We’ve seen how some dictators were able to successfully navigate the often-precarious world of the Cold War era and use it to their advantage. Some of these smaller nations in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America would cozy up to the USA or USSR to get favors, while outwardly professing a Marxist or capitalist world view.

Most of these dictators were more interested in power than anything, but they always tried to maintain some type of ideological pretense.

This wasn’t necessarily the case with Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda. True, Ferdinand was a capitalist and was very anti-communist, but that was mainly because he was afraid the communists would take the billions he milked from the Filipino people. He didn’t really care about raising his people out of poverty; it was all about him and making sure his wife had enough shoes.

Ferdinand Marcos may not have been the most repressive dictator and he was actually popularly elected, but he was probably the greediest of all our dictators in this book.

It was Ferdinand and Imelda’s Marcos’ crazy desire to pursue wealth and hedonism that nearly led to civil war in the Philippines and sent the couple into exile. When the veil was finally lifted on the Marcos’ corruption, it was truly staggering.

They had plundered the Philippines of between five and ten billion dollars’ worth of money and property, which they used in a variety of investments around the world.

Then there were those shoes.

Imelda used her share of the plundering to go on lavish shopping trips around the world, buying expensive jewelry and designer shoes. By the time her husband was driven from power, Imelda had amassed a collection of more than 3,000 shoes, costing the Filipino people millions of dollars.

We all know some women love shoes, but that was crazy. So crazy that it played a major role in her husband’s removal from power.

A Conjugal Dictatorship

It’s impossible to discuss the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos without also discussing his wife, Imelda. The two were inseparable after they married in 1954 and throughout Ferdinand’s rule of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. They no doubt loved each other, and they also no doubt shared a love of material possessions.

Ferdinand was born into a politically connected family in the American ruled Philippines in 1917 and from a young age, he learned the tactics to be a successful politician in the Philippines: bribery, graft, corruption and violence, to name a few.

Marcos claimed that, when the Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II, he fought against them, first as a regular soldier and then as a guerilla. But not everyone is so sure about his service, with some believing that he even collaborated with the Japanese.

The possible collaboration didn’t hurt Ferdinand’s political career, as he rose quickly in the government, winning election after election until he was elected President of the Philippines in 1965. And he couldn’t have done it without Imelda.

Imelda Romuáldez came from a wealthy and influential family, so when she and the upwardly mobile Marcos met, it was a match made in heaven or at a bank. They married in 1954 and began their ascent to the Philippines’ highest office together.

Avaricious Despots

Ferdinand Marcos didn’t officially become a dictator until he declared martial law in 1972 and after that point; he made a lot of truly crazy decisions. He severely curtailed the press and rounded up his political enemies whenever he could. At the top of the list of his enemies were Muslims and communists.

Since he was going after communists and kept a lid on anti-American sentiments, American President Ronald Reagan winked and looked the other way when Marcos committed not only repressive acts but also plundered the country’s treasury.

The longer Marcos’ dictatorship continued, the more power Imelda seemed to gain. She would often join her husband in public events wearing expensive designer dresses and shoes from New York, Paris, and London.

People in the Philippines began wondering how the first lady of their country could live so well when so many Filipinos were going without.

Still, Imelda’s ostentatiousness continued and she apparently had no problem throwing it in the faces of the Filipino people.

By the early 1980s, it was becoming clear that the Marcos family was losing control of the country, so Ferdinand responded by having many of his opponents assassinated. He had some dropped out of helicopters Pinochet-style and others, such as opposition leader Benigno Aquino Junior, were shot in broad daylight in front of plenty of witnesses.

The open violence was bad enough, but it was the crazy spending habits of Imelda and the couple’s combined greed that brought them down.

Their looting of the Philippines treasury was so complete by the mid-1980s that it led to an economic collapse at a time when the world economy was doing quite well. In fact, since the Philippines’ economy is often so heavily connected to the American economy due to the American military bases in the country and the large number of Americans and Filipinos who travel between both countries, economists were at first perplexed that the Filipino economy was performing so poorly.

But then they looked at Imelda’s shoe collection and opened the books. People were amazed to find that the Marcos family owned luxury homes and apartments in the United States and that the first lady had jewelry and art collections that would put the Louvre to shame.

It was all too much for most Filipinos. A movement known as the People Power Revolution formed in 1986 to drive the couple from power, and once it became obvious how corrupt they really were, even President Reagan told them to take a hike.

The Marcos family fled to Hawaii where they were allowed to live in exile, sans most of their billions.

Did You Know?

  • Ferdinand died in 1989 in Hawaii but was interred in the Philippines. Perhaps time does heal all wounds because Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos are remembered fondly by many Filipinos. Imelda is still alive and was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991.
  • Imelda and Marcos had three children and adopted one child. Two of their three biological children went into the family business of politics.
  • The term to describe the joint rule of Ferdinand and Imelda, “conjugal dictatorship,” was first coined by Primitivo Mijares in his book The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos. Primitivo later disappeared and his son, Boyet, was assassinated via a fatal helicopter ride.
  • In a show of her popularity, Imelda held elected office in the Philippines after her return from exile.
  • Ferdinand Marcos put the Philippines under martial law after a series of bombings in Manila. The bombings were blamed on Chinese sponsored terrorists, giving Marcos the justification to enact martial law, but some believe they were false flags he ordered so he could have the cover to go after his enemies.