The U.S. card
“A sovereign act.”
That is what posting on his Facebook (FB) page is — for Victor Rodriguez, chief of staff and spokesperson of presidential aspirant Bongbong Marcos. In an April 26 press statement, he bemoaned the decision of the social media app to suspend his account the day before for failure to follow its Community Standards.
Rodriguez, who previously claimed that he had no social media presence, created an FB page last February 25. Believing he has “not violated anything,” he refused to appeal the suspension. If he maintains this stance, FB can permanently disable the account after 30 days, based on its rules.
In his statement, Rodriguez accused the popular app of “censorship of the highest degree” and “digital terrorism” by a “foreign platform provider.” The only reason this was done to him, he insisted, is because he is for Bongbong Marcos.
On the same day that Rodriguez, a lawyer, excoriated FB, he regained access to the account as the app had mistakenly assessed his posts as those of an imposter.
Rodriguez issued a “Statement of Gratitude.” Not to thank FB, which he labeled as a “usurper,” but “the media, lawmakers, social media influencers and other personalities for making a firm stand on, and fighting for, the Filipinos’ freedom of expression, a basic freedom enshrined in the Philippine Constitution.”
The 1987 Philippine Constitution was drafted after the family of Bongbong Marcos was forced into exile by the EDSA people power revolt.
In depicting social media presence as a foreign, malevolent force out to stifle Filipinos’ constitutional rights, Rodriguez has, in effect, concealed the fact that FB is one of the social media platforms that the Marcoses have long exploited to their advantage.
Rodriguez’s pretend distaste for foreign meddling simply does not align with the Marcoses’ history of relying on influence and operatives abroad to improve their political stock, especially during elections.
When Ferdinand Marcos called for a snap presidential election on November 3, 1985, he knew fully well the power and resources that he could deploy to ensure his victory. But just as important as an overwhelming victory was the perception that the election was a legitimate democratic exercise. He needed to show the world that the Filipino electorate wanted to keep him in office for another six years, or until 1992.
This posed a dilemma to Marcos, who died in exile in 1989. Given the depth of the crisis he had plunged the country into with his misrule and with the widow of the martyred opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., Corazon (Cory), running against him, the dictator could lose in a free and fair election.
Marcos staged a free and fair election in part with the help of American lobbyists and propaganda experts for the benefit of the Reagan administration. To keep the trust and support of the United States, Marcos needed to demonstrate that his victory in the polls would be free of fraud and violence, that his vaunted constitutional authoritarianism worked.
Then as now, these allies would like to keep up the pretense of being democratic states that draw their government’s legitimacy from the ballot.
In the raging Cold War with the USSR then, and after having just lost a war with Vietnam, Washington supported the Marcos dictatorship with military and economic aid thinking that these safeguarded the bulwark of American influence in the region, best represented by U.S. military bases in the country. Appeasing Marcos meant keeping these bases in the country — and U.S. military presence in the region.
Marcos plundered the American largesse.
Washington was well aware of Marcos’s capability to rig the election and as before, was willing to look the other way. In 1969, when he ran again for president, Marcos — his own campaign funds notwithstanding — raided the nation’s treasury to the point of near bankruptcy.
A year after declaring martial law in the country, Marcos asked the Filipino people in a referendum if they wanted him “to continue beyond 1973 and finish the reforms he has initiated under the martial law.” Of the 19 million votes cast, he got 17 million in his favor.
In a1977 referendum, Marcos again asked the people if he should “continue in office as incumbent president and be prime minister after the organization of the Interim Batasang Pambansa in 1978.” Of the more than 24 million who voted, he received the affirmation of around 20 million.
In 1981, as he lifted martial law on paper, Marcos also ordered a presidential election to claim a new mandate. Opposition parties boycotted the election, arguing that it would be a sham. He won 80 percent of the votes or 18 million of the 20 million votes cast and was to serve as president until 1987.
But with Ninoy Aquino’’s assassination in 1983 — largely perceived as his doing — the economy in tailspin, and his grip on power literally loosening as he became ridden with fatal diseases, Marcos had to once again coerce and cajole Filipinos into giving his one-man rule a new lease on life. The fraud and violence during the 1986 snap election, however, proved so staggering that the dictator’s American patrons were unable to simply dismiss it.
Marcos’s American PR Men: Black, Manafort, and Stone
“Well I understand the opposition has been asking for an election. In answer to their request, I announce that I am ready to call a snap election perhaps earlier than eight months, perhaps three months or less.”
With this statement, on November 3, 1985, Marcos told the world, through the American public affairs TV program This Week with David Brinkley, that he was calling for a referendum on his administration, which was approaching its twentieth year.
A month later, the national assembly enacted Batas Pambansa Blg. 881, or the Omnibus Election Code and what became known as the 1986 Philippine snap election. The Batasang Pambansa was drafting this law even before Marcos’ announcement in preparation for what would have been the presidential election of 1987.
At stake were the presidency and the vice presidency, a position previously abolished but restored via amendments to the constitution in 1984. In December 1985, the largest opposition groups came together as UNIDO-PDP-LABAN and fielded Cory Aquino as standard bearer. Salvador Laurel, who wanted to gun for the presidency himself, yielded to Cory and became her running mate.
Ferdinand Marcos, on the other side, ran in tandem with Arturo Tolentino, his minister of foreign affairs. Despite all the political and military implements of an incumbent, the Marcos-Tolentino tandem was far from being a sure bet. Denunciations of the Marcos regime’s abuses were heard on the streets across the country. Unrest was growing among the hungry and the downtrodden, some of whom thought that joining the underground movement and engaging in the “protracted people’s war,” was a viable alternative to their suffering. Abroad, many were questioning Marcos’s credibility and that of the upcoming polls.
To counter this, Marcos relied on the advice of the American public relations and lobbying firm of Black, Manafort, and Stone. Some of what the firm did for Marcos in 1985 and 1986 have been described in books and articles, often alongside the foreign PR professionals on Cory’s corner, principally the American firm Sawyer Miller and their British representative, Mark Malloch Brown, who became a life peer of the British House of Lords in 2007.
Cory’s campaign strategists, both foreign and local, have been eager to share precisely how they helped their candidate win hearts and minds. These can be read in books such those written by Raymond Bonner and James Harding, as well as numerous interviews with Lord Malloch Brown and Teddy Boy Locsin, Foreign Affairs Secretary of the Duterte administration.
In contrast, details of what Paul Manafort and his firm specifically suggested to Marcos—advice apparently worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, based on U.S. records—remain sparse. Until one looks at records of the actual communications between Manafort’s firm and the Marcos administration, some of which can be found among the documents in the custody of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).
It must be noted that the Marcos administration, and Marcos himself, was no stranger to hiring American public relations and lobbying firms.
Leading up to the 1965 presidential election, American PR practitioner Leonard Saffir connected Marcos with Hartzell Spence and McGraw-Hill, author and publisher, respectively, of his biography For Every Tear a Victory. This book, which propagated numerous lies about Marcos such as his false bar exam results and his fictitious war exploits, would be published with updates as Marcos of the Philippines in time for the 1969 elections.
Marcos continued to rely on American PR while he was president, especially during the martial law years in light of mounting criticism of his administration. Between 1978 and 1979, the Marcos government hired 10 U.S.-based public relations and lobbying firms for various purposes. Of these, Doremus & Company, Inc. and the firm that bagged the Philippines account after it, International Counselors, Inc. were charged with cleaning up the country’s reputation in the U.S. Yet another firm, Rogers and Cowan, Inc., was hired to handle the PR program of the Manila International Film Festival in 1982.
Manafort came in around 1984, a time when Marcos was being pressed locally and internationally to undertake genuine political and economic reforms — and U.S. pressure to bring to justice those responsible for the Aquino murder. A highly-paid consultant associated with right-wing Republicans, Manafort crafted a program that emphasized the need to retain Marcos to keep communists at bay. This was a decidedly Cold War-era justification appealing to U.S. conservatives.
To the tune of $750,000, Black, Manafort, and Stone proposed to provide the Marcos regime “with expanded senior level government affairs expertise in the most cost effective manner.”
In its proposal, the Manafort group warned Marcos that the platform being advanced in the Democratic National Convention was “especially harsh in its treatment of the administration.” The platform was seeking to “tie all future United States assistance to a ‘return to Democracy, free speech, free press and a subordination of the armed forces to civil government’” which, the firm believed, were inimical to the interests of the Marcos administration.
The Manafort group expressed the urgency of implementing a PR strategy for Marcos in the US, given that “legislative initiatives” were being presented to “re-allocate the percentages of United States assistance called for by the various agreements relating to Clark Air Base and Subic Air Base.”
In light of the growing domestic unrest, more visible rifts in the ranks of the military, and the rising communist insurgency, Senator Richard G. Lugar, chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent Frederick Z. Brown on a study mission on August 2-15,1985 to observe the deteriorating political situation in the Philippines.
In his report to the committee, Brown said that Marcos and First Lady Imelda were “worried about their image in Congress and about hostile reporting in the U.S. media.” The Marcos couple, in granting Brown a private meeting, intended to send a message to the U.S. Congress that the government was “in control of the present difficult situation in the Philippines,” that the dictator was “the only individual with power to guide the country through its troubles,” and that American interests could “best be protected by full and open support for the Marcos regime.”
Following the study mission, U.S. President Ronald Reagan deputized Sen. Paul Laxalt in October 1985 to “express his concern” about the worsening military, political, and economic situation in the Philippines. Reagan, although a vocal Marcos supporter, expressed through Laxalt Washington’s dissatisfaction with the pace of military reforms and his concern over the growing communist insurgency, heightened further by the deepening economic woes and corruption in the Marcos government.
In the meeting with Laxalt, “Marcos defended himself in a windy monologue, digressing into complaints about his unfavorable image in the American press,” author Stanley Karnow wrote in his book, “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,
Marcos showed irritation with the strong urge for reforms by the Reagan administration conveyed through Laxalt. He was quoted in a palace press release saying that the U.S. should not “intervene in the internal affairs of the Philippine government.”
While Marcos was publicly pushing for an independent foreign policy, he was contracting Black, Manafort, and Stone to protect his interests behind the scene. Marcos was, at least in part, urged by Laxalt to hire the firm.
In November 1985, Manafort’s firm registered with the Department of Justice as an agent for the Chamber of Philippine Manufacturers, Exporters and Tourism under a $950,000 contract. A January 23, 1986 article in the Washington Post reported that the PR firm was hired to counter the rising criticisms against the Marcos government in the U.S., which Philippine officials claimed was a result of a “disinformation” campaign.
During the November 1985 interview in This Week with David Brinkley, Marcos was asked by commentator George Will about his willingness to renew his mandate by holding an election. Marcos replied, “These claims to popularity on both sides should be settled. I think we’d better settle it by calling an election right now, or say, give everybody 60 days to campaign and to bring the issues to the people.”
Pandering to the skeptical American audience, Marcos added, “You’re all invited to come. And we will invite members of the American Congress to please come and see what is happening here.”
Manafort’s firm, therefore, advised Marcos on how to deal with crucial American visitors who would either vouch for the integrity of the election before the U.S. Congress or declare the whole process questionable.
One of the Manafort group’s tasks was to brief Marcos for his meeting with Allen Weinstein, president of Center for Democracy and head of the congressional bipartisan group evaluating if the U.S. should send a formal congressional observer delegation on election day. Weinstein’s group was also tasked to assess if the elections would be “free, fair, and an accurate reflection of the wishes of the Philippine electorate.”
The Manafort group advised Marcos about the objectives of Weinstein’s visit, his commitment towards democratic stability in the Philippines, and that by the end of his trip, Weinstein should be “convinced about your [Marcos’s] seriousness toward the democratic process.”
The Manafort memorandum further stated that Weinstein wanted to “depersonalize the election process in order to secure a non-communist dominated future.” To this end, the Manafort group had “sensitized him to opposition-candidate statements that are anti-American and that promote discord in U.S. Philippine relations.”
What was left for Marcos to do in his meeting with Weinstein was to “reinforce this perception of the opposition candidates by quoting their own statements regarding the U.S. bases, their position on the role of the Philippines in regional Asian stability, and statements made by the Communist insurgency leaders who will use the opposition for their own political advantage.”
Despite Manafort’s efforts to manage perceptions about Marcos’s ability and willingness to undertake reforms, elements in the U.S. Congress were not convinced. In a committee hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 18, 1985, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said, “Is it not a fact that really, no matter what we do here, President Marcos is going to do exactly what he wants to do. He will try to appease us, make us feel better, and at the same time hold all power he can, retain his position as President of the country and allow his cronies to continue doing what they are doing.”
In the same hearing, Richard Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, noted Marcos’s “continued lip service” in remodeling the notorious paramilitary group Civil Home Defense Force, and that his verbal commitment towards reorganizing and revamping the Armed Forces had been “much more form than substance.”
Leading up to February 7, Manafort’s firm helped Marcos spread the view that the upcoming election was good for democracy and that there had been “fraud on both sides.” Even Marcos’s daughter Imee, then a member of parliament, stated this in at least one interview to foreign media.
This was the same view espoused by Reagan (who was re-elected to the presidency with Manafort’s help) after the election. In a February 11, 1986 news conference, the U.S. president said, “I think that we’re concerned about the violence that was evident there and the possibility of fraud, although it could have been that all of that was occurring on both sides.”
The New York Times reported that “President Marcos made no public comment on Mr. Reagan’s remarks, but the Government television station played and replayed a videotape of the Reagan news conference.” A Marcos aide was quoted as saying, “’The President is pleased . . . I don’t think he feels he needs to add anything at this time.”
Reagan’s statement was much criticized, in particular by members of the U.S. Congress who would like him to stop giving aid to Marcos and propping his regime. “Officials said a communications failure beginning with the president caused the confusion, rather than the kind of deep-seated divisions that exist among Reagan’s top advisers on many other issues” the Washington Post reported on February 15, 1986.
The following day, Reagan tried walking back his statement. He was quoted in a Los Angeles Times report as saying that the fraud and violence in the snap election was “perpetrated largely by the ruling party.”
Raymond Bonner, in Waltzing with a Dictator, argued that Reagan did not misspeak in his initial remark. “The statement reflected the policy, at least as it existed in the White House . . . The White House intended to stay with Marcos, fraud or not,” he wrote.
Bonner further said that this position was advanced “within Reagan’s conservative inner circle” by Marcos’s lobbyists from Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly.
On February 15, 1986 the Batasang Pambansa formally proclaimed Marcos as the victor of the snap election. However, the official U.S. bipartisan observer delegation concluded that the “ticket of Aquino-Laurel won a majority of votes honestly cast” and that there was clear evidence that the “electoral process was marred by government sponsored or supported fraud.”
Not even the PR firm with some of the best access to the gates of power in Washington could save Marcos after his own military and the U.S. turned against him in the final days of his dictatorship.
Shortly after Reagan’s call urging Marcos to step down, a spokesman, Alvin Drischler, announced that the firm was terminating its contract with the Philippine government. Although its strategy was unable to keep Marcos in power, a Wall Street Journal report claimed that the firm collected $237,000 of the $950,000 contract.
That the 1986 snap election was used by Marcos in the perception game he played with Washington is not new. That he spent millions of dollars to remedy his reputational issues abroad and keep himself in power, is another issue.
A postscript: Manafort’s firm reemerged in Philippine politics not long after the fall of Marcos. As reported by Keith Richburg of the Washington Post on March 10, 1989, “the then coalescing opposition [called the Union for National Action or UNA, featuring former Cory allies Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel and Senator Juan Ponce Enrile] hired the Washington-area public relations firm of Black Manafort Stone and Kelly” in 1988.
The firm was retained because it was “vital to present accurate information concerning events in the Philippines” to counter the “fiction perpetrated by the Aquino administration,” according to a spokesman of the opposition group.“
Washington Post reported on August 12, 1989 that Manafort’s firm was paid $950,000 for its services to Laurel’s group.
A description of selected records on Paul Manafort from the George Bush Presidential Library mentions “a request from Mr. Manafort to Mrs. Bush for a letter of congratulations to Mrs. Celia Diaz-Laurel, wife of Vice President Salvador Laurel of the Philippines, for a 1990 peace award.”
Manafort went on to chair the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016 and was the former president’s trusted adviser. In 2018, Manafort was sentenced to 90 months in prison for tax and bank fraud. Four years later, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee considered Manafort “a grave counterintelligence threat” given his ties to Russian intelligence services and for allowing “Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump campaign.”
As Trump ended his term in 2020, he pardoned Manafort who still faces a P3 million civil suit from the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to disclose his interests in foreign bank accounts.
(In part 2 of this article, the authors discuss how the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., used his vast political machinery to maintain his tight grip on power for over two decades – and how, in the end, the strategy failed to defeat the people’s demand for responsibility for the regime’s abuses.)
(Miguel Paolo P. Reyes, Larah Vinda Del Mundo, and Joel F. Ariate Jr., are researchers at the Third World Studies Center, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman. This piece is part of their Center’s on-going research program, the Marcos Regime Research.)