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Missing Marcos Billions and Unanswered Questions

The recent seizure of works of art believed to have been acquired through ill-gotten wealth by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos are a reminder of the enduring political legacy of the Marcos family. Leading the seizure were representatives of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, whose mandate to recover the Marcos family’s plundered wealth can be traced to the first executive order issued by the late President Corazon Aquino, immediately following her election in 1986. Many Filipinos blame the late dictator for having stolen billions of dollars from state coffers and for making the Philippines the “Sick Man of Asia,” during and for the decades following his reign.

Despite uncovering rampant abuses and human rights violations following the “People Power” revolution of 1986, the political fate of the Marcos’s familial successors has remained unaffected. Former First Lady Imelda Marcos remains the incumbent congressman of the Marcos’s home province of Ilocos Norte. Their daughter Imee has been the governor of that province since 2010, and previously served consecutive terms as a member of congress from 1998 to 2007. Their son Ferdinand is an incumbent senator who recently scored very well in a poll among possible 2016 senatorial candidates — so much so that some analysts believe he may run for the presidency after Aquino steps down. All this despite accusations that the Marcoses and their cronies amassed more than $10 billion in wealth during the dictator’s 20-year rule.

Less than half that amount has been successfully recovered by the government since it began its efforts to recover the Marcos fortune. Given that younger generations of Filipinos have only a distant memory of the decades of martial law that coincided with the Marcos rule, Philippine society appears to be more accepting of the Marcos dynasty than was the case 30 years ago.

Earlier this year, as part of its annual report, the Presidential Commission on Good Government made a recommendation to wind down its pursuit of the Marcos wealth. Among its reasons was the cost associated with sequestering the ill-gotten wealth of the late dictator and his cronies, which has now become prohibitively expensive based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Proponents of abolishing the agency note that the commission has itself been accused of corruption in the past, and has outlived its mandate, having done what it could to retrieve the lost wealth. By contrast, human rights advocates have argued that shutting down the hunt for the Marcos wealth will not bode well more generally for human rights and the ongoing search for accountability in the country.

In the global pursuit of illegal wealth, no state agency can impose its laws on other jurisdictions, and sovereign immunity is an ongoing hurdle to be overcome. For instance, it took 20 years for the Swiss courts to unfreeze $658 million stored in Swiss bank accounts of the Marcos family. Even then the Swiss Federal Supreme Court imposed substantive conditions for any transfer of admittedly illegal origins to Philippine courts.

Less than half of $10 billion believed to have been plundered has to date been recovered. Since 1986 not one meaningful conviction against the Marcoses or their cronies has been handed down by Philippine courts. Since its initial successes, the hunt for Marcos wealth is increasingly turning out to be a symbolic and moral affair, more than a successful enterprise. Given the country’s political dynamics, we wonder whether protracted litigation of more than 200 cases against the Marcoses and their closest associates will ever come to full closure. That said, one can never attach a price tag to extra-legal disappearance under any regime, but given the limitations on state resources in a developing country like the Philippines, the past three decades have certainly yielded a reasonable return on investment.

Further complicating matters is the adoration that poor Filipinos – especially those from Ilocos Norte – subscribe to the Marcos clan. For them, the Marcoses have been a source of pride. And the ‘common touch’ Imelda has exuded to ‘her people’ has been very effective in maintaining the strength of the Marcos’s voter base. The manner in which Philippine politics continues to function, and the firm establishment of the ‘next generation’ of Marcos politicians in the political landscape, ensures that the Marcos name will endure for decades to come. Between the Aquinos, Arroyos and Marcoses, Filipinos don’t seem to mind political dynasties one bit.

And here lies the crux of the problem. As long as Filipinos continue to embrace this tradition, and because the political process is thereby being robbed of alternative personalities at the top of the political food chain, it is likely that more plundering of national assets will continue in the future. The truth is, apart from the Presidential Commission on Good Government, no similar task force or commission has been formed to pursue the plundered wealth for any other former president – even though many have been richly deserving of a similar fate. Until Filipinos demand more of their former and future presidents, future commissions on good government will undoubtedly experience a similar demise.

This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.