Filipinos mourn “people power” icon

Corazon Aquino, ex-president of the Philippines, is dead at 76.

By Carlos H. Conde
Published: August 1, 2009 13:42 ET

MANILA — She was the closest the Philippines ever had to a living saint. And when she died on Saturday, from colon cancer at the age of 76, Filipinos grieved as though they had just lost one.

Inside a Catholic school in Manila where the remains of Corazon Aquino lay for public viewing, Filipinos from all walks of life lined up to get a glimpse of “Tita (Auntie) Cory,” undaunted by the heavy downpour that had drenched the capital all day. Nuns and priests with solemn faces walked past the shivering masses and the rows and rows of white, green and yellow flowers that covered the campus. On the railings going up to the school’s gym, yellow ribbons flapped forlornly in the rain.

“This is such a sad day for me and my family,” said Digna Labalan, a 50-year-old businesswoman who lined up on Saturday evening to view Aquino’s casket a few hundred meters away. In 1986, like hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, Labalan had gone to Edsa — the main highway in the capital where the “people power” that toppled Ferdinand Marcos took place — and participated in what has been called a “bloodless revolution” later emulated in many countries in the world.

But Labalan said she was “relieved and happy that Aquino had gone to heaven, no longer in pain.” Aquino suffered greatly from the cancer — she was on morphine when she died. Across the country, trees and fences had been festooned with yellow ribbons, the symbol of the housewife who challenged the dictator Marcos and went on to become the country’s first woman president.

An image of a yellow ribbon had replaced profile pictures on Twitter and Facebook. Churches all over were holding daily masses for the stricken former president.

A daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest families, Aquino was thrust into the political limelight after the assassination in 1983 of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr., the arch enemy of the dictator. When Marcos rigged the election in 1986, Filipinos revolted, drove Marcos away to Guam (he later died in exile in Hawaii) and installed the housewife as their new president.

Although her six years in office were tumultuous — she survived at least six coup attempts — Aquino restored the democratic institutions that the dictatorship had systematically destroyed during two decades in power.

But many say Aquino could only do so much. For instance, her centerpiece program — agrarian reform — did little to alleviate poverty in the countryside or end the festering communist insurgency. Indeed, her family’s vast landholdings managed to escape this program, prompting cries from the left that Aquino never transcended her class interests. Worse, some of the most notorious atrocities against peasants and farmers occurred during her term, such as when her troops massacred more than a dozen farmers demonstrating near the presidential palace.

Under pressure from some in the military to which she owed a great deal for protecting her from the coup attempts, Aquino launched a “total war policy” against the left and the communist insurgency — unleashing, for example, armed paramilitary elements, many of them members of fanatical religious cults, against communists and suspected communist sympathizers. This resulted in massive human-rights violations that continue to this day.

Many Filipinos also expected her to repudiate billions of dollars in debts that the dictatorship had incurred. But, under tremendous pressure from international creditors, she did not, and Filipinos are still paying for these debts.

When she spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 1987, she practically begged America to throw the Philippines a lifeline. “You have spent many lives and much treasure to bring freedom to many lands that were reluctant to receive it,” Aquino told her American audience. “And here you have a people who won it by themselves and need only the help to preserve it.” That same day, legislators approved a $200 million emergency loan to Manila.

But despite all that, Aquino managed to keep her nose clean, keeping her promise that she would be the opposite of Marcos. During her term, not one corruption allegation was leveled against her.

“She was the epitome of integrity and graciousness,” said Christian Monsod, who was appointed by Aquino as chairman of the elections commission. “She never interfered, she never called me while I was at the commission,” he added with an apparent dig at current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose regime has been hounded with the allegation that she cheated in the 2004 election by calling up an election official as part of the plot to steal the vote. Arroyo has always denied the charge.

Aquino, who was Catholic-educated, was also deeply pious. She liked the company of nuns and would often talk about suffering as a gift from God, as a way of testing her faith. She developed a close relationship with the late Cardinal Jaime Sin, who was often described as her most important ally in the fight against Marcos.

According to members of her family, Aquino died in the early morning Saturday while praying and clutching her rosary, her children surrounding her at the hospital where she had been confined the past several weeks as her cancer worsened.

“She was a mentor to me,” said Rodolfo Lozada Jr., a whistle-blower in one of the corruption scandals confronting Arroyo and whom Aquino publicly supported when he came out against the current president. “She told me to never lose faith,” Lozada said, gesturing at the casket that bore the woman who had provided hope to Filipinos during their darkest hour, wearing her signature yellow dress, a rosary in her hand.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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