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Corazon C. Aquino 1933-2009, now history

August 5, 2009

By Steven Rood

The passing of former Philippine President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino has evoked strong emotions. Many – Filipino and foreigner alike – have written their thoughts and assessments since she died last weekend, some with mixed feelings one has when powerful memories have been stirred.

Like most Filipinos, I never met “Cory” but came to know her first by her voice over the radio (yes, radio, as television coverage of the opposition to the Marcos government was decidedly scarce) while I was a professor at the University of the Philippines. One night in February 1986, while tuning in to the Catholic station, Radio Veritas, to hear her nightly announcement of protest actions against the fraudulent presidential election that had been rigged by Ferdinand Marcos, to our astonishment we heard Defense Secretary (now Senator) Juan Ponce Enrile and Constabulary Chief (now former President) Fidel V. Ramos discussing their actions in rising up against President Marcos. Thus followed days of anxiety, hope, excitement, and, finally, joy, as a bloodless ouster of a long-time dictator was accomplished. “People Power” had triumphed.

In March 1986, weeks after ascending to the presidency, during Cory’s first visit to the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City, the excitement was palpable. Despite the fact that Marcos had actually won the popular vote in the area (we at the University in Baguio had cobbled together a scientific probability survey in collaboration with student volunteers), crowds surrounded the Academy’s parade grounds, surging to get close enough to see her making her way toward the grandstand. It was all so unexpected that the soldier doing the announcing stumbled over his script, beginning to recite the name of Marcos’s long-time Chief of Staff before correcting himself, “Chief of Staff Fabian C … uh, Fidel V. Ramos.”

Over the years the excitement inevitably waned, often replaced by anxiety. Cory faced seven coup attempts, sputtering economic recovery, endless political wrangling as the pre-martial law political class was more-or-less completely revived, and insurgencies of the communist and separatist varieties. By 1991, power outages lasting hours each day had crippled commerce. We in the mountain city of Baguio were less affected since we didn’t need air conditioning or electric fans to counter the tropical heat. It took the advent of Cory’s successor, President Fidel Ramos, to bring relief from “brownouts” and stirrings of renewed economic growth.

Much has been made of the symmetry of the recent cycle of Philippine politics, from “People Power 2” peacefully ousting of President Joseph Estrada in January 2001 to the current end game being played out by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. During last month’s “State of the Nation Address” (SONA, in the inevitable Filipino acronym), held annually in July as Congress opens, explicit comparisons were drawn between Cory’s final SONA and President Arroyo’s performance (which will be her last SONA before the May 2010 national elections). This year President Arroyo was combative, touted her accomplishments, and was deliberately vague about her rumored post-2010 plans (under the 1987 Constitution presidents are not eligible to run more than once). In 1991, President Aquino simply said “goodbye” to make it clear that she was stepping down in 1992 at the end of her term despite some making the argument that, since she had not been elected under the 1987 Constitution, the term limit did not apply to her.

Cory was determined to leave a legacy of democracy. She was determined, for instance, to decentralize power to the lowest levels possible, and insisted on the passage of the Local Government Code of 1991 to ensure no dictator could ever regain power. Most importantly, she resumed ordinary life at the end of her normal term of office. She believed in the average citizen – her husband had said “The Filipino is worth dying for” before his assassination that catapulted her into the limelight. She insisted in driving away from the Presidential Palace in her own car, to return to being Citizen Cory, an honorific she cherished.

Her post-presidential career was sometimes controversial. She directly intervened to help overthrow Estrada in January 2001, but later apologized to him for thinking President Macapagal-Arroyo would be better. Based on that change of heart, in February 2006 on the 20th anniversary of “People Power 1” she tried to join protesting Marines, only to be easily turned back when citizens did not rally around her. She fiercely opposed attempts to amend the 1987 “Cory Constitution,” even though many felt that certain provisions had been found wanting in practice. She consistently believed, perhaps quite rightly, that such attempts were in self-interest – saying in a stinging statement from her sickbed in June “There is nothing that causes me greater pain than to see our people betrayed again and again by those they elected.” The rift with current President Arroyo, whose allies continue to try “Cha-Cha” (charter change), was solidified when the Aquino family refused a state funeral offered by the Presidential Palace.

The irony is that it was “People Power 2” that elevated then Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to the presidency in January 2001, with the support of former President Corazon C. Aquino. This support for the ousting of duly-elected President Joseph Estrada disturbed the Filipino electorate, driving trust ratings of Cory down from 40 to zero. Over the years since 2001, the trust ratings gradually regained, so that by the time she passed away she was the most trusted former president.

An entire generation has been born since those heady days of 1986. Those of us of a certain age have powerful memories of those pivotal moments and Cory Aquino’s part in Philippine history. Younger people may not have direct engagement, but do have the certain knowledge that she was the symbol of Philippine democracy. Nothing can diminish that legacy of Corazon Cojuangco Aquino.

Read The Asia Foundation’s letter of condolence to the Family of Former Philippines President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. Before joining the Foundation, from 1981 until becoming Representative in 1999, he was Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines in Baguio, a mountain city 250 kilometers north of Manila. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Elections

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