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Dinner with Imelda: Encounters with the Philippines’ Most Famous Dictatorship

In the wake of the Cold War, dictatorial regimes sprang up throughout the world, capturing international attention with news of authoritarianism and human rights violations. One such regime was the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the Philippines. The regime was guilty of countless abuses, but Imelda Marcos worked ceaselessly to shift the focus onto herself. Imelda attempted to portray herself as a style icon, hobnobbing with the international elite and showing off her expensive wardrobe. Her footwear collection, containing an alleged 3,000 pairs of shoes, was legendary. Despite Imelda’s insistence that she was a caring leader, her lifestyle was funded by around ten billion dollars she and Ferdinand had stolen from the state. In 1986, she and Ferdinand were forced out by a popular uprising and fled to Hawaii.

Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos with Ronald Reagan | President Ronald Reagan with President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos (1982) | White House Photographic Collection
Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos with Ronald Reagan | President Ronald Reagan with President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos (1982) | White House Photographic Collection

While working in the Philippines as chargé d’affaires, Philip Kaplan had a number of run-ins with Imelda. For a diplomat, interacting with such a polarizing figure is always a challenge. It was made all the more complicated by U.S. political ambivalence on how to handle the Marcos dictatorship, and the shifting moods of Imelda herself. Kaplan remembers Imelda as alternating between sociability and suspicion, at one point feeding him steak despite her apparent belief that he was part of a threat to the regime. On the U.S. government’s end, Ronald and Nancy Reagan had enjoyed the Marcos’ company, although there was an increasing need for regime change. Ultimately, Kaplan served in the Philippines long enough to witness the fall of the Marcos regime. The new president, Corazon Aquino, ordered investigations of the Marcos’ theft. Unfortunately, the massive robbery would continue to have serious economic consequences for the Philippines. Although Imelda used luxury and material possessions to construct a prestigious image of herself, her vast collection will forever be synonymous with blatant corruption and greed.

Philip S. Kaplan’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 20, 2014.

Read Philip Kaplan’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on Imelda Marcos click HERE.

Drafted by Artemis Maria Katsaris

“I’ll tell you what our program is. Our program is to get rid of Marcos.”

Opposition Brewing:
I was invited to a reception in a very expensive lovely home in Forbes Park, which along with Dasmarinas are the two major enclaves where the wealthy people lived behind high walls, with guards and all that. Security was a serious concern. A hundred people were killed a week by the NPA, the communist guerilla group. I was invited alone to this home because they wanted to eyeball the new American and take my measure. The very attractive and affluent hostess had assembled the crème-de-la crème of the opposition and they started pressing me for what we were going to do to help them get rid of Marcos. I responded that President and Mrs. Reagan liked Marcos and Imelda—it was well known so I thought it was better to get that out there—and they expected us to be able to be supportive of your concerns, I’d need to have some idea that I could share with Washington about what their program would be, if they suddenly were in charge. A senior opposition leader said, “I’ll tell you what our program is. Our program is to get rid of Marcos. That’s what we want you to do,” which of course just turned my question on its head.

“I was in effect summoned into her presence…”

           
Ferdinand Marcos at the 1986 inauguration, accompanied by Imelda. He had won only through massive fraud, and would be deposed later that year. |  Ferdinand Marcos 1986 Inauguration (1986) | Armed Forces of the Philippines
Ferdinand Marcos at the 1986 inauguration, accompanied by Imelda. He had won only through massive fraud, and would be deposed later that year. | Ferdinand Marcos 1986 Inauguration (1986) | Armed Forces of the Philippines

An Encounter with Imelda:
I met Mrs. Marcos, Imelda Marcos, after about three weeks. There was something called the Philippine Cultural Center there. It was a huge white elephant that was built to foster her image as the cultural mother of the country. It was not very far from the embassy, right on Roxas Boulevard. During the intermission of this performance, I was in effect summoned into her presence and we talked a little bit, very friendly. The next time I met her she said to me—and there were quite a number of people around, this was in the ambassador’s residence. Steve [U.S. ambassador] and she didn’t like each other very well and I had encouraged him to hold a dinner in her honor. She was the First Lady of the country. If our purpose was to ease Marcos out, by no means clear given our president’s affinity with Marcos, we still needed to deal with him and Imelda until that moment came and to have some level of confidence and trust. I advised Steve to charm her. It was a pleasant if somewhat bizarre evening. Cecile Licad, the Philippine classical pianist, performed, key people from Marcos’ entourage were there. Then she came up to me apropos of nothing, there probably were a dozen people standing nearby. And she said to me, “I know you.” I said, “I know you too. You’re the First Lady. It’s my pleasure to meet you again.” She said, “Oh no, I know you.” I said, “Really?” She said, “I knew your father, Harold Kaplan.” He was apparently the post’s USIA director guy 20 years before and he was involved in creating NAMFRE, the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections. She was sure he was the station chief. She therefore had me pegged as his son who was brought back to finally get rid of them. She must have added up one and one and gotten nine! But she was absolutely convinced of it. I had some of her thugs on subsequent occasions tell me this. When she was taken out of the country with her husband at the very end, which we’ll come to in due course, General Allen accompanied them on the flight out and he later reported that she spent a fair amount of time on that plane cursing me out. She said, “I knew this guy from the time he got here was going to be here to get me out, get us out. And now it’s proof.” So this was an idée fixe.

“She liked to insinuate herself into as many things as possible.”

Corruption and Control:
And of course there was Imelda Marcos, who projected a kind of flamboyant Evita personality and who had a certain influence. She was obviously the wife of the president. She was not shy. She liked to insinuate herself into as many things as possible. Her brother Kokoy was the part-time ambassador to the United States. Then you had the opposition groups. There was Cory Aquino, who was the widow of the slain leader, a kind of diffident Joan of Arc in waiting. There were marches through the city where she might turn up wearing her yellow dress…one of the reasons is that it’s a weak state, or was a weak state, is because it was feudal. You have these families, and corruption and money were the lubricant that kept things going. It wasn’t only Marcos that was like that. He once warned me that when I’m gone the next president will have his own cronies. Cronies is just a nasty name that the opposition attributes to the people who are in power, but you need your support networks in order to make these things work. It’s like that in Washington, too…I once had this private dinner with Marcos. And I said to him, “Mr. President, you know, the thing that’s got you in so much trouble is all the corruption.” He says, “Yes, I know that.” We were able to speak quite frankly with one another, and I said, “Why do you put up with all these cronies?” I asked, half facetiously, “How many Cadillacs can you drive to work in one week? And he said, “Actually, I don’t need any because I live here in the palace.” But he added, “These guys you’re calling cronies, that’s my support network. If I get rid of them, I’m gone.”

“Imelda was dressed to the nines with five-inch stilettos.”

Imelda’s Party:
She [Imelda] invited my wife and I to this dinner to have a real shot at us, because they were getting increasingly concerned that we were trying to squeeze them out. That day, before the dinner, Foreign Minister Pax Castro had lunch with me. At the end of the lunch, it was very sociable, very—lot of fun. And at the end of the lunch Pax gave me a painful smile as if he knew that he had to carry out the instruction he had been given by the president. He said he was just with the president and then he gave me this cock and bull story that our CIA station was plotting to kill Marcos the next day in a particular province…I called in our station chief, then waited about an hour and I phoned President Marcos and assured him that our people were not involved in any way in the report he passed on…I…asked if he [Marcos] would be joining us for the family dinner that night which Imelda was hosting. He said he’d try. Of course he had no intention of doing that, because this was Imelda’s party. You can see how this—on the one hand it’s politics, and this guy’s fighting to stay in power; on the other hand, it’s part of Philippine culture—it’s a show, it’s like a circus almost. What a way to run a country.

So we go to this party at the Maharlika Hall, which I had never heard of. Maharlika was supposedly a battle that Marcos had fought in as a soldier and demonstrated his heroism. Many people disputed that it ever happened, or that he was there. In any case, it was a magnificent hall a mile or two from the palace; later, I was told that no American had been there before. Imelda was dressed to the nines with five-inch stilettos. She gave us the exclusive tour. At one point she said, “George Hamilton (the movie actor) slept here, but not with me.” And then she takes us from one room to another showing us rather extraordinary artworks. I was taking mental notes, because I figured this was going to be a most interesting cable. She takes us downstairs to a room where her treasures were, including a seventh century Cambodia princess in ivory. She says, “If we ever have to leave, the princess is coming with us.”

“Then she came back the next day with a full course meal and stays to eat it with me—pepper steak cooked in French sauces.”

           
Imelda Marcos shows off her much ballyhooed shoe collection | Imelda Marcos Shoes (2010) Vince Lamb | Creative Commons
Imelda Marcos shows off her much ballyhooed shoe collection | Imelda Marcos Shoes (2010) Vince Lamb | Creative Commons

Steak with Imelda:
So they put me in this room, it wasn’t lavish, but it was probably the best room in the hospital on the top floor. They put all kind of wires into me, to inject meds. I tend to get a little claustrophobic but you have to do what you have to do. Two days in I was still in bed with these medicines doing their work. Suddenly Imelda Marcos shows up with enough flowers to sink the whole hospital, put all around the room. “I’m so worried about you, and the president is so worried about you. It was heartrending, and perhaps there was a certain measure of sincerity on her part, because you know, Filipinos are still Filipinos, they’re warm and cordial. Then she came back the next day with a full course meal and stays to eat it with me—pepper steak cooked in French sauces. The doctors would have been horrified by this, but I really dug in

“Imelda had already made up her mind, however reluctantly, that the game was up.”

The Fall of the Regime:
Imelda had already made up her mind, however reluctantly, that the game was up. And our station chief and I were working her intensively. She was the best channel, with their family, to convince Marcos to leave. All right. Then came the historic day where he staggered out onto a helicopter, was taken up to the embassy, and from there was another helicopter that brought them out to Clark Air Force Base. That night, people were about to break through the gates at Clark threatening to break down the gates and tear them to pieces. Steve called Cory Aquino and for the first time called her Madam President. He told her that Marcos and Imelda were under our control and that Cory needed to tell him whether she wanted us to hold him there or to put them on a plane and take them out of the country.” She said, “What do you think?” Steve very wisely said, “Madame President, that’s your call now.” And she said, “Take him.” Something to that effect. And he was taken to Hawaii. On the fixed plane trip to Honolulu, we put Major General Teddy Allen, the head of our MAAG group on the plane to escort them. As soon as they got to Honolulu, Teddy told me, “She was ranting about you for a good part of the trip.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Remember how you told us how she and her guys thought that you were the son of Harold Kaplan and you were there to get rid of them from the start?…she said, ‘I knew it…he’s the guy that did this to us.’”

“…she’d go around in these, in these high heels that were, I don’t know, five inches or something.”

The Shoe Collection:
Q: Did—I hate to ask it, but it would come up. Did the shoes ever, you know, there was this—

KAPLAN: Well, she’d go around in these, in these high heels that were, I don’t know, five inches or something. I mean very dramatic. And in those days she was still quite a beautiful woman. That senator from Texas I mentioned earlier was just besotted by her.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in History, Economics, Philosophy, University of Connecticut 1955–1959
JD, University of California Berkeley 1959–1962
Joined the Foreign Service 1967
Brussels, Belgium—Junior Officer 1968–1970
Bonn, Germany—Economic Officer 1970–1974
Vienna, Austria—Political Counselor 1974–1975
Manila, Philippines—U.S. Minister and Chargé d’Affaires 1985–1987