The untold story of 2 Marcoses

Bongbong’s stand on the two paintings speaks of his sterling character and moral fortitude

Who swiped these paintings? These are the life-sized works that surfaced in an Albanian businessman’s garage in New York some years back. Although its origins remain hazy, their discovery led to a rethinking of the Marcoses. | FROM THE COLLECTION OF A PRIVATE OWNER

June 25, 2022

It’s a story of patriotism and decency that took decades to be told.

Sometime in 2017, while Willie Fernandez was on vacation in New York City, a businessman of Albanian descent residing in the city sought him out. He had heard about Fernandez from Filipinos in New York and he believed that the Daily Tribune honcho would make an excellent business partner in the Philippines.

“Coffee,” the Albanian told Fernandez, “can be bought anywhere, but Filipinos have yet to savor Albanian coffee. It is an enduring delight, incomparable to other international blends.” That said, he invited Fernandez over to his home in the outskirts of Manhattan for a coffee tasting, to which the latter agreed.

‘DAILY Tribune’ president Willie B. Fernandez with then private citizen and now President-elect Ferdinand R. “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. at the Daily Tribune office weeks before Covid-19 pandemic.

Surprise at the garage

Over Albanian coffee blend and an array of desserts, their discussion tiptoed from coffee to the arts that the he took the chance to interest Fernandez with what were lodged safely in his garage.

To Fernandez’s surprise, his host unveiled two magnificent life-size paintings — the first was of the late President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. regal in an elegant barong Tagalog, and the other was that of his wife, former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos, dazzling in a perfectly designed Filipiniana.

Stunned, Fernandez turned to the Albanian and asked, “How did you acquire these?” he eagerly wanted to know.

His host narrated how he had bought the two paintings at an auction, keeping mum on the amount he shelled out to outbid many others to bring the pieces home. Both paintings constituted a rare and precious find, he bared, because he knew that their value would escalate over time, if and when the painter becomes a celebrated artist.

He offered to sell both paintings to his Filipino guest and potential business partner in the Philippines.

Caught off guard, Fernandez stared at the art pieces which looked rather familiar. His thoughts straddled between magazines and television reports where he might have seen them during the closing years of the Marcos presidency.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALFONSO PADILLA FOR THE DAILY TRIBUNE

A flood of questions baffled Fernandez.

What were the paintings doing inside a garage in New York? Were these part of the collection in Malacañang during the Marcos years?

They were most likely spirited out of the palace in the chaos marking the aftermath of the February 1986 EDSA People Power Revolt. If that were so, how was it done?

As to who actually swiped the paintings, Fernandez could only speculate.

Being a keen-eyed newspaperman, Fernandez said that how the two artworks ended up in the United States should make an interesting story. That odyssey, however, is for another essay.

I asked Fernandez for the name of the artist behind the two paintings and he said the photos of the art pieces can identify him.

The price the Albanian quoted for the paintings was too dear and admitted that the price he quoted was far from a pittance, even for the wealthy.

“If you may, however, by any chance, meet any member of the Marcos family when you are back in Manila, please mention this find and ascertain if I can sell the paintings there.”

Fernandez agreed without a promise when such a meeting will take place, or if it will even take place at all.

For the art enthusiast Fernandez, seeing the two paintings with his own eyes was already a chance of a lifetime. He likened them to a pair of similar paintings of President and Mrs. Marcos popularly referred to in local art circles as Si Malakas at si Maganda.

Why pay for something stolen from our country?

In January 2020, weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic, then private citizen and now President-elect Ferdinand R. “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. visited the Daily Tribune headquarters in Makati as guest of its public affairs show, Straight Talk.

After the interview, and while Bongbong was having lunch with the Tribune team, Fernandez brought up the two paintings in the possession of the Albanian businessman. Keeping his word to the Albanian, Fernandez told Bongbong that the art pieces are for sale.

Without inquiring about the price tag, Bongbong quipped, “Why should we buy something that had been stolen from our country? They should return those paintings to our country.”

Country. That cherished word, that overused word, suddenly had a new impact on Fernandez after hearing it from Bongbong himself. Bongbong didn’t say the paintings belonged to his family; he said they belonged to the country.

That short exchange about the paintings earned for Bongbong the highest respect from Fernandez. For the latter, what Bongbong said speaks much about the character of the younger Marcos. Just like his father, it’s country above self as far as Bongbong is concerned.

WILLIE Fernandez is morally convinced that the late President Marcos always had the interests of the Filipino in mind. | PHOTOGRAPH BY ALFONSO PADILLA FOR THE DAILY TRIBUNE

Flashback

In the 1970s, when Fernandez was still in the car sales and maintenance business, he became friends with Alfredo “Bejo” Romualdez, the brother of First Lady Imelda Marcos. Bejo had been a regular customer of Fernandez’ car shop.

Through the same car shop, Fernandez also found another friend who turned out to be a diplomat at the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, Japan. Back then, several Japanese businessmen were already coveting the Philippine government-owned property in the prime district of Roppongi.

To recall, the Roppongi property was acquired by the Philippines in May 1956 as part of the War Reparations Agreement between Manila and Tokyo.

Banking on Fernandez’s close relations with Bejo, the diplomat and the Japanese businessmen urged Fernandez to send their proposal to purchase the Roppongi property to President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Seeing nothing wrong with the request, Fernandez met up with Bejo and relayed the message. Romualdez promised to deliver the proposal to the President.

Days thereafter, Romualdez met with Fernandez.

“Sabi ni bayaw, hindi siya ang may-ari ng Pilipinas (My brother-in-law said he doesn’t own the Philippines). That property belongs to the national patrimony, kaya hindi puwede (it’s not possible).”

As a footnote to history, President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino tried to sell the Roppongi property since 1987, a year after she seized the presidency. The planned sale was aborted in 1990 after then Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel convinced the Supreme Court to stop the sale, essentially for the same reason cited by the late President Marcos.

The local car manufacturing program

Undeterred by the rejection of the Roppongi proposal, the same diplomat asked Fernandez to send to President Marcos another offer — this time to allow the Philippines to import used Japanese cars. As it was and is now, Japanese cars are considered unworthy for road use in Japan after just five years or so, but are still of good use in the Philippines.

Fernandez again coursed the diplomat’s proposal through President Marcos’ brother-in-law.

Soon after that, Romualdez informed Fernandez that President Marcos thumbed down the proposal.

“Sabi ni bayaw, ‘Hindi puwede ‘yan. (My brother-in law said it’s not possible). We have a progressive car manufacturing program in the Philippines and we are bound to produce the first Asian car outside of Japan,’” said Romualdez.

As another footnote to history, that car manufacturing program was aborted when Aquino seized the presidency in February 1986. She opened wide the floodgates for used imported cars, thus causing massive traffic and air pollution problems — spelling the demise of the car manufacturing industry of the country.

The father and his son

What President Marcos Sr. said gave Fernandez much food for thought.

In hindsight, Fernandez has come to realize that Marcos Sr. could have approved transactions from which the President would have obtained immense monetary benefits, but he adamantly refused to approve those transactions because they would have been prejudicial to the public interest.

If President Marcos Sr. was the thief his detractors portray him to be, why then did he refuse to approve those lucrative projects coursed through Bejo Romualdez?

From his personal experience, Fernandez is morally convinced that the late President Marcos always had the interests of the Filipino people in mind.

His father’s son

Decades later, his son is already proving himself to be made of the same principles personified by his father.

For starters, Bongbong’s stand on the two paintings speaks of his sterling character and moral fortitude.

To tell the truth is not revisionism

Today, there is much talk about the issue of “historical revisionism” and the re-writing of our history books, particularly about the years Ferdinand Edralin Marcos was President (1965-1986). In this regard, and in the interest of truth and historical accuracy, Fernandez believes that a proper and objective documentation should be made about the late President and about what actually took place during his administration.

Fernandez also maintains that 36 years of distorting the truth about President Marcos Sr. has led to the proliferation of purported history books and similar materials which unfairly and unjustly vilify and demonize the late Philippine leader.

For the Daily Tribune boss, it may take a while to correct the immense wrong committed against one of the greatest presidents of the Philippines, but rectifying the errors of biased journalism and pseudo-scholarly works is possible in a country whose people are now slowly but surely waking up from decades of irresponsible complacency and inaction, and liberating themselves from the bondage of disinformation and ignorance.

For Fernandez, the more than 31 million Filipinos who voted for Bongbong Marcos last May demand that we all make up for the lost time, and to let the truth not only prevail but, as the Good Book says, set us free.

With Jojo G. Silvestre

***

NOTE: This is an excerpt from Willie Fernandez’s book in progress, “Spinning the World.”

 


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