It would have been unthinkable only two years ago, but today there are some damnably odd safe houses around Wasington that have nothing at all to do with the CIA. This one, in a typical middle-class row of houses in a Maryland suburb, is one.
Inside, the star Filipino women political refugee, Charito Planas, and 14 other political refugees plan the overthrow of the Filipino dictatorship. Indeed, Charito, an attractive, plump woman with liquid brown eyes and a short dark haircut, is the other side of the war of the women in Filipino politics today.
In the recent campaign, which dictator Ferdinand Marcos won easily with widely alleged vote fraud, it was Charito who took on his powerful, devious wife, Imelda, governor of Manila.
"I told the people of Imelda's monumental vanity and gave examples of the impulsive, mean streak behind Imedla's beautiful, graceful visage. I told them about her preoccupation with her nails and her need for an umbrella whenever she was out of doors. I told them of her hoarding of millions of dollars, of her very costly jewelry, of the truckloads of clothes that followed her wherever she went," Charito recalled.
It was in large part Charito's campaign that at one point cause President Marcos, enraged at Imelda's constant tears during the campaign, to say, "Every time my wife cries, I could kill."
Her role was increasingly important because of certain peculiarly Filipino political rules. As one of the male opposition congressmen puts it, "It is a very difficult culture thing to criticize Imelda. As a man, if you return a woman's argument with abusive words, it comes out badly because it is ungentlemanly. It is the old Spanish caballerismo . But it is tolerated if another woman speaks up."
For her attempts to bring the troubled, turbulent Philippines back to constitutional rule, Charito Planas, a Liberal Democrat, spent 14 months in jail, including much solitary confinement, was arrested several times, was under house arrest for 16 months surrounded always by 16 armed troops. Eventually she was able to flee abroad.
While in jail, although often in cells with scores of common criminals, she was never abused. They all respected her too much, one of her male colleagues said.
And when Marcos accused her of having 30 armed bodyguards during the presidential campaign (possession of arms being punishable by death) she only said, typically, "I have no bodyguard. My bodyguard is my conscience."
The two women, who found themselves posited against each other in such a fascinating struggle for power, could hardly be more different.
The beautiful Imelda Marcos, who more and more acts as her husband's emissary to other countries, came up the simple feminine way. Ironically, Charito remembers her when Imelda actually was sweet, fresh, innocent and just coming to Manila from the provinces.
"She almost became my sister-in-law when my brother had a whirlwind romance with her. My brother," Charito said with an ironic smile, "did not find Imelda aggressive enough."
But as Marcos changed the once democratic Philippines to a thorough one-man - and, one-woman - rule, the sweet fresh county girl, once a piano salesgirl, became a willful virago. She plays the role of sexual populism to the hilt, much in the flamyoyant style of an Evita Peron.
Charito, on the other hand, comes from one of the great old families of the Philippines. They fought in the anti-Japanese underground, her sister Carmen was the first feminist and known as La Novia de Manila (The Sweetheart of Manila), and she herself was everything from director of the Chamber of Commerce to a fighter for ecumenical dialogue and kingergartens. She is unique as a woman there in fighting actively for social reforms.
Although she had several times refused deportation by the Marcos group. Charito finally decided to leave when they surrounded her house with truck-loads of troops this winter. She came in without papers, but she's free to be here on a stay of indefinite duration under the new U.S. immigration parole guarantees for refugees and escapees that came in with the human-rights policies. Thus, the strange safe house.
One would first think, of course, that it is the Imelda Marcos historic type of female leadership - which starts in bed and ends in a conjugal dictatorship - that has certainly won here, at least for the time being.
But then one has to ask oneself the fascinating question: Who is really the more afraid of whom?