LATE IN the evening of July 7, 2005, Cory Aquino together with four Roman Catholic bishops paid a call on President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at Malacañang Palace. It was not a social visit. Far from it. The presidency was then in the throes of crisis. Arroyo’s legitimacy was under fire: barely a month had passed since the public release of wiretapped conversations where she was heard talking to an elections official, supposedly about padding the results of the 2004 presidential count. Many Filipinos found the whole affair scandalous and believed the president had no other option but to resign.
Listen to the interview
with Cory Aquino
On that Thursday evening, Cory Aquino came to tell Gloria Arroyo precisely that. “I asked her to make the supreme sacrifice,” Aquino recalls. “I realized I was asking so much of her but I did tell her that I think all of us Filipinos have to make sacrifices and those of us who are in positions of authority or perhaps have greater blessings should make the greater sacrifice. The bishops spoke first and then I spoke last. She didn’t say anything.”
Perhaps only in the Philippines could this happen: a 72-year-old former president and four bishops trooping to the presidential palace to ask the head of state to step down. But that moment had 20 years of history behind it, 20 years during which two peaceful middle-class revolts toppled presidents. And in both those uprisings, the Catholic bishops and Cory Aquino played important roles as crowd gatherers and symbols of moral uprightness.
Twenty years since that February afternoon when she joined the crowds at Edsa that ousted a dictator, Cory Aquino believes Filipinos still expect her to make a stand, to speak out, and to help them chart the course of their damaged democracy.
When her six-year presidency drew to a close in 1992, Aquino opted for political retirement, saying that she looked forward to nothing more than being a grandmother. For the most part she kept out of the political limelight, yet she also made her presence felt. In 1992, she chose her defense secretary, Fidel Ramos, to succeed her. She campaigned for “Steady Eddie” and many of those in the Ramos campaign say that the “Cory factor” was decisive in his victory.
In 1998, she and Manila archbishop, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, led protests against attempts to change the constitution to allow Ramos to stay on as head of state. The protests were loud enough to force President Ramos to back off. In 2000, she was back on the campus and church circuit, endorsing the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada, and when “People Power II” broke out on the evening of January 16, 2001, she was among the first few thousand people who gathered on Edsa. Three days later, Estrada was waving goodbye from a barge that took him and his family from the back door of the presidential palace, down the Pasig, and into ignominy.
For sure, Cory Aquino’s word still carries weight. When they considered resigning from the Arroyo Cabinet in July, she was among those that the “Hyatt 10” group of senior executive officials ran to. When anti-Arroyo protesters wanted to make a show of force during the voting on the president’s impeachment in Congress last September, they made sure Cory was there. She came, if only “to show others that look, if I can still do it, maybe you can, too.”
Only this time, there was no explosion of people power. There was outrage, but it didn’t spill out to the streets. Had the Cory magic waned? Or had the people become too tired, too demoralized, and too bereft of hope to care?
TO THIS day, Cory Aquino remains a firm believer in people power, never mind that its currency has been much devalued by the dashed expectations of those who had taken part in popular revolts. People power, she says, “will bring change but not the ultimate or desired change that will continue.” This is why, she says, “we have to change first within ourselves and we have to continuously find out what it is that we can do to offer to our country.”
To this day, Aquino talks about politics in moral and religious terms. Her political vocabulary is firmly Catholic: she speaks of suffering, sacrifice, good and evil, right and wrong. Her analysis of contemporary problems is couched in religious parable. To Cory Aquino, life — and politics — is a morality play, and our lives are nothing but pale versions of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
“You know,” she says, “when Ninoy was in prison, I used to think all of us have a quota for suffering and when Ninoy was assassinated, I supposed I’d filled up my quota of suffering. But that isn’t so, and when we think of Jesus Christ who did not do anybody any wrong, He was goodness Himself, and yet He was prepared to make all of these sacrifices and His suffering did not end until he died. So I suppose, each of us, while we are in this world, while we are here in the Philippines, must think of what it is that we can still offer to make life better for our fellow Filipinos.”
More secular and sophisticated analysts are bound to scoff at such talk. Unlike them, Cory Aquino does not blame oppressive social structures or an oligarchic political system for the country’s woes. Her views are traditional, old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholic.
But it also cannot be denied that her vocabulary of suffering and sacrifice has great resonance among ordinary Filipinos who supported her fight against Marcos precisely because it was couched, not in ideological or academic terms, but in a language that struck a chord in their hearts. During the 1986 election campaign, Cory Aquino was mythologized: she was both suffering Mater Dolorosa and avenging Joan of Arc.
She was a martyr’s grieving widow, purified by suffering, her agony mirroring that of the nation’s. How could any Filipino not be moved?
Propelled to iconic status in 1986, Cory Aquino became the projection screen for varied hopes and expectations. She could not possibly have fulfilled them all. Until now the jury is divided on the Aquino presidency. Many credit her for reestablishing democratic institutions and doing away with some of the most egregious legacies of the Marcos dictatorship. They blame rebel factions of the military, which staged several unsuccessful coups, for blocking democratic reforms and setting back economic recovery. They also say that only Cory, of all the presidents after Marcos, remains untainted by corruption, although they will not vouch for some members of her family.
But others are not as kind. They say Aquino’s was a presidency of missed opportunities and shattered hopes. They blame her for resurrecting the pre-martial law political system dominated by elite families and patronage-seeking politicians. They say she should have written off our foreign debt, implemented land reform, beginning with her family’s 6,000-hectare Hacienda Luisita, and shuttered the military where it belonged-the barracks. They mourn that Cory could not transcend the interests of her clan and class.
Aquino is unperturbed. “I don’t know how they will judge [my presidency],”she says, “but I just hope that they will realize that it was not an easy thing restoring democracy after a dictatorship. Also being the first woman president certainly had its problems and then we were dealing with a very strong military that were spoiled during the Marcos dictatorship.”
She says hers was a healing presidency that initiated talks with various rebel groups. Her government gave a lot of money to NGOs and she herself set the example for honesty and simple living, refusing to live in Malacañang (she chose to stay at the more modest Arlegui residence) and having the presidential car stop, just like other vehicles, at a red traffic light. And for sure, through all the most determined attempts to unseat her, she was equally “determined that I would never leave Malacañang in spite of all the coup attempts.”
THE IRONY is that it was Ninoy Aquino, rather than Cory, who believed he was destined to be president. Aquino recalls she was perfectly content to be his wife and mother to five children. She regrets now that she never read all the books that her husband had told her to. She would perhaps been better prepared to be president if she had. Other than that, she has few regrets.
Today Cory Aquino still lives in the modest, one-story Quezon City house she and Ninoy moved into in 1961. She spends her time painting (her living room is abloom with the flowers on her canvases), enjoying her grandchildren, and being involved with microfinance projects. She is a woman at peace with herself, content in semi-retirement, and happy that she is no longer in government.
She says she was never really cut out for public life, anyway. The presidency was thrust upon her by circumstances beyond her control. “I decided that I would accept the draft for the presidency because it was impressed upon me by Senator Tañada, Senator Salonga and all the others that, ‘You are the only one who can unite the opposition.'” The only way to defeat Marcos, she says, was for her to run. Otherwise, there would be more than one opposition candidate “and we might as well just hand over [the election] to him on a silver platter.”
“I believed,” she says, enumerating the Cory Aquino articles of faith, “that it was important for us to restore democracy. I believed it was important for us to oust the dictator in a peaceful manner.”
To this day, Aquino repeats this like a mantra. It was what she was destined to do, and it was what she did. Nothing more. Nothing less. Cory knew she was unprepared to be president, but having “restored democracy,” she is confident she had done her part.
After all, she is not a social reformer, much less a revolutionary. She is not even a hands-on executive. Maybe things would have been different if she were. But she is not. She is an icon who became president, a devout Catholic housewife swept, like the rest of her countrymen, by the tide of history.
Ultimately, all of us will judge Cory Aquino according to whether she has measured up to our hopes and expectations. But Cory herself does not worry much about what we think; neither does she fret about the judgment of history. She wants to be remembered only as “somebody who really tried to do her best and who believed in prayer and who believed that prayer would direct her to what God intended for her.”
How can anyone argue with that? – Sheila S. Coronel