Cory Aquino, the Accidental Heroine

New America Media, Commentary, Rene Ciria-Cruz, Posted: Aug 04, 2009 Review it on NewsTrust

Editor’s Note: The late Philippine President Corazon Aquino transformed herself from a simple housewife to a democratic icon so her country could free itself from the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, writes NAM contributor Rene Ciria-Cruz.

Corazon Aquino, the 76-year-old former president of the Philippines, died August 1 as an icon of democracy. When I met her for the first and only time, she was the “simple housewife” she would later claim to be as she faced the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a fateful electoral showdown. Cory Aquino became a democratic icon because when she found herself in an accident of history, she stifled any self-doubt and assumed the key role that needed to be filled so that authoritarian rule could be brought to an end.

It was on a gray San Francisco day in 1982 when we met for breakfast with her husband, the opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, at the condominium they were using during their brief exile in the United States. Ninoy apparently wanted to size up leaders of the leftwing of the U.S.-based movement against Marcos–those who supported the New People’s Army guerrillas in the homeland—and he invited a few of us for an informal meeting. Mrs. Aquino wordlessly served us a breakfast of garlic fried rice, eggs, sausages and sliced tomatoes, and then just as quietly left the room. Four years later, the world would know her as the president of the Philippines, vanquisher of a ruthless autocrat.

During our meeting, Ninoy shared a fantasy about loading his single-engine plane with explosives and flying straight into Marcos’ bedroom in the presidential palace. We dismissed it as lighthearted posturing, until he did fly home on August 21, 1983, on a regular commercial jet plane, and into the clutches of waiting uniformed assassins. Ninoy had no bombs in his luggage, but a huge political explosion followed his fatal homecoming anyway. His assassination proved to be last straw for a people that had endured 14 years of authoritarian rule, repression, corruption, and a crony capitalism that would have made Jack Abramoff look like a two-bit thief by comparison. The naked display of brutal power pushed Filipinos across all classes to a tipping point. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated and took up other forms of opposition, convinced they could finally remove the dictator. This became the popular mindset that fueled the escalating protests.

Marcos’ response to the unrest became desperate, and criticism grew from within the corridors of his benefactor, the Reagan administration, which was mortified that the unrest was endangering the American military bases in the archipelago. While being interviewed on “Night Line,” Marcos boastfully called for a snap election to prove, once and for all, that he enjoyed the support of his people. By doing so, he painted himself into a corner. To hold an honest election meant willingly stepping down in the event of defeat, which Marcos had no intention of doing. But to ensure victory despite his overwhelming unpopularity meant he had to steal the election, thereby deepening popular resentment and rendering American support politically unsustainable. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Checkmate.

The electoral contest boosted the spontaneous mass opposition by giving it an unprecedented political focus. It was a moment pregnant with the historical opportunity of dealing a fatal blow to the dictatorship. The Filipinos needed only a spearhead. That proved to be Cory Aquino, the victim-widow who cried for justice and became a symbol of all the victims of the regime’s violence and crimes. That she was a self-described political neophyte and “a simple housewife” captured even more the political imagination of millions of common citizens–political neophytes all. That she was devoid of artful oratory and the calculating manners of the hardened politician inspired a people searching for a new kind of leader.

Cory Aquino was a member of the landed elite whose wealth was founded on the poverty of millions of landless peasants. And she certainly retained the deference to U.S. interests that shaped the political reflexes of the ruling elites of many a U.S. client state. But during that critical moment–the snap election–all of her class baggage briefly receded in importance. There is a time for every purpose, it is said. And at that critical juncture, the single most important task was to rid the Philippines of dictatorial rule. The social revolution, the resolution of long festering class conflicts, would have to wait for its own season. The communist guerillas and their allied aboveground organizations would have none of this, and badly misread the shifting political terrain. Mesmerized by their military successes and believing that political power could only grow from the barrel of a gun, the left refused to deploy its considerable strength behind Aquino during the election campaign. It was a fight among the class enemies, leftist militants declared, and they called for non-participation- -in vain. Millions desperately wanted to go to the polls to oust Marcos. Cory Aquino, the “bourgeois democrat,” therefore became the most credible leader of the anti-dictatorship movement that the left had sacrificed so much to build.

When Marcos decided to steal the election, pressure from the escalating civil disobedience built to the point of fracturing the dictator’s own camp. A failed mutiny by a breakaway military group sought protection from the Church and the masses of protesters. The ensuing “people power” uprising convinced the Reagan administration to reluctantly cut Marcos’ lifeline.

When Cory Aquino took the helm, she declared that she was only going to be a “transition president.” In the end, she was successful in that role, presiding over the restoration of democratic institutions and political freedoms. She released all political prisoners unconditionally, including top Communist Party leaders. She quashed four coup attempts by politicized military elements that refused to accept civilian authority and to return to the barracks. A return to democracy was all Cory Aquino promised, and that was all she tried to accomplish. She wouldn’t betray her class, and so there was no land reform and no deliverance for the rural poor. She wasn’t a nationalist, and so she refused to close the U.S. military bases. The devastation caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and formerly disenfranchised members of the political elite embittered by Washington’s stubborn support of the dictatorship took care of that. Nonetheless, dismantling authoritarianism and bringing democracy back, albeit a flawed one, were towering and valuable achievements. A grateful Filipino nation and an admiring world think so.

Rest in peace, Corazon Aquino, you deserve the ovation.

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