Martial Law 45th anniversary: US imperialism and the Marcos dictatorship

Marcos, his family and cronies would not had been able to plunder and repress the country the way they did without the support of the US. Marcos lasted for as long he did because he was backed by an imperialist superpower.

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(Ferdinand Marcos with US President Richard Nixon in a motorcade during the latter’s Philippine visit in 1969 | Photo from filipiknow.net)

We mark the 45th year of the Martial Law declaration by highlighting the numerous atrocities and massive corruption of Marcos. Amid the rising fascism of the Duterte regime and systematic bid to revise history, reminding the people of the crimes of Marcos and evils of tyranny is more relevant than ever.

But we should not forget as well the role of the US as the country’s foremost colonial patron in the Marcos dictatorship. This is important to better understand why in today’s global/regional context (e.g. China’s rise and weakened US hegemony) and Philippine context the US, to advance its agenda, would also support the Duterte regime in its consolidation of political power through tyranny and fascism.

Marcos, his family and cronies would not had been able to plunder and repress the country the way they did without the support of the US. Martial Law and the Marcos dictatorship were useful for American economic and military interests in the Philippines and the region. Marcos lasted for as long as he did because he was backed by an imperialist superpower. Until of course when the political and economic crisis and social unrest intensified to a point that it was no longer beneficial for US interests to sustain Marcos’s tyrannical and corrupt rule.

The years before Marcos declared Martial Law were characterized by a surge in people’s protests – the First Quarter Storm (FQS) – against the exploitative and oppressive social order represented by the corrupt Marcos regime amid a worsening global and national economic crisis (soaring prices, massive unemployment and landlessness, ballooning public debt, etc.). The political instability threatened not only Marcos’s survival but US political, military and economic interests in the Philippines. To restore “stability”, the Marcos regime imposed Martial Law.

What were the US interests that Marcos and his dictatorship served?

At that time, the US was embroiled in the costly Vietnam War, a Cold War-era proxy war between the US and the former USSR. The Philippines under Marcos served the American war by deploying thousands of Filipino troops to help the US forces. Note that before he became President, Marcos was opposed to the sending of our troops to Vietnam. But once in Malacañang, Marcos changed his stand due to US pressure and because he knew that he would need US patronage to remain in power.

But beyond the deployment of Filipino troops, far more strategic for the US were the Subic Naval Base that their naval forces (US Seventh Fleet) used for repair and replenishment throughout the Vietnam War as well as the Clark Air Base that served as their key logistics hub. After the US’s disastrous defeat in the Vietnam War, Subic and Clark became even more important for the US in order to maintain its military presence and operations in Asia.

The US backed the fascist regime in exchange for the dictator’s assurance that the Philippines will continue to allow the stay of US military bases. Days before he publicly announced Proclamation 1081 that placed the entire country under Martial Law, it was reported that Marcos phoned then US President Richard Nixon to get his commitment of support. When Marcos imposed Martial Law on September 21, 1972, the US reportedly stationed 40,000 troops at its Subic Naval Base to “meet any contingency” arising from the dictator’s declaration.

Aside from its military agenda, the US also used the Marcos dictatorship to retain its privileged position in the Philippine economy and the exploitation of our natural resources. The Laurel-Langley Agreement of 1955 which gave full parity rights to American citizens and businesses or equal access like Filipinos to domestic agriculture, timber, mineral, public utilities, and land expired in 1974. But with his Martial Law powers, Marcos issued decrees that effectively maintained the neocolonial economic privileges of the US such as reversing court decisions that disallowed American ownership of landholdings in the country.

Indeed, as a 1973 press report read: “The most encouraging aspect of President Marcos’s assertion of one‐man rule has been the disappearance of the anti‐foreign feeling that had been mounting in the press and the Constitutional Convention in the year preceding the proclamation of martial law.” Prior to Martial Law, the 1970 Constitutional Convention was formed to rewrite the then prevailing 1935 Constitution. The US was concerned that the new charter would affect its military bases and economic interests in the country. Under Martial Law, Marcos arrested some members of the Convention and reconvened it to write the 1973 Constitution that favored Marcos’s and the US’s agenda.

On top of ensuring that the policy environment under Martial Law remained favorable to US interests, American businesses and politicians were also actually in cahoots with Marcos and his cronies in plundering the economy and public coffers. American banks provided odious debts that funded Marcos’s projects riddled with corruption.

Perhaps nothing is more notorious than the hugely overpriced white elephant US$2.3-billion Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP) that the US Export-Import Bank and American Express bankrolled together with the Bank of Tokyo. Through payoffs worth US$18 million to Marcos via his crony Herminio Disini, American firms Westinghouse and Burns and Roe bagged the lucrative contract to design and build the BNPP. Built on an earthquake zone, the BNPP was never operated for public health and safety while billions of dollars in payments went to American banks and firms at the great expense of the Filipino people.  

Finally, the US also undermined the Filipino people’s quest for justice to make the Marcoses accountable for their crimes. This as real justice would mean making the colonial masters of the Marcos regime liable as well. According to a May 2016 report by The Guardian, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew that Marcos stole US$10 billion but refused to tell the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) what they knew because apparently, American businesses such as those involved in the BNPP and political figures would be implicated as well.

Marcos also allegedly bribed high ranking US politicians and helped illegally fund the presidential bid of US presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, said the same Guardian report. The US systematically covered up its link with the corruption of and plunder by the dictator. For instance, the documents that the American authorities seized from Marcos when he fled to Hawaii in February 1986 have been allegedly redacted to hide transactions involving US organizations when they were turned over to the Philippines.

Today, the Duterte regime has been playing a leading role in revising the history of Martial Law and in the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. This serves his own fascist agenda of establishing a Duterte dictatorship. He has already imposed Martial Law in Mindanao in what could be a dress rehearsal for a nationwide Martial Law.

Would the US support Duterte and connive with his regime in plundering and repressing the people the way it propped up the Marcos dictatorship? For all the President’s anti-US rhetoric (or more precisely, anti-Obama rants) and moves to deepen ties with US rival China, the Duterte regime has continued to foster ties with the country’s neocolonial master.

US military presence and intervention is felt more than ever with American troops and attack and surveillance drones deployed in Mindanao as part of Duterte’s military campaigns. US military bases remain through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) while joint military trainings including urban warfare continue under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). For all its rhetoric about human rights, the US would work with any fascist dictatorship, even with someone as unpredictable as Duterte, to protect its interests and influence in the region especially amid a growing challenge from China as well as Russia.

Thus, when we protest against Martial Law, fascism and tyranny, we should protest not just for the violation of our human rights but also for the violation of our sovereignty as a people. ###

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