This article is based upon formerly secret documents that were declassified without fanfare and published by the U.S. Department of State in 2006, but apparently gathered the proverbial dust on the shelves since then — unnoticed until now by prying journalistic eyes.
In Sept., 1970 Imelda Marcos, then the First Lady of the Philippines, feared that domestic political opposition threatened plans by her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, to revise the Philippine constitution and thus extend his term in office, which would otherwise lapse in 1973. Mrs. Marcos these days is perceived in the public mind as a comic figure, thanks to her famous love of expensive shoes and jewelry. But in her prime, the politically ambitious First Lady was considered a woman with an independent power base who was accordingly treated with respect by heads of state. So when Mrs. Marcos flew to Washington, D.C. that Sept., she was able to obtain a private audience in the White House with U.S. President Richard Nixon. The First Lady also summoned Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms to her suite in the Madison Hotel — the presidential suite. The declassified State Department and White House documents reveal that in her Sept. 22 private meetings with Nixon and Helms, Mrs. Marcos asked for some $23 million in CIA covert funding. The money was to be used to buy political support to elect pro-Marcos delegates to the Constitutional Convention two months later.
Nor was Mrs. Marcos content to seek only CIA assistance. Before going on to Washington, she had reached out to a higher authority, flying to Italy, where she had a private audience with Pope Paul VI. In that meeting, the First Lady vented her frustrations with internal political opposition from the Catholic Church in Manila, especially, she complained, from the liberal Jesuits. What could His Holiness do to help?
We’ll get shortly to the admittedly titillating details of how the highest levels of the Nixon White House and the Pope (who had his own Higher Authority to consult) responded to the pleas for political support. But first, it is worth noting that the revelations are hardly likely to be regarded as ancient history. This is because the same Philippine family dynasties that have been jockeying for power for more than four decades are still at it — while the same controversies involving possible revision of the country’s constitution that Imelda Marcos raised in 1970 are still the stuff of current headlines in Manila.
And beyond the little slice of history, there is a broader context for the story. This week the Philippines — which doesn’t get much press beyond Asia — will be in the international headlines. On Wednesday, Filipinos will inaugurate a new president. — marking another opportunity for a fresh start that would get their laggard economy moving in the right direction. It is conceivable — if not likely — that the Philippines could, at long last, be primed to become another Asian tiger, or perhaps a tiger-cub economy.
A closer look at both the past- and present history — from an admittedly American perspective, as I have followed Philippine politics during the entire 40-year background of this story — suggests why.