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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

IMELDA'S FORTUNES

The former first lady claims that the Marcos family really owns most of Philippines, Inc.

By Susan Berfield and Antonio Lopez / Manila


Imelda's wish list

AFTER THEIR 11-DAY courtship in 1954, then-congressman Ferdinand Marcos gave his new bride, Imelda, a peek at his "tremendous wealth," at least 30 million pesos in cash and gold bars covered in lead stashed in a vault at a Manila bank. Imelda, a former Central Bank employee, advised her husband to deposit the cash instead of hoarding it. "Money, like ice, will melt if you just put it here," she said. Ferdinand replied: "No, I don't want to put it in the bank because I want to be president." Imelda didn't get the connection. "Because," he said, "[then] people will know I have a lot of money. And I don't know how to solve envy."

Or so said Imelda when she was summoned by the Senate just before Christmas to elaborate on her recent claim that the Marcos family owned "virtually all of the Philippines." They hadn't plundered the national treasury during her husband's 20-year reign, no, they had just done very, very well trading that gold. And with those billions they bought up many of the Philippines' 150 most-prominent companies. During a series of interviews with the Philippine Daily Inquirer published in December, Imelda said her husband had then handed over ownership of these corporations to various "trustees" - that's cronies to you and me. Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company, it's theirs. San Miguel, theirs. Philippine Airlines, it's bankrupt but it's theirs too.

The woman who for 12 years has refused to cooperate with the officials hunting for her family's "ill-gotten" wealth, who once claimed to be the poorest member of the House of Representatives, now says the Marcos assets are worth $12.8 billion. She intends to retrieve as much of that as she can, the sooner the better and certainly before her erstwhile associates sell off any more of their shares. Don't get the wrong idea, though, Imelda still wants to do right by her people. She pleaded for government assistance to regain the family treasure "so that we can help the country in its economic crisis." The irony of the situation seems lost on her.

Imelda says she wants justice, or at least to be taken seriously again. She has devoted supporters and a good friend in President Joseph Estrada. But she lives in the political shadows. Her account is provocative, possibly accurate. "Mrs Marcos's admission is probably the most authoritative expos» on the extent of their wealth," says Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, chairman of the committee that heard her testimony. Her account may or may not hold up in court. But it has already made Imelda important again. Now all the Philippines will watch the Marcoses and their cronies battle over the once-secret fortune. "My mom has gone ballistic," said Maria Imelda "Imee" Marcos, a congresswoman from her father's old district.

Imelda has hired a team of lawyers, including some from the firm of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile - Marcos's defense minister from 1969 right up until he helped oust the president during the People Power revolt in 1986. "We will take back everything that the trustees held on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos, including those that they have sold and surrendered to the government," Imelda said in the Inquirer interview. "I have evidence that these trustees, who eventually turned their backs on us and became untrusted, can never ever dispute," she added.

She will likely first set her sights on the family business of Eduardo Cojuangco, a Marcos crony from way back, the estranged cousin of former president Corazon Aquino and the head of Estrada's political party. Cojuangco's nephew recently sold family shares of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company to a Hong Kong corporation for $749 million. Imelda says that stock belongs to her family. She has also claimed that tycoon Lucio Tan bought a controlling interest in Philippine Airlines with money from Fortune Tobacco and Allied Bank, "both of which are majority-owned by the Marcoses." Tan has been trying - with Estrada's assent - to revive or sell the bankrupt airline for months now.

If Imelda can count on Estrada's support, so can Cojuangco and Tan. The president watched as the once-discredited Cojuangco regained control of San Miguel, the country's biggest brewery and food conglomerate. Estrada has suggested that the best way to handle accused tax evaders such as Tan is to make a deal with them. And Estrada has always said he is willing to compromise with the Marcoses in order to retrieve some of their wealth for the nation. Then he was talking about $580 million recovered from their Swiss accounts and today held in escrow in a Philippine state-run bank. Now that Imelda seems willing to produce documents, names and numbers, the president may be even more eager to call off the fortune hunt. "Previous administrations failed to get any money from the Marcoses," says Estrada. "A compromise will expedite the settlement of the issue."

"With [Imelda's] expressed willingness to share any recovery, the government will be hard put not to support her against the cronies, who have not shared anything," says Congressman Joker Arroyo. Presidential spokesman Fernando Barican says an agreement could be reached only if the Marcos family speaks as one, the negotiations are publicly disclosed and the deal is approved by the courts. It would likely mean that the government would drop some of the 416 graft cases pending against the Marcoses.

That kind of justice won't go down well with everyone. "We are telling the future generation that it's all right to steal, just make sure you steal a lot so that it would be tempting to compromise," says Congressman Benigno Aquino III, son of slain opposition leader Ninoy. "We do not get justice for the past, and we may even condemn the future." Many would say that's too high a price for a share of the Marcos fortune.

IMELDA'S WISH LIST

The former first lady claims that the Marcos family owns - and wants to reclaim - majority stakes in many of the country's biggest companies. The most prominent include:

Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co.

The biggest provider of telephone services and the principal supplier of long-distance service. Market capitalization: $3.2 billion

San Miguel Corp.

The largest food and beverage company. Market capitalization: $2.4 billion

Manila Electric Co.

The dominant electricity distributor. Market capitalization: $1.2 billion

Manila Bulletin Publishing Corp.

The company's publications include a daily newspaper and a weekly magazine. Market capitalization: $104 million

United Coconut Planters Bank

One of the top 10 commercial banks. Its assets are valued at $2.5 billion

Allied Bank

A major commercial bank owned by tycoon Lucio Tan. Its assets are valued at $2.2 billion

Fortune Tobacco Corp.

The largest cigarette maker in a country where even the president smokes in public. It is privately held by Tan

Asia Brewery

Second-biggest beer company in the Philippines after San Miguel. It has a 15% share of the local market and is privately held by Tan

Philippine Airlines

The country's main airline, owned by Tan, is bankrupt and looking for cash. Its debt is estimated to be $2.1 billion


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