Imelda Marcos at peace with herself, but not her critics

Posted at 09/24/09 11:54 AM

MANILA - In an extraordinary world described by Imelda Marcos, the end of the Cold War began with an adoring Chinese leader's kiss of her hand.

Her famous extravagance was actually a sacrifice to inspire the poor masses of the Philippines.

And her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was definitely no dictator.

"I have been so misunderstood," Marcos declared during a wide-ranging interview inside her two-storey penthouse apartment overlooking one of Manila's wealthiest suburbs.

Indeed, the former beauty queen's recounting of her life sounds more like a wonderful fairytale than the one tarnished by greed, corruption and power-lust that many outsiders associate with her.

"My dreams were small and puny with the realities that my dreams became," Marcos said as she sat in her main living room surrounded by a stunning array of jade statues and photos of her meeting world leaders.

But at age 80 and with Monday next week marking 20 years since her husband died, the former first lady is acutely aware that not everyone believes in her fairytale, and for many the Marcos story is more akin to a horror movie.

"I don't want to be remembered as a criminal," she said candidly while discussing her legacy.

Indeed, she admitted to remaining driven in the twilight years of her life by her desire to clear the muddied Marcos name.

Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, holding on to power for nearly half of those years thanks to the use of martial law, a compliant military and powerful backing from the United States.

During that time, the woman famous for her shoe collection allegedly conspired with her husband to steal billions of dollars from the people they governed and preside over widespread human rights abuses.

Their rule finally ended after millions of people took to the streets of Manila, key military chiefs joined the masses and the US government helped them escape the angry hordes by flying the disgraced couple to Hawaii.

While Marcos stated that the fact she had never been convicted of any crime should prove she did nothing wrong, she revealed that the endless barbs about her supposed greed continued to cut deeply.

"Every time they put out a biography on Mrs Marcos (they say): 'Oh! She's beautiful!, Oh! Extravagant! Oh! Jewellery. Oh! Shoes," she said.

"What a pity to talk about the superficiality of all this and not the soul."

Sitting with a Picasso hanging on her living room wall, Marcos insisted that her penchant for the finest things in life was aimed at setting an example for the poor.

"My role as first lady was to be a star and a slave. To set the standard because mass follows class. And so I had to enslave myself so that everyone becomes a star," she said.

Marcos insisted she appreciated the poor masses of the Philippines.

"I envy almost everybody, I even envy the beggars in the street because they don't steal, they humiliate themselves to be beggars," she said.

Marcos also defended her phenomenal travels around the world when she was first lady, during which time she undoubtedly was an influential woman, but perhaps not as powerful as she remembered.

One of her proudest moments was her meeting with communist China's revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong, at the height of the Cultural Revolution and Cold War in 1974.

She said that despite big differences between the pair -- with Mao an ageing warrior and her a beautiful representative of a US-backed Asian government -- she paid respects by offering her hand.

"He took my hand and kissed it... And that was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Because the Philippines was America junior... do you see how serious that was?"

While Marcos's critics may accuse her of self-delusion, a recurring theme during the interview was her complete certainty that she did no wrong and that all criticisms against her were baseless.

"I knew I was on the side of the right and truth. And if you are on the side of the truth, and you are peace with the truth, you are at peace with God," she said.