The Philippines loses a democratic heart
By Donald Kirk
The dream of People's Power carries its rhetorical magic among millions of
Filipinos as they line up to view the body of the woman in the yellow dress
whose memory endures as an icon of democracy in a society divided by widening
differences in wealth, income and class.
The outpouring of grief evokes memories of the hundreds of thousands who staged
the "People's Power revolution" that propelled Corazon Aquino to the presidency
over the profligate dictator Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. More than two
decades later, the revolution has faded into a past little remembered by a new
generation, while members of an affluent elite trade corruption charges and
more than half the country's
estimated 97 million people live in urban and rural slums on poverty line
With Aquino's death on Saturday at the age of 76, after a year-long battle with
colon cancer, the dream is born again in an emotional outpouring over the
ideals for which she battled long after her six-year term ended in 1992. Rather
than consider a fresh bid for power, she campaigned to make certain her
successor, Fidel Ramos, did not try after his election by a narrow margin as
her successor to amend the constitution that limited the presidency to a single
Ramos, as armed deputy forces chief of staff, and Juan Ponce Enrile, the
defense minister, were the major figures in the drama of Aquino's takeover as
president and Marcos' flight, with his wife, Imelda, two daughters and son, and
assorted cronies, to exile in Hawaii, where Marcos died in 1989. She was
fighting just as hard to make certain that another woman, current President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, daughter of the president whom Marcos had defeated at
the outset of his 20-year-rule, would not also try to find a way to extend her
It was Aquino who had personally overseen adoption of the constitution in 1987
and battled fiercely to preserve it to the end of her presidency, even as she
ordered the country's porous, ill-equipped, graft-ridden armed forces to stave
off seven attempts by military malcontents to drive her from office.
In her fight for survival, she counted on the loyalty of military leaders to
the government to trump that of pro-Marcos "loyalists", some of them from the
same factions on which Marcos had counted during eight years of martial law in
which thousands of influential Filipinos, including Aquino's husband, Benigno
"Ninoy" Aquino, were imprisoned.
Although People's Power was a peaceful movement in which no shots were fired,
Aquino faced the danger of violent overthrow by pro-Marcos zealots as well as
military idealists who saw her as a woman with little idea of what she was
doing. A coup attempt in August 1987 was staged by members of the Reform Armed
The same "movement" had spearheaded the anti-Marcos alliance after Aquino's
husband Ninoy was gunned down after he got off a plane at Manila Airport, now
Ninoy Aquino International Airport, as he returned from exile in the US in
August 1983. Three years earlier, Ninoy had been released after years in prison
to undergo heart surgery in Texas, after which he and Cory, as Aquino was
known, moved to Boston and a fellowship at Harvard.
During this period the US-educated Cory, a graduate of a very proper private
Catholic school and then a small Catholic college in New York, picked up some
of the democratic ideals that infused the challenge she posed against Marcos
when she refused to accept the obviously fixed results of a snap presidential
election that he claimed to have won. She also deepened her relationship with
the Philippines Catholic hierarchy, counting on the church, led by Cardinal
Jamie Sin, for mass popular support.
Not known before her campaign for the presidency as a political thinker or
activist, she found democracy enough of a rallying cry before enormous crowds
shouting, "Cory, Cory, Cory." She added to the drama by wearing yellow dresses,
reminiscent of the yellow ribbons that people were wearing to greet Ninoy when
he defied warnings and insisted on flying into Manila on a flight with foreign
Aquino as president aimed to restore democratic institutions, including
election of senators and representatives and a court system independent of
government pressure. In the end, however, there was little that Aquino could do
about some of the Philippines' most pressing needs, notably a land reform
program that would defy all the traditions and interests of her own enormously
wealthy land-owning family, ensconced in their vast sugar-cane-rich estate at
Luisita, in central Luzon north of Manila.
While she sought to bring back the trappings of democracy, skeptics realized
the system was still in place - the rulers of the haciendas, the old cronies,
the inheritors of fortunes in banking and real estate and hotels, sugar and
coconuts and bananas, beer and airlines and electric power, remained as they
One crony might replace another, but the pattern endured - "a system of rent
capitalism", observed political scientist Paul Hutchcroft, "based, ultimately,
on the plunder of the state apparatus by powerful oligarchic interests". The
term "booty capitalism", he said, described how the oligarchs were "plundering
Aquino was known to have despised her cousin Edouardo "Danding" Cojuangco,
one-time coconut king and one of Marcos' closest associates, but she as much as
he was born of the system. A Cojuangco, of mixed Chinese, Spanish and Malay
blood, like many of the wealthiest Filipinos, she could retreat to Luisita, the
hacienda she would never abandon to a land reform program long advocated by the
anti-Marcos partisans who so adored her.
In attempting to restore the appearance of democratic institutions, Aquino
appeared strongly pro-American. She got a standing ovation after a triumphant
address to the US Congress, which promptly voted $200 million in emergency aid.
Nonetheless, she was lukewarm about the American bases, notably Clark Air Base
in Angeles City, between Manila and Luisita, and the naval base on Subic Bay,
in the city of Olongapo, across a line of mountains west of Angeles. Clark at
the time was the largest US air base overseas and Subic Bay the biggest
American naval base outside the US
In the face of a barrage of anti-American propaganda, overriding protestations
of their value to the Philippine economy, influential Philippine senators
responded with loud denunciations. A vote in the Philippine senate in September
1991 fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to approve an agreement,
approved by Aquino, that would have cost US taxpayers more than US$200 million
a year in de facto rent for its 10-year duration - and might not have gotten
through the US Congress.
In the next few months, as Clark Air Base was systematically looted with the
connivance of Philippine military commanders, Aquino turned a blind eye to what
was happening. The loss of the American bases did not, however, mean the end of
the Philippine-American alliance, which endured over leftist protests. Nor did
it mean the government would sympathize with communists banded together as the
New People's Army (NPA).
After freeing the communist leader Jose Maria Sison, jailed under Marcos for
violating the anti-subversion law that she repealed, Aquino authorized new
charges against him for inciting revolution in speeches in the Netherlands.
Five years later, in 1991, with "Joma" Sison in exile, she authorized
"Operation Thunderbolt", including helicopter attacks on NPA hideouts and
strongholds in the mountains and valleys of the island of Negros, forcing the
flight of 35,000 people from their homes.
The government's offensives against the NPA - and against Muslim guerrillas in
the south - did not diminish Aquino's belief in democratic ideals and
institutions. In that spirit, she supported the movement to force the
resignation of the corrupt president Joseph Estrada. He stepped down in early
2001 after demonstrations so huge as to be called "People's Power II".
And in the same spirit she called last year for the resignation of Arroyo, who
was elevated from vice president to president after Estrada's ouster and later
elected to the position in her own right in 2004. Always, Aquino's goal was to
maintain the ideals of People Power I.
"We Filipinos showed the world what kind of people we are," she said in
February 1996, 10 years after those days of glory. "We are a brave people, we
are a prayerful people, and we know how to work with the peaceful process."
Donald Kirk covered the People Power Revolution of 1986, has visited the
Philippines many times since then and is author of Looted: the
Philippines After the Bases (1998) and Philippines in Crisis: US Power
versus Local Revolt (2005).