Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, universally and affectionately known as "Cory," was a Philippine president quite unlike those who preceded her. Observers have groped for the right word to characterize the Aquino presidency. She was first called a "revolutionary," but later a mere "reformer." When the old landed families recaptured the political system, she was called a "restorationist."
She was born in 1933 into one of the richest clans in the Philippines, the powerful Cojuangcos of Tarlac Province. Her maiden name indicates Chinese mestizo ancestry; her Chinese great-grandfather's name could have been romanized to Ko Hwan-ko, but, following the normal practice of assimilationist Catholic Chinese-Filipinos, all the Chinese names were collapsed into one, and a Spanish first name was taken. Aquino neither sought power nor expected it would come to her. Her life was that of a privileged, well-educated girl sent abroad to the Ravenhill Academy in Philadelphia, the Notre Dame Convent School in New York, and Mount St. Vincent College, also in New York. She studied mathematics and graduated with a degree in French in 1953, then returned to the Philippines to study law, but soon married the restless, rich scion of another prominent Tarlac family, Benigno ("Ninoy") Aquino, Jr. Benigno Aquino became a mayor, a governor, and a flamboyant senator, and he probably would have been elected president of the Philippines in 1973 had Marcos not suspended elections. On the same night in 1972 when Marcos declared martial law, he sent troops to arrest Benigno Aquino. Senator Aquino was incarcerated for some seven years, after which Marcos allowed him to go to the United States. In August 1983, believing that Marcos was dying, Aquino ventured back to Manila and was gunned down just seconds after being escorted from the airplane. Aquino's murder galvanized the Filipino people and was the beginning of the end for Marcos.
The Coalition Comes Undone (1986-87)
Ferdinand Marcos had perfected the art of ruling by dividing his enemies: scaring some, chasing others out of the country, playing one clan against another, and co-opting a few members of each prominent provincial family. The "oppositionists," as the controlled Manila press called them, were never united while Marcos was in Malacaņang, and only through the intervention of Cardinal Jaime Sin did they agree on a unified ticket to oppose Marcos in the "snap election" that the ailing dictator suddenly called for February 1986. The widow Aquino had public support but no political organization, whereas the old-line politico Salvador H. "Doy" Laurel had an organization but little popular support. After difficult negotiations, Laurel agreed to run for vice president on a ticket with Aquino. Aquino won on February 7, 1986, but the margin of victory will never be known, for the election was marred by gross fraud, intimidation, ballot box stuffing, and falsified tabulation.
Aquino had to perform a delicate balancing act between left and right, within society at large and later within her own cabinet. Aquino and Laurel triumphed in good part because of the defection of Enrile, who was then minister of defense, and Fidel V. Ramos, the acting Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff. Both men had served Marcos loyally for many years but now found themselves pushed aside by General Fabian Ver, Marcos's personal bodyguard and commander of the Presidential Security Command. They risked their lives defying Marcos and Ver at the crucial moment. Enrile and Ramos conceived of the new government as a coalition in which they would have important roles to play. Laurel saw it the same way.
In one sense, the Aquino government initially was a coalition--it drew support from all parts of the political spectrum. The middle class was overwhelmingly behind "Cory," the democratic alternative to Marcos. Most leftists saw her as "subjectively" progressive even if she was "objectively" bourgeois. They hoped she could reform Philippine politics. On the right, only those actually in league with Marcos supported him. Aquino's support was very wide and diverse.
The coalition, however, began unraveling almost immediately. Enrile thought that Aquino should declare her government "revolutionary," because that would mean that the 1986 elections were illegitimate and that new presidential elections would be held soon. When Aquino made it clear that she intended to serve out her entire six-year term, Enrile and Laurel set out to undermine her. Ramos took a cautiously ambivalent position but ultimately supported Aquino. Without his loyalty, Aquino would not have survived the many coup attempts she successfully put down.
Aquino's political honeymoon was brief. Arturo Tolentino, Marcos's running mate in the February election, proclaimed himself acting president on July 6, 1986, but that attempt to unseat Aquino was short-lived. By October 1986, Enrile was refusing to attend cabinet meetings on the grounds that they were "a waste of the people's money." Aquino fired him the next month, after he was implicated in a coup plan code-named "God Save the Queen" (presumably because the conspirators hoped to keep Aquino on as a figurehead). The plotters were suppressed, and on the morning of November 23, Aquino met with her entire cabinet, except for Laurel, who was playing golf. She asked for the resignations of all other members of her cabinet and then jettisoned those leftists who most irritated the army and replaced Enrile with Rafael Ileto as the new minister of national defense. Aquino started a pattern, repeated many times since, of tactically shifting rightward to head off a rightist coup.
Enrile was out of the government, but Laurel remained in, despite his vocal, public criticism of Aquino. She relieved him of his duties as minister of foreign affairs on September 16, 1987, but could not remove him from the vice presidency. A month later, Laurel publicly declared his willingness to lead the country if a coup succeeded in ousting Aquino. The next year, he told the press that the presidency "requires a higher level of competence" than that shown by Aquino.
The disintegration of the original Aquino-Laurel-Enrile coalition was only part of a bigger problem: The entire cabinet, government, and, some would say, even the entire nation, were permeated with factionalism. Aquino also had difficulty dealing with the military. The first serious dispute between Aquino and the military concerned the wisdom of a cease-fire with the New People's Army. Aquino held high hopes that the communists could be coaxed down from the hills and reconciled to democratic participation if their legitimate grievances were addressed. She believed that Marcos had driven many people to support the New People's Army.
The Philippine military, which had been fighting the guerrillas for seventeen years, was hostile to her policy initiative. When talks began in September 1986, military plotters began work on the "God Save the Queen" uprising that was aborted two months later. Aquino tried reconciliation with the Moro National Liberation Front and sent her brother-in-law to Saudi Arabia, where he signed the Jiddah Accord with the Moro National Liberation Front on January 4, 1987. A coup attempt followed three weeks later. In the wake of these coup attempts, Aquino reformed her cabinet but she also submitted to military demands that she oust Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo, a political activist and her longtime confidant. Her legal counsel, Teodoro Locsin, whom the military considered a leftist, and her finance secretary, Jaime Ongpin, also had to go. (Ongpin was later found dead; the coroner's verdict was suicide, although he was lefthanded and the gun was in his right hand.)
Aquino had been swept into office on a wave of high expectations that she would be able to right all of the wrongs done to the Philippines under Marcos. When she could not do this and when the same problems recurred, Filipinos grew disillusioned. Many of Aquino's idealistic followers were dismayed at the "Mendiola Massacre" in 1987 in which troops fired into a crowd of protesting farmers right outside Malacaņang. The military was simply beyond her control. The entire staff of the Commission on Human Rights resigned in protest even though Aquino herself joined the protestors the next day. Those people who hoped that Aquino would liberally use emergency power to implement needed social changes were further dismayed by the fate of her promised land reform program. Instead of taking immediate action, she waited until the new Congress was seated, and turned the matter over to them. That Congress, like all previous Philippine legislatures, was dominated by landowners, and there was very little likelihood that these people would dispossess themselves.
Aquino's declining political fortunes were revealed in public opinion polls in early 1991 that showed her popularity at an alltime low, as protesters marched on Malacaņang, accusing her of betraying her promises to ease poverty, stamp out corruption, and widen democracy. Nevertheless, Aquino's greatest achievement in the first five years of her term was to begin the healing process.
The President and the Coup Plotters
Philippine politics between 1986 and 1991 was punctuated by President Aquino's desperate struggle to survive physically and politically a succession of coup attempts, culminating in a large, bloody, and well-financed attempt in December 1989. This attempt, led by renegade Colonel Gregorio Honasan, involved upwards of 3,000 troops, including elite Scout Rangers and marines, in a coordinated series of attacks on Camp Crame and Camp Aquinaldo, Fort Bonifacio, Cavite Naval Base, Villamor Air Base, and on Malacaņang itself, which was dive-bombed by vintage T-28 aircraft. Although Aquino was not hurt in this raid, the situation appeared desperate, for not only were military commanders around the country waiting to see which side would triumph in Manila, but the people of Manila, who had poured into the streets to protect Aquino in February 1986, stayed home this time. Furthermore, Aquino found it necessary to request United States air support to put down this uprising.
Politically this coup was a disaster for Aquino. Her vice president openly allied himself with the coup plotters and called for her to resign. Even Aquino's staunchest supporters saw her need for United States air support as a devastating sign of weakness. Most damaging of all, when the last rebels finally surrendered, they did so in triumph and with a promise from the government that they would be treated "humanely, justly, and fairly."
A fact-finding commission was appointed to draw lessons from this coup attempt. The commission bluntly advised Aquino to exercise firmer leadership, replace inefficient officials, and retire military officers of dubious loyalty. On December 14, 1989, the Senate granted Aquino emergency powers for six months.
One of the devastating results of this insurrection was that just when the economy had finally seemed to turn around, investors were frightened off, especially since much of the combat took place in the business haven of Makati. Tourism, a major foreign-exchange earner, came to a halt. Business leaders estimated that the mutiny cost the economy US$1.5 billion.
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