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.

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The often-criticized Philippine version of democracy is looking pretty good these days, compared to some of its Southeast Asian neighbors. On June 30, the Filipinos will celebrate a peaceful transfer of political power with the inauguration of Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III (all Philippine politicians seem to have cute-sounding nicknames).
In Vietnam, advocating free democratic elections is a criminal offense that can — and does — land one in prison. And in Thailand, an aging, ailing King Bhumibol has ruled since 1946, but has (unwisely) failed to establish a credible succession plan. The beloved Thai king has seen his moral authority eroded recently, due to his ineffectiveness in preventing bitter political rivalries that have brought the nation to the brink of civil war. And expressing the opinion that the king has not always acted wisely could be regarded as a crime in the Land of Smiles.

Still, Philippine-style democracy has its infamous flaws. The country has (too) long been dominated by political elites whose family rivalries famously span generations. Noynoy Aquino’s chief qualification for higher office was that he was smart enough to have been born into the right political dynasty. His father, Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., was assassinated in 1983, when he landed at the Manila International Airport (now named the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.) The senior Aquino (one of the most brilliant political leaders I have ever met) had returned from exile in America, aiming at wresting power from his arch-rival, Ferdinand Marcos. Noynoy’s mother, Cory Aquino, became president after ousting Marcos in the famous People Power revolt in 1986. Mrs. Aquino died last year, which unleashed a wave of public sentiment that propelled her son into the presidency. Noynoy succeeds Gloria Arroyo, whose own father, Diosdado Macapagal, was Philippine president in the 1960s, before being defeated in 1965 by Ferdinand Marcos.

Imelda Marcos, who turns 81 on July 2, has just been elected to the Philippine congress, having replaced her son, Rep. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, who was elected to the senate in the May 10 elections. Bongbong, 52, earned honors at Oxford and an advanced degree from the Wharton business school, and could be poised to run for president in the 2016 elections. Bongbong’s elder sister, Imee Marcos, 56, is the newly elected governor of Ilocos Norte, the Marcos family’s stronghold province in the northern part of the main Philippine island of Luzon.

This brief recitation only scratches the surface of Philippine family politics. Outgoing President Arroyo succeeded Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in 2001 and subsequently convicted for corruption in office. That might have slowed the Estradas, but not for long. The former president’s wife was elected senator, as has one of his sons. And Joseph Estrada (who was pardoned by Arroyo) ran again for president this year, coming in second, with 26% of the vote (compared to Noynoy Aquino’s 42%). Meanwhile, Mrs. Arroyo has just been elected to Congress, where she will serve with several relatives.

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But if the Philippine elite families are good at jockeying for power, their record in economics is far from stellar. The Philippine economy was once the second-largest in Asia, after Japan. But it has long ago been left behind. Thailand’s per capita income passed the Philippines in 1984; last year’s Thai per capita income of $8,100 compared to $3,100 in the Philippines. According to the World Bank, the Philippines attracted $1.4 billion in foreign direct investment in 2008, which at least beats Cambodia, which only got $815 million in FDI that year. But Thailand and Vietnam raked in $9.3 billion and $9.4 billion, respectively.

The Philippines is America’s 35th largest trading partner in goods, with $17 billion in two-way trade in 2008 (plus another $4.2 billion in services, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which hasn’t posted more current figures.) Thailand is number 25, and Vietnam is the United States’ 38th largest trading partner. It would be no surprise if the more-focused Vietnamese pass the Philipines sometime during Noynoy Aquino’s six-year term in office (assuming that Noynoy, an unapologetic cigarette smoker from a family with a history of heart disease, serves out his full term).

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Will Noynoy be astute enough — and strong enough — to free his country’s economy from its present oligarchic shackles? The answer to those questions, of course, will have to wait. But it is possible (based on off-the-record interviews with some experienced Philippine watchers in the international business community) to relate that potential foreign investors are looking for three signals as to Noynoy’s intentions.

The first signal has already been sent, and it has been perceived as an encouraging one. Aquino will turn to the respected Teresita “Ging” Deles as his top peace adviser for the southern island of Mindanao, where there is presently a tenuous ceasefire between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Mindanao is rich in agriculture and untapped natural resources, and has a huge economic potential. But if that is ever to be achieved, first a genuine peace deal between “imperial Manila” and the restive Moros — who offer a classic case of a religious minority with historical legitimate grievances against the central government — will have to be reached. Deles is a former cabinet official who resigned in 2005 in the face of credible reports of widespread cheating in the 2004 presidential elections. According to a recent report in the Philippines’ GMA News, Deles has been critical of what she called “disarray” in the peace process during the Arroyo administration. (Of course, the Moros have their own disarray: various factions that range from peace-seeking moderates to radical Islamic terrorists and outright criminals, and corruption in their own ranks.)

Another, perhaps the most important signal, will be seen in whomever President Aquino picks to be his justice secretary, and what sort of backing the prosecutor will receive from the presidential palace. The bottom line: unless the Philippines’ massive corruption is brought under control, the economy will remain in its present oligopolistic bindings — and the country will remain poor.

Beyond those two big appointments, the foreign business community is watching to see if Aquino will get his economics right, and press the necessary liberalizing reforms to open the economy. One early important signal of Aquino’s intentions will be evidenced in how he handles a lawsuit that close political allies of President Arroyo launched against IBM Philippines. The suit — and a negative publicity campaign along with it — basically stem from Philippine government software failures for which IBM was not directly involved. The litigation is widely regarded by potential foreign investors as frivolous — and another illustration of how inward-looking Filipino elites have long discouraged much-needed investments in their too-closed economy.

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To be sure, the fact that she and her husband were presiding over their country’s long economic decline was hardly on Imelda Marcos’s mind back in Sept., 1970. When she flew to Washington that month, the First Lady was thinking in terms of how to dominate the political opposition.

According to a well-received 1988 biography entitled “Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines,” written by prize-winning journalist Katherine Ellison, Nixon “had acknowledged his guest’s stature by inviting her to stay at Blair House, the White House guest quarters usually reserved for visiting chiefs of state.” But as the Blair House was undergoing renovations, Nixon ended up putting Mrs. Marcos in the Madison’s presidential suite, “where her bill for five days came to $1,068.87, paid for by the U.S. State Department.”

The official documents relating to Mrs. Marcos’s Sept., 1970 trip to Washington, D.C. are contained in a 744-page volume published four years ago by the State Department, as part of its ongoing historical “Foreign Relations of the United States” series. Tucked away in the section of the book that deals with the official U.S.-Philippine diplomatic record is a memorandum of a “conversation between the Director of Central Intelligence and Madam Imelda Marcos, Wife of the Philippines President.” The DCI was Richard Helms. The researchers had found the Helms document in the intelligence files of the National Security Council in Richard Nixon’s White House. It had been classified Secret; Eyes Only.

The memorandum notes that U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Henry Byroade and his special assistant, James Rafferty, “made the introductions” to Helms and an unnamed CIA officer, “and then withdrew” from the suite. In those days, Byroade was known to be close to Ferdinand Marcos, and Rafferty was reputed to be a close associate-of — and even somewhat of a political fixer for — the First Lady.

The CIA officials’ meeting with Mrs. Marcos in her suite at the Madison was on Sept. 22, 1970, and lasted 35 minutes. Earlier that day, the First Lady had met in the White House with Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, although “no other record” of that meeting “has been found,” a footnote in the Helms’ memorandum reported. But the CIA’s memo clearly relates what was on Mrs. Marcos’s mind, as she explained it to the American spymasters.

“Madam Marcos began her presentation by drawing attention to the forthcoming 10 November 1970 elections for delegates to a constitutional convention in the Philippines, planned for June-July 1971,” the memo related. “She said socialist movements sponsored by certain lay and clerical elements in the Catholic Church, particularly the Jesuits, and some Communist fronts are planning to contest administration candidates in the election.”

Continuing, the CIA memo explained Mrs. Marcos’ pitch: “She believes that the Marcos Administration could lose the election by default unless a crash program is organized to help it win. She noted that the Church has already picked candidates, either priests or lay persons, for each election district. Should those groups succeed in achieving their objectives, it would change the form of government in the Philippines to Socialism or Communism, with only a few people realizing what the real consequences would be. She underscored her view that Philippine democracy is viable but will not survive unless the United States helps the Marcos Administration through this difficult period.”

The memo also related that Mrs. Marcos told Helms that “the Philippines is a child of the U.S. and illustrated this point by describing Vietnam as a French baby, Malaysia as an English baby, and Thailand as everybody’s baby.” In Asia, the First Lady asserted, “one’s creditability (sic) is not measured by how one treats a friend, but how one treats his children.” In those days, Mrs. Marcos let it be known that she considered herself a sort-of political mother to Filipinos; forty years later she refers to herself as her country’s grandmother.

When Helms asked what she meant by a crash CIA program, Mrs. Marcos rolled off the numbers, the memo relates: “Madam Marcos then said funding the election at the barrio level would mean 4,000 pesos for 35,000 barrios and also asked for more arms and helicopters to enable President Marcos to capture a fourth HUK leader, Commander Dante.”

HUK is the acronym for Philippine communist revolutionary forces that the CIA had first worked against in the 1950s. By the late 1960s, the HUK communists had morphed into what is still called the New People’s Army, although the CIA memo writer had not caught up to the distinction. In any event, the declassified documents do not elaborate further on the request for CIA help in capturing Commander Dante, the alias for Bernabe Buscayno, who would remain at large for several more years.

Helms referred the First Lady’s request to the so-called 40 Committee, which met in the White House on Sept. 25, 1970. Then chaired by Henry Kissinger, the committee was comprised of high-level U.S. security officials who recommended covert actions to the president. Notes from the committee meeting express no reservations on moral grounds. Covert CIA support for politicians around the world, including the Philippines, was by then a venerable tradition. And also in Sept., 1970 Nixon and Kissinger were busy ordering the CIA’s Helms to do what he could to prevent the election in Chile of leftist Salvador Allende (those efforts failed, but President Allende was subsequently ousted by his own military in a coup three years later, and committed suicide).

The 40 Committee referred the Marcos request to the State Department, for a more detailed analysis. The diplomats at Foggy Bottom quickly concluded that there was no basis for the First Lady’s fears that leftists would be able to dominate the Constitutional Convention: “Mrs. Marcos is the only person who professes to believe that the Philippine Constitutional Convention will be controlled by leftist elements. In fact, there are few observers who believe it will not be controlled by President and Mrs. Marcos.” When the secret White House covert-actions committee met again on Oct. 6, it decided to reject the First Lady’s request. Mrs. Marcos had basically been “throwing curve balls around a leftist threat to the Constitutional Convention,” the committee’s minutes noted.

The formerly secret minutes from the Oct. 6 White House meeting also observed that President Marcos himself, who had been giving his wife considerable political leeway, felt that this time, she had gone too far. “It was also noted that Marcos was allegedly angered by his wife’s freewheeling; none of this had come directly from him and she might be launching personal political ambitions,” the official 40 Committee minutes reported. The Philippine strongman, the document added pointedly, although “no neophyte at feeding at our trough — had not yet asked for a peso.”

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Although it was reported at the time that Mrs. Marcos had had a private audience with Pope Paul VI earlier in Sept., 1970, what was said behind the closed doors, to my best knowledge, has never before been reported. Richard Helms’ minutes of his Sept. 22 meeting in the Madison’s presidential suite give the gist of how the First Lady reported the meeting to the CIA. According to Helms’ notes, Mrs. Marcos’s papal visit “was not for the purpose of piety but to persuade him to make his visit to the Philippines in the third week of November, which would be after the election, to prevent the Catholic church in the Philippines from using his visit to further its political ambitions.”

According to Helms’ memo, Imelda Marcos reported that she had been only partly successful in persuading the Pope to give her some political cover: “She said the Pope suggested prayer as a possible answer but he also agreed to delay his visit.”

Postscript:

And Pope Paul VI kept his word to Mrs. Marcos, as the Con-con elections of Nov. 10, 1970 preceded the two-day papal visit to Manila from Nov. 27-29. That visit made a little unintended history itself. Upon his arrival at the Manila airport, the Pope was attacked by a disturbed 35-year old Bolivian painter who wielded a Malay kris dagger. The Marcoses claimed that the knife was deflected by a swift presidential karate chop from an alert President Marcos, a version that was at variance with other accounts at the time, including the Vatican’s.

True to the American predictions, the Marcoses were able to dominate the Con-con, which met in 1971, and which was marked by persistent efforts to amend the country’s constitution to enable President Marcos to remain in office. While there were many reports at the time that the president and his wife had used widespread bribery to influence the delegates, the details of what actually transpired remain elusive (as to the facts behind so many Philippine scandals.” In any event, President Marcos finally decided to remain in power by declaring martial law in Sept., 1972. He remained in office until he was deposed by Cory Aquino’s People Power demonstrations in 1986 — which were given powerful assistance from the same Catholic Church forces that Imelda Marcos had long complained about.

In 1977, President Marcos finally succeeded in capturing and jailing communist chief Bernabe Buscayno, a.k.a. Commander Dante. Buscayno later rejected violence, and was released in 1986 by Cory Aquino.

During the last several years, President Arroyo and her political allies have made headlines with their persistent efforts to convene another Constitutional Convention — with most of the controversy once again turning on fears of a hidden presidential agenda. But unlike Marcos, President Arroyo was not politically strong enough to impose martial law, and on Wednesday will step down from her office peaceably.

Half-way through 2010, both the Marcoses and the Aquinos are back in power — while their country remains poor.

The Marcos family declined requests for comment.