The Philippine government expects to reclaim much of the hidden wealth of deposed president Ferdinand Marcos, beginning soon with five disputed New York properties, government investigator Jovito Salonga said today.
Returning from a three-week search in the United States for evidence that Marcos plundered billions of dollars in public funds, Salonga said, "We have brought home the bacon."
In a related development, the Cabinet of President Corazon Aquino debated today whether to repudiate parts of the country's $26.4 billion debt before talks next week with creditors in the United States.
Salonga said he had collected enough information to expose "what can only be described as the unprecedented plunder of an entire nation, something that in terms of magnitude and brazenness defies comparison in our history or, indeed, in the history of any nation."
Salonga made clear that he expected a favorable settlement "very shortly" of the government's lawsuit alleging that the Marcoses secretly own approximately $350 million in New York real estate managed by two attorneys, Ralph and Joseph Bernstein. Salonga's investigating commission has produced documents that appear to show the Bernsteins' role as Marcos agents.
"Mr. Marcos is in a terrible dilemma," Salonga said. "If he claims these properties, the whole world will know that, by his own act, he has pleaded guilty to having plundered our nation's wealth.
"If, on the other hand, he does not claim these properties, we will obviously get a default judgment and win sooner than we expected," he added.
Salonga said former Marcos associates had cooperated in identifying the former president's hidden assets. He said a former Marcos associate, Jose Campos, had surrendered title deeds, in Marcos' name, to about 19,000 acres of prime land in the Philippines estimated to have a value of $20 million to $25 million.
Salonga said the government will bring civil suits against Marcos, but said no criminal charges would be filed immediately because Philippine arraignment procedures require Marcos' return from exile. It was unclear how his statement fit with the remark last week by another commission member, Raul Daza, that the government would file criminal charges against Marcos to facilitate recovery of his bank deposits in Switzerland.
Salonga said Swiss officials had explained "what concrete steps we now have to take to recover this ill-gotten wealth" and that the commission is "moving swiftly in that direction." He did not elaborate.
The government is eager to recover as much as possible of Marcos' allegedly stolen assets, which some investigators have estimated to be between $5 billion and $10 billion, to help ease the national debt. President Aquino has called on the country's creditors to soften their terms for repayment of the debt.
Aquino's spokesman, Rene Saguisag, said the chief government auditor also told Aquino at today's Cabinet meeting that former Marcos officials received cash advances from the government worth about $160 million. Saguisag also said the Cabinet debate included the possibilities of repudiating or renegotiating the debt, but gave no details on either subject.
The officials mainly responsible for debt policy are Finance Minister Jaime Ongpin and Central Bank Gov. Jose Fernandez. Both are known to favor tight adherence to guidelines set by the International Monetary Fund in an effort to repay all of the country's debt.
According to a Manila banking analyst, other advisers, including spokesman Saguisag and presidential Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo, believe lenders in the United States and elsewhere willfully ignored signals in recent years that the Philippines was being overloaded with short-term debt. They also overlooked signs that much of the money was going to infeasible projects and that the government's credibility was clouded, the analyst added.
The government's audit commission chairman, Teofisto Guingona, suggested yesterday that one such debt to be considered for repudiation might be money owed for a controversial nuclear power project designed by Westinghouse in Bataan Province.
In a telephone interview, Ongpin said he and Fernandez will arrive in Washington on Sunday for talks at the IMF to discuss the delivery of previously agreed-upon credits. Under Marcos, the Philippines technically violated guidelines for receiving the credit by overspending during the February election campaign.
Before the Cabinet meeting, Aquino swore in Claudio Teehankee as Supreme Court chief justice. Teehankee, 67, built a reputation as an independent jurist by opposing court decisions favorable to Marcos. Teehankee said he expected Aquino to name other justices within the next two weeks, including some Marcos appointees.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials at the Subic Bay Naval Base ordered all U.S. personnel to remain on the base after Philippine troops and police forcibly removed barricades and militant strikers from the bases' gates. Predominantly leftist members of the Filipino base workers' union continued to reject yesterday's compromise settlement of the 11-day strike and blockade of all U.S. military facilities in the country.
The strike had earlier raised anti-American sentiments among the union militants and lingering tension kept union members from returning to work at Subic today.
Nearly all workers at the other U.S. facilities in the country reported to work today, a spokesman at Subic said.