Marcos allies prosper in RP long after his death

Posted at 09/27/09 10:58 PM

MANILA - Twenty years after dictator Ferdinand Marcos died, some of his former allies remain the richest men in the Philippines while those who have sought to bring them to justice are angry and frustrated.

Two of the most famous tycoons, Filipino-Chinese Lucio Tan and the politically powerful Eduardo Cojuangco are listed by Forbes magazine as the second and seventh richest people in the country respectively.

Benjamin Romualdez, brother of Marcos's flamboyant wife, Imelda Marcos, is number 30 on the rich list, while a host of others who did deals with the late strongman remain very influential in Philippine business and political circles.

"It's a sad commentary. It looks like we are a nation that cannot aspire to redeem itself," said Frank Chavez, who as solicitor-general in the post-Marcos era sought to recover the alleged ill-gotten wealth of the dictator and his allies.

Just as with Imelda Marcos, none of his allies have gone to jail for any wrongdoings during the dictatorship, and they have successfully beaten civilian and government efforts to take back wealth that was accumulated then.

After Marcos was ousted in 1986, his successor, Corazon Aquino, created a special body, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was meant to recover the supposed ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses and their cronies.

The commission sequestered many of the businessmen's biggest companies and assets, pending legal proceedings to determine if this wealth was legitimate.

A handful of those cases, including against Tan and Cojuangco, remain outstanding.

Some former Marcos associates surrendered assets in exchange for the dropping of charges against them, while others fled into hiding overseas.

Most of them were content with lower profiles compared with the limelight they enjoyed under Marcos.

But others, particularly Tan and Cojuangco, dodged their critics while using their powerful contacts and sharp business acumen to create astounding empires.

Tan, 75, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes at 1.7 billion dollars, was allowed preferential tax treatment during the Marcos years for his tobacco company which he parlayed into other sectors.

He has seen his portfolio blossom to include some of the country's biggest banks, national flag-carrier Philippine Airlines, beer, liquor and beverage companies, as well as large land holdings both at home and abroad.

Cojuangco, now worth an estimated 660 million dollars, was a member of Marcos's inner-circle known as the Rolex 12 and given monopoly control of the lucrative coconut industry, which he used to take over beer giant San Miguel.

Cojuangco, now aged 74, fled the country on the same plane with Marcos in 1986 but returned in 1989 and even made an unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1992.

He still heads a political party, the Nationalist People's Coalition, which is aligned with the administration of President Gloria Arroyo.

Meanwhile, Romualdez, who was given control of the banking and broadcasting interests of Marcos's jailed opponents during the dictatorship, still has mining interests among others, and has an estimated worth of 70 million dollars.

The failure of the government to jail any crony or to recover their assets has been harshly condemned by many in the Philippines and raised suspicions that shady deals allowed them to hold onto their wealth.

"The justice system has failed," said Alberto Lim, executive director of the Makati Business Club, an organization that has been a vocal critic of cronyism.

"Government lawyers are poorly paid... judges accept bribes and government lawyers just do not have the skill and competence."

Global graft watchdog Transparency International ranks the Philippines as the 39th most corrupt country in the world.

Lim said there was a lack of political will from Arroyo's government to continue the fight against former Marcos associates.

"The cronies are now all supportive of the administration. I can't think of one crony who is not supportive of Arroyo. It is back to the bad old days," Lim said.

The offices of Cojuangco and Tan declined to comment to AFP for this article.