Like many Filipinos, Jessie Marinas left the Philippines for the United States in the ‘70s when the country was under the martial law of then President Ferdinand Marcos.
Now at age 67, Marinas, an artist and American citizen, is leaving California and going back to the Philippines — perhaps for good — just as the late Marcos is back in the news.
Newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has proposed that Marcos, who died in 1989 and whose body has been in a refrigerated crypt in the northern most part of the Philippines, be given a hero’s burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a national cemetery for war veterans and past presidents.
A decision on the proposed burial set for Sept.18 has been put on hold by the Philippines Supreme Court, and the issue has sparked debate throughout the Filipino diaspora.
Some like Marinas are willing to remember the positive accomplishments of Marcos, such as improvements to the country’s infrastructure and reductions in violent crime over the martial law and accused theft of the nation's wealth.
“He did a lot of good things,” Marinas told NBC News. “I’m willing to forgive, and hoping that someday the country will advance again.”
With 4 million Filipinos in the U.S., many of whom immigrated during the martial law years of between 1972 and 1986, there may be a fading appreciation of history, academics say.
Walden Bello is a Filipino scholar who earned his doctorate from Princeton, was a member of the Philippine House of Representatives from 2009 to 2015, and is a current professor at State University of New York at Binghamton. He believes there is no justification for honoring Marcos.
“Marcos was a dictator who committed widespread human rights abuses and looted the country, setting it back in terms of both political and economic development,” Bello told NBC News. “Tyrants should not be honored in a cemetery reserved for heroes.”
It’s estimated that during his dictatorship in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Marcos amassed a personal fortune worth up to $10 billion. The New York Times in 2011 reported on payments to victims of Marcos’ martial law based on court judgments in 1994 and 1995 worth nearly $2 billion. The Marcos’ estate was found to be liable for torture, summary executions, and disappearances, according to the newspaper.
Marcos’ wife, Imelda, has denied the family has done anything illegal.
The deeds of the dictatorship are indisputable, according to Bello. Still, he understands the sentiment of Filipinos like Marinas, to a point.
“Of course, all men and women have their failings that should be forgiven over time,” Bello said. “But a dictatorship and repression are not failings. They are crimes against the people. And a whole country suffered…Burying Marcos at the Libingan would be legitimatizing dictatorship and repression, and it would be sending the wrong signal to the people: that it is OK to scrap democratic rule.”
Further complicating matters is how both the Reagan and Bush administrations were both supporters of Marcos’ rule.
In 1981, then Vice President George H.W. Bush praised Marcos for his “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process.”
U.S. support of the Marcos dictatorship was often seen as a dividing line in the large Filipino-American community, according to activists.
Elaine Elinson, an American who studied abroad in the Philippines and married Rene Ciria-Cruz, a Filipino organizer, was in the San Francisco Bay Area during the martial law years and helped mobilize protests against the Marcos regime.
"I don't think people who lived through that era want to forgive or forget," Elinson told NBC News.
Elinson, who wrote a book with Bello on the World Bank and the Philippine economic crisis, said the key turning points during the anti-martial law era in the U.S. came when the Marcos government, according to the Associated Press, was linked to the murders of two Filipino-American union activists in Seattle, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, who were also leaders in anti-Marcos protests in the U.S.
“Many Filipino Americans joined the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP) in their college years as a result of the Asian identity movement,” Cindy Domingo, sister of Silme Domingo, told NBC News. “In their search for what it means to be Filipino they became connected to a homeland that they had never visited.”
Those responsible for the death of the two union activists were convicted, but the case also showed the extent of U.S. support of Marcos on American soil.
“I think what is hard for people to grapple with is the role that the US played in the violations of our democratic rights by cooperating with the illegal network of Philippine agents in the U.S. and in the harassment, intimidation and violence against the U.S. based anti-Marcos movement,” Domingo said. “For most people who want to believe that we live in the greatest democracy in the world, this is hard to believe — it strikes at the core of many peoples' beliefs.”
The other turning point was the assassination of Marcos’ main rival, Sen. Benigno Aquino, who was killed upon returning from his exile in the U.S., Domingo said.
Though Aquino’s murder was, according to the New York Times, linked to the military and not directly to Marcos, Aquino’s funeral procession on August 31, 1983 drew a million people on the streets of Manila to mourn Aquino and protest Marcos. It was seen as the first large scale public outcry against martial law in the Philippines.
In less three years, another large scale demonstration in the streets of Manila, known as the People Power Revolution, brought on the fall of Marcos in 1986.
Even Bello admitted that while Marcos’ martial law set back the political and economic development of the country, subsequent leadership has also failed to adequately lift up the Philippines.
“You can’t blame it all on Marcos; his successors must share the blame for continuing underdevelopment,” Bello said. “The Philippines’ elite really screwed up a chance to allow social and economic reform through peaceful, democratic means. Politics is competitive, true, but only among family dynasties, poverty still blankets 24 percent of the population, and inequality is one of the worst in East Asia. This near absence of social reform is one of the reasons that so many people voted for an authoritarian messiah like Duterte, who might end up scrapping the current system, bring us full circle to 1972.”
“I think Duterte does see Marcos as a role model, given his authoritarian propensity and little regard for human rights and due process,” added Bello, who feels a sizeable number of Marcos loyalists, mostly in the northern part of the country are forming a new majority with a newer generation of Filipinos who don’t understand exactly what Marcos’ martial law did.
“The [post-Marcos] governments failed utterly to systematically educate the younger generation—the millennials—on the atrocities of the Marcos era,” Bello said. As a legislator, Bello was able to pass the first law that mandated government-sponsored education of the human rights violations of the Marcos era.
But it hasn’t been enough to offset efforts of Marcos supporters who paint the Marcos period as a “Golden Age,” where such things like a national highway system, and a public education system, symbolically moved the Philippines into an new modern era, Bello said.
It’s what informs the memories of many people like the returning ex-pat Marinas, who intends to apply for dual citizenship, and live out his life in the Philippines.
Soon after his return, a world-wide protest of Marcos’ hero’s burial is planned for Sept. 7. Marinas said the late dictator is part of the distant past and not the future.
“Time heals,” Marinas said. “Forget about the past, and hope something better happens.”