ON OCTOBER 26, 1973, a family huddled on the tarmac of Manila International Airport, waiting to board a plane that would take them to an unknown future. My mother, her five siblings, and her parents were leaving for San Francisco. The eight tickets cost the equivalent of about $14,000 today. They sold everything they had—car, house, furniture—to buy them. In order to leave the country, each family member had to get clearance from the National Bureau of Investigation, the police, and the tax authorities; they had to endure interrogations and medical screenings. They left behind family, friends, and, in my mother’s case, a sweetheart.
When the plane took off, the family said goodbye to the only country they had ever known—a place where my grandparents had survived a brutal Japanese occupation and tasted the beginnings of a country at peace, and eventually enjoyed a happy and comfortable life. They would never again call the Philippines home.
After a brief stop in San Francisco, my family arrived on October 30, 1973, in Vancouver, Canada—where I was later born and grew up. Like many immigrants, the eight of them lived together in a family member’s basement until they could afford a home of their own. My grandmother, forty-four at the time, tried her hand at a number of jobs—as a cashier, as a mail clerk at the post office—and was eventually able to get a data entry position at a state-run insurance company. In the Philippines, she had been a college graduate with a well-paying job. But both of my grandparents settled for jobs far less prestigious than the ones they once had. That’s the typical immigration story: the older generation makes sacrifices for the opportunities of the next generation. But my family had not longed to immigrate to a new land. They had a comfortable and even privileged life in the Philippines. They were forced to leave, largely because of the influence of Western powers on their country, and the fate of President Ferdinand Marcos.
A lawyer and career politician, Marcos was democratically elected as president of the Philippine Republic in 1965, and in 1969 he was the first leader ever to be elected to a second term. But on September 21, 1972, as leftist demonstrations and a communist insurgency roiled the country, Marcos declared martial law. A nationwide curfew was immediately imposed. Press freedoms declined overnight. A total of 292 radio stations were closed throughout the country. Seven television stations were shut down, as were sixteen dailies published in Filipino, Chinese, English, and Spanish. Key opposition figures including the former governor and senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. were accused of murder, illegal possession of firearms, and subversion, and placed under military arrest. After Ninoy had endured a hunger strike and two years of detention, a military tribunal sentenced him to death (although the execution was never carried out).
Student activists and media personalities critical of Marcos were also detained. Congress was shut down and, the following year, a new constitution was declared that extended Marcos’s rule. My mother—herself a student activist—and her family were among a fortunate few who sold what they could and fled to Australia, Canada, or the United States.
Amnesty International claims that 70,000 Filipinos were imprisoned and 34,000 tortured during the almost ten-year period of martial law (September 1971 to January 1981). A total of 3,257 people are thought to have been killed by the military under the Marcos dictatorship, though many families will never know what happened to loved ones who simply disappeared. Lurid stories drifted out of the Philippines: imprisonments and repeated rapes; American priests arrested and deported. When finally given the opportunity to air their grievances in 2013, Filipinos alleged 75,730 claims of human rights violations against the Marcos regime.
Yet, despite all of this, Marcos was considered a friend of the United States. A history of American imperialism, liberation from Japanese occupation, and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty bound together the security of the Philippines and the United States, committing them to mutual aid in the face of an aggressor in the Pacific. The long-standing presence of U.S. military bases throughout the country gave the United States access to the region, but also meant that it had to maintain amicable relations with the Philippines. That was relatively easy because Marcos’s struggle against an insurgency led by the Chinese Communist-leaning New People’s Army made him, like General Suharto in Indonesia, a key figure in the fight against communism in Asia.
The United States did not want to see the Philippines fall to communism, and, in that sense, America’s Cold War policy clearly succeeded there. But by assuming responsibility for the Philippines’ defense and training its military, the United States allowed the leaders of the Philippines to focus on internal threats—to their power, to their wealth, and to their continued rule. The foreign assistance provided to the Philippines during the Marcos era also undermined the broader development goals that the United States had for the country. During the decade of martial law, U.S. military assistance to the Philippines totaled the equivalent of about $1.16 billion, while overall foreign aid from the United States exceeded $3.5 billion. No matter what Marcos did, American aid dollars flowed. But even as aid kept coming, the Philippines—which had been one of the most prosperous countries in Asia—became one of the poorest. A system of crony capitalism enriched Marcos’s friends and allies; corruption reached far into the judiciary and police forces. Shortly after the declaration of martial law, the state took ownership of Philippine Airlines and forced foreign companies to give up their stakes in the Philippines National Oil Company. The military bought private steel mills to form the National Steel Corporation. And while the elite pillaged the economy, the percentage of Filipinos living in poverty grew.
But eventually, the Filipino people fought back. Twenty years after the People Power Revolution toppled the Marcos regime and he fled with his family to Hawai‘i, my mother returned to the Philippines. I sat beside her as our plane landed at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport. In the years between my mother’s departure and her return in 2005, Ninoy Aquino had become the face of Philippine democracy. He was released from a military prison and allowed to travel with his family to the United States for medical treatment. After a brief stint lecturing at Harvard and MIT, Ninoy left to return to the Philippines and lead the opposition to Marcos’s rule. He was assassinated, with a single gunshot wound to the head, when he landed in Manila—at that same airport—in August 1983. Although sixteen servicemen, including a general, were eventually convicted in 1990 for his murder, conspiracy theories and allegations of the Marcos family’s direct involvement persist.
Ninoy’s death marked the beginning of the end of the Marcos regime. Millions of Filipinos took to the streets and the United States finally began to press Marcos for meaningful political reform. Ninoy’s wife, Corazon Aquino, would challenge Marcos in elections and ultimately become the first woman president of the Philippines, following Marcos’s resignation. Their son, Benigno Aquino III, would become president in June 2010 and sign into law the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act. The act acknowledged the victims of human rights violations during the Marcos regime and offered them financial compensation for their suffering. Yo so Ninoy. I am Ninoy.
Only two months after my mother’s return to the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—herself the daughter of a former president—declared a national state of emergency after an attempted military coup against her, the second attempt in less than three years. In the months and years that followed, opposition journalists continued to be arrested and murdered. The Philippines was ranked alongside Russia in freedom of the press. Democracy is a fragile thing.
Some members of Congress urged the United States to make military assistance to the Arroyo government dependent on the end of extrajudicial killings. Little came of their efforts. And although Arroyo and other former politicians have since done prison time for corruption, none have been held to account for the human rights abuses that occurred under their watch.
What exactly, then, was the United States buying with decades of foreign aid to my mother’s country, the Philippines? After the closure of American military bases in the country in 1992, U.S. military assistance dropped by 84 percent. Over the course of four years, military aid to the Philippines went from $316 million to $1.3 million. Clearly, the continuing threat of communism in the Philippines, seen in attacks by the New People’s Army, wasn’t enough to sustain America’s attention once its military bases were gone. Nor was an Islamist insurgency in the country’s south. Economic aid fell as well, while millions of Filipinos (roughly 20 percent of the population) were left to live in extreme poverty. Democracy held, but when looking at the Philippines now, the clearest outcomes of decades of U.S. support appear to be endemic corruption, a preference for justice outside of the courts, and a shocking naiveté about the risks of authoritarian rule.
Today, the Philippines is experiencing renewed violence and movement toward autocracy. Rodrigo Duterte’s election as president in May 2016 in many ways demonstrates the long-term consequences of foreign intervention in the Philippines. Long associated with “death squads” in his home city of Davao, Duterte launched a national War on Drugs that claimed over 7,000 lives in its first nine months. President Donald J. Trump praised him for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” On May 23, 2017, Duterte declared martial law in the southern province of Mindanao and later threatened to expand it throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, he supported the reburial of Marcos in the country’s Cemetery for Heroes (Libingan ng mga Bayani), an honor reserved for former presidents and distinguished military officers but formerly denied to the dictator. Duterte also supported Marcos’s son in his quest for the independently elected role of vice president (Bongbong, as Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is known, came a close second). The possibility of a new era of human rights abuses in the Philippines feels more real than ever.
This book examines how U.S. foreign assistance policy has shaped state violence throughout the developing world, from its inception in 1949 to the present day. America’s ability to influence violence abroad is not simply some long-gone Cold War phenomenon. I illustrate how foreign assistance, even when given for benign or altruistic purposes, can be diverted by recipient governments to support their continued hold on power through violence. Simply put, foreign aid can do as much harm as it can good.
I dedicate this book to those who lost their lives or left their homes because of violence and unrest that, in a different sort of world, might not have occurred. In his “Message to the Twenty-First Century,” Isaiah Berlin said of the atrocities of the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and the postwar revolutions that tore through the developing world: “They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.”1 The story of the Philippines could have been different if the United States had used its foreign aid more judiciously. Policies, well-intentioned or not, well-devised or not, have very real consequences.
1. Isaiah Berlin, “A Message to the Twenty-First Century,” (speech, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada, November 25, 1994).