MANILA – Known for her penchant for luxury and vast collection of shoes and jewelry, former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos turned 90 years on Tuesday after shying away from the public eye for the first time in almost a decade and battling multiple corruption cases.
Over 30 years after the end of “The Conjugal Dictatorship” – Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos ruled the Philippines between 1965-1986, eight years of them under martial law –, the former first lady remains immensely popular in the country, which had allowed her to carve out a political career in democracy that came to an end two days ago.
An icon of elegance and extravagance, considered one of the most influential and charismatic first ladies of the second half of the 20th century, Imelda held several political posts in the Philippines after returning in 1991 from exile in Hawaii – where her husband passed away – and facing around 400 legal cases for the brutal plundering of the country.
Hundreds of supporters of Marcos gathered at Rizal Park in Manila on Monday to celebrate the 90th birthday of the “Iron Butterfly,” an event that she attended along with her entire family, including her children Imee and Bongbong, who have both successfully entered the political arena.
Imelda thanked those gathered for their loyalty to the Marcos family for over 30 years (since the end of the dictatorship) and said that support for the family had only increased after her children’s foray into politics.
After nine years as governor of the Ilocos Norte region, a stronghold of the Marcos family, 63-year-old Imee won a seat in the senate while her brother, Bongbong, 61, was on the verge of being elected vice-president in the 2016 elections and is likely to run for president in the 2022 race.
Imelda’s tenure as congresswoman for Ilocos Norte, where her husband was born, expired on June 30, after nine years of occupying this seat.
This means that the ex-first lady will leave public life after more than a decade in the Congress. She also served as a lawmaker representing Leyte, where she was born, from 1995-98.
The widow of Ferdinand Marcos (1917-89) leaves the legislature as the third-richest parliamentarian with a declared net worth in 2018 of over $18 million.
In November, Imelda was convicted of corruption and sentenced to at least 42 years in prison for funneling $200 million from the public treasury to private accounts in Switzerland between 1968-84, when she was governor of Manila.
She was also disqualified from holding public office. Although the sentence was appealed and has not yet been enforced, a few weeks later, Imelda withdrew her candidacy for governor of Ilocos Norte – to replace her daughter – in the mid-term elections held in May.
The appeal could delay the case for years, given the country’s notoriously slow judicial system. That ruling was in response to 10 lawsuits brought by the Ombudsman between 1991-95, so seeing the former first lady behind bars is as unlikely as her returning the money.
The Marcos family’s growing influence on public life is causing alarm to large sections of the Philippine society, especially victims of the dictatorship and human rights defenders, who cannot forget that during martial law (1972-81) at least 3,240 opponents were killed, 70,000 imprisoned and 34,000 tortured.
In addition to the flagrant violations of human rights, the Marcos also illegally amassed a fortune of about $10 billion and, in 1989, entered the Guinness Book of Records for the “Greatest robbery of a Government.”
Transparency International places Ferdinand Marcos as the second most corrupt leader in history behind Indonesia’s Suharto.
When a peaceful revolt in 1986, led by Corazon Aquino, forced the Marcos family to flee to Hawaii, Imelda left behind 15 mink coats, 508 dresses, 888 handbags and her famed collection of over 3,000 pairs of shoes in the presidential palace.
“Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums,” is one of the most famous phrases uttered by the former first lady to justify visiting the slums of Manila wearing fur coats, pearls and gold.
According to the United States government, the Marcos family entered Hawaii with millions of dollars in cash, stocks, jewelry, and gold bricks inscribed “To my husband on our 24th anniversary.”
Despite having declared an inheritance of $950,000 from 1965 to 1984, the Marcos acquired more than 100 paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet, valued then at $25 million, as well as several buildings in prime locations in New York and Beverly Hills.