WHEN Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, I was a 19-year-old Ateneo college dropout heading the Manila and Rizal organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
For all its fearful reputation even at that time, the party was merely a ragtag band of hubristic fantasists who thought replicating the Chinese revolution was a cinch. Founder Jose Sison, who saw himself as the Filipino Mao Zedong, was then 33 years old, and the legendary Kumander Dante, 29.
The fledgling party was giddy over the revolutionary flow of the student demonstrations in 1970, and thought it could artificially create such revolutionary fervor again. At the same time, it thought it could provoke internecine strife among the ruling class that would implode its rule.
Two teams of mostly converted-to-the-revolution toughies from the urban poor slums of Tondo and Caloocan — specially recruited for the operation by Sison and his five closest cadres — hurled three grenades at the stage of the Liberal Party’s miting de avance in Plaza Miranda in Aug. 21 1971, injuring nearly all of the party’s Senate candidates and killing nine people.
Sison tasked a New People’s Army (NPA) commander, a veteran Huk from Tarlac, to delay by whatever means his sympathizer, the Liberal Party’s superstar Benigno Aquino Jr.’s arrival at the Plaza. What he told Aquino that made him do so, I haven’t been able to determine. Aquino, though, would have been stupid if he had not concluded after the bombing what group was responsible.
Still, Aquino, and the Liberal Party, went to town blaming it on Marcos, who had become unpopular not just because of the massive student demonstrations against him, but the opposition’s unrelenting demonization of him through their powerful media outlets the The Manila Chronicle and the ABS-CBN radio-television network.
The party’s calculation at the time was that the Plaza Miranda bombing would intensify what in Leninist jargon is called “the split within the ruling class,” so much so that Marcos would soon declare a hated martial law — and create a revolutionary situation chaotic enough for the communists to take over power.
Instead, the bombing finally convinced Marcos to impose martial law, the legality of which he had asked his then-Justice secretary Juan Ponce Enrile to study as early as 1969. After all, there were two nations intent on destabilizing the Republic at that time. (And of course, under the old Constitution, he had to step down in 1973 — a nightmare for Marcos, given that he was accused by the Liberal Party of attempting their assassination in Plaza Miranda.)
In the South, Malaysia had already trained the first Moro National Liberation Front commanders and had been arming that Muslim insurgency, and sending arms and finances through our very porous borders in Sulu. China had started to undertake its plan to arm the NPA with as many rifles as it could use, and had even built a gun factory in Fujian to replicate the American M-14. The factory ironically formed the nucleus of China’s world-renowned Norinco in the 1980s that would flood the world with cheap but quality versions of US and Western arms.
Split the ruling class
The CPP was caught flat-footed when martial law was imposed in 1972. Many of its top leaders were arrested or killed in a few months’ time. By 1977 the communist boss Jose Sison, its top military head Kumander Dante, and most of its core leadership were twiddling their thumbs in army stockades.
The expectation that the “split within the ruling class” would intensify turned out to be monumentally wrong.
Marcos suppressed only a small faction of it that was his avowed enemy years before, consisting mainly of the powerful Lopez, Osmeña and Roxas-Araneta political and economic elite.
Few among the elite sympathized with the Lopezes, which owned the Meralco monopoly, and arrogantly wielded its deadly media weapons as well its political power (Fernando Lopez was Marcos’ vice president).
Even the big guns of the Cojuangco clan, Ramon and Eduardo, cousins of Corazon Aquino, were among Marcos’ loyal supporters. Ramon Cojuangco even allegedly dummied for Marcos’ controlling shares in the telephone monopoly PLDT, which Marcos acquired when the American owners sold the firm to Filipinos in 1967.
Much of the Philippine elite embraced and supported Marcos’ “constitutional authoritarianism,” a drastic departure from the US-imposed system of electoral democracy that had largely failed the nation. After all, strongman or single-party rule was the norm in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, which was seen as necessary to enable these countries to develop swiftly, as in fact the so-called East Asian tiger economies did.
As such, Marcos’ strongman rule was not so strange, and certainly not abhorrent to the ruling elite that preferred peace and order rather than democratic rituals.
Marcos’ “Green Revolution” was based on the production of then revolutionary high-yielding Masagana 99 rice hybrid, which led to low rice prices — to this day the key to the acquiescence of the masses.
Most Filipinos also supported martial law for the “peace and order” it achieved so quickly in its first years, as the economy surged from 1972 to 1980 at an average annual growth rate of 6 percent. The growth rate for 1973, the first full year of martial law, as well as for 1976, was 9 percent, an astounding pace never beaten to this day.
Marcos plucked from the University of the Philippines academe Finance Secretary Cesar Virata and Budget Secretary Jaime Laya, who would lead a corps of technocrats in the bureaucracy. They were given almost full authority and autonomy in running the economy. Philippine business’ revered “Yoda,” Washington SyCip, recommended to Marcos his protégé, Roberto V. Ongpin, who would be the strongman’s very effective trade and industry head. It was during martial law that SyCip’s brainchild, the Asian Institute of Management, established in 1968, grew as a center for Philippine technocrats and big business executives.
Quite ironically, it was Marcos’ technocrats — whom the business community had praised to high heavens — who were responsible for kowtowing to the International Monetary Fund-World Bank economic policies that led to the economy’s collapse many years later. There was, of course, cronyism but the magnitude of this phenomenon didn’t account for the recession that broke out in 1983.
The spark of the eventual economic conflagration actually began in the 1970s, and halfway around the world from the Philippines: In the 1970s, the Arabs took back their oil fields from the Western “imperialists” and found themselves awash in what would be dubbed “petrodollars.”
Western bankers recycled this new money into quick and cheap loans to Third World countries. For the first time, poor countries such as those in Latin America and in Asia were deluged with easy loans purportedly needed to finance their development.
But then, the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979 and the Iran- Iraq War in 1980. These triggered an oil crisis that pushed up interest rates worldwide. The second global oil crisis broke out at roughly the same time and in 1982, Mexico and several other Latin American countries defaulted on their loans, creating the global debt crisis. US and European banks panicked, jacked up their interest rates, which eventually led to the Philippines’ 1983 debt default.
Global debt crisis
Aquino’s return to the Philippines in August 1983 couldn’t have been made at a worse time — and he was keenly aware of this. Interest rates were going through the roof, eating into the country’s dollar reserves so fast that the Central Bank falsified data to conceal their low levels.
The political instability in the wake of the Aquino assassination accelerated the economy’s collapse. In October 1983, the country ran out of dollars to service its loans and defaulted on its debts, financially isolating it from the world. Our trade with the world would become on a cash-basis only.
The GDP collapsed by an unprecedented 7 percent in 1984, and in 1985, the peso’s value crumbled from P9 to P20 to the dollar, and inflation surged by a riot-in-the-streets rate of 50 percent in 1984. No president could have survived such an economic catastrophe.
The elite suddenly became freedom-lovers, even joining street protests to demand that Marcos step down. People power was based on a bad economy’s propensity to convince people to overthrow their government.
The US junked its support for the strongman and undertook clandestine moves to put Cory Aquino into power. It feared that the internecine fight between the pro-Marcos and the anti-Marcos factions would give the communists an opportunity to grab power.
The Americans calculated (wrongly as it would turn out) that its support for the revolt against Marcos would create so much goodwill for it that the Philippines would allow its military bases (deemed crucial in the Cold War with Russia and in the wake of China’s rise) to remain in the country past the Military Bases Agreement’s expiration in 1992.
Just like the US government, the Philippine ruling class cleverly, and rather swiftly, abandoned its support for Marcos just as the Cojuangcos were set to capture political power in 1986.
The narrative of the House Cojuangco and House Lopez, with the Yellow Cult they created, is that of a Dark Lord imposing his will on a hapless people, with a Messiah sacrificing his life to embolden Filipinos to topple that regime in 1986.
That’s an utter fairy tale. It is an old, overused Manichean storyline of the “Lord of the Rings” kind of movies, believed by small or lazy minds to explain the past. But reality is always, and in all ways, more complicated.