THE CCP@50: Imelda R. Marcos is still in the building

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If the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) had a middle name, it would be controversy. First, it took three years and more than thrice its original P15 million budget to build. Its long messy gestation was the occasion for what former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, who was there, politely called the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino’s most “polemical” senate privilege speech: “A Pantheon for Imelda” (Feb. 10, 1969). Senator Aquino excoriated the First Lady Imelda Marcos’ pet project as “a monument to shame… a gross misuse of scarce resources… the height of callousness (which) bordered on the criminal, when the needs of the country’s poor could not even be met.” He denounced Imelda as “a megalomaniac, with a penchant to captivate.” However, Mr. Ponce Enrile believed that it was when Ninoy had compared the Philippine First Lady to Evita Peron, the notorious Argentinian First Lady, that he had crossed the line during his incendiary speech and made the Marcoses his mortal enemies.

Senator Aquino’s shocking comparison implied that apart from their common extravagance, garish and decadent ostentation, the two famed beauties shared similar backgrounds: squalid, impoverished childhoods, and discreetly shrouded yet colorful nubile pasts. President Ferdinand Marcos gallantly bridled in defense of his mate, and called out Ninoy Aquino for being “a congenital liar.” The CCP had its grand opening on Sept. 8, 1969, three days before Marcos’ 52nd birthday, with no less than California governor Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy there, to represent US President Richard Nixon.

As the CCP marks its half-century milestone, it continues to be enmeshed in Imeldific controversy. The eruption of public outrage at the Jan. 15 dinner honoring Imelda R. Marcos as the CCP’s founder, coincided with nature’s own fury. The earth moved, as Taal spewed steam, ash, and pyroclastic crud. A more measured response came two weeks later during the soberly impassioned symposium titled The CCP@50 — Upholding Freedom of Expression in the Arts which was timely held between the matinee and evening gala screenings of The Kingmaker, the 2019 documentary about Imelda herself, by Laura Greenfield whose preferred subjects are the members of the plutocracy and their excesses.

CCP vice-president and artistic director Chris Millado pointed out that this February, we commemorate the 34th anniversary of the First People Power. Whereas the CCP was an elite enclave for its first 17 years, in the aftermath of EDSA Uno, it became a true people’s cultural center within a newly freed-up democratic space, with a wider, multi-sectoral audience of madlang pipol (the masses), if you will. Under these circumstances, reflecting on the CCP’s legacy as well as its past was both timely and fitting, but even when she wasn’t on-screen, the iconoclastic Imelda Marcos’ presence remained pervasive.

The visual arts curator Marian Pastor-Roces who had worked in the CCP during both the Marcos Martial Law Regime and the Corazon C. Aquino administration, had the horrible feeling that history was repeating itself, even as Filipinos have still not had the comfort of closure. She found the notion of Mrs. Marcos as the patroness of Philippine art and culture as plain distasteful, or at the very least passe. Many of the highlights of the CCP during Imelda’s reign, had been inspired or influenced by other authoritarian regimes. For example, the Kasaysayan ng Lahi spectacle was copied from the Shah of Iran’s celebration of the Peacock Throne. Ms. Pastor-Roces explained: “Imelda cannot take sole credit for the CCP. Do we owe her for edifices — and at what price? The cost is too high. Instrumentalizing art just turns it into bad art. Our historical context has differed from what it was 50 years ago. CCP is an artifact of that period in global politics. We need to put Imelda in her place.”

May Verzola-Rodriguez, the Executive Director of the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation, was surprised at how The Kingmaker which they had all just watched, showed how Bong Bong Marcos was being groomed as the Marcos’ heir apparent. Since she herself is an inherently good and decent human being, not even her detention and torture as a political prisoner of the Marcos Martial Law regime, had given her any inkling of the Marcos family’s inexorable, inter-generational lust for power, and insatiable, metastatic greed.

Ronald Holmes, a fiftyish DLSU Political Science professor, still remembered the tall expanses of whitewashed corrugated iron fences of his boyhood, which Imelda had erected to hide the slums along the motorcade routes, from visiting VIPs. He pointed out that despite his wife’s “edifice complex” as the coffeeshop wags put it, President Marcos was not a builder, but a destroyer of institutions. Exhibit No. 1 was our shattered democracy, struggling for realization. TV newscaster Atom Araullo, as the discussion moderator, wondered how today’s youth, particularly the so-called millennials, might be inoculated against Mrs. Marcos’s polished veneer of charm and practiced posturing, as slyly documented throughout Greenfield’s film. Ms. Verzola-Rodriguez cautioned that in this era of deep fakery and historical revisionism, knowledgeable and discerning adults must astutely guide the clueless youth through the complexity of The Kingmaker’s multi-faceted and many layered truths. Certain simple-minded adults, veterans of the First Quarter Storm (FQS), mistakenly decried Greenfield’s film as pro-Marcos propaganda, oblivious to its imperturbable ironies and subtle satire.

Professor Holmes reminded the audience that in 1992, Mrs. Marcos got more votes than the elder statesman Jovito Salonga. An objective viewer would have noted the superior production values and well-crafted messages of the Marcos family’s many campaign ads since they returned from their Hawaiian exile, started running for various local government positions — and winning. Money works wonders, and they have bottomless pockets after all. According to Ms. Pastor-Roces, during the 2016 campaign, their average spending for Bong Bong Marcos campaign alone was P300 million a week. Ms. Verzola-Rodriguez saw a glimmer of hope in the increase of millennial visitors who go to the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani, of their own volition, and not as a class requirement. Many said their interest had been sparked during the contentious burial of President Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. It may seem like a small thing, a baby step, but as she observed, the way to climb a mountain is one step at a time.

Ms. Verzola-Rodriguez acknowledged her generation’s responsibility to a degree, for the youth’s prevailing indifference to, and general ignorance of what Mr. Araullo termed the “Dark Age of Democracy,” i.e., the Marcos Martial Law Regime. Wistfully, she reflected: “FQS veterans may have grown a bit tired of politics. Many of us wanted to have families, and careers too. Our momentary apathy may have allowed the Marcoses to drive their own agenda.” The role of teachers has become more crucial than ever, although Ms. Pastor-Roces calls the media, both social and mass, as our de facto DepEd.

Professor Holmes noted that it was mostly the 35-to-50 somethings, who had come of age during the post-EDSA Uno let-down, that were most nostalgic for an imagined Golden Age of Authoritarianism. It was this disappointed and disenchanted cohort who had nearly elected Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. vice-president. On the other hand, it was the younger tech savvy millennials who had recently countered the assaults of mercenary troll armies to nudge Leni Robredo to victory.

Ms. Verzola-Rodriguez saw a greater danger in the youth’s becoming cynical about the electoral process. There is a despair that elections are merely about money, and the shuffling of power among traditional politicians, oligarchs, and cronies. However, giving up on elections would mean losing our democratic freedoms by default. Thus, to a student who plaintively asked how we might protect the truth against targeted lies, she simply replied: “It may sound romantic, but the courage of your convictions still has the power to convince others. It is like lighting candles in the dark. You must not let the flame go out, but try to pass it on. Keep standing by your truth bravely today, and tomorrow. There is always a tomorrow.”

THE KINGMAKER will be shown on Feb. 25 at 3 and at 7 p.m. at the Cine Adarna-UP Film Center, R. Magsaysay Avenue, University of the Philippines-Diliman Campus, Quezon City.