Madame Imelda Romualdez Marcos made news again, in the midst of the public’s preoccupation with the eruption of Taal Volcano, because the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) decided to throw a formal dinner in her honor and it offended a lot of people (and rightly so).
At first blush, the reason for this extravagance in the midst of a nation’s outpouring of anxiety and concern over the fate of Tagaytay and the residents of ash- and quake-affected areas, was simple. The head of the CCP, Nick Lizaso (who was appointed chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts last December, though only formalized last Thursday, is claimed to be close to Madame; then again, admirers of the former First Lady being in positions of authority at present, should come as no surprise in these unabashedly officially pro-Marcos times.
But the CCP has come in for criticism for laying out the red carpet for its founder-patron in the past, and for precisely that reason: it’s very institutional existence, it’s very location, it’s entire architectural identity, is owed to Madame, and so long as there are people who feel grateful for that, the very DNA of the CCP will be Imeldific.
In the Official Gazette online, you will find a feature on the Centenary of the Rizal Monument that is relevant to our story because of one thing: the discarded plan to turn Rizal Park into a national cultural complex. This plan was unveiled during the administration of President Magsaysay to replace the discarded Burnham Plan which envisioned the area around the Rizal Monument as the location of the National Capitol and major administrative buildings. The Magsaysay-era plan included a National Library, a National Cultural Center, and so on; in the end, only the National Library was built before Ferdinand Marcos assumed office.
At this point, another story enters the picture, that of Harry Stonehill, a former American G.I. who became a tobacco tycoon and one of the biggest, brashest, businessmen in the Philippine commercial scene from the 50s to the 60s. In 1963, Stonehill was deported by President Macapagal in the wake of a scandal that threatened to drag down with it a veritable who’s who of Philippine political kingpins, including Ferdinand Marcos, who was angling to succeed Macapagal as president. Now the Stonehill story is a fascinating one, involving everyone from Macapagal to Marcos to Stan Lee (!), and which even continued chugging along in the courts long after his death.
For our purposes, what’s relevant to our tale is one of the last schemes Stonehill embarked upon: to create money, literally, out of nothing, by engaging in an ambitious reclamation project along Manila Bay, which was then still the most desirable address in town. If property along Roxas Boulevard was swanky (or at least commercially-desirable — everything from mansions of the old and new rich to hotels and nightclubs dotted its stretch), why not create new bayside vistas and make a killing? But then Stonehill, as we earlier saw, ended up deported, and while he would continue to contest his deportation and try to reclaim his corporations for decades, that was the end of his being the moving force for reclamation schemes in Manila Bay.
Madame Marcos enters the picture at this point, her husband’s political career only momentarily having been inconvenienced by Stonehill-related publicity. Macapagal’s other Stonehill-related act (aside from ordering Stonehill’s deportation) had been to fire the Secretary of Justice bold enough to go after Stonehill in the first place: by this I refer to Jose W. Diokno, who lost his job but not his reputation for rectitude, while Macapagal ended up taking the heat. With, of course, the convenient outcome (for Marcos) of Marcos beating Macapagal in the 1965 presidential elections.
And because Marcos won, Madame became First Lady, and seized upon turning the glitter of culture into a suitable adornment for their emerging New Society. But location, location, location is everything; and if old plans were pursued, the Marcos name would remain a mere bookend to Magsaysay, because all completing the Rizal Park projects would do would be to conclude what somebody else had approved.
Yet here was a juicy piece of real estate that literally emerged from the sea: the reclaimed area. How to maximize the many possibilities this new scheme could make possible? Stamp it with something big, bold, exciting –and strictly Marcosian. A Cultural Center! Not nestled in past history, but, like Venus, emerging from the sea. The story of what happened next is well known, and Marcosian in its mix of damn-the-torpedoes, full speed ahead go go go and rush rush rush, and the manner in which the statutory powers of the presidency, its administrative clout, political irresistibility, and social cachet, were mobilized by the Conjugal Dictatorship-to-be. Land was identified, funding found, heedless of its source, whether the state’s borrowings or shaken-down big businessmen. The CCP emerged, was staffed, bailed out after Martial Law, and became center stage for the true, the good, and the beautiful pancake makeup that hid the blemishes of the Marcosian political edifice.
Our present constitution decrees that the state will serve as patron of the arts; we have tried to create institutions that will exercise this patronage with more of the public good and less of partisan political interest in mind, but as the decades have shown, the result is, at best, mixed. In the time of the Marcoses, patronage was exercised according to the whims of Madame and her husband, with all the wild abandon and disregard for expense of renaissance tyrants. What this meant, though, was that a legion of cultural workers found the CCP, made possible by the Marcoses, a haven for their work; and they have remained grateful ever since. If there is one national characteristic that is immune to law or ideology, it’s utang na loob.
So we have what we have: an institution that may, most of the time, operate with the Marcoses far from being top of mind, but which, during anniversaries that provide excuses for New Society nostalgia, ends up heeding the siren call of Madame: for we should remember, in ancient myth, the sirens lured sailors to their deaths through their irresistible singing. Madame’s unsinkable crooning excites longing for her, and the CCP dusts off its ageing red carpets, and every so often, takes to throwing rose petals at its ancient former benefactress.
The only time this will stop is when time stops for Madame.