capital Management. A US defense contractor has set up shop there.

The NYT quoted ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez as affirming that Subic Bay is “one of the four sites being considered” for American military access. To enable the building of US military facilities there inside a Philippine military base, the Philippine Navy last year leased the shipyard’s northern portion to set up a naval-operations base.

The US has allocated $82 million for the construction of the first five US military facilities in five strategically located Philippine sites. Meantime, joint military exercises are scheduled in the coming months, which will involve soldiers and equipment from the US, Philippines and Australia. Philippine officials interviewed by NYT “hope that strengthening alliances and staging joint military exercises with the US, Japan and South Korea will help modernize the country’s military and reinforce its independence.”

Governing these joint military exercises and several related activities is a “Joint Vision for a 21st Century United State-Philippines Partnership,” issued last year by the 9th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue between US and Philippine defense and foreign affairs panels.

Back in March 1985 – the anti-dictatorship movement was then at its height – the US State Department issued a top-secret report. Titled “NSSD: US Policy Towards the Philippines,” a precis by Walden Bello was published in Jose Burgos Jr.’s independent newspaper Malaya. Writing while under military detention, I quoted from it in my column for We Forum, Burgos’ other newspaper.

The document, Bello wrote, outlined “a comprehensive program to stabilize the political situation in the Philippines to prevent what its authors describe as the ‘distinct possibility’ of an insurgent takeover [CPP-NPA?] ‘in the mid to long-term, and possibly sooner’.”

I wrote in my column then:


“In sum, the US gives top priority to military measures to support the Marcos regime…to maintain ‘continued unhampered access to our bases at Subic and Clark’ and to prevent a ‘radicalized Philippines’ which would ‘destabilize the whole region.’ Political and economic measures come in only to support the military. Of course, this has been the prevailing US imperialist foreign-policy doctrine since World War II.

“While the report asserts that ‘the US does not want to remove Marcos from power, or to destabilize the government,’ it cites US efforts ‘to support those Filipinos who have been on the cutting edge of moderate reforms or change.’ But such support, it notes, has been only ‘through public and private statements.’

“Pragmatically, the report says: ‘Marcos, for his part, will try to use us [the Americans] to remain in power indefinitely.’ Nonetheless, it expects [him] to respond to US pressure on political and economic measures it prescribes because ‘our support is one of Marcos’ largest remaining strengths.’

“The really palpable measures urged by the report are military. To strengthen ‘US leverage to reform the AFP’ and to restore ‘professional, apolitical military leadership,’ the report proposes increased military grants instead of military sales credit. It also urges an increase in training aid under JUSMAG, aid to the AFP to improve their perimeter security responsibility on the US bases…[and] their counter-insurgency capability.’”

My 1985 column concluded: “All these measures should truly concern the Filipino people. Increased military aid to the Marcos regime spells a further rise in bloodshed and violence.”

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Published in Philippine Star
February 25, 2023

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