Democracy Reading–Waltzing with a Dictator; history and lessons for today

Raymond Bonner’s Waltzing with a Dictator: the Marcoses and the Making of American Policy (©1987, 1988) is long out of print, but used copies are readily available.

This is well worth a read by those interested in American foreign policy and its relationship with authoritarian governments and democratic transitions anywhere, and in international election observation.  One lesson here for Americans, and for those seeking American support for reform, is to appreciate the power of illicit wealth in the hands of foreign authoritarians to help charm key people in power in both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States.  Nonetheless, in a pinch in the Philippines, we eventually helped with the restoration of democracy irrespective of Cold War interests that had been previously asserted to justify support for the Marcos dictatorship.

The 1986 election in which Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by Corazon  Aquino was a pioneering effort in international election observation and internationally supported domestic observation to combat state-supported election fraud.  Aquino’s accession to the presidency as summarized in her Wikipedia entry:

A self-proclaimed “plain housewife“,[1] she was married to Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., the staunchest critic of President Marcos. She emerged as leader of the opposition after her husband was assassinated on August 21, 1983 upon returning to the Philippines from exile in the United States. In late 1985, Marcos called for snap elections, and Aquino ran for president with former senator Salvador Laurel as her Vice-President. After the elections were held on February 7, 1986, the Batasang Pambansa proclaimed Marcos and his running mate, Arturo Tolentino, as the winners amidst allegations of electoral fraud, with Aquino calling for massive civil disobedience actions. Defections from the Armed Forces and the support of the local Catholic Church led to the People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos and secured Aquino’s accession on February 25, 1986.

Of particular current interest from the Bonner book is the role of Republican Senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Richard Lugar of Indiana as election observers who held the line against election fraud and provided key support for “moderates” back in Washington in the Reagan White House against the pro-Marcos “hardliners”.  After seeing blatant election misconduct by the regime, Cochran sent a message by donning his yellow golf pants during the observation–yellow being Aquino’s campaign color.  Lugar was defeated in the 2012 Republican primary by a hardline “tea party” challenger, and Cochran has just been certified as the narrow winner of a primary runoff against a “tea party” challenger in Mississippi.  Within the Carter White House in 1977-81 there was similarly a divide between hawkish pro-Marcos Democrats, people we might think of now as more or less “neocons”, and early human rights advocates.

2 thoughts on “Democracy Reading–Waltzing with a Dictator; history and lessons for today

  1. For those who enjoyed Waltzing with a Dictator check out Bonner’s “Weakness and Deceit” regarding U.S. policy towards El Salvador under Carter and Reagan. It’s essentially the Latin American counterpart to Waltzing with a Dictator. Regarding U.S. policy in Philippines under Marcos & Aquino, some scholars have suggested parallels with Haiti and Nicaragua during roughly the same time period. The issue really isn’t about democracy per se, but ensuring that those in power support the transnational neoliberal economic agenda (i.e. free trade, lowering tariff barriers, making the regulatory climate suitable for foreign investment and a modicum of democratic rights to complement free market development and economic growth.) The “People Power” movement that helped oust Marcos was supported by western elites vis-a-vis more populist movements who were not viewed as sufficiently pro-Western and thus were marginalized.

    • Thanks, Dominic. I was not familiar with “Weakness and Deceit”–I see that it won the 1985 Robert F. Kennedy Center book award. Looks interesting. Promoting Reagan Administration policy in El Salvador was a big priority for the national College Republican office when I was chairman in Missouri so this would be especially interesting to take a look back at.

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