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The State of Aloha

After 21 years as president, it was over. He knew it too. Protestors were in the streets. His relationship with the army soured. Even his health was declining. It was time to pack it up and get out.

On Feb. 25, 1986, in the middle of the night, Ferdinand Marcos, his wife Imelda, the former beauty queen, and his family fled the Philippines. The next day two C-141s roared into Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu and made international news.

They celebrated in Manila. Corazon Aquino, widow of Ninoy Aquino, who was shot dead on the airport runway minutes after returning to challenge Marcos in 1983, became the new president. “We are finally free,” she declared.

Marcos’ exile to Hawai’i was 35 years ago. Marcos’ anti-democratic rule over the country, his suppression of political dissent and his violence were well known. Sadly, the torture, political killings and martial law do not distinguish Marcos from other dictators. The United States has supported men who have killed more, oppressed harder and ruled longer. What made Marcos different was the theft.

Former Gov. George Ariyoshi was at Hickam to welcome the fugitive first family. He said they “didn’t have very much clothing, and one of the daughters had indicated to me that that was the only clean clothes that they had.”

It seems far-fetched. The customs report runs 23 pages long. They managed to bring, among other things, 143 pieces of jewelry, 24 bricks of gold all inscribed with the words “To my husband on our 24th anniversary” and an ivory statue of baby Jesus laced with silver and diamonds.

The United States backed the Marcos regime. He supported our war in Vietnam when he came to power in the 1960s. He welcomed and entertained Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

After the war, American support continued. Ronald Reagan was spellbound by Marcos’ tall tales of fighting the Japanese in World War II. The Gipper once described Marcos as “a hero on a bubblegum card he had collected as a kid.” (Years later Marcos’ war record was declared phony by his opponents.)

The United States supported Marcos because he was a firm anti-Communist. And that was all we cared about. It didn’t matter if he declared martial law for nine years and destroyed the democratic institutions in the Philippines. It didn’t matter if opponents of one-man rule were tortured with electric currents, if piles of dead bodies were dumped in public squares, if dissidents simply disappeared or if fear permeated Philippine cities. Marcos opposed Communist China abroad, suppressed Muslims in his own country and allowed our military to conduct operations without much hassle.

And when in 1986 the people had had enough of the rigged elections and political terror, Marcos turned to us for help. We readily obliged. That is why he got to live in a massive beachfront property in East Honolulu with Secret Service provided by President Reagan.

He did not spend his exile lying low. The Marcoses were known for holding lavish parties, making public appearances and living the high life. Imelda was seen around town shopping at Liberty House, spending money believed to be taken from public coffers across the Pacific.

Many in the Filipino community in the islands — especially those who had ties to Marcos’ home province Ilocos Norte — were receptive to the Marcos family. A crowd of 2,000 celebrated his 71st birthday with a six-hour party at the Blaisdell Center.

But not everyone was pleased. Community groups and local labor unions were extremely critical of having a dictator with an atrocious human rights record living it up in their backyard. It was not uncommon to see signs reading “DEATH TO MARCOS” displayed near the house in Honolulu.

Marcos claimed that he would return most of the property if he could go home. The government in the Philippines refused. He had too many loyalists, and many feared democratic institutions would be snuffed out again. He stayed here until his death in 1989. He was 72. As Imelda publicly mourned, a local reporter compared her to Jackie Kennedy.

By 1991 the coast was clear enough for the Marcoses to return. They even brought Ferdinand. He lay under glass at a private mausoleum for nearly 20 years in Ilocos Norte. Most of the property they took 35 years ago was not returned.

When Rodrigo Duterte, a Marcos admirer and strongman with autocratic tendencies, ran for president, he promised to give Marcos a hero’s burial in the national cemetery. He won. Massive protests were staged when he carried out that promise in 2016. The Marcos legacy, the outright theft and his recently restored image in the Philippines continues to divide the country and, thanks to our state’s participation, we are part of that legacy.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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