During February of 1986, a grassroots revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. Jose V. Fuentecilla was involved in the anti-Marcos movement in the United States. Fuentecilla answered our questions about his new book Fighting from a Distance: How Filipino Exiles Helped Topple a Dictator.
Q: As a native of the Philippines who emigrated to the United States in 1968, how did you first view the Marcos regime?
Fuentecilla: When I completed my graduate communication studies at University of Illinois, I had plans to return home to apply what I learned. One of Marcos’ first decrees after imposing his dictatorship was to muzzle the press and imprison journalists. So, heck! Why enter the lion’s den?
Q: Were you surprised by the increasing measures the Marcos regime took leading to the 1972 declaration of martial law?
Fuentecilla: No. It was inevitable that he had to do what he did in order to consolidate his power — restrict the press, round up oppositionists and throw them into prison, dissolve Congress, employ the military establishment as his personal police, weaken the judiciary, etc.
Q: How did you become personally involved in the anti-Marcos movement?
Fuentecilla: At the founding convention of our group in Washington DC in 1973, whose history is the subject of my book, I was elected the first Secretary General. Hence I was an on-the-ground participant of the Movement from its birth.
Q: Were there many Filipino immigrants who supported the declaration of martial law?
Fuentecilla: The Marcos regime was very successful in intimidating immigrant relatives and their friends to refrain from joining opposition groups in the U.S. Reports of roundups of oppositionists back home gave the impression that if they participated in any U.S.-based anti-Marcos activities, their kin back home will suffer consequences. As a result, our movement could not mobilize a large following.
Q: What was the most shocking event to affect the movement during the Marcos regime?
Fuentecilla: The assassination on August 21, 1983 of a Filipino Senator (Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino) who returned to Manila on that date after three years in the USA for a heart operation. His murder at the airport upon his arrival was the spark that led to a gathering “people power” revolution that finally forced the Marcos family to flee the country in 1986.
Q: How much resistance did the exiles encounter from the U.S. government in their attempts to lobby for anti-Marcos policy?
Fuentecilla: Lobbying the U.S. government to limit military aid to the Marcos regime because of its rampant human rights abuses was the focus of their activities. We won allies in Congress but the White House administration, concerned that Marcos will retaliate against the U.S. bases in the Philippines for any military aid reductions, continued to support his regime in the 14 years that he was in power. Indeed it was this support that prolonged his rule. Ironically, it was a U.S. helicopter that flew him out of Manila and gave him refuge in Hawaii where he died.
Q: Did the Movement for a Free Philippines lean any particular way ideologically?
Fuentecilla: There were two main groups opposing the regime in the U.S.– one allied with a leftist militant armed anti-Marcos New People’s Army operating throughout the
Philippines; the other was our group which preferred a non-violent return to democracy by various groups of society: students, workers, businessmen, the clergy, etc.
Q: Did you reflect at all on your experiences “fighting from a distance” when you saw the wave of political change that resulted in the Arab Spring?
Fuentecilla: Yes, as we watched the triumphant masses overthrowing dictators with minimal bloodshed, we said, “Been there! Done that!” It has been cited many times that the Philippine “People Power” revolution of some 20 years ago was the template of the Arab Spring.