Aquino, Corazon (1933—)

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Aquino, Corazon (1933—)

Philippine political leader and president of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992, who led a quiet revolution that overthrew the hated Marcos regime without a single shot. Name variations: Cory. Born Maria Corazon Cojuangco on January 25, 1933, in Tarlac Province, the Philippines; sixth of eight children; daughter of José Cojuangco and Demetria "Metring" Sumulong (daughter of Juan Sumulong, a nationally known Philippine senator; the Sumulongs, were among the wealthiest landowners of Rizal Province); educated at an exclusive girls' school in Manila; finished her education at two Roman Catholic convent schools—Raven Hill Academy in Philadelphia and Notre Dame School in New York City; graduated from Mount St. Vincent College with a major in French, 1953; married Benigno Aquino, Jr. (1932–1983), on October 11, 1954; children: five.

Before becoming a major opponent of Ferdinand Marcos, served as dutiful political wife while husband Benigno Aquino, Jr. served as mayor, senator, and governor; her husband and thousands of the opposition arrested (1972); became speaker for Benigno, lobbying for his release; when her husband was released from prison for reasons of health, family went into exile inUnited States (1980); determined to return to his country, Benigno was murdered as he stepped off the plane (August 21, 1983); became her husband's surrogate, leading a revolution in the streets that ousted the Marcos regime; sworn in as president (February 25, 1986); cleaned up corruption, instituted land reform, and rewrote the constitution; opposition to her term of office continued and six coups were staged against her administration; despite immense challenges, brought the Philippines through troubled times leaving a more stable democracy when her term ended (1992).

Corazon Aquino was born into an elite group of landowning oligarchs who have dominated the Philippine Islands since Spanish colonial rule. Her family's wealth was based on commercial and banking interests as well as a vast sugar plantation of over 18,000 acres. Her maternal grandfather, Juan Sumulong, served in the Philippine Senate while her father and brother served in the nation's House of Representatives. Although her early education was at an exclusive girls' school in Manila, she finished her education in America at Raven Hill Academy in Philadelphia and Notre Dame School in New York City. She graduated from Mount St. Vincent College with a major in French in 1953.

During a summer vacation in the Philippines, Cory met Benigno Aquino, Jr. (1932–1983), a dynamic young journalist. "Ninoy," as he was nicknamed, did not initially make an impression on the quiet young woman. He wrote her frequently during her senior year in college, and only after she returned home following graduation did the attraction become mutual. Corazon began studying law at Far Eastern University in Manila before she agreed to marry him. Following the wedding on October 11, 1954, she abandoned her career plans and dropped out of law school. Her life settled into the predictable pattern of a member of the Philippine elite. Five children and social duties occupied her time. A gracious host, Cory Aquino spoke unaccented English, the Philippine national language Tagalog, as well as French, Spanish, and Japanese. One of her close friends characterized her as the "classic Oriental wife." Her favorite pastimes were cooking, knitting, and cultivating bonsai trees. Deeply religious, she frequently attended mass.

From the outset, Corazon Aquino was a political wife. Benigno was elected mayor of his hometown at age 22. Six years later, he became governor of Tarlac Province. In 1966, Benigno was elected to the Philippine Senate, becoming the youngest senator in the nation's history. That same year, he was chosen secretary general of the Liberal Party, which made him a leader of the political opposition to the Marcos administration. A figure of national stature, Benigno was the youngest war correspondent, presidential assistant, mayor, vice-governor, governor and senator in Philippine history. An idealist, he believed his country needed major reforms. Although Benigno was a member of the landowning elite, he thought his country could not prosper when less than 100 families controlled most of the national wealth. Calling himself a "radical rich guy," he gave away pieces of his land to field and factory workers, unusual behavior in a feudal society.

By the late 1960s, rural and urban discontent was growing. The Ferdinand Marcos regime alienated many of the nation's young people, some of whom began to see violent revolution as the only alternative to the existing social and political order. Benigno Aquino was seen as an alternative to the corrupt government. As the 1973 presidential elections drew closer, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos felt threatened by the young leader's growing popularity. Using an expanding Communist guerrilla insurgency as a pretext, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 23, 1972. Benigno Aquino was immediately arrested as a subversive, largely because Marcos feared he would win the upcoming presidential election. Over 6,000 student activists, journalists, broadcasters, politicians, and entrepreneurs were also thrown into prisons and concentration camps.

Her husband's arrest shocked Corazon Aquino, who had only known a life of ease and affluence. Suddenly, she was her imprisoned husband's sole link to the outside world. She began holding press conferences for reporters who were willing to risk their jobs and lives to maintain the semblance of a free press. Her husband suffered a harsh imprisonment. He endured long stretches in solitary confinement, and his clothing hung on a near-skeletal frame. After one of his articles was smuggled out and published in a Bangkok newspaper, Benigno Aquino was transferred to a high-security facility north of Manila where conditions deteriorated. A neon light burned day and night in a room that was completely bare except for a steel bed without a mattress.

Whenever Corazon visited the prison, she was subjected to humiliating strip searches. Friends abandoned her. The outside world, especially the United States, seemed completely uninterested in Benigno's fate. The American government

regarded the Marcos coup as an anti-Communist measure, justified by the red menace. Locked in mortal combat with North Vietnamese in 1972, Washington was unwilling to risk essential air and naval bases in the Philippines because a few members of the political opposition were imprisoned. Conventional wisdom held that American interests would best be served if the United States did not attempt to comment on or characterize internal developments in the Philippines. Separated from her husband and abandoned by her friends, Aquino was bitter that the American government turned a deaf ear to her pleas for intervention.

Corazon Aquino did win allies, however. One was Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the renowned American golf-course architect. Jones had met the Aquino family in the Philippines in the 1960s when he constructed a golf course on the family estate. Described by one of his Yale classmates as "a humanist as well as basically conservative," Jones had a strong sense of justice. He began to lobby for Benigno Aquino in Washington even when a Marcos-controlled court sentenced Aquino to death in 1977. Jones was joined in his efforts by Patricia (Patt) Murphy Derian , assistant secretary of state for human rights under President Jimmy Carter. A civil-rights activist in the 1960s in the American South, Patt Derian was convinced that major human-rights abuses were commonplace in the Philippines. During a trip there in early 1978, she visited Benigno Aquino, now imprisoned more than five years. His quiet manner dramatically refuted State Department and CIA reports depicting him as a rich playboy who was an adventurer of dubious character. She described him as "somebody of monumental stature. Intellectually and in terms of democracy. Like Churchill. A giant." Patt Derian and Trent Jones' support meant a great deal to Corazon Aquino who despaired that her husband would ever be freed.

When Benigno Aquino's health deteriorated dramatically because of a serious heart problem in 1980, he was finally released. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were fearful he might die and become a martyr while in detention, so he and his family were allowed to go to the United States where Benigno had triple bypass surgery. After recovering, he accepted academic positions at both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Aquino was greatly relieved to be back in the United States where she resumed her role as wife and mother. For the first two years of their American sojourn, Benigno was happy with his role in academia, but gradually he resumed his interest in politics. By the end of 1982, he was openly discussing the possibility of returning to the Philippines. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for May 1984 and Benigno hoped to return home to restore the democratic institutions destroyed by the Marcos regime. His plan was to act as a mediator and facilitator between the Marcos regime and the opposition, rather than to run for office himself.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos did not want the Aquinos back in the Philippines. In May 1983, Imelda Marcos met Benigno Aquino in New York and warned him not to return. When she failed to deter him, she tried bribery, offering to set up a business for the family in the United States. This encounter made Benigno Aquino more determined than ever to return to his country. Corazon supported him, despite the fact that she was quite happy in exile. A few days before his departure in August 1983, he remarked proudly to a friend, "Isn't she a remarkable lady? If it were some women, they would be crying and begging me not to go home. But she hasn't said a word."

Benigno Aquino announced he would return on August 7, 1983. Manila authorities countered by refusing to issue passports to his family and then revived the old charges against him. Determined to return, he booked a flight on China Air Lines flight 811 scheduled to land in Manila on August 21, 1983. He knew he risked his life by returning but believed that the presence of reporters on the plane offered some protection. Just before the plane began its descent, he slipped into a bulletproof vest remarking, "If they hit me in the head, I'm a goner." A squad of uniformed soldiers escorted Benigno off the plane. As he was about to step on Philippine soil, a single bullet penetrated his skull, killing him instantly. A fusillade of bullets followed. The bullet-riddled body of Rolando Galman fell a few feet from Benigno. Later the government claimed that Galman was a notorious subversive with links to the Communists and the insurgent New People's Army and accused him of assassinating the popular leader.

Like her fellow Filipinos, Corazon Aquino was shocked by her husband's murder. She quickly flew to Manila. Few believed the government's story about Galman and many were convinced that the highest echelons of the Marcos government had ordered the killing. Suddenly the streets of Manila were awash in yellow. Traditionally a symbol for the return of prisoners, yellow was transformed into a color of protest. The martyr's body lay in state in his family home in the Manila suburb of Quezon City, and over 100,000 men, women, and children paid their respects. All ages and social classes were represented, the poor arriving in the gaudy jeepneys unique to the Philippines, the rich in their chauffeured cars. The day the casket was taken to a nearby church, despite the oppressive heat and humidity, hundreds of thousands followed the hearse in a solemn procession.

Cory Aquino presided over her husband's funeral with calm and dignity. The housewife who had gratefully slipped into near-anonymity in 1980 now resumed the public role she had played during Benigno's years of imprisonment. In the months that followed, she always wore yellow—a powerful symbol of her husband's tragically aborted struggle for democracy. Speaking frequently before crowds, she gained confidence, and her leadership role increased. In the May 1984 parliamentary elections, she pleaded for all factions to be included. But the Marcos regime with its usual "guns, goons and gold" made a mockery of Philippine democracy, "winning" 89 out of 143 seats. Nonetheless, the opposition under Corazon Aquino's leadership made a surprisingly good showing.

As Corazon Aquino's political leadership grew stronger, Ferdinand Marcos' grew weaker. His health collapsed in 1983; with kidney transplants and dependency on dialysis, his once prodigious energies were permanently impaired. Now Imelda Marcos ruled the country, in close alliance with a group of generals and wealthy landowners. Although martial law had ostensibly been ended in 1981, President Marcos continued to rule arbitrarily by decree. These powers were becoming increasingly irrelevant, however, as economic crisis radicalized middle-class intellectuals and illiterate peasants alike. Increasingly, Filipinos joined the "Parliament of the Streets" or joined the revolutionary New People's Army (NPA). Pressure against the Marcos regime increased. In 1985, a panel investigated Benigno Aquino's murder, implicating General Fabian C. Ver and other military leaders in his assassination. In October, Marcos announced a "snap election" for February 1986 to reestablish legitimacy for his regime.

Corazon Aquino continued her quiet leadership role. Although she did not preside over a tested political machine, she did lead the Laban ("People Power") organization. Over 1.2 million men and women petitioned so that she could run in the snap election against Marcos. At first, Aquino was reluctant to run for the presidency, but the acquittal in December 1985 of General Ver and others implicated in her husband's murder raised public indignation to new heights and forced her hand. She formed a ticket with Salvador Laurel, a politician from the Unido organization who had broken with Marcos in 1980. Aquino's campaign got off to a slow start. She lacked confidence and was poorly informed about basic issues. Marcos and his running-mate Arturo Tolentino began to make patronizing jokes about women running for public office. This disparagement of her attempts to bring about social change galvanized Aquino. She put aside canned speeches provided by her staff and began to speak of her hopes for the future in simple, personal terms. Suddenly this "ordinary housewife" became a formidable opponent.

Election day, February 7, 1986, was marked by both violence (at least 30 died) and fraud. It was immediately apparent that the Marcos forces would steal the election. These plans were thwarted on February 9 when "weeping and fearful," wrote one reporter, "the Government computer workers arose from their terminals and, data disks in hand, darted from the Commission on Elections to make the charge that the Marcos Government was rigging the presidential vote." The frightened electoral workers found refuge in the Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, where a crowd soon assembled to support them. Although the Reagan administration had always supported the Marcos regime, this support began to erode. Allies in the U.S. embassy, the State Department, leading members of Congress, and influential conservatives like the columnist George Will began to speak openly of corruption in the Philippines.

This is a land of broken promises.

—Corazon Aquino

When Marcos declared victory with 53.8% of the vote, Corazon Aquino stood firm, declaring she had won 60 to 70% of the vote. Robert Trent Jones, a close friend of Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat of the Armed Services Committee, convinced the senator that America must break with the discredited regime. Nunn declared that Aquino had won the election that Ferdinand Marcos was attempting to steal "by massive fraud, intimidation and murder." On February 14, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the tainted, violence-ridden election, pointedly noting that a government that assumed or retained power "through fraudulent means has no moral basis." Task Force Detainees, a Catholic human-rights organization, noted that in 1985 they had tallied at least 276 executions of Marcos' political foes, 1,326 cases of torture, and 602 unexplained "disappearances." The Philippine Bishops' Conference, a conservative body, announced its support for Aquino, calling her campaign a "nonviolent struggle for justice."

On February 22, forces led by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos, deputy chief of staff, seized important military bases. They demanded Marcos resign and turn power over to Aquino. Many feared for Corazon Aquino's safety so she retired to a Carmelite monastery where the nuns assured her that the Marcos troops would have to "kill all of us before they do anything to you." On the following day, February 23, a Sunday, thousands massed outside the two major military bases of Manila, effectively blocking Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA)—thus giving the revolution its name, the "EDSA Revolution." The large crowd included nuns, priests, young men and women, and a cross section of all classes. It behaved peacefully, bringing food and flowers to the anti-Marcos soldiers. Underscoring that this was not a military coup but the rightful restoration of democracy, General Ramos told the assembled throng that "what is happening is not a coup d'état but a revolution of the people."

Still unwilling to relinquish power, Ferdinand Marcos dispatched General Fabian Ver, implicated in Benigno Aquino's murder, to crush the revolt. But Ver's armored column was prevented from moving forward by thousands of unarmed people, including mothers with infants, women bearing flowers, and nuns and priests kneeling in prayer. Under the surveillance of worldwide television networks, the tanks could not move forward. The next day, February 24, helicopters sent to attack the rebel bases defected, joining the popular uprising. Large numbers of Air Force pilots joined them and soon rebel jets streaked across the sky. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos continued to pack Manila's major thoroughfares. Sensing victory, Enrile declared the formation of a provisional government under Corazon Aquino. At this crucial moment, the Reagan administration finally abandoned Marcos.

Corazon Aquino was sworn in as president of the Philippines at mid-morning on February 25, 1986, at the Club Filipino, a prestigious social club in Manila's exclusive suburb of Green-hills. Wearing a yellow dress, she declared, "I am taking power in the name of the Filipino people," and pledged to head "a government dedicated to upholding truth and justice, morality and decency, freedom and democracy." Refusing to accept what had happened, Ferdinand Marcos staged a grotesque inaugural ceremony at the Malacanang Palace, which was literally surrounded by the angry people of Manila. Finally, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled to Hawaii, taking large amounts of stolen money and goods.

Now president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino formed a new government. Working out of a small, makeshift office, she appointed a cabinet of 17 members. As she strove for peace between all factions, her advisers included former Marcos loyalists like Enrile and Ramos as defense minister and chief of staff. Her other cabinet appointees were moderate to conservative businessmen and professionals. At the same time, she restored the right of habeas corpus and released more than 500 political prisoners, some of them linked to the Communist-led New People's Army (NPA). Aquino also released four NPA leaders as a gesture of national conciliation, angering both Enrile and Ramos. Determined to clean up the government, Aquino pressured the resignation of corrupt officials and dismantled entrenched Marcos institutions. Supreme Court justices and half of the nation's generals soon left government service. Mayors and provincial governors were replaced by individuals free of Marcos affiliations. The legal basis of her government also had to be addressed. The authoritarian Marcos constitution of January 1973 remained in force, and the National Assembly was packed with Marcos loyalists. Aquino realized she had her work cut out for her and told Cardinal Jaime Sin, "I can no longer be so humble because people don't take me seriously then, so I have to project my confidence even more than most men would."

On March 25, Aquino proclaimed a new provisional constitution and abolished the National Assembly as well as the office of prime minister. She assumed broad powers and governed by decree. Responding to critics, she argued Philippine society could be healed only by cutting out "the cancer in our political system." A temporary "freedom constitution" was enacted, which included a bill of rights and provisions of judicial review. A commission was appointed to draw up a permanent constitution within three months. By May, the president had met a small group of guerrillas who had responded to her call for national reconciliation and surrendered their weapons. Her initial stated strategy was to court the 20,000 insurgents in the Philippines with an offer of a six-month cease-fire and amnesty. After they laid down their weapons, job training, work on government-owned farms, and a lease on a small plot of land would be offered to the guerrillas. By August, meaningful negotiations were taking place, and, on November 27, a 60-day truce was signed between the government and the NPA. In July 1986, Marcos diehards attempted an uprising and tried to install Arturo Tolentino, Marcos' former vice-president, as "acting president." Although this amateurish coup was easily quashed, Aquino warned that it should "be understood that any incident like this will not be allowed to happen again."

By August 1986, President Aquino felt secure enough in her presidency to visit foreign capitals in Indonesia and Singapore. She then visited Washington, D.C., as well as several other major American cities. Relieved American officials who had shown concern about the stability of the Philippines now noted, "It became pretty clear that this was no ordinary housewife." Rapidly gaining self-confidence as her embattled nation's moral as well as political leader, Aquino compared her new role to the one she had played prior to February 1986: "Being President, when I have so many many forces under my control, is really that much easier. I'm no longer alone with only my friends and relatives helping me. It's really much easier when I compare my life now to what it was when my husband was in prison."

On July 27, 1987, Aquino gave up the power to rule by decree. During the previous months, she had signed 302 decrees, one of the most important was the creation of an Agrarian Reform Council to redistribute land. Despite these positive steps toward reform, the political landscape remained bleak and violent. Three separate military uprisings—in January, July, and August—tried to overthrow Aquino, arguing that she was "soft on Communism." The August 28 coup attempt was a serious rebellion in which more than 50 persons lost their lives. Political murder also reappeared on the scene. On August 2, the cabinet secretary for local government was murdered, while on September 19 a prominent leftist leader was assassinated. In neither case were the killers captured or identified. The efforts to open negotiations with the NPA ended in failure and guerrilla operations increased throughout 1987. NPA ambushes made life uncertain throughout much of the country and their organization was believed to control 20% of the country's 42,000 villages. The foreign debt problem remained acute, inhibiting economic growth, while uncertainty over the future of land reform acted as a damper on investment. A disillusioned Jaime Sin, who had played a key role in the revolutionary "people power" events of February 1986, commented: "We got rid of Ali Baba, but the forty thieves stayed behind."

Local elections in January 1988 gave some hope for future improvement. On June 10, Aquino signed into law a comprehensive agrarian reform program that set limits on the amount of agricultural land an individual could own. In her July 25 state of the nation address, Aquino asserted that 1988 "may be remembered as the year the insurgency was broken." Her optimism was based on the capture of eight senior NPA commanders. The economy, however, continued to undermine many of Aquino's efforts. Forty-two percent of the national budget went to pay interest on foreign and domestic debts. Thirty million of the nation's population of 59 million lived in conditions of "absolute poverty." Nature was unkind as well. In October 1988, Typhoon Ruby killed about 500 people and destroyed $45 million worth of crops. Vice-President Laurel and Defense Secretary Enrile left the Aquino administration to launch a new opposition party, a move that engendered little popular support.

When Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, Corazon Aquino denied Imelda Marcos the right to return his body for burial, arguing that disruptive demonstrations might result. In addition to other disruptions, a serious attempt to overthrow her government erupted on December 1, when rebel troops bombed the presidential palace, seized military bases and television stations, and transformed sections of downtown Manila into war zones. Aquino waited until December 6 to declare a state of emergency and reshuffled her cabinet at the end of the month. An insoluble dilemma of her administration was the fact that the military was Aquino's biggest threat, while it was also her sole protector. A growing trade deficit and a double-digit inflation rate, the highest since the overthrow of Marcos, continued to plague the economy. Despite all these problems, Cory Aquino's personal honesty and quiet determination gained her wide public support. Economic growth continued, although wealth distribution was extremely unequal. Since the People Power revolution of 1986, middle-class support for the NPA had diminished and student militancy had significantly declined.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was an economic disaster for the Philippines because of the loss of foreign exchange from Filipino workers in the Gulf as well as a doubling of the price of imported oil. A massive earthquake in July 1990 killed almost 2,000 north of Manila and was held responsible for a rapidly increasing budget deficit. In a last coup attempt against Aquino's rule, two army bases on Mindanao rose against the Manila government in October, a rebellion that was suppressed within two days. In September 1990, a Manila court convicted 16 military men of murdering Benigno Aquino, Jr., sentencing them all to life imprisonment but leaving unresolved the question of who ordered the murder. Nature continued to wreak havoc and in June 1991 Mt. Pinatubo erupted killing at least 800 and destroying the livelihood of 651,000 persons. The Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station began to close and by the fall of 1992, 80,000 Filipino jobs had been lost. In November 1991, an unrepentant Imelda Marcos returned to the Philippines to face criminal charges of graft and tax fraud. Although all were vexing, none of these crises destroyed Philippine democracy.

After six years as president, Cory Aquino announced she would not run again for office in 1992. Few leaders have faced as many difficulties as she during her term of office. Summing up many disappointments, she noted ruefully, "This is a land of broken promises." But coup attempts, volcanic eruptions, and economic woes did not deter this small, quiet woman during her tenure as president. Without her leadership, the Philippines could easily have lapsed into chaos and anarchy. When the general elections were held on May 11, 1992, they were peaceful and fair. Even the insurgency of the New People's Army appeared to be on the wane. Corazon Aquino brought democracy and the hope of economic reform to her country in troubled times. The Philippines owe much to her quiet decency and steely courage.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia