(Last of two parts)
As the nation hung on a knife-edge on Feb. 22, 1986, President Ferdinand Marcos signed a deal with an emissary of US President Ronald Reagan to keep him in power that included removing his wife, Imelda, and loyal security chief Gen. Fabian Ver, former Trade Minister Roberto V. Ongpin said in an interview with the Inquirer last week.
Ongpin said he was with Reagan’s troubleshooter, Philip Habib, and US Ambassador Stephen Bosworth in the Palace on the day Ver aborted a coup attempt by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile that prompted Enrile to defect. He was later joined in the breakaway by Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos.
Bosworth and Habib outlined arrangements for Marcos to remain in power under five conditions, three of which were “nonnegotiable,” said Ongpin, who helped draw up a presidential decree to cover each of the conditions hammered out during weeklong negotiations with Habib and Bosworth. He said he reported every step of the way to Marcos, who approved all five conditions.
“No. 1, Fabian out. Out. No way. Out of any position in the military. And Eddie Ramos will take over. The Americans like Eddie Ramos,” Ongpin said.
“Secondly, Imelda, out. The Ministry of Human Settlements abolished. Her position as governor of Metro Manila abolished, she would have absolutely no position in the government. No. 3, a new Cabinet. They wanted a stronger Cabinet. And I had to talk to each one of them. It was tough. I cannot mention the names. You’ll be surprised at some of the names who agreed to become members of the new Cabinet. Maybe I can only mention one, because he has passed away, Enrique Zobel, as agriculture secretary,” Ongpin said.
Ongpin said Marcos vetted the candidates and approved the final list.
The other two conditions were for Marcos to have former Sen. Arturo Tolentino, his running mate in the snap election, to write a new Constitution to be submitted to a plebiscite; and the creation of a commission headed by former Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez that would investigate human rights abuses.
He said Marcos agreed to all five conditions but had a hard time dealing with the ouster of Ver, his “security blanket.”
“All Reagan wanted was to put the fires out, let everything settle down,” Ongpin said.
In the interview, Ongpin said he was so upset when he saw in a TV interview with a US network in November that Marcos was calling a snap election on Feb. 7, 1986, to show the world that the President had popular support.
Ongpin said he was then in the midst of putting down a runaway inflation and feared the country was heading down the way of Argentina, where the currency went into a free fall in the 1970s causing untold suffering. And so he went to Malacañang and confronted Marcos.
“I was so mad. You cannot have 50-percent interest rates and then expect a situation where people can think rationally,” he said. “All they feel is the pain.”
Ongpin was so upset he raised his voice and Marcos told him, “I’m the President. Don’t shout at me.” It was the only instance Marcos scolded him in the seven years he was trade minister.
“With the election, a lot of people felt that he lost. You know, he won. In my view, he really won,” Ongpin said.
Corazon Aquino, the opposition candidate who claimed Marcos stole the vote, mounted a civil disobedience campaign, and protests across the land widened, causing concern in Washington.
Reagan was a close personal friend of Marcos. When he was governor of California, he went on a two-week vacation in the Philippines and received royal treatment from the President and Imelda.
In the midst of the turmoil, Ambassador Bosworth went to see Ongpin and told him that Reagan wanted to send Habib to have a dialogue with Marcos.
“President Reagan loved Marcos. He wanted to save him. State wanted to bring him down. Defense. CIA. Everybody wanted to bring him down. But Reagan, they had a close personal relationship,” Ongpin said.
It showed, he said, that the US structure was not monolithic.
Marcos agreed to the Reagan proposal. “You’re in charge,” he told Ongpin.
Habib, who arrived in Manila in mid-February, had daily discussions with Ongpin and three meetings with Marcos, the final one on the day Enrile and Ramos, the vice chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and head of the Philippine Constabulary, broke away from the President, after a coup attempt to overthrow the dictator was foiled by Ver, the AFP chief of staff and Marcos’ loyal commander of the presidential guards.
‘We hated each other’
On the night before the breakaway, Ongpin attended his usual monetary board meeting and was taken home by his security detail to one of four safe houses he had been maintaining because Ver was after him and wanted to kill him.
“We didn’t like each other. We hated each other, with a vengeance,” Ongpin said.
“He was very shortsighted. For example, the Binondo central bank,” he said, referring to a measure to stop black market trading of dollars in the midst of the foreign currency problem following the Benigno Aquino assassination in 1983. Short-term dollar placements were pulled out. The black market rate was much more than the official rate. Importers could not buy goods overseas. Worried exporters kept their money abroad.
“The country was headed for a runaway inflation, like Argentina. We were right there on the brink. I told Marcos the only way if you want me to do it is to get these guys and put the fear of God in them and tell them you’d better do it. And they did. It was horrible,” Ongpin said.
“The whole concept was discipline. We had no money to defend the peso. The only thing we had was moral suasion, or immoral suasion,” he said. The traders were using their money. The treasury was bankrupt.
“I had the President sign arrest and seizure orders for each of the black marketers,” he said. He had to meet them every night to set the rate and this went on for two and a half years. The traders were given a 20-centavo margin per US dollar between buying and selling. Ongpin had a network of spies. Traders caught cheating were imprisoned.
Ver attended the first meeting and had his men attend the nightly ritual. One night, Marcos berated Ongpin for the reported death of one trader who had been arrested and was being led to the stockade. Ongpin said he put three traders in jail. He said one of them could not stand the pressure of incarceration and died of heart attack.
“Ver did not understand anything. He thought of making money for himself. I said, this is what’s happening. You want us to look like Argentina. In two months, we will be P50 to a dollar. In another five months, P100 to one,” he said. And the peso would continue going down the drain, just like the German currency during the Weimar Republic after World War I. He threatened to resign if Ver did not shape up.
Life was so tough that he sent his family abroad, Ongpin said. (He corrected the Inquirer report on Sunday that he has a Filipino wife. He said he is married to an Italian-Chilean woman.)
Ongpin said that after the Edsa People Power Revolution, he told his brother, the late Jaime Ongpin, who became Cory’s finance secretary, that he should not forget that he was inheriting an economy that the trade minister had put back in shape, bringing down the inflation rate from
50 percent to 4 percent.
On that fateful Saturday morning, Feb. 22, 1986, Ongpin woke up to find his security men all gone. He had 29 working for him in shifts round the clock because he knew Ver was out to kill him, but that he had so far been able to outsmart the general.
He said he started calling Enrile, and got him at 365 Club in Makati at around 7:30 a.m. All of his security people were provided by Enrile’s Reform the Armed Forces Movement. He told Enrile that Ver had all his security detail arrested.
Ongpin said Enrile feigned ignorance of the arrests. He said he would check around. Half an hour later, Enrile called again and told him that the country was in serious crisis.
“All I can tell you is please take care of yourself,” Enrile said. “But what about my security? How can I take care of myself?” Ongpin asked. Enrile told him to call Ramos, which he did. But Ramos said he had been stripped of his power over the Philippine Constabulary.
During the week, he said Marcos promoted Ramos to AFP chief of staff, but Ver rebelled, and so Marcos reinstated Ver.
“It was chaos,” Ongpin said.
Finally, he found a spare key to a car and drove himself to the Palace, where he had an appointment for a final meeting at noon with Bosworth, Habib and Marcos. It was the first time he drove a car in seven years, having had a driver all the seven years he was in government.
Marcos signed the five presidential decrees as did Bosworth and Habib, as witnesses. When the Americans were about to leave, the President said, “You know, gentlemen, it has come to my attention that there’s a coup plot being hatched.” The two were stunned.
“Mr. President, we know nothing about this,” Habib said. “Why would we go through with this charade?”
Ongpin said he likewise knew nothing about what the President was talking about at that point. He said Enrile never told him anything, although he had expressed to him disenchantment with Marcos in the past several years.
As soon as Bosworth and Habib left, Ver came to Marcos with affidavits purportedly from Ongpin’s security men who he had ordered arrested the night before. Marcos read the papers, then told Ongpin, “These are affidavits from your security saying you were involved in the plot to overthrow me.”
“I was surprised,” Ongpin said. He exploded, “This stupid Fabian, do you believe him?” (He said it was normal for him and Ver to exchange cuss words in front of Marcos.)
“For the first time, I was disappointed,” Ongpin said. He told Marcos, “Do you believe that I, who sacrificed everything, didn’t make a goddamn cent working for you, will be involved in a plot to overthrow you? You know what he did? He looked at me, appearing sad. ‘You know, there’s these affidavits,’” he quoted Marcos telling him.
Ongpin thought that Marcos was being legalistic and that the President at that point had begun to entertain doubts about him.
But Imelda, who was there listening, spoke at last. “Fabian, you did this. Bobby would never do anything against the President.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ver meekly said.
By then, Ongpin was so hungry. Thankfully, Greggy Araneta, the President’s son-in-law, had a hamburger bought for him. He finally left the Palace at 4:30 p.m. after his security men were released and fetched him.
At 6 p.m. his secretary called him to listen to the radio. Enrile was on the air, announcing his defection, saying there was cheating during the election and that the ambush on the night Marcos declared martial law in 1972 was staged.
Looking back to those seven years with Marcos, Ongpin told me:
“Those were the most difficult times of my life. But I do not regret it. I feel I was able to contribute something to the country, particularly through the prevention of hyperinflation through the Binondo central bank. And also, preventing bloodshed.”
Marcos obviously was convinced of the power of the Americans to shape the destiny of the country and was banking on the arrangement he hammered out with Habib, that he would remain in power, even as forces were building up against him.
Not a party to bloodbath
In a televised meeting with Ver and his loyal generals in the course of the revolt, the President rejected Ver’s demand that he go against the mutineers, declaring he would not be a party to a bloodbath.
And as hundreds of thousands of Filipinos massed on Edsa to support the breakaway group and the nation teetered on the brink of civil war, Marcos called US Sen. Paul Laxalt to find out if Reagan wanted him to remain. Laxalt famously said, “You should cut and cut cleanly. The time has come.”
US helicopters airlifted Marcos and his family to exile in Hawaii as mobs stormed Malacañang, ending his 20-year rule.